In this final segment on the decisions that go into choosing or creating a sock pattern, we're going to talk about the leg and the foot. I group them together because the decisions for one are often the same as the decisions for the other, and it makes sense to talk about them in relation to each other. There are really four decisions that you're looking at here: how wide; how long; what pattern, if any; and how will the top edge be handled? Let's get started.
First, how wide? As a general rule, socks that are calf-length or shorter don't include shaping in the leg portion, and there's no shaping in the foot aside from gusset decreases/increases on a flap-and-gusset style of heel. The lower foot (or the entire foot when using a short-row or afterthought heel) and the leg are essentially straight tubes. What's more, for many people, the circumference of these tubes is about the same, although we'll discuss how to handle the circumstance where they're not. If making socks to measure, you can take the circumference of the ball of the foot and of the ankle just above the joint, and subtract about 10%, but a common default is around 8" for women's socks, and 9" or 9.5" for men's socks; children's socks range from about 4" for an infant sock, 5" for a toddler, 6" for a preschooler, 7" for a grade-school child, and then women's sizes for adolescent boys and girls, and men's sizes for teenaged boys. The reason you subtract 10% from the actual circumference, and also part of the reason that such broad defaults tend to work, is that socks usually have negative ease; that is, they're smaller than the body part they go on, and stretch to fit. You're taking advantage of the inherent stretchiness of knit fabric, and that increases the range of possible fit.
So, if your foot and leg circumference are about the same, then your foot and leg can be straight tubes of the same size. But what if they're not? Let's first discuss the circumstance where the ankle is bigger than the foot; this is more common, and it's a bit easier to deal with. If the ankle is more than about 10% bigger than the foot, then you'll want to make the leg tube bigger than the foot tube, and the way to do that is to increase or decrease, depending on which way you're working. If you're working toe up, then you can incorporate increases into the foot, either adding a gusset before doing a short-row or afterthought heel, or making the gusset longer on a flap-and-gusset heel; this is the way to handle it if you need the extra space at the heel as well as above the ankle bone. If you only need the extra space above the ankle bone, though, you'll want to complete your foot and heel as usual, and then incorporate increases from that point. For cuff-down socks, it's the reverse of that; decreases would be done before starting the heel flap if you need the space above the ankle bone only, or if you need it lower down, then extra gusset decreases (or the introduction of a gusset for a short-row or afterthought heel) can be done to narrow the foot below that point.
The case where the ankle is bigger than the foot is somewhat easier to deal with, because the foot has no trouble passing through a larger ankle. The case where the ankle is smaller, however, is a bit more tricky. In that case, the larger foot still needs to be able to pass through, but the leg needs to fit well enough to stay up. There are a few things that can help in this regard. Deep ribbing in the leg will help it stay up at a larger circumference; a deeper heel flap will allow a smaller circumference to ease over a larger foot, and ribbing in the back of the heel flap will increase this factor, while gusset decreases can be stopped early, leaving the foot at a larger circumference. None of these solutions are ideal, since they don't necessarily allow you to knit every sock pattern you'd like, but it's at least somewhere to start if you have to deal with this situation.
Now, how long should each part be? Let's start with the foot, since it may determine the leg. As a general matter, a sock that's equal or slightly greater in length to the foot is good; a shorter sock tends to rub the toe and wear through more quickly, while a little bit of excess length is quite tolerable if the sock fits well in the width. There are charts available that give foot length in terms of shoe size; this one from Payless ShoeSource is a good example. Note from that chart that between every three whole shoe sizes, there's only an inch of difference! Feet really don't vary as much in length as you might think. Therefore, if you know the recipient's shoe size, knit to the length on that chart, but if you don't know, make your best guess and then round up to the next half or whole inch; you'll be in the ballpark.
Now, some fun sock geometry facts: the length of the sock from the back of the heel to where the toe decreases start on a cuff-down sock is about equal to the length from the tip of the toe to where the heel starts on a toe-up sock, and both of these are about equal to the length of the sock minus two inches, on an average woman's sock. If you're knitting to-fit, the toe decreases on a cuff-down sock usually begin at the base of the little toe, and the heel on a toe-up sock is turned when the sock reaches the anklebone.
The length of the leg portion is wholly a matter of personal preference, and can range from a few rows for a footie, to kneelength or higher. If you're looking for some guidance, however, it's fairly common for the length from heel to cuff to match the length from heel to toe. That length generally gives you a sock that comes up just below where the calf gets wide enough that you'll need to do some leg shaping. If you're making a taller sock, increases/decreases are usually done in matched pairs on either side of a central "seam stitch", which is both attractive and reflects the fact that the shin is fairly straight and mostly of the shapeliness of the lower leg happens at the back, and the use of 10% negative ease still applies.
Now, we've primarily been talking about sizing in terms of inches, but of course you don't knit inches, you knit stitches. And since stitches are also about to become important to the discussion of patterning, this is a good time to stop and talk about gauge. Small though they are, gauge is important to socks, especially in the finer weights where there's a large number of stitches per inch. You want your socks to fit well, especially inside shoes, neither too tight nor too loose. You also need to know how many stitches you have to work with if you're designing a patterned leg and/or foot, and even in stockinette you'll probably want to be sure you've got a stitch count that's suitable for the ribbing you plan to do. This adds up to making a gauge swatch, and making it in the round, as many people have a gauge shift between flat and round knitting. In addition, you want to work a fabric that's tight for your yarn, which means between 8 and 10 stitches per inch for most sock yarns. This is usually tighter than the ball band indicates, but the ball-band gauge is a general-purpose gauge, the sort of thing you'd use to knit a sweater, even on most sock yarns. If you knit socks at that gauge, they'll wear out faster, and the purl bumps on the inside will be much more obvious against the foot, especially on the bottom of the sole; the tighter fabric will wear better, and will make a more comfortable sock. So go ahead and swatch, and make sure you're getting a nice snug fabric, and from that figure out how many stitches you've got to work with in your total circumference.
Once you know how many stitches you have to work with, you can figure out the patterning you'd like to use, if any. Typically, patterning is applied either to the leg only, or to the leg and only the instep side of the foot; for socks to be worn with clogs or sandals, however, it can be applied to the back of the heel as well. The toe, the sole of the foot, and gussets (if any) are typically done in stockinette; in colorwork socks these areas may continue the colorwork, or may be flecked with the pattern color to carry it from one side of the instep to the other. As previously discussed, the flap of a flap-and-gusset heel may be worked in stockinette, heel stitch, or other patterns, and for short-row and afterthought heels, it's usually more comfortable to add a plain stockinette ankle section above the actual heel, in the back only for a sock with a patterned instep, or all the way around for a sock with a leg pattern only.
The patterns you can use are limited solely by your imagination! Well, and your number of stitches, since there is at least a theoretical maximum. Get out your stitch dictionaries, and try something that appeals to you and fits with the number of stitches you have; keep in mind that you can insert plain stitches, or ribs, between repeats to make a pattern fit. Here are some things to keep in mind, for a happy result:
- If you're going to carry the pattern down the instep, it usually looks best if the pattern is symmetrical at the sides, which may require splitting a pattern or framing it in some way. For instance, if one was using a k4p4 pattern, with a multiple of 8 stitches in the instep, that would ordinarily start with a k4 and end with a p4, which is not symmetrical and may look awkward; if the pattern is shifted, so that it begins and ends with k2, the result will be symmetrical and more attractive.
- It's okay to shift a couple of stitches away from a 50% split for the heel and instep to facilitate your pattern repeat; for instance, a sock that's 64 stitches around would ordinarily have 32 stitches in the instep and 32 in the heel, but if 33 or 30 in the instep works better in the pattern, that small shift will usually work perfectly fine.
- If your pattern is substantially looser or more snug than stockinette, you may need to swatch again in your pattern, and adjust your stitch counts, so that you don't end up with a sock that's tighter or looser than you expect. This will usually not be necessary for ribbing, which is tighter at rest and stretches further than stockinette, but for lace, cables, and other patterns, it's a good idea.
- If you've had to adjust your stitch counts because of a pattern, but the sole of your sock is in stockinette, you'll want to adjust back to the stockinette gauge for that portion. An excellent example of this adjustment is shown in Grumperina's Jaywalker socks, where the instep in the deep chevron pattern requires 38 stitches, but the stockinette sole requires only 32.
- If you are using a pattern that produces a particularly non-stretchy fabric, such as stranded colorwork or certain slipped-stitch patterns, you may need to make an overall adjustment to your circumference, particularly on the leg where you must be able to get your heel through in order to put the sock on. In this case, you may want to reduce or even eliminate the usual 10% of negative ease through the patterned portion.
- Busy patterns and busy yarns tend to fight each other. If you want to use a pattern with a lot of stitch detail, you'll get your best results in a solid yarn, or one which has subtle rather than dramatic variegation. If, on the other hand, you want to use a bold self-patterning yarn, you may be best pleased with stockinette, or with a simple pattern such as ribbing, or something which enhances the play of pattern in the yarn, such as a deep chevron or scallop pattern, rather than something which cuts across it like cabling.
Finally, let's look at the top of the leg. There are three points of interest here: the cast-on edge for cuff-down socks, the bind-off edge for toe-up socks, and ribbing.
The cast-on or bind-off edge, whichever is applicable, needs to be able to stretch fully with the fabric of the sock below it; a tight edge is uncomfortable even if it nominally fits the leg. Fortunately, there are a number of choices which will produce an excellent stretchy edge, in either direction. References to many of the methods I'm going to mention can be found on Lauri B.'s excellent resource page.
For a cast-on edge, it is possible to do almost any cast-on method to make a sufficiently loose edge, if you size up your needles, take care to make the stitches large, and most importantly, keep sufficient space between each stitch, which will allow the cast-on row to spread with the row below; however, certain cast-on methods are more conducive to doing this easily and with attractive results. The tubular cast-on is particularly well-suited to this, and will give you an edge similar to what you're used to seeing on commercially knitted items, but it works best with 1x1or 2x2 ribbing; if you're using some other sort of top, this may not be your best choice. My personal favorite is the Twisted German cast-on, which is a variant of the long-tail method. It's inherently stretchy, easy to space properly even on the project size needles (so sizing up isn't necessary), and I think it's fun to do; it also leaves an attractive almost-braided edge.
For the bind-off edge, it can be really difficult to do an ordinary bind-off loosely enough, even if you go up in needle sizes. It will help you do this if you stretch the knitting as you're doing it, and concentrate on being loose to the point where it feels sloppy, but it may just be easier to switch to a different method. One method that many people favor is to put extra stitches into the bind-off row in some manner. One way of doing this is to use a crochet hook, and crochet an extra chain stitch between every couple of bound-off stitches; another way is to do a yarnover after the first stitch, pass the stitch over the yarnover, and then pass the yarnover over the next stitch, and so on. Another popular group of methods are the sewn bind-offs; there are a number of these, including a false-grafting method where knits and purls and separated and then grafted together, and one popularized by Elizabeth Zimmermann. I also recently heard about a neat double-knit bind-off, done by increasing to half-again the number of stitches, double-knitting for a couple of rounds to produce two layers, and then grafting the two layers together.
And then there's the ribbing. Ribbing is important to keeping the tops of your socks from slouching down around your ankles, especially if the leg pattern doesn't have much stretch to it, or if you're working in a yarn that's not very elastic. Most patterns will include at least an inch of ribbing, and as much as two inches isn't totally uncommon on a calf-height or taller sock. What type of ribbing to use depends on a few factors. Obviously, elasticity is important, so stretchier ribbing is good. For many people, probably the majority, 2x2 ribbing is the stretchiest, but some knitters may find that their 1x1 ribbing, or even some other pattern, has more stretch; the only way to be really sure what's stretchiest for you is to swatch a few different types. However, stretchiness isn't the only consideration; you'll also want to think about blending the ribbing into your leg pattern in an attractive way. If you're working a pattern that's based on an odd-numbered repeat, for instance, you may want to use 1x1 ribbing even if it isn't the stretchiest, so that each repeat starts from the same type of stitch, or you might want to use 3x3 ribbing above a 6-stitch repeat, or whatever else works attractively into your pattern. And, of course, if your pattern is a type of ribbing, it's generally fine to just run the pattern right to the edge; this is true even if it's not one of the stretchiest types, since a fully ribbed leg will be more self-supporting all along its length.
One somewhat unusual type of ribbing for your consideration, especially with a stockinette-leg sock where there's no pattern to interrupt, is a graduated ribbing. A graduated ribbing starts as 1x1, but some of the purl ribs continue further into the body of the sock than others. For instance, a top-down graduated ribbing could be done on an 8-stitch repeat as follows: purl stitches occur in columns 2, 4, 6, and 8, through 1 inch of ribbing; on the next round, column 6 changes to a knit; four rounds later, columns 4 and 8 also change to knits; four rounds after that, column 2 also changes to a knit, and that's the end of the ribbing. On a 12-stitch repeat, column 8 drops out first, then columns 6 and 10, then 4 and 12, and finally column 2, and so forth. Graduated ribbing usually gives an excellent grip, without binding, and is a more interesting choice than plain ribbing as well.
One final note on ribbing: many patterns will suggest working your ribbing on needles a size smaller than the rest of the sock, which makes for a snugger ribbing. This is completely optional, but if you like the way that the tighter ribbing looks and feels, feel free to incorporate this into your socks.
Okay, then! We've now worked through all the parts of the sock, from toes through heels to cuffs, and all the decisions in between. What's up next? Well, I think I'll go through a few tips on the care and feeding of your handknit socks -- we'll look at how to prevent holes from forming in the first place, and what to do about it if you get one anyway, and touch briefly on laundering issues. And then, we'll take what we've learned and see how it applies, when I walk you through the design process of creating my own next pair of socks, and then I'll publish that pattern for you to use if you'd like. We'd do this next, and care-and-feeding after, but I'm still swatching. :)