Designing Socks

sock pattern from Churchmouse Yarns
Happy Ruffled Socks
Churchmouse Yarns and Teas

Socks are popular projects for knitters of all skill levels. Regardless of whether they consist of simple or complex stitchery, socks are small projects, which don’t take much time to knit, and provide a nice break from larger projects. Once you’ve practiced making socks, the next challenge is to design a pair from scratch. Please refer to the Resources page for the e-book on making basic cuff down socks. Let’s delve into the knitty gritty of designing socks.

Sock Anatomy

sections of a traditional sock

Choosing the Best Yarn

Wool is the fiber of choice because of its innate elasticity, warmth, and high level of moisture absorption. Socks need to be stretchy to go over the foot, but also to stay in place on the leg and not lose their shape. 100% cotton or silk yarns, or blends of these two are not the best choices, because of their inelasticity and potential to stretch out of shape. You can certainly try these yarns or others like bamboo, alpaca, or cashmere, but they have drawbacks, and are better choices when blended with wool. I would leave these types of fibers for those special socks that don’t get much wear.

Good sock yarn should be tightly twisted, which makes the sock durable. Softly twisted yarns will not wear well. Many sock yarns are reinforced with a small amount of nylon for added strength. I prefer 100% wool, or no more than 10% nylon combined with wool. Some yarn brands provide an extra ball of finer yarn or thread to knit together with the main yarn, for reinforcing the heel and toe sections.

Most socks are knit from the fine weight or fingering category. Some brands label their yarn as “sock yarn” or “fingering sock yarn”. Thicker socks for boots can be knit in heavier weights, like sport, double knitting (DK) or worsted. Finer weight yarns are the most comfortable in shoes. Because the average pair of socks requires a small amount of yarn, go ahead and splurge on the best.

Construction Methods

I have made heavier sport socks on straight needles. They were fun to make, but the leg and foot need to be seamed together. Seams in a sock is not ideal, therefore most socks are knit circularly. This is accomplished either by using a set of double pointed needles (dpns), two circular needles, or one long circular in the Magic Loop technique. Working with dpns is the most popular and efficient tool for knitting socks.

The two basic construction methods for knitting socks is either working from the cuff to the toe, or the reverse, from the toe up.

Gauge

As with any design project, a test swatch must be made with the chosen yarn and pattern stitch. Socks often require a stockinette stitch swatch, as well as a swatch for any other pattern stitches used. The stitch and row counts are calculated from the swatch. Remember to block your swatches for accurate measuring. Socks made from fingering or sock yarns are knit in tighter gauges at around 7 to 8 stitches per inch.

Key Measurements 

key measurements for designing socks

Calf Circumference – measure around the largest part of the calf.

Leg Length – includes the cuff.

Total Foot Length – measurement is close to shoe size. 

Foot Circumference – measure around widest part, near the ball of the foot.

The Craft Yarn Council is a good reference for standard measurements which includes foot sizing.

Basic Steps

I’m assuming you have knit socks before, and are familiar with calculating stitch and row counts from your gauge or test swatch. Spending time on the heel and toe areas gives socks a comfortable fit.

Cuff-Down Socks
  • Cast on the desired number of stitches for the cuff/leg of the sock. A separate cuff is optional, and is typically made in a rib pattern. It’s important that the cast on method is stretchy. Depending on the sock style, hems, picot cast-ons or other decorative edgings can be used. With a fold over cuff a provisional cast-on is useful. The leg and foot sections usually contain the same number of stitches.
  • Work leg length to the beginning of heel.
  • Approximately 1/2 of the stitches are used to work the heel section, and the other 1/2 of the stitches are held for the instep. A strong heel flap is a good idea, and there are a variety of ways to accomplish this.
  • Turn the heel by using short row shaping to close holes and decrease stitches on bottom of the foot.
  • Work the gusset and foot. The gusset is made by picking up stitches along the sides of heel flap, and joined together with the instep stitches. These stitches are worked in the round and gradually decreased to form the foot. The instep is often knit in the more complex pattern stitch (lace, cable, etc.), with the base of the foot in stockinette stitch or a pattern without bumps, since this is the part of the sock worn in the shoe. The foot is knit 1 1/2 to 2 inches less than the total foot length to accommodate the toe.
  • Shape the toe. The toe makes up the last part of the foot, and is shaped in a series of decreases. The remaining stitches are closed by grafting or a bind-off seam with no added bulk.
Toe-Up Socks
  • Choose an appropriate cast-on for the toe up version. A provisional cast-on is a good choice for this type of construction. The toe is worked in the round and shaped with increases until the desired number of stitches is reached for the foot. Continue to knit the foot. 
  • When the foot is approximately 2 inches shorter than the total foot length, a short row heel is worked.
  • The heel section is completed.
  • Work the leg to the desired length.
  • An optional cuff can be made.
  • Bind off loosely to finish the sock.

There are a variety of casting on and binding off methods to choose from. It’s key that the methods used are stretchy or elastic. I’m not going into detail for these. For more information you can check various references such as Vogue Knitting The Ultimate Knitting Book, and one of my favourite sock knitting books The Joy of Sox by Linda Kopp.

Socks are popular projects for many knitters, because they are a relatively quick reward. Once you’ve mastered sock knitting basics, and understand their construction, you can move on to designing your own. As with any project you design from scratch, you need to make a test swatch. Your first sock design project should be fairly simple, so you won’t be overwhelmed with details. Choose either the cuff-down or toe-up method, following the steps above. Check other references for instructions on methods you may need to complete your first pair of designer socks!