In this third installment of examining the decisions that go into a sock pattern, we're going to look at heels. We'll look briefly at short-row heels, which are very similar to short-row toes, then examine afterthought heels, and then we'll spend most of our time on flap-and-gusset heels, because they're the most complex type.
Actually, first let's pause and define a term, instep, because the meaning of this term in the sock context is not perfectly coincident with its meaning in other contexts, and it may not be a familiar term anyway. On a sock, the instep is the portion that covers the top of the foot, between the heel and the toe. The instep stitches are not involved in any of the heels, and on the flap-and-gusset (and I am henceforth going to abbreviate this F&G) heels, the instep stitches are not involved in the gusset decreases/increases. Now, back to the stitches that are involved in the heels.
A short-row heel is, as I just said, extremely similar to a short-row toe. As with the short-row toe, a short-row heel is worked by using half of the foot stitches, and then doing progressively shorter short rows to a minimum point, and then progressively longer ones until back to the original number of stitches; one both starts and ends with live stitches, so in that way it's simpler than the toe version. It is placed in exactly the same manner whether you're working toe-up or cuff-down. As it happens, just before starting this sock series, while discussing short-rows in a more general way, I digressed into short-row heels, and I'm not going to repeat that discussion, but I am going to note two important points that were covered in it. First, you will need to decide what the width of the bottom point of your heel is going to be, and you may well want this to be different than the width of your short-row toe; for instance, I have fairly narrow heels, and I like to use 1/2 of my toe stitches as my toe width, but only 1/3 of my heel stitches as my heel width. Choosing this width was already discussed more extensively in the prior post, but I just wanted to clearly note that the toe and heel needn't match. Second, for patterned legs, the shallowness of the short-row heel, as compared to the flap-and-gusset heel, may lead to the feeling that the patterned part is getting pulled down into your shoe; the solution for this is to switch to plain stockinette slightly before beginning the heel, and this too was discussed in that prior post.
An afterthought heel is also similar to a toe, but to the cuff-down toes rather than the short-row toe. This heel is an especially good choice for self-striping yarns, as it creates an interesting and even "bull's-eye" effect centered on the point of the heel, and doesn't interrupt the flow of the stripes from the leg to the foot; it's also a particularly easy heel to pull out and replace, if you're hard on your heels. Like the short-row toe, it is worked in exactly the same way regardless of the direction of knitting. Its placement can be pre-planned, or it can be selected after the sock is completed as a tube sock, which would allow you to pre-knit socks and then place the heel to fit a given recipient. To pre-place an afterthought heel, you'll need a piece of waste yarn in a similar weight and preferably a contrasting color. At the location where you'd like your heel to begin, you will drop your working yarn, and work half the sock stitches with the waste yarn. I like to turn the work and work back to my starting point -- I think it makes the release step easier -- but you don't have to. You will then pick up your working yarn, and knit across the stitches you just worked in the waste yarn, and then go on with the rest of your sock. When you finish working the rest of the sock, you'll come back to the waste-yarn stitches, pick out that yarn, and place the stitches above and below the waste yarn on the needles. For an afterthought heel that is not preplanned, the process is similar, but because there is no waste yarn to pick out, you'll have to remove a partial row of knitting in order to have enough tail to weave in; do this by clipping a stitch in the center of the row you'll remove, and unravel it one stitch at a time to either side, picking up the freed stitches above and below as you go, until you've reclaimed a number of active stitches equal to your total sock stitches. With both the pre-planned and the post-placed versions, once you have stitches back on the needles, you simply knit the cuff-down toe of your choice. Any of the toes will do; the wedge toe is a popular choice, producing an attractive strong pattern of decreases down the sides, but a star toe is also a nice option.
In her book, Sensational Knitted Socks, Charlene Schurch discusses a "forethought" heel, which is an afterthought heel that's knitted in place, rather than coming back to it. To work this, instead of knitting in the waste yarn, use it to provisionally cast-on half your number of total stitches on an extra needle. Knit your heel using these provisional stitches and one half the sock stitches, and then pick out the provisional cast-on and put those stitches back on the needle; rejoin your yarn, and knit your leg or foot using these stitches and the other half of the sock stitches. The advantage of this type of heel is that when you're done, you're done, with no heel to go back and finish; one disadvantage is that with a self-striping yarn, it does interrupt the flow from foot to leg, although that could probably be masked by careful choice of the point where the yarn is rejoined. Otherwise, it's functionally pretty much the same as the afterthought heel.
Okay, on to the flaps and the gussets! This type of heel is probably the most popular one for use with cuff-down socks, and gives the most traditional and the most hand-crafted look, since nothing remotely like this ever appears on commercial socks. It can be done, as I mentioned before, on a toe-up sock, but patterns that employ this are uncommon (except for those written for the express point of demonstrating its possibility). If you're designing your own pattern, however, and have other compelling reasons to go toe-up but prefer this heel style, then it's something to keep in mind; you can find example patterns that correspond to most of the common cuff-down F&G heel turns, but I'm not going to discuss them more thoroughly at this time, since they employ the same general methods as the cuff-down F&G heels which are so much more common.
Each of the cuff-down F&G heels starts by knitting a heel flap, back and forth on two needles. A turning method is then employed to form a heel cup, which always ends up narrower so that the flap is wrapped around the sides of the heel. Finally, gusset stitches are picked up on both sides of the heel flap, which along with the heel stitches and the instep stitches completes the arc of the circle and gets you back to knitting in the round.
The heel flap itself is just a simple square or rectangle; no shaping occurs in this portion. It's common for patterns to suggest knitting a number of rows equal to the number of stitches used for the flap, or to suggest knitting until the flap is as long as it is wide. Sometimes they tell you to do both; in my experience, this is often impossible, since the relationship of row gauge to stitch gauge usually requires more rows than stitches to cover the same distance. Knitting until the flap is square, regardless of the number of rows required to achieve this, is a good default option; you can then adjust as necessary if the recipient has a particularly low or high instep. In addition, most patterns will suggest slipping the first stitch of every row on the flap; the elongated edge stitches thus produced are conducive to picking up the gusset stitches later. The rest of the heel flap can be plain stockinette, or garter, or stockinette with a band of garter on the sides, or a specialized pattern like heel-stitch or eye-of-partridge, or a continuation of the leg pattern if any (especially nice for socks to go with clogs); if the sock employs colorwork, then speckled, vertically striped, and checkerboard heels are all common, and the heel flap is also a great place to dress up a sock with an intarsia motif, since it's worked flat -- essentially, you can do anything you want with it. Now, I mentioned a couple of specialized patterns: heel-stitch and eye-of-partridge. Both of these are done by slipping every other stitch on every other row; in heel-stitch the slipped stitches are aligned and the pattern thus produced resembles ribbing, while in eye-of-partridge the slipped stitches are offset, with the odd stitches slipped on one row and the even stitches slipped on the next alternate row, which produces sort of a mini-honeycomb effect. Most patterns will put the slipped stitches on the RS rows; I always shift them to the WS rows, because I'd rather purl fewer than knit fewer, which makes no difference to the finished product and improves my enjoyment of the process. The point of both these patterns is to increase durability and comfort; the slipped stitches create a double thickness of yarn, giving more strands to wear through before a hole gets all the way to the foot, and also provide padding where the shoe may rub. Also, they look kind of cool.
Once you've done your heel flap, you're ready to turn your heel. There are a number of F&G heel turns, but they all work in generally the same way: slipping the first stitch on every row, you'll work to somewhere in the middle, do a decrease, turn, work back to the center and then the same distance past it that you were on the other side, do a decrease, turn, etc., working one stitch further on each side each time until all the stitches have been worked. The most common ones you'll see in patterns are the V heel (aka the "half-handkerchief"), the French or round heel, and the Dutch or square heel. For the V heel, you work only to the center, then do your first decrease and work one stitch past it; the French heel is similar, except that you go further past the center on the first row, which gives a smoother shape to the center-back of the heel. Working one stitch after the decrease causes the turning point to move further out each time, giving a slanted shape to the sides of the heel cup; both of these turns can be considered to be in the same family. The Dutch heel begins by working across roughly 2/3 of the stitches, then doing the decrease, and then turning immediately; the rest of the heel turn is then done by working across the middle 1/3 of the heel flap stitches and doing a decrease and turning. Because no stitch is worked after the decrease, each subsequent decrease occurs at the same point, giving straight sides to the heel cup, so this is a different class of turns from the V and French heels. There are other heel turns, but they pretty much all belong to one of these groups or the other -- for instance, the rounder heel is a variant on the French heel, and the German heel is a really wide Dutch heel -- or are hybrids, such as the modified square heel, which begins like a French heel and then switches to a Dutch heel when it gets to the 1/3 mark. Different heels will fit different feet better -- for instance, my heel that's narrow but blunt fits nicely into a Dutch heel, while a wide heel might like a rounder heel or a German one; it's a good place for experimentation to find your personal preferences.
I'm sure you'd like to see all these heels, and find out exactly how to work them, and I have a couple of wonderful resources for you. First, get a great visual of all these heels on this fantastic page -- isn't that neat? And then, get clever little recipes to plug them into your own work with Heels by Number. Note that the instructions for the V/French family, like those in many patterns, give you a few rows of stitch-by-stitch directions, and then say, "Continue, working one more stitch, until all stitches have been worked." Since those on their first sock often find this baffling, let me elaborate: you're going to keep working back and forth as you have been, and each row, the number of stitches you do before you do your decrease will be one more than on the previous row, so if your last row of stitch-by-stitch instructions say "k9" in the middle, your next row will need "p10", the row after that "k11", and so on. Once you've done this one time, it will make perfect sense. Also, astute sock students who aren't regular readers may be noticing that these heels all involve turning in the middle of a row -- short rows, in other words -- and be wondering whether they need to wrap the turns to avoid a hole. Regular readers will recall this prior post, where we examined why the answer is No.
Now that you've completed your heel turn, it's time for your gusset. If you started your heel turn on a RS row, you'll have finished on a WS row, and you'll need to knit across the RS of the heel so you're at what will be the right corner of the heel when the sock is worn. If you started on a WS row, you should already be there. You're going to pick up stitches up this side of the heel flap, moving toward where you left the instep stitches. Generally, you'll pick up one stitch for every two rows of the heel flap, which should equate to one through each of the slipped stitches in the edging -- if your pattern gives you a specific number based on a specific number of rows in the heel, but you did a different number of heel rows, don't forget to adjust your gusset numbers also. It's often a good idea to pick up a couple of extra stitches in the top couple of stitches before the instep, especially if you've got a high instep. You're then going to work across the instep stitches, and pick up stitches down the other side of the heel flap (wearer's left), not forgetting a couple of extra in the first couple of stitches, and that completes the circle and brings you back to working completely in the round. Gusset decreases are generally done every other round, one stitch away from the instep stitches on each side, and leaning away from the instep. You'll continue decreasing until you're back to the original number of stitches you had before you started the heel flap.
Before we move away from the F&G heels to more general matters, let me briefly discuss Nancy Bush's gussetless band heel, since one of the pages I showed you pictures it. It's gussetless in the sense that you don't have extra stitches being decreased away in a triangular formation, but it's nonetheless a member of the F&G family; it's actually a modification of the Dutch heel and worked in a very similar fashion. To do this heel, you work roughly half of the normal heel flap length in the regular fashion, and then work about half that length again with paired decreases on either side of a narrow strip on the RS rows, and then you work a Dutch heel turn on that narrow strip rather than on 1/3 of the total, ending with a very narrow heel that slants in on the sides and back. You pick up a number of stitches on each side of the heel flap that, together with the small number of remaining heel stitches, returns you to the original number of stitches without any need to decrease. It's a neat heel for self-striping yarns, because it gets you right back to the original number, so the foot pattern immediately goes back to looking like the leg pattern, rather than being attenuated until the extra gusset stitches are gone. I don't think it's necessarily an easier heel than the gussetted ones, because you still have to pick up those stitches even if you don't have to decrease them, and I think decreasing is the fun thing about gussets, but it's interesting and potentially useful.
Now, a couple of more general issues. First, you'll note that I've said that each type of heel, from the short-row to the F&G group, is worked on half the total stitches in the sock. That is the usual percentage, but it's not an inviolable rule. Sometimes it's desirable to go up a bit, working the heel on perhaps 60% of the total stitches; this is especially true for those with a very high instep, or when working with a less-elastic fiber like cotton. It may seem counterintuitive to address tight instep stitches by using fewer stitches in the instep, but actually it helps to relieve the pressure on the stitches that remain in that area. If you make this adjustment, you'll just want to keep in mind that you made it when you're calculating things like the number of stitches to use across the base of the heel, which you will not want to increase -- for instance, you usually would want to turn a Dutch heel on what would have been 1/3 of 50% of the stitches, not 1/3 of what you're actually using.
Second, a note about holes in the corners. This can be a problem with any one of the heel types, which is why I've left it for a general note instead of discussing it under the specific types. As you work the heel, a certain amount of stress is inevitably placed on the stitches where the instep meets the heel, and it's natural for them to pull apart and leave a hole -- it's really very localized laddering. There are a few things you can do about it. First, don't pick up a stitch under the bar between the last instep stitch and the first heel stitch -- you'll keep the hole, just like doing an M1 increase without twisting it. Instead, you can pick up the bar itself, twist it, and work it together with either the instep stitch or the heel stitch next to it, or you can pick up the stitch below the first instep stitch (get the actual stitch, not a new stitch through it) and place it on the needle with the first heel stitch, and work them together to close that gap. Second, if any hole remains, a little judicious work with a crochet hook to pull the slack into the surrounding stitches can really make a difference. And third, if you're still seeing it, duplicate stitch over the area with a scrap of your yarn and weave in the ends, for complete coverage.
And finally, let me just direct your attention one more time to Lauri B.'s marvelous toes & heels page , where you can find more complete directions for almost all of the heel styles I've discussed. Also, as extensive as that collection is, it doesn't, and this page certainly doesn't, cover all the possible heels out there. I think I have, however, covered all the general types of heels; other things are going to be variants of these. For instance, there's the Sherman heel -- it's a variant on the short row heel, and uses two specialized stitches called a "purl encroachment" and a "knit encroachment"; these are similar but not quite identical to the Japanese method for handling the turning gaps in short rows, and they employ the same general theory. There's also the Strong heel (named for its inventor, not for its strength, and introduced in the Fall 2003 issue of Knitter's magazine), which is a variant of the F&G heels that was designed for self-striping yarns -- it has a downward-pointing gusset, produced by increasing while knitting the heel flap and instep as one piece, and then using a normal heel turn on a greater number of stitches, so there's no picking up, and while stripes are attenuated, they're only really interrupted on the bottom of the foot where they're usually out of sight. I'm sure there are others out there that I've never seen myself. However, I feel fairly confident that I've covered the types you're likely to encounter in other people's patterns, and that I've at least touched on the general type of anything else well enough that you'll be able to identify the class to which it belongs and understand what you're being asked to do.