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May 31, 2007: What makes a good sock yarn

I posted this on the socknitters list, and decided it belongs here as a reference.

"Sock yarn" is a marketing concept designed by manufacturers to capitalize on the recent knitting interest in socks. Its just yarn that is marketed for socks. Generally, it refers to a blend of wool with a small percentage (10-25%) of nylon for strength, but also includes more interesting blends of wool, nylon and other fibers like cotton or bamboo, sometimes silk, etc. You generally know something is sock yarn by the name! :)

What makes a yarn GOOD for socks depends a lot on the person wearing or making the socks's taste, but generally it is a yarn that will last well and fit well in a stretchy garment like socks, and that will feel good on yoru feet. The following are what I look for in a sock yarn:

First and foremost, I want a yarn that will stand up to heavy wear. Feet and shoes put a lot of friction on a yarn. So you generally want a yarn that is relatively tightly spun and not as fluffy as some sweater yarns. Other things that help are blends with nylon. Finally, you can make up for a looser yarn by planning to knit it tightly, or by using reinfocing fibers like wooly nylon.

My second consideration in choosing a yarn for socks is memory - I want the socks to spring back to their original shape between wearings so they don't become loose and floppy over time. Wool has great memory, as do many acrylic/nylon fibers. Things like cotton and bamboo do NOT have good memory, so are best used in blends with something that does have memory.

My 3rd consideration is that the fibers breathe well and absorb foot sweat, so my feet don't feel overly hot and sticky. Wool is IDEAL for this, despite its reputation for warmth. Cotton breathes well but doesn't wick away moisture, so becomes damp feeling. Acrylics and artificial fibers tend to wick moisture well and not breathe well, so feel hot and stuffy.

All of the first 3 requirements I consider MUSTS for using a yarn for socks. It either needs to meet these standards or have a reasonable way to work around them. The rest starts to be a matter of taste.

My 4th consideration is practical things - All else being equal I want to be able to throw my socks in the wash, so I prefer superwash yarns, etc. I want fibers soft enough that I can comfortably wear the socks, so I'll want to pet the wools and make sure they won't feel itchy to me. This is sometimes why I'll shell out for 100% wool socks - they feel softer than a lot of the blends to me, and that makes up for the reduced durablity. Then we start to get into aesthetics like color combinations and such.

Remember that ANY yarn can be a sock yarn, not just those marketed for socks. Most yarns sold as sock yarn meet these standards, but many MANY other yarns do as well. Sock yarn is just ordinary yarn you make a sock out of.

May 30, 2007: YARN BINGE!

So I should have known making that yarn list was dangerous... :) Listing everyone's favorite yarns has been very bad for the monthly yarn budget. Per request of a few friends who want PHOTOS of the loot, I will describe here. But basically we had a major Stash Enhancement eXperience month... :)

Problem #1: I'm about to get paid by schaeffer. :) in yarn! In my FAVORITE luxury yarn in the whole wide world (at least so far). But they're psycho busy for TNNA, so all I've been able to do is drool over colors. The yarn won't get here til at least mid June. AND I WANT IT NOW! :) So this leaves me aching for the new yarn, and in a position were I tell myself "NO BUYING NEW YARN!" Why is it that I always buy more yarn when I tell myself I'm not allowed to? Someone pelase help me understand this phenomenon, I simply can't yarn diet!

Problem #2: SALES. Okay so I confess. Despite NOT NEEDING YARN I'm still on the news list for a few yarn stores. Little Knits tells me juicy things about destocking last years sock yarns at 50% off... :) 7 balls of yarn later I let myself log off. I nobly resisted for almost a week, and that saved me a ball of blue opal mosaic that went out of stock (yes, I still want it, e-mail me if you'll sell it to me cheap!). Links to loot:
Top 3 colors in 1st photo, 2nd and last of 2nd photo:
online sierra colors 896, 895, 893 online sierra colors 890, 889

and these opal colors:
opal mosaic green opal mosaic gray

Then, a LYS, Knitting Arts, which hosts a weekly sock group (classes 1st and 3rd week, social socking 2nd and 4th) happens to have a 5th Tuesday and celebrates it with... you guessed it, a SALE. 20% off all sock yarn in stock, 30% off sock yarns they have only a few of or are discontinuing, etc. *sigh* and of course I show up early for good selection and on the table are THE ONLY 4 SKEINS OF CHERRY TREE HILL SUPERSTOCK LEFT IN THE STORE I'm doomed. :) 2 of them are colors to die for, that I'd take at any price, that they've been HIDING for months waiting for a sale. At 30% off I'm totally helpless. I escape with those 2 skeins, one color of lorna's laces I've been trying not to buy for months, and some cotton for all seasons at 50% off in a discontinued but gorgeous charcoal gray shade. Here are the yarn colors in pics from another store:
CTH Moody Blues Colorway CTH Java Colorway LLSS Sand Ridge

Sales are deadly, I tell you... :)

Problem #3: That darned yarn list! Do you have ANY idea how hard it is to know how many gorgeous yarns there are out there that YOU HAVEN'T TRIED?!?!? I'm really doing good. Really I am. I onyl gave in to one handdyer. You all know I'm a Californian, and for 6 months of the year heavy wool socks and my feet dont' get along. So when someone tells me about the superwash at fearless fibers, clocking in at 441 meters/100 grams... well tis hard to resist. I knew I would eventually cave in... So I cave in NOW when I'm exepectign a huge lot of similarly thin handpaint yarn. but its SO COOL! its kettle dyed, not handpainted, so the colors are all lovely subtle totally random shades of color, and 2 are ones I NEED NOW. Plus, its only $16 plus shipping, and shipping is cheaper on 2... Here are the 2 I picked:
Brick House Colorway Deepest Forest Colorway

So I think that sums up the yarn binge for now. :) I'll of course update with photos when my Anne yarn arrives! For now I'm just hoping that by posting this I cure the binge. Tune in later, hopefully soon, for details about my new charity projects and maybe even a rant on icord...

May 5 2007: Guide to Picking a Sock Gauge

I have repeatedly given this sermon on various lists and feel its time to put it all out in one formal, clear post. Gauge is important. Gauge gives you socks that fit your feet AND fit your yarn. Gauge is not intuitive to most but it is NOT hard either, once its been explained to you.

Why gauge is important for socks:

Many people when they start knitting socks are taught "use 64 stitches for a women's sock" or some similar nonsense. And this works, as long as you keep using the same yarns and patterns you were first handed by that gauge deprived teacher. Why is this a problem? Well, not all sock yarns are the same. Just like you'd need bigger needles and fewer stitches for a sweater with super-bulky yarn than for one with worsted weight yarn, you need different needles and different gauges for different sock yarns. This probably comes as a revelation to many, because we somehow think that sock yarn is sock yarn. The problem is that yarns marketed as "sock weight yarn" have a rather wide range, from sport weight to almost lace weight. The thicker yarns need to be knit looser or they'll end up cardboard. The thinner yarns need to be knit tighter or they will end up threadbare and floppy. Your base "64 stitches" just doesn't work for all yarns out there that a manufacturer happens to call "sock yarn." You need to adjust gauge so you can match yarns with patterns that suit them.

How thick is my sock yarn?

So our main problem in choosing a gauge for a yarn is knowing how thick or thin that particular "sock weight yarn" really is. How do you know if the yarn you bought is thick, thin or average? The first thing you need to do is learn how to really read labels. First, completely ignore the stitches per inch and needle size on the label. This is totally made up numbers by the manufacturer, something they write on there to sell their yarn. I find most yarns marketed for socks call for the same 7-8 stitches per inch, regardless of how thick they actually are. What usually gets you closest to knowing how thick or thin a yarn is is the yardage and weight. Now here comes the problem. Not all yarns are sold in the same size balls, some use meters and grams, some use yards and ounces, some use yards and grams just to totally mix things up. In order to really compare, we need to get all those yarns into the same system. Me, personally, I prefer to put everything in the metric system because I hate combining systems (what is with this yards per gram thing???) and, well, most yarns are sold in grams. To get you started, below are the number of meters/100 grams for several common yarns. Please write me if you want me to add a yarn to this list and tell me its name, weight and length. I'll gladly do the math for you. Please note mubers may contain slight rounding errors.

Sport, DK and 6-ply sock yarns:
Socks that Rock Heavyweight: 160 meters
Brigs and Little Tuffy: 174 meters
Oceanwinds Knits Superwash Merino II: 206 meters
Briggs and Little Regal: 218 meters
Socks that Rock Mediumweight: 222 meters
Brooklyn Handspun Superwash Sock yarn: 226 meters
Wick yarn: 220 meters
Lorna's laces Shepherd sport: 261 meters
Monarch Fly Super Sport Merino:261 meters

Socks That Rock lightweight: 257 meters
Colinette Jitterbug: 267 meters
Mountain Colors Bearfoot: 281 meters
Fleece Artist Merino: 297 meters
Silja: 300 meters
Steinbach Wolle Strapaz: 300 meters
Spinning Bunny Superwash Merino/Tencel: 313 meters
Crystal Palace Panda Cotton: 314 meters
Crystal Palace Panda wool: 314 meters
Sisu: 320 meters
Lucy Neatby: 320 meters
Claudia Handpaint: 320 meters
Koigu KPPM: 320 meters
Socks that Rock Seduction: 320 meters
Sundara Sock Yarn: 320 meters
Panda Seacoast Handpainted (merino/bamboo): 320 meters
Louet Gems Merino: 338 meters
Cherry Tree Hill Supersock: 338 meters
Oceanwind Knits Superwash merino: 340 meters
Briggs & Little Sport/durasport: 345 meters
Lisa Souza "Sock": 363 meters
Lang Jawoll: 377 meters
Interlacements Tiny Toes: 338 meters
Lorna's Laces Shepherd Sock: 345 meters
Artyarns Ultramerino: 349 meters
The Knittery Merino-Cashmere Sock: 363 meters
Crystal Palace Maizy: 377 meters
Sockotta: 378 meters
Meilenweit Cotton: 378 meters
Wildfoote: 394 meters
Regia bamboo/Silk/Stretch: 400 Meters
Universal Yarns Ditto: 400 meters
Meilenweit Mega Boots Stretch: 400 meters
Knitpicks Memories, Gloss, Bare 100% merino: 402 meters
Smoky Mountain Fibers sock yarn: 411 meters
Opal Cotton: 412 meters
Regia wools: 420 meters
Austerman Step: 420 meters
Online wool: 420 meters
Fortissima: 420 meters
Trekking XXL: 420 meters
Meilenweit wool: 420 meters
Scheepjes invicta extra: 420 meters
Katia Mississippi: 420 meters
Trampoline: 422 meters
Knitpicks Essential, Palette Bare Superwash/Donnegal/Perivian: 422 meters
Opal Unisolid: 425 meters
Tofutsies: 425 meters
Fearless Fibers superwash merino sock yarn: 441 meters
Schaeffer Anne: 450 meters
Knitpicks Dancing: 462 meters

As you an see, there's a really wide range, with the thickest sock yarn (socks that rock) being almost half the length (and almost twice as thick) as the thinnest yarns (Dancing, Anne). Also note that most of the nice handpaints (with the exception of Anne) are on the thicker end of the scale and most of the mass market yarns are on the thinner end of the scale. Clearly you can see that gauge matters. If you knit a sock design meant for, say, Opal yarn (425 meters) with Socks That Rock, you're first going to run out of yarn, and second have a sock that feels like stiff cardboard. If you knit a sock designed for Socks That Rock with Tofutsies yarn, you're going to have cheeese-cloth thin socks (and tons of leftover yarn).

Choosing a gauge for your yarn:

So now you know how your yarn compares to other yarns, and you have to choose a gauge. Overall, the thicker (shorter) your yarn, the fewer stitches per inch you want. I generally recommend 7 SPI at the short end of the list, and 11 SPI at the long end of the list. I'm known for liking tight gauge, your mileage may vary (but probably not by much!) Here's my rule of thumb for gauge and needle size:

More than 425+ meters/100g - (light fingering): 11 SPI, 1.75 mm needles
375-425 meters: (fingering weight): 10 SPI, 2mm needles
325-375 meters: (Heavy fingering weight): 9 SPI, 2.25 mm needles
325-275 meters: (sport weight): 8 SPI, 2.5mm needles
275-225 meters: (sport weight-DK weight): 7 SPI, 2.75 or 3 mm needles
225-175 meters: (DK weight-worsted): 6 SPI, 3.5mm needles
175-125 meters: (worsted to thick worsted): 5 SPI, 4mm needles

DO NOT JUST TRUST THIS CHART. You'll want to knit up a sample to see 2 things. First, you may need a different need a different needle size than I do to get the same gauge. Second, the length thing is only an approximation of thickness. Yarns vary not just in length-by-weight, but how tight they are spun, how smooth, etc. A loose, fuzzy yarn (Anne) will be fatter and need fewer stitches. A tight, smooth yarn (TOFUTSIES!) will be thinner than similar length yarns and need more stitches. Usually you only need to adjust a stitch per inch for unique yarn characteristics, and a needle size or so for knitter characteristics. Try different needles until you get a fabric that looks good to you, has decent stretch, and feels good if you stretch it across your foot. You want about a 2 inch square for sock swatches, I find. If you're really ambitious, wash the swatch you like best to see if it changes. Many wool yarns "bloom" or get fluffier when washed, so a gauge you thought was too loose may end up being right after washing. Anne is particularly this way for many people.

Okay I've got my gauge, what the heck do I do with it?

The easiest way to use your gauge is to shop for patterns that have the same gauge that you like best for your yarn. The OTHER way is to modify patterns or even make up your own. To do this you need some foot measurements. I find the fattest part of the foot (ball of the foot) to be one important one, as is the narrowest point of your leg above the ankle. I like my socks to EXACTLY fit the narrowest part of my ankle, which allows them to stretch to fit the rest of my leg. I like them to be about 10% SMALLER on my foot than my ball of foot measurement. So now to do the math. Measure the foot. If you want to take out 10% from that measure for negative ease, multiply that measurement by 0.9. That gives you the number of inches you want your sock to be at that part of your foot/leg. Then multiply your inches of sock times your stitches per inch For example, 8 inches of sock times 9 stitches per inch gives you 72 stitches. Now you can either just cast on your sock, OR you can look for patterns with the same # of stitches you got. BE WARNED if you do this though - not all stitch patterns are created equal. In particular, cables and patterns that bias (can you say JAYWALKERS?) tend to need more stitches than stockinette gauge socks on the same needles. But this number of stithes will work well for most patterns, and will get you close enough.

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