FALL COLORS: Socks and Stockings
Originally posted 10/2010
With my research in Lithuania I have found many more examples of old mittens, gloves, and wristers than I have socks.
This is not necessarily because socks were not knitted as frequently in the past, but more likely because they were worn until they fell apart and did not survive to be included in museum collections. There are a fair number of mostly chunky-knit socks for sale in the tourist markets and souvenir shops, but their numbers are still usually dwarfed by the numbers of hand coverings for sale in the same places. Of course hand coverings can be shown off and socks are a part of our wardrobe that is generally invisible and private. Chunky socks do not fit inside our everyday shoes, making them less useful than might otherwise be imagined in this cold climate. Some of the market socks are knitted in traditional Lithuanian color and lace stitches, others are just made in any stitch that suits the taste of the knitter or that she thinks will appeal to tourists.
Still, the socks in the market match the socks I’ve seen in museums and old books in two important ways: the technique used to knit the heels and toes. Almost all of the old Lithuanian socks seem to have a square heel and a spiral toe.
The square heel is similar to what is sometimes referred to as a “Dutch heel” in American knitting books. What’s interesting about the way it’s worked in Lithuania is that it is often patterned: sometimes with heel stitch (even going around the heel turn!), sometimes with other texture patterns, and sometimes with colorwork. In the markets most heels are solid, because that’s so much quicker to knit.
The heel itself is worked back and forth on two needles, with half of the total number of stitches in the sock. You continue to work back and forth to turn the heel. You will divide the heel stitches into three sections, with half of the stitches on a center needle and one-quarter on each side on separate needles. For example, if your sock has 72 stitches, your heel will have half of that, or 36 stitches. To set up the heel turn, put 9 stitches on the first needle, 18 on a second needle, and 9 on a third needle. You’ll use a fourth needle to knit.
On RS rows, on the first needle, work in patt then slip the last stitch on that needle onto the center needle. With the empty needle, K2TOG, knit to the last stitch on the center needle, slip the first st on the third needle onto the working needle and SSK. With the empty needle work the rem stitches in patt. On WS rows work the same way but use SSP and P2TOG for the decreases (to get everything to line up neatly).
Continue working back in forth in this manner, noting that all the decreases are worked on the center needle, and the number of stitches on the side needles will become less and less until no stitches remain on the side needles. End after working a WS row when the only stitches that remain are on the center needle, then pick up stitches and work in the round in a normal fashion to shape the instep.
The toe on most Lithuanian socks is knit in four sections with decreases done on every other round at the end of each of the four knitting needles holding the stitches. (Here knitters divide their stitches evenly onto four dpns and work with a fifth.) When there are 8 or fewer stitches remaining, they are gathered in to finish off the toe, eliminating the need for grafting.
Other types of heels and toes are explained in Lithuanian knitting books, and short-row heels show up frequently in sock patterns. One friend told me not to pay such close attention to all of the contemporary Lithuanian-language knitting books because not all of the authors are so careful when writing their instructions and most are writing generically about knitting, not about Lithuanian knitting traditions and techniques. Still, it is interesting to me to see what contemporary authors have to say about knitting here in Lithuania, and to discover what techniques they find interesting enough to include in their books.
A book I picked up on this trip – Kojinių mezgimas virbalais (Knitting Socks) – includes a “diagonal boomerang heel” that is a short row heel with a couple of interesting features. First, the diagonal boomerang and second the way the short rows are worked.
Here’s a chart of the basic heel construction:
Short row heels are seldom found in old Lithuanian socks. I’ve never seen them on any of the socks I’ve found in museum collections and I’ve not seen them in photos of old socks, even in books that include short row heel construction techniques. But all of the Lithuanian short row heels I’ve seen include a section that is knitted back and forth on two needles before the short row is begun, creating an instep with more depth than is the result in the short row heels that are commonly used in US sock patterns.
The two rows knit across all of the stitches in the middle of this heel form the diagonal boomerang, but what I don’t like is that nothing is done to eliminate the holes that will form from the short rows being worked without any special turning technique. Don’t get me wrong, I despise knitting those short row heels that have a million yarnovers and backwards yarnovers, but I think something is needed to keep a sock heel from having holes in it.
What I do like about the boomerang heel design is that it would nicely complement another kind of sock toe. The socks in the photo below, a reproduction of socks from a 1939 Lithuanian book, use the common square heel and a two-part toe pattern, with decreases worked on the sides of the foot only, in a manner that is common in American and Western European sock patterns. This was also used by Lithuanian knitters in the past, although not as frequently as the rounder toe. This sock was designed by Sonata, the owner of the Mezgimo Zona shop, and she updated the traditional pattern by working the contrasting color with a self-striping yarn. I love this juxtaposition of the traditional and the modern (maybe even trendy).
Next up: some info about machine knitted socks.