Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Good Socks

I like pretty girls. I like pretty socks on a pretty girl. However, I also like to hike, ski, garden, and spend time out of doors. For that, I like socks that are comfortable. There are times when I want socks that will stand up to a good long walk (days). I like to take my pretty wife with me on those walks, and I tell you she is not as pretty if her feet hurt.
My wife and a Sherpa friend on a summit in Nepal at dawn. (You cannot tell how cold it was that morning. The other Sherpa were huddling, shivering, and cropped out of the photo.)

I see a lot of knitters selecting soft, and softer yarns to knit into socks. That is fine if all you want to do is sit around and look pretty. However, if they actually go walking in those socks, those soft luxuary yarns disintegrate into lint and holes. There is a certain functional beauty to a hiking sock (or ski sock) that keeps your feet comfortable so that you can think about the birds and the bees rather thinking about your feet and blisters.

As a boy, I was trained to wear two pair of socks in my boots. By the 1990s, I had settled on a polypropylene liner and a wool-pile boot sock. The sales clerks at the mountain sport shops assured me that was state of the art, but I was never happy with that combination. In the year 2000, I started knitting. Boot socks were an obvious early project. I tried the Briggs and Little yarns. I tried Lopi with more success. The results were good, but not perfect. For example, my wife told me some of the Lopi socks were too scratchy. All in all, last fall, I found myself short of boot socks and determined to knit myself some really good ones. First, how thick? With good wool socks, does one need a liner sock? Results from some of the Lopi yarns convinced me that a good, hand knit wool sock did not need a liner or an outer sock. One good sock was all that was needed. I swatched a bunch of yarns. I Knit one sock of one yarn and another sock of another yarn, put them on and walked up mud ridge and back (15 miles). Then, I looked at the condition of my feet, and the condition of the socks. The soft yarns fell apart. That resulted in blisters. Many of the sock yarns with nylon in them were not much better.

What I ended up liking was MacAusland's 2-ply med yarn for winter socks and 2 ply fine for spring and fall socks. MacAusland's Woolen Mill on Price Edward Island (http://www.peisland.com/wool/ ) is a funky old mill with equipment still powered by leather belts running across the ceiling. The yarn is sold in skeins and it retains a stinky spinning oil. I discovered it by talking to a hooked rug maker on Cape Breton Island. (Yes, she uses it as "rug wool"!) I made a detour to find MacAusland's. It was worth the effort. If you buy from the mill or mail order, you will need to wash the yarn before you knit with it. It is worth the effort. The yarn is not expensive, and for some things, it is the best yarn that I have knit. It comes from real sheep, and it has real veggy matter in it. It is still worth the effort. I have no association with MacAusland.

I ended up developing two patterns, both based on the Dad's Function over Form socks at http://knitting.about.com/library/ndadsocks.htm; except that to get them as tight as I wanted them, I knit them on I had to use #3 steel needles - with sharp points for the med yarn and #1 needles for the fine. The gussets were picked up and the first 2 rows of gusset stitches were knit on # 1 steel needles. I hate holes in my gussets.

Here is what I think good boot socks should look like, tried, washed, and dried. The clerks at the mountain sports shops do not have really good boot socks to sell. I know they like to hike, and I know their feet will not be as comfortable as mine.
The natural color yarn is somewhat softer than the dyed yarns. The yarn gains softness when it is well washed and rinsed in a conditioner. The fabric is firm, but not unpleasantly so. Knitting large and felting down always produced fabric that was too stiff for my comfort. The hiking and gardening sock has a Fair Isle heel to protect my heel from the stiff counter in my hiking and gardening boots and ribbing to the toe for extra ventilation. The ski sock does not have the ribbing for firmer control. I will post a pattern on ravelry real soon now.

Below is the tool set used to produce these socks.
This Flemish style knitting sheath was worn at my right elbow, tucked into a heavy leather belt. The z twist of the pattern, provides extra stability for firm knitting. Yes, z twist is better than s twist in this case. It is not possible to knit this tight without a knitting sheath. And, the firmness of the knitting really improves the quality of the socks. After this project, I have greater respect for this little tool kit.
The red stitch marker was cut from a plastic straw.

My wife in her new hiking socks this afternoon. She liked them so much that she aquired the hiking socks that I had just knit for myself. Oh well! There is more yarn where that came from!

(I have no relationship with MacAusland's, except that I bought some of their yarn.)


Line Dufour said...

I wonder if you could send me the pattern for your lopi knit socks. my husband works outdoors and would love for me to knit him a pair. my email address is tapestryline@sympatico.ca

Aaron said...

My father's roommate in watch making school, put himself through school knitting lopi socks - 1 pair per day - finished at the (free) movie shown each evening. When Dad married my Mom, he had a pair of those socks left and as a new bride, my Mom, washed and shrank them. The Story lived, so on their 50th wedding anniversary, I gave them his and hers Lopi ski socks. That was 14 years ago.

Everybody wanted them. However, after a few years of testing, I have decided that there are much, much better yarns for socks. My wife still has hers because they are 'scratchy'!

I would start with B and L (http://www.briggsandlittle.com/) boot sock yarn - it is not a bad boot sock yarn and I used their pattern as I learned to make boot socks.

Then, I would say that knitting tighter produces better socks.

Yarns with more plies make better socks.

Now, my sock pattern is the old B and L pattern, but adapted for knitting tighter, finer yarns, and the shape of my foot. A similar pattern is http://www.ravelry.com/patterns/library/tuffy-boot-socks-2

Look at his very favorite socks - how thick are they? Try different yarns and needles until you get that thick and dense a fabric. How high does he like the ankle of the sock? So, I would say, start by replicating his favorite sock. Then, ask him how you can make it better. Make another pair --- it took me 20 or 30 pair before I was really happy with my boot socks.

All the while, my climbing/ski buddies were laughing at me for hand knitting, because they had never seen hand knit socks that they liked. Then, one year, I gave them all pairs of ski socks. Six weeks later, the cheapest son-of-a-bitch of the whole group asked me if I would knit him a pair of hiking sock for $200. Hand knit socks can be better.

I like socks where the ribbing/decorative stitches do not go down onto the foot. And, I am moving to 1x1 ankle ribbing.

Now, prior to making socks for somebody, I measure their foot/leg at 2" intervals and adjust the number of stitches so the sock fits!!!! Socks for my wife are from Rambouillet. By and large, it is finer than Merino.

The socks on the needles right now are from commercial gansey yarn, blue - 5-ply @ 1,000 ypp; knit at ~ 9 spi/ ~ 12 rpi. I am knitting on 1.9 mm swaving pricks and 1.63 mm DPN to get that gauge.

I can pretty much knit them in the dark, (except when somebody is aggravating me.) I can knit them in the car, or at the movies. All a matter of practice.

Anonymous said...

I've just returned to knitting - after a decade off - with the specific purpose of knitting adventure socks. I've been looking skeptically at the very pretty, but not very sturdy yarns at the yarn store. Thank you for the tough yarn suggestions.

Excellent advice and I love your blog!