go-to socks

This week we released third pattern in our Bluestocking Club: the Elizabeth Carter stockings (or socks).

Elizabeth Carter stockings

This pattern is named for the wonderful eighteenth-century poet, essayist, and translator of Epictetus, who, like many women of learning and letters, also enjoyed knitting stockings.

As we know she was a stocking knitter, I felt Carter was the most appropriate writer after whom to name the club’s “vanilla” design. I’ve created the pattern for three widths and two sock and stocking options. This is a plain “receipt” which you can knit exactly as written, or choose to add shaping, texture, colourwork motifs, or your preferred heel or toe. In short, this pattern is intended as a blank canvas, that you should adapt just as you wish.

another sock on the needles . . .

I’ve knitted many pairs of socks from this blank canvas . . .

Uneek sock kit, Pan 21 colourway

Here’s one pair, on my own feet, knitted with my current favourite self-striping addiction, Uneek sock, from Urth Yarns.

Uneek sock kit, colourway 65

. . . and here’s another pair, obligingly modelled by Tom.

The Elizabeth Carter pattern is, then, my go-to sock, and the pattern is structured around the elements I most enjoy in the everyday plain socks I regularly whip up for myself and Tom. It starts with a winding cast on (which I love, for its smooth, comfortable, and totally seamless finish). I like to cast on with a pair of below gauge-size needles, for a super-neat and hard-wearing toe (which has a slightly denser fabric than the rest of the sock).

After the toe shaping, I then shift to a gauge-size needle, and whizz along toward the heel.

A common issue many knitters encounter with toe-up socks is the problem of where to start the heel shaping. Some patterns instruct you to begin the gusset increases at the ankle bone, others suggest a ballpark measurement in centimetres or inches, but my preferred way of assessing the shaping start point to assure a good fit around the heel fit is by gauge. Round gauge can differ from knitter to knitter (and in my case, between one pair of socks and another, particularly if I am using different yarns). But by this point in the sock, you have knit a good few inches, and can make a very accurate assessment of your round gauge (which may well differ from that specified in the pattern). So simply measure your round gauge carefully at this point, and, based on that measurement, get ready to begin the heel shaping 24, 28 or 30* rounds before the point that you’d like the back of the heel to sit (* this is the number of rounds required to create the heel gusset, depending on which size you are knitting)

But how do you know exactly where you’d like the heel, and how long you want your sock to be? With this kind of gusset (which hugs the heel at a pleasingly oblique ankle), my rule of thumb is to measure the length of the recipients foot, and take an inch off that measurement (that is, allowing for an inch of negative ease). I find that an inch of length-wise negative ease in plain stockinette generally creates a neat and snugly-fitting sock with this kind of toe-up construction.

So the point at which to start the heel shaping is:

Total foot length minus 1 inch / 2.54 centimetres, minus 24, 28 or 30 rounds.

After the heel turn, the knitting of this sock really is plain sailing and you can simply proceed up the leg to the length required. If I find myself heading calf-wards, and I’m knitting socks for myself, I go up a needle size at this point (I am a generally petite kind of person, but have proportionately large calves with a 15.5 in circumference – an inch larger than Tom, who has much bigger feet!)

Tom’s stolen my grellow socks in this photo . . .

But if you (unlike me) have narrow, elegant ankles, you might prefer to do the opposite and go down a needle size at this point for a neat fit.

my latest sock on the needles, another Uneek one, in the Zebra colourway

To my mind, the key to a really comfy sock, is knowing how they fit best (with negative ease), understanding the requirements of your legs and feet (such as my proportionately large calves) and then knitting to those requirements. This might mean, for example, beginning the cast on with fewer stitches (if you have pointy toes) adjusting the length of the heel gusset (if you have a high instep), knitting a doubled-up heel with a strand of laceweight mohair (if you are hard on your feet and wear through your socks easily), or using a reinforcing stitch pattern such as garter stitch or eye of partridge (if you like your socks to have more ‘grip’ around the sole and heel).

Elizabeth Carter stockings, modeled by my neighbour, Gillian

Surely one of the best thing about a hand-knitted sock or stocking is being able to make these small adjustments, so that your socks fit really well? The Elizabeth Carter pattern is my go-to sock receipt, but I am just one knitter, who enjoys shaping toes and heels in a certain (rather generic) kind of way. So my hope is that you’ll feel free to adapt and modify this pattern (or any of the other sock patterns in the club) exactly how you’d like, to suit your preferred construction methods, and your feet.

Catharine Macaulay socks on Gillian’s feet

We’ve introduced three Bluestocking authors, and accompanying sock designs so far: Elizabeth Montagu, Catharine Macaulay, and Elizabeth Carter

Elizabeth Montagu socks

There are four more brilliant Bluestocking women to come, and four more designs for socks and stockings, into which I’m looking forward to introducing some colourwork in coming weeks.

Elizabeth Montagu stockings

I’m really enjoying the Bluestocking Club – I hope that you are too!