So, having reflected on these bakers-dozen of old socks, what have I learned? Next time I go to buy sock yarn, what should I look for? What are heads-up, warnings-off, and all that?
Really, it comes down to sturdiness. Socks get the hardest wear out of any item of knitwear, unless you knit sneakers or something. What makes the hardiest yarn that still looks and feels good after being rubbed around between a shoe and a foot all the time, and being repeatedly washed?
1) Yarn construction is very important. The best-wearing high-end sock yarns, which had no nylon in them, seemed to have these things in common:
a) They tend to have many plies: e.g. Malabrigo Sock, Socks that Rock, Shelridge Yarns, Kraemer’s Alison base.
b) Those plies tend to be tightly spun: e.g. all four above, especially Socks that Rock, which had so much that the yarn tended to kink while I knit with it. KPPPM only has two plies, but they are bouncy and plied at a very high angle of twist.
2) You can break the rules if there’s lots of nylon in it. The cheaper yarns I used (Knitpicks Stroll, Lion Brand Sock Ease) were both fairly loosely plied, and the Sock Ease was even pretty thin, but plastic persists. The Crazy Zauberball was a looser two-ply, but it took five years of very hard wear to thin out and need darning, and it’s got 25% nylon. I have yet to try regular Zauberball, which is only a singles; I’m quite nervous about using it in socks, but it’s got that nylon content, so I’m willing to give it a try.
3) Use caution with luxury fibers. I had a very bad experience with Merino-Cashmere-Nylon, but that’s just one yarn, and one type of luxury fiber, so your mileage may vary. I have never used any other base of MCN for socks, or anything like Alpaca Sox (Classic Elite); maybe they’re wonderful, I don’t know. I do know that after my bad and costly experience, I would want to find some trustworthy good reviews of that yarn used for socks before I did anything of the kind. Super-soft yarns are always prone to pilling, so save them for things like hats or neckwarmers. My feet don’t need that much babying.
4) Leave other hardy wool for different hardy uses. I love 100% wool yarn, but unless it’s specifically spun for socks (or otherwise obviously suited for it), I’m not making socks from it again. Lots of wools, especially toothy traditional wools, will pill, but only for a while, then you can pick them off and wear them forever. That works for sweaters, where there’s lots of abrasion but not a lot of weight being pressed on them; for socks, I want something more specialized for abuse. No more toothy traditional wool on my feet.
5) Tightness adds strength. Tight knitting and tight fit. Regarding tight fitting: I don’t mean tight enough to fight with your stitches, but tight enough that your stitches are very secure. My best results tended to be on my Addi Turbo US 1.5/2.75 mm, 32″ circulars, magic loop, to make a fabric that was decidedly unified but not stiff. If the fabric is floppy, the stitches are rubbing against each other in addition to your foot, and there’s more surface area of each stitch open to being rubbed against. Tight fit on your foot is helpful for similar reasons: A loose sock sliding around your foot is going to be rubbing around a lot more than a sock firmly in place. Tightness in these two areas won’t make a weak sock yarn into good socks, but it will make any sock last longer than it would otherwise.
It is worth noting that sweaters also get a lot of wear (especially under the arms), and obviously, they are much more visible than socks. I know that for myself, I will be paying a lot more attention to item #1 above when purchasing yarn for sweaters. I would swatch and wash thoroughly, though, before using any superwash sock yarn for a sweater, because it’s known to grow when wet. Especially because that would mean knitting a sweater out of fingering weight! Yikes!
These are my observations based on these 13 pairs of socks, and the other 20 or so pairs that I’ve knit in the last eight years. These ideas are mine and mine alone; no one paid me to make them, and they haven’t been reviewed by an editor or an actual expert who knows what they’re doing. (Hence the subjective title of this post.)
If you want an expert, you should really consult Clara Parkes. Halfway through this series I decided to read through the archives on her blog, Knitters Review, and wow. Reading her blog, yarn is suddenly like wine in all its subtle complexities of enjoyment. The appreciation and discernment I have built through years of stumbling intuition is suddenly given a vocabulary and a structure, and amplified with a lot more useful information that I could never have found on my own. I have been going back and forth between her blog and ravelry, fav-ing all kinds of yarns I’d like to use someday.
I haven’t read it, but based on what I’m seeing of her work, I can say that if you really need to know about sock yarn, you should probably check out The Knitter’s Book of Socks. She knows what she is doing, and she actually tests her swatches with abrasion to figure out how they fare under hard wear. I’d like to read her sock yarn book just to for the information, but as I don’t plan on knitting socks any time soon, it would probably not be a good use of my time. (But if anyone wants to buy me The Knitters Book of Yarn, I’m all over that. I think my mom has a copy, and she might want to lock it up when I come to visit.)
Yes, I’m done with socks for a while. I mean, I have a little more sock yarn kicking around (see what I did there), and a sock design I need to get out of my system before I die. But I finished my last pair of socks over a year ago, and I still feel socked out. Me, I’m hankering to knit some sweaters… How glorious it would be to know and dress the contours of my torso as well as I do my feet!