If you listened to the Shinybees podcast and popped over for some more detailed information – welcome, I hope you like what you find. If you have not listened to the Shinybees podcast episode where we chat about yarn choices for socks I highly recommend you tune in, it is a great podcast – and the perfect intro for this article.
So, how do I go about choosing the right yarn for my socks?
When thinking about my sock knitting I always try to think about things in relation to three main categories: fit, durability and aesthetic. I find that by thinking in these terms I can often evaluate what I need from my tools, the pattern or stitches I am using to put together a design, or select a pattern.
On the topic of yarn I think these three categories are important and to use them effectively you need to think of the purpose of your socks. Are you knitting delicate little socks for a newborn baby or tough boot socks for hiking? These are extremes and you are probably looking for something in between. You need to evaluate what the most important elements are and then make selections accordingly.
This might all have started sounding very complicated so let me give you some hints and tips for making the right choices when you are first starting out. It is also worth remembering that it is all a matter of personal taste.
First let me explain my broad categories then we can look at requirements and yarn suggestions using them.
Fit: Just what it says on the tin, how will the socks fit. This is determined by many factors but yarn is certainly a key player. You need to ask yourself. How is the yarn you have chosen going to affect the fit of the sock? You want to look at things like fibre content and the way the yarn has been spun.
Durability: Think about how the socks will wear. To determine what you are looking for here you need to think about the use or purpose of the socks. Everyday socks, socks for babies, boot socks, fancy occasion socks. What kind of shoes will you be wearing them with? Again we will be looking at fibre content and how the yarn has been spun.
Aesthetic: What are the socks going to look like? Here you need to ask yourself questions about the design and your own personal tastes. Is there a pattern that you want to highlight or are they plain vanilla socks? Here we are going to be looking at things like colours, dye techniques, texture and the way the yarn is spun.
The process of choosing yarn now centres around these three categories. Let’s chat a little more about what to look for when thinking about each category.
In my opinion when it comes to socks fit is always the most important factor. Poorly fitting socks are terrible. Who wants a baggy sock bunched around their ankles, or even worse bunched inside your shoe around your toe.
In all honesty fit is not completely controlled by yarn choice, the main players when it comes to fit are gauge and measuring, however there are a few things to consider.
Try to avoid silk, or yarn with a high silk content. It drapes and does not hold its shape well. You could choose something with 10 or 15% silk but any more than that and you are heading for some fit issues. The same with bamboo and cotton, they are notoriously bad for holding their shape. Approach with caution when choosing yarn for socks.
Ideally you want something with a high natural fibre content that has been spun in a way that gives it structure. Sock knitters often favour tightly spun yarns, and while you don’t have to select a super twist yarn choosing a lofty loosely spun yarn might not do you any favours.
Summary: choose natural fibres and avoid anything with lots of drape (high silk, cotton or bamboo content).
This is another key player in the choices we make about socks. The vast majority of socks get lots of wear. They are on our feet, in our shoes. Inevitably they get hot and maybe damp (sorry but it has to be said). Damp fibre with heat and friction = felting. Lots of friction on knitting fabric = holes. We want our socks to last, how do we achieve this.
Nylon my friends, even avid lovers of natural fibres will often admit that nylon is their friend when it comes to socks. It gives strength and increases the durability and wear of the knitted fabric.
I would recommend aiming for between 10% and 25% nylon for your sock yarns. Personally I would not go for more than 25% as I want the natural fibre / wool to shine but that is a matter of personal choice.
When it comes to selecting your natural fibre of choice not all wool is created equal. Where you might often be tempted by the softest merino for your new jumper I would not always jump at the fine micron stuff for my socks. Remember you need something that wears well and the finest yarn is not always the most durable. Hence why the Blue Faced Leicester is often a hit with sock knitters. Still soft, but more durable than merino, add some nylon and you have a fabulous sock yarn.
Blends are often popular with sock knitters and some fibres are added for strength. Mohair is sometimes found in sock yarns and makes a wonderfully durable fibre when blended with merino and nylon.
Summary: choose something with added nylon or polyamide for strength. When selecting natural fibres go for something soft if you prefer but also opt for something with a little bit of strength. The tighter the spin, the more durable the sock yarn is in most cases.
Often I think this category is put first, when I think it should be the final consideration. Get the first two right, fit and durability and then make the aesthetic work around that. After all what is the point of having pretty socks that don’t fit or worse don’t fit and have holes in the toes and heels?
When choosing yarns think about the following pointers:
Colour: dark colours mask textures and cables, favour lighter colours if you want your cables to pop or your textured stitch to shine.
Variegation: highly variegated yarns overpower patterns, cables and lace designs. Opt for something a little more subtle if you want the pattern to take centre stage. If it is the bold yarn you love, think about a slipped stitch pattern to feature the colours in the yarn.
Texture, halo and sparkles: textured yarns can detract for some patterns but a subtly tweedy yarn would be wonderful some cables, just make sure you choose a colour that allows the cables to pop. Yarns with a halo (alpaca and Exmoor blueface) can mask subtle details so make sure your pattern can be seen through the fluff. The subtle sparkle of stellina can add a touch a pizazz to your socks.
Pooling: some people love it, other loathe it. If you are trying to break it up try knitting from either side of the ball. Better still find a pattern that shows off the pooling and works with the design.
Self patterning and self stripe: perfect for making simple socks exciting. Remember the heel you choose will have an impact on the stripes.
In summary there are so many choices out there, the world really is your oyster when it come to choosing sock yarn.
Finally, don’t forget to experiment and try things out. After all you can always rip the knitting out and use the yarn for something else or change your pattern if you find your first choice is not right for you.
Join me later this week for my top picks for sock yarn. I will be looking at commercially available yarn and hand dyed specialities. I can’t wait to share them with you.