Knitting Hasn’t Always Been “Just a Hobby”

Knitting is just a hobby, right? A way to pass the time. Maybe a reason to get together with other crafty friends. Perhaps just a harmless and inexpensive thing you do while watching television. 

Knitting hasn’t always held such a frivolous place in human lives. At many points in human history, knitting was serious business. If you were poor and needed money to feed yourself, you knitted. And you knitted socks, lots of them. You might knit every night until you couldn’t see the wool in front of you. You might knit every spare moment you found in your difficult and dreary life. Because you had to. Knitting was how you got by.

This past month, I’ve done a deep dive into the history of knitting. In preparing to write a new novel in the Prayer Shawl Chronicles series, I’m looking at why people – mostly women – knitted over the last decades and centuries. What exactly did they knit? How did they learn to knit? What did they use for needles? How did they get access to patterns? And my big question has been, what place did knitting have in the average woman’s life?

Several of the answers surprised me. Knitting used to be all about socks. The oldest found knitted garment was an ancient Egyptian sock. Up until the 1920’s, knitting continued to be a way to provide high quality socks to the aristocracy and others who could afford them. In more recent years, soldiers fighting one war or another (with wet, dirty, sore, and blistered feet) went through socks like there was no tomorrow. They needed the womenfolk back home to keep them supplied. 

When you think of “handknitted garments,” the first items to come to the 21st century mind might be “scarves” or “sweaters.” Socks are difficult and advanced projects for most of us. We’re just knitting to pass the time, remember. Up until Coco Chanel introduced us all to “sportswear” in the early part of the 20th century, people generally did not wear sweaters – with the noted exceptions of British fishermen. Hard to imagine, right? 

Enjoy your knitting. You’re very blessed to live in a time when you probably don’t have to knit. You don’t have to crank out a zillion pairs of socks just to put food in your children’s tummy. You probably aren’t knitting essential items for the military. You can afford to just knit because you want to. Sure, you may knit to economize and make an all-wool sweater that would cost a lot at your local department store. But you have that option. (And I bet you thoroughly enjoy making that sweater, too.)

But give a thought to those women who don’t have the option of “free time.” Give a thought to women who are working very hard, doing something with their hands, for the same reasons our foremothers knitted long into the night by candlelight to keep the soup bowl filled. Because, but for the grace of God, we all could have lived in a place and time when we knitted not for fun, but for survival. 

Here’s my recommended books on the history of knitting in Britain and the United States. Both are beautifully researched and a pleasure to read. 

This Golden Fleece: A Journey Through Britain’s Knitted History by Esther Rutter (2021)

No Idle Hands: The Social History of American Knitting by Anne L. Macdonald (1990)

Happy Knitting, Cindy

Cynthia Coe is the author of The Prayer Shawl Chronicles, interrelated stories about knitters and those for whom they knit and love. The sequel to this book, The Knitting Guild of All Saints, has just been released! Available in paperback and on Kindle, included in Kindle Unlimited. 

Legal Disclosures: I provide links to products (including books I have written), and as an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases (which means I may get a very small fee if you click through the link and buy something).

How Do You Knit Socks?

When I knitted my first socks two years ago, the entire process of making socks was a mystery. What’s a gusset? What’s a heel turn or a heel flap, and are those two different things? What’s this Kitchener stitch everyone talks about with reverence and awe but can never seem to remember?

My first pair of socks found me, as I signed up for a subscription service that sent a sock kit as the new subscriber freebie. I had pondered trying to knit a pair of socks for some time, but even as an experienced knitter, I couldn’t figure out how in the world the process worked. But I gamely got myself an outrageously small set of circular needles and dove in.

This first pattern I tackled featured an “afterthought” heel. You make the body of the sock and go back and knit the heel afterwards. This process includes putting in a lifeline and the terrifying act of pulling the lifeline out on this project you’ve toiled over for a week, trying to get the thing back on your toothpick sized needles. I survived the experience, presented my husband with the cozy wool socks he had asked for years ago, but pondered whether I would have the nerve to knit another pair.

A month later, I gathered myself and tried another sock pattern. This time, mercifully, there were no afterthought heels or any other high wire acts involving life lines. As I got to the heel flap (whatever that was), I slavishly followed the instructions through a mystifying process of slip stitches, picked up stitches around a tiny rectangle, and a series of decreases that somehow looked like an increasingly larger triangle. But finally, I successfully rounded the corner of the heel and ended up with a piece of knitting that actually looked like the embryo of a sock. I even mastered the Kitchener stitch and sewed up the toe neat and pretty.

Was this steep learning curve worth the effort? Oh yes. Hand-knitted socks are a luxury on par with hot chocolate made with real cream and topped with high-end marshmallows. On a cold day, nothing compares.

I admit I have not tried any more afterthought heels. Life seems too short to deal with lifelines when you don’t have to. But who knows what the future holds? Live dangerously once in a while. I do like the color contrasts you get when you make the heel a different color, so I might give it another go one of these days.

Want to learn to make socks?

  • This is my go to resource for sock knitting – a classic, in my opinion: Getting Started Knitting Socks by Ann Budd. It includes everything you need to know about knitting socks. Invaluable is an extensive stitch dictionary for adding pizzaz to your socks. You can make them as plain or fancy as you want.
  • Want to try a new method? A new book with a new and innovative method is coming out soon, Knit 2 Socks in 1 by Safiyyah Talley. I’ve gotten a pre-publication peek at this book. You basically make one long tube, then make a cuff, a toe, and afterthought heels later.

Will I try afterthought heels and the dreaded lifelines again? Maybe. The beauty of trying and succeeding something challenging is that you gain both mastery and a new sense of confidence in your work. Worth it? Oh yes.

Blessing to those trying new knitting techniques! Cindy

Cynthia Coe is the author of The Prayer Shawl Chronicles, a collection of interrelated short stories about knitters and those they meet through knitting and sharing prayer shawls. 

Copyright 2022 Cynthia Coe

Legal Disclosures: I provide links to products (including books I have written), and as an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases (which means I may get a very small fee if you click through the link and buy something).

Knitted Socks – The New Luxury Accessories?

I’m always amused by what the New York City media discovers as new, hip, and exciting – pleasures the rest of have experienced for years. I’ve rolled my eyes in the recent past as the New York media has discovered Krispy Kreme doughnuts, heirloom tomatoes, the joys of shopping at Target, and the saintliness and cultural significance of Dolly Parton. 

So I shouldn’t have been a bit surprised when I opened the weekend edition of a major New York publication this past Saturday to see that “fancy socks” are the new fashion hot ticket. The subtitle of the article of the publication’s fashion page speaks of “fashion hosiery” as the next best thing which will – gasp – even rival your fab “five-figure handbag.” (What universe does this writer live in?)

I sighed, gazing at the lovely ankle socks featured on the newsprint in front of me. Those bright green socks on the end, I thought, look like a pair I knitted just a couple of months ago. I had no idea I was so hip, so fashion forward. 

Despite my eye rolls, I have to agree with the assessment of socks as high luxury. I knitted my first socks about two years ago. Socks are not easy, they take a while to knit, and do a number on your eyesight. But I decided right then and there that handknitted, custom made socks were the most luxurious things I had ever put on my body. As I slipped on my first pair of all-wool, handknit socks, I audibly groaned in pleasure. And they fit perfectly…because they were made to measure for my very own feet. 

But we knitters knew this all along, didn’t we? Bold, bright colors – we’ve already got that yarn in our stashes. Sparkles and intricate patterns – heck, we use those design elements as a matter of course. 

We’re just glad the New York media is finally getting a clue.

*Update! I tried to publish this blog post twice, but I found it “trashed” and blocked on my social media platforms. Hmmm…some really large publisher doesn’t like anything even close to criticism???

Happy Sock Knitting, Cindy

P. S. There’s a new sock knitting book coming out soon, Knit 2 Socks in 1, by Safiyyah Talley. Publication date is March 1. 

This method of knitting socks is an interesting concept is you’re a fairly accomplished knitter and want to try something new and different. The concept is to knit one long tube with some safety lines, then put a toe, a cuff, and “afterthought” heels onto your set of socks later. Highly recommended for hand knitted sock aficionados who grow weary of “second sock syndrome.”

Cynthia Coe is the author of The Prayer Shawl Chronicles, a collection of interrelated short stories about knitters and those they meet through knitting and sharing prayer shawls. 

Copyright 2022 Cynthia Coe

Legal Disclosures: I provide links to products (including books I have written), and as an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases (which means I may get a very small fee if you click through the link and buy something).

Tackling Hand-Knit Socks for the First Time

After knitting since I was a teenager, I finally knit my first pair of socks. I’ve knit blankets, sweaters, five sets of place mats, more shawls than I care to think about, and even a couple of baby outfits. But socks???!!!  I was totally intimidated by the mere thought of knitting socks.

But my husband dearly wanted a pair of all-wool, hand-knit socks. He’s a serious woodworker, and he’s made me a living room sofa, chairs, picture frames, and numerous book shelves. How could I refuse to make him one measly pair of socks? My darling husband pushed me over the edge of my discomfort by telling me that knitting socks is like making a chair in woodworking. Yes, it’s difficult; but if you want to call yourself a serious crafter, this is what you need to learn to make. 

Then, lo and behold, the knitting kit subscription service I just joined sent me – of course – a sock knitting kit. I’d have to do it. Despite my lack of comfort with double-pointed needles, yarn so thin you can hardly see it, and teeny-tiny needles, I bit the bullet and endeavored to persevere on my first pair of socks.

Sock Under Construction, with graft for afterthought heel

Okay, sock knitting wasn’t so bad. I ditched the irritating double-pointed needles for a new set of tiny circular needles, only using the double points for the end of the toes and heels. The pattern called for an “afterthought heel,” which involved “lifelines” and a “graft.” As terrifying as those concepts seemed, I mastered them on the first try and actually produced a functioning pair of socks. My husband loves them. All’s right with the world around my house.

Like any new endeavor, knitting socks came seem daunting before you actually try it. But if you have some basic knitting skills, you can take the dare and master a couple of new skills that open new possibilities for your craft. You just need to give it a try. 

Here are some tools I found helpful in tackling sock knitting for the first time:

ChiaoGoo Twist Shorties Red Lace Interchangeable Knitting Needles. Pricey? Yes. Necessary? Oh yes. After deciding I couldn’t deal with double pointed needles for an entire project, I found these after a lengthy search for just the right sock needles. They come in a well-made pouch that will fit in a purse. The set includes teeny-tiny stitch markers for use with small sized projects (my regular sized markers fell off), a small ruler, three tiny cables and two sets of needle points. Highly recommended.

Clover Double Pointed Needles. Even if you use circular needles for most of your socks, you’ll still need double points right before you bind off the toes and heels. I love my Clover bamboo needles and added a new set of double points to my collection just for socks. 

Getting Started Knitting Socks by Ann Budd. If you don’t use a kit, this book comes highly rated. Methods using both circular needles and double pointed needles are covered, including all the basics. 

Good luck to those tackling sock knitting for the first time!

Cindy

My First Completed Sock