knitting (and fitting) colourwork socks

This pair of bluestockings is named for Mercy Otis Warren: the brilliant poet, essayist and historian whose political writing was influential in the enshrining of a bill of rights in the US constitution.

Mercy Otis Warren socks

I enjoy knitting colourwork socks, perhaps especially from the toe-up. One reason for that is because, with this particular heel construction, there’s only a tiny amount of two-shade back-and-forth purling around the heel turn. I love the fact that the colourwork rhythm is uninterrupted, I love the dense, hard-wearing heel (worked here in a super-simple 1×1 stripe pattern) and I love the bold, graphic appearance.

If you’ve not worked up a pair of stranded colourwork socks before, there are a few issues that you might find useful to consider about their knitting and their fitting.

First, watch your gauge. Stranded colourwork over small circumferences has a natural tendency to draw in, and you may find that there’s more tension in your hands and wrists while knitting in this way. There’s no need to “catch” or weave your floats in this pattern, but one simple way to both check your tension, and to ease up the floats a wee bit, is to knit the sock inside-out, so that the floats stretch around the outside of the work as you are knitting / looking at it (where you can keep your eye on them).

Second, stranded colourwork fabric is, in general, much less stretchy than plain stockinette. I think that’s particularly noticeable in socks, because they are worked over such small circumferences, and are worn so very closely to the body. Socks are tubes that tightly hug our feet: they are meant to fit with negative ease. But because of the lack of stretch in the fabric, a colourwork sock needs far less of that compensatory negative ease than a comparable plain one.

Third, because it is worked with two yarns rather than just one, stranded colourwork fabric is appreciably denser than plain stockinette. Over rhythmic patterns–such as those used here on this sock–this can be, I think particularly noticeable: the short-stretch motifs and frequent shade changes lend the fabric an almost woven feel.

These three factors – increased tension in the knitting; a naturally less stretchy sock and a dense, double-stranded fabric – can really affect fit, because all three combined mean that the interior circumference of the sock is significantly reduced. You therefore need much less negative ease for the sock to fit your foot well, widthwise. And less negative ease simply means more stitches around the sock circumference. So don’t look askance when the pattern instructs you to increase the foot width to 72 stitches. With the Mercy Otis Warren pattern, if you are used to knitting a 56 or 60 stitch sock at this gauge in plain stockinette, you will, I think, find you are fine with the smaller pattern width, and if you prefer a 64 or 68 stitch sock, select the larger.

I wrote in this post about how to assess the heel start position, and customise the overall length of toe-up socks. This round-gauge method is used to fit the heel on the Mercy Otis Warren socks too, but as the same fabric-related issues affect the sock length as well as its width, it makes sense to factor in less negative ease here as well: I’d suggest 1/2 inch, rather than the inch you might factor in to stockinette.

One final thing to bear in mind about the fit of colourwork socks is that they pull on and off your feet a little differently to a plain stockinette pair. I find that, rather than the preemptory tug-on of plain stockinette socks, I have to put colourwork socks on rather slowly, as I would do with a pair of tights or stockings, rolling the full sock on to my toe, and easing the length carefully around my heel and ankle. And once worn, a neat, well-fitting pair of stranded colourwork socks really are like a warm hug for your feet: cosy, comfortable and hard-wearing.

I’m not sure many of us will be stepping out in our stranded-colourwork bluestockings this particularly hot July, but come winter, we’ll definitely have happy feet.

Enjoy your colourwork sock knitting!