Elinor Brown Knits

Knitting Designs by Elinor Brown

Month: March, 2010

Anatomy of Sock Design Part I: Getting to the Cast-On

I am so glad to hear that many of you intend to enter some socks in my wee little contest this spring! I cannot wait to see your designs! I encourage everyone to give it a go. Lately, I have received many emails from knitters interested in entering, but intimidated by the design process, the prospect of judging, and the field of competitors. I will do my best to allay these concerns. Although it is a competition, I hope it is clear that the spirit of the contest is most certainly positive and supportive. My only interest is to encourage exciting new work. Who cares if you are not an established designer? You have ideas about socks, don’t you? Sock design should not be intimidating to anyone who has ever knitted a sock: after all, socks are basically two tubes joined by a heel and capped with a toe. The heel and toe are the only challenges of basic sock construction! If you choose to, you can design a completely new way of knitting socks; my point is simply that you needn’t do this to enter and be competitive.

There, are you convinced you can do this? I hope so. Since I am working on my own pattern for the contest – a thanks-for-entering pattern for all participants – I thought it might be worthwhile to document how I go about designing a sock. I am by no means an expert at this, but I’ll certainly share how I work best. I will divide this up into three separate posts: getting to the cast-on, heels & toes, and writing the pattern. Let’s start with the first segment: planning out a design well enough to cast on.

Anatomy of Sock Design

Part I: Getting to the Cast-On


First, I start with my audience. Who will knit this sock? People who designed socks for my contest – in other words, this will not likely be anyone’s first knitted sock. Therefore, the pattern should be challenging enough for somewhat experienced sock knitters, but not so complicated and difficult as to be intimidating. The design must be fun to knit, otherwise I will lose interest in finishing the sample and you will not get a sock pattern. So far, my criteria are 1) not easy; 2) not super hard; 3) fun to knit; and I’m going to add 4) pretty.


Next, I think about what I want for the main body of the sock. Texture? Lace? Cables? Twisted stitches? Slipped stitches? Color work? If I am to enjoy the knitting, lace, twisted stitches, and slipped stitches are out. Although I like how those styles look, I find them rather fiddly to work. Since tedious knitting will not bring back my sock mojo, they’re out. Cables are out too, as I just finished a large cabled pullover and my wrists need a break. More about the sweater later – we’re talking socks here, remember? Focus! Between texture and color work, I’ll choose color any day.

Plus, I just found the most amazing stitch dictionary in the history of time: Latviesu Cimdu Raksti: Ornaments in Latvian Gloves and Mittens by Irma Lesina. I found a reference to it Lizbeth Upitis’ Latvian Mitten book and decided to look it up. If you can find a copy, it’s worth the hunt. It took my university’s library 8 weeks to get a copy by interlibrary loan – there weren’t many books printed and few remain in circulation today. Written in Latvian, the book contains only mitten and glove plates with traditional designs from Latvia’s four districts of Kurzeme, Latgale, Zumgale, and Vidzeme. I intended to photocopy some stitch patterns I liked, but the book was far too fragile to do this. Instead, I set up my tripod and photographed them. I may have photographed the entire book.***

This particular stitch pattern stood out in my mind: the splotches look like microbes! I’m really tempted to call these socks Culture Socks (bonus play on “culture shock”), but the ladies at my knitting group seem to think that would be rather a turn off.I know they’re right, but wouldn’t it be more fun to think of them as microbes instead of jigsaw puzzle pieces or a houndstooth pattern?? I like microbes. I think I’m going to run with this idea.

Now that I have a stitch pattern, I need to decide how to use it on the sock. That’s easy for me because I want to use it all over. Using two colors for the entire sock requires about as much additional skill as I’d like. After all, if you don’t do it regularly, knitting with two colors can be rather cumbersome. On the other hand, this small stitch pattern is quite easily memorized and will not tie the knitter to a chart. I hope to strike a good balance between complicated and fun to knit.

For several years now, I have made a rather conscious effort to never knit anything twice (excepting a design of my own that needs further testing). I do this for two reasons: 1) I like to learn something from every project to improve my skills; and 2) there are so many patterns I want to knit that I haven’t time to dawdle on any particular one. Because this is how I like to knit, I try to include in my patterns a technique or an idea that may be new to some knitters. For this sock pattern, I will use a corrugated rib cuff, an unusual heel, and some nontraditional striping down to the toe.


Now that I have a plan for the cuff (i.e corrugated ribbing) and a plan for the sock body (i.e. microbe stitch pattern), I’m ready to consider gauge and size. This is where I fly by the seat of my pants a little. Although I am a religious swatcher and swatch washer, I will not swatch for a measly sock. I refuse. Luckily, as long as I don’t care about my sock height (and I don’t), it isn’t entirely necessary. Let me explain. I generally know that I can make a gauge of 7-8 spi with most sock yarns on US 1.5 needles, my preferred sock needles. At its widest point, my calf circumference measures 13.5″ and my ankle circumference measures 8″. If I cast on for an 80-stitch sock and work from the cuff down, the cuff will likely fit somewhere between those two points. If my stranded gauge turns out to be 10 spi, it will be a shorter sock. If my stranded gauge is 8 spi, it will be taller.

Now I have a plan for my 80-stitch sock, beginning with corrugated ribbing and continuing on with the stranded pattern. But wait! Where are my US 1.5 needles? Stewing in an unfinished sock, of course. Unfinished since August 2008, in fact.

Hi, I'm a 10-month-old unfinished sock. Would someone please knit my sole so I could be with my mate? Thanks.

These long unfinished Fascine Braid Socks were the unwitting casualties of my lost interest in sock knitting. The pattern is wonderful, well written, and really pretty. Sadly, I chose the wrong yarn to go with the pattern so Tiennie’s lovely textured pattern can hardly be seen. Since this contest is all about getting me back into knitting socks, I decided to finish this pair, rather than buy a new needle. You may laugh, but I’m not the only one finishing up these nagging projects – MaritzaNovaCarolyn, and Val have all recently finished long languising single socks. It’s a good thing.

A year and a half later,

Alright, now I can begin.

Is this a start on my sock?

I admit that I tried two other color combinations before settling on this one. So far, I like this one a lot. I’m using Louet Gems Fingering Wt in Fern and Teal. Now that I know my gauge from the leg of my sock, I can figure out the decreases I need to do to get down to the ankle.

Culture Socks

I have absolutely no plan yet for the heel, foot, or toe. The good news is that I don’t need one for another couple of days. Knitted progress on my sock has been slow this week because we sold our house and will be moving 600 miles away in less than six weeks (right around the time this contest closes, actually). It should be fun!

Stay tuned for Part II: Heels & Toes.

***I assume this is completely illegal, but what am I supposed to do when I can’t buy a copy of a rare, out-of-print text? I would pay $$$ for this book if it were available!


Reviving Socks: A Design Contest


Have you noticed the absence of socks here at Exercise Before Knitting? In 2007, I made 13 pairs of socks. In 2008, I made 10 pairs. In 2009? Zero. Truth be told, I am over socks. Or was, at least. I have been darning socks like mad lately. If I do not knit a couple of pairs of socks this year, I might have to resort to store-bought socks next winter.

I’ll let that sink in for a minute.

Store-bought socks.

Clearly, it is time for a knitterly intervention. While there are many excellent sock patterns out there, I am looking for something special to lure me back to knitting socks. Please allow me to elaborate.

Back in the day, when the KBC crew first met in Philadelphia, we decided to swap cowls.

(Photo by Caro Sheridan)

Several of us designed our own cowls for the swap and later published the designs for public consumption:

The next fall, we met in Boston and swapped mittens.
Mitten wheel
Again, some really cool patterns came out of the event:

I really enjoy seeing these patterns, born of knitterly friendship, still queued up and knitted! I love that commanding a dozen people to make the same accessory resulted in such a wide variety of colors, patterns, and styles. I think this combination of creative spirit and crafty fellowship would bring back my interest in sock knitting.

This is where you come in.

I am proposing a sock pattern design contest to reinvigorate wayward sock knitters like me. Design and publish your own pattern, enter the contest, and inspire away! You retain all the rights to the patterns you design. Offer your work for free or for purchase, I just ask that you make it available online somewhere. How does that sound?

The Rules

  • One entry per person.
  • The aim of this contest is to encourage new work. Only previously unpublished, original patterns please. For the sake of clarity, let’s say this means patterns should be published between March 1st and May 21st of this year.
  • All patterns must be available (for free or for charge) on the internet.
  • Each pattern must include at least two adult sizes.
  • Stitch gauge must be between 7 and 10 stitches per inch.
  • Yarn must be sport, fingering, or lace- weight.
  • Fiber content must not be more than 30% acrylic. Entries with higher acrylic content will be disqualified for exceptionally poor taste.

How to enter

  • Fill out all required fields of the entry form and submit. Entries will be accepted until 8 p.m. EST on **Friday, May 21st**. Although designs may be submitted at any time during these six weeks, designers will be allowed to edit entries up until the closing date and time of the contest.
  • Add at least one (but not more than two) photos of your finished socks to the public Flickr pool by the contest deadline. Instructions on how to do this can be found on the entry form.

Entries without either a completed form or photos in the pool will not be considered. Many thanks to Aaron, the resident programmer at Exercise Before Knitting, for writing the entry/voting software to make this contest both easy to enter and painless to manage.


Prize baskets will be given to the top five pattern designers. Each basket will include some sock yarn, needles, a yarn shop gift certificate, and some baked goods made by yours truly (and I take requests). However, because there are so many wonderful sponsors, no prize basket will be the same. Just as this contest involves many designers and knit bloggers as judges, the awards also reflect a diverse community of yarn shops, needle and yarn companies, independent dyers and craftsters. There will be gift certificates from Simply Socks Yarn Company, sock knitting-sized Addi Natura DPNs and Addi Turbo and Addi Lace circular needles from Skacel, a sock project box bag and purse from Splityarn, and sock yarn from Dream in Color, Fleece Artist, Hazel Knits, Mama Blue Knitting Goods, North Loop Yarn, The Plucky Knitter, Spud & Chloë, and Sundara Yarn.

What You Get

  • A chance to win great yarn.
  • A copy of the sock pattern I will design for the contest.
  • A kick in the pants to publish that cool pattern that has been kicking around in your head for years.
  • Free advertising here at Exercise Before Knitting, in the Flickr pool, and in the Socks Revived group on Ravelry.

What I Get

  • New, inspiring sock patterns for my Ravelry queue.
  • A kick in the pants to publish a sock pattern of my own for all of the entrants.


All entries will be judged by a large panel of knit bloggers and designers. Voting will take place online in two rounds of anonymous balloting. The five winners will be announced Monday, May 23, 2010.

Meet the Judges

The contest judges come from all parts of the internet and hold widely varied opinions on socks. Here are some of them:

Adrian: “I like a sock with lots of visual interest and interesting knitting, but not at the expense of comfort, fit, and warmth.  My favorites either elevate a plain yarn to extraordinary heights of beauty or use a complicated yarn ingeniously.”
Ashley: “I have big feet! So I’m always looking for sock patterns that are either written to accommodate feet bigger than a size 8, or easy to resize. Biggest pet peeve: sock patterns that use “women’s” and men’s” sizes rather than “small” and “large”. My personal preference is for nothing too lacy, but I sure do love cables.”
Caro: “Since my feet are always too hot to wear socks myself, any sock pattern has to keep my interest as a knitter, but not be so challenging that I can’t drink manybeers while I’m working on it.”
Christy: “What I look for in socks is a combination of practicality with an interesting or creative element. I wear my socks a lot, so any design element has to be able to cope with that.”
Diana: “While I don’t knit many socks (stoopid wool allergy), I love seeing interesting knee-hi socks. If they’re made from non-animal fiber, all the better!”
Elinor: “I am on a quest to find The Perfect Sock. I’m not sure what perfection looks like, but I’ll know it when I see it.”
Heather: “I am currently experiencing a severe sock lull and am thus on the lookout for a pattern that will tempt me back into the sock fold. A winning pattern to me is one that is easy to pick up and put down and still know where you are, is not too busy and yet remains mentally engaging. If trip hop were a sock pattern, what would it be?”
Julia: “I may not knit many socks, but I do know what I like in a handknit sock.  Functionality is one thing- don’t make me imagine trying to shove bobbles into my boots.  I like my socks tall and semi-solid, and loathe pooling.”
Kirsten: “Good design is good design whether it’s cables or lace or colorwork. The most important things to me are a balanced design and a comfortable fit.”
Maritza: “I love elegant designs that are simple yet attractive and socks that are inventive in their shaping and use of textures.”
Mary-Heather: “I tend to be very drawn to tradition and history in knitting in general, and I love how beautiful a non-glamorous item like a sock can be; in particular, traditional stranded colorwork makes me swoon!”
Mary Jane: “I love to knit socks,and have enjoyed years of obsessive sock knitting. I like a sock to be fun and inventive, colorful and comfortable. That said, there is something especially enticing about a plain, demure little sock with just a hint of a challenge.”
Meg: “Living in deep in the heart of Texas means I only knit socks for family and friends in colder climates. While I occasionally long for hours of stockinette in the round, I need something to impress the recipients without too much effort on my part. A pattern with personality, but no drama will top my queue.”
Megan: “For me, there is nothing more perfect than a sock pattern you can knit on auto-pilot but comes off the needles looking like it took a mastermind to create it.”
Minty: “Sock designing was my first love. I love intricate patterns and clever construction, but when it comes right down to it, I only wear my stockinette socks. There’s got to be a happy medium out there.”
Nova: “I have, decidedly, fallen out of love with sock knitting and would relish a sock pattern that makes me enthusiastic about knitting socks again.  When I knit socks, I preferred to knit them with solid, semi-solid or tonal yarns that allow intricate patterns (be it cable or lace) to really pop.”
Pam: “On one hand, I love to see something complicated and dramatic in a sock pattern: bold colorwork, elaborate stitch patterns, unique construction–things that are fun to look at and fun to knit. On the other hand, feet come in a shocking range of shapes and sizes, so wearability and flexibility are key. If a sock pattern combines those two things? Big win in my book.”
Sarah: “I appreciate intricate patterns and beautifully dyed or spun yarn, but I definitely prefer simple patterns and basic colors. I’ll pick a basic, black sock over a technicolor, lacey stocking any day.”
Staci: “Sock knitting is a huge part of my life. Even though I live in Texas, my whole family is in Alaska, and they are spoiled beyond store-bought socks. I am especially fond of toe-up designs, because I like to use every last bit of yarn with no leftovers.”

Quick reference links

Generous sponsors

It would be difficult for me to host a contest with such awesome prizes without the generous support of the following sponsors, listed in alphabetical order:

Doesn’t this sound like fun??? Start knitting socks!!!