Turkish Delight for Knitters

by Donna Druchunas
Originally published in Black Purl Magazine

My interest in knitting has been kept alive over the years by the almost infinite variety of color, pattern, and texture that is found in collections of knitters and museums around the world. Although I love the smooth, quiet repetition of knitting a rectangular scarf in garter stitch using a luxurious yarn, it is the endless diversity of technique and style that keeps me interested in knitting as more than a way to keep my hands busy while watching TV.

A few years ago, I went through a phase where I knitted nothing but mittens for almost a year. I bought every book about knitting mittens that I could find and my friends and family members all got mittens as gifts that year. The one book that captured my imagination most was Magificent Mittens by Anna Zilboorg. The mittens in her book are made with color patterns that are both simple and complex at the same time. Some patterns that looked complex were easy to memorize after knitting just one repeat, while others that looked simple were challenging to knit without errors. I later discovered that the patterns Anna Zilboorg used in most of her mittens were adapted from Turkish socks.

Knitting has a long history in Turkey. Turkish knitting may have been developed by shepherds who had easy access to wool, and who were already familiar with spinning, dyeing, and working with yarn to make rugs. Almost every history of the craft places the birth of knitting somewhere in the Middle East, spreading later into Europe, and finally to North America only a few hundred years ago. Although it’s impossible to know for sure, Anna Zilboorg goes further in her book Fancy Feet: Traditional Knitting Patterns of Turkey, and surmises that the spread of knitting mirrored the spread of Islam.

Not being an expert in history or anthropology, I’m still intrigued by this idea. Traditionally in Turkey, knitters tensioned their yarn by stringing it around their neck, with the balls of yarn held on the knitter’s left, and the yarn traveling around the back of the neck to attach to the needles on the right. Circular knitting is worked on the inside of the tube, and stitches are purled by flicking the yarn around the tip of the needle with the right thumb. This creates a stockinette stitch fabric with the knit surface on the outside. The same techniques are used in Portugal and Peru. I can easily imagine Moorish knitters taking their new craft with them into Portugal and Spain, and later Christian missionaries carrying the same style of knitting across the Atlantic to the Andes in South America. (Today, most Turkish knitters work in the continental style imported from Europe, but the neck tensioning style of knitting is still prevalent in the Andes.)

The traditional techniques used in Turkey may seem exotic, but it’s actually the colorwork patterns found in Turkish socks that give the designs their unique personality.

With diagonal lines predominating, many of the patterns have been created so that two repeats create one round on a sock, forming tall vertical panels that flank the legs.

Vertical Pattern Chart and Repeating Pattern Sample adapted from Fancy Feet
Smaller patterns are also used, with multiple repeats forming horizontal bands around the sock.

Horizontal Pattern Chart and Repeating Pattern Sample adapted from Fancy Feet

Unlike many European designs that have individual motifs, many Turkish designs are made up of interlocking patterns. Often, there is no main color and contrasting color in the way many Western knitters are used to thinking about it. The foreground and background are interchangeable in many designs, and by simply knitting the same pattern and reversing t
he colors, you may find that you’ve discovered an entirely new look.

The neck-tensioning technique makes it very easy to work with multiple colors, but Turkish patterns can be knit with any knitting style. When working with two colors, you can carry both colors in your left hand, both in your right hand, or one in each. Working with more than two colors in a row, however, requires more nimble fingers if you’re not tensioning the yarn around your neck! If you’ve never worked with multiple colors before, socks (or mittens) make great starter projects. They’re small enough that you won’t be intimidated by a year-long project but big enough to give you enough practice to feel like you’re getting somewhere. If you’re feeling adventurous, try toe-up socks made with the Turkish cast-on. I’ve included links to several illustrated tutorials below.

Learn More

Fancy Feet: Traditional Knitting Patterns of Turkey (Hardcover) by Anna Zilboorg, Lark Books, Asheville, North Carolina, 1994.
Confusingly, the paperback version of the same book has a different title. Simply Socks: 45 Traditional Turkish Patterns to Knit (Paperback) by Anna Zilboorg, Lark Books, Asheville, North Carolina, 2001.

Anatolian Knitting Designs: Sivas Stocking Patterns Collected in an Istanbul Shantytown (Paperback) by Betsy Harrell, Redhouse Press, Istanbul, Turkey, 1981.

Knitted Stockings from Turkish Villages (Paperback) by Kenan Ozbel, Is Bankasi Cultural Publications, Istanbul, Turkey, 1981.

Unfortunately, all of these books are out of print and going for anywhere from $25 to $500 used. If you can’t find a copy on the lower end of the scale, request the book on Interlibrary Loan from your local Public Library.


Fanatical Details on Turkish Socks. An in depth article deconstructing socks purchased in Turkey by LynnH at ColorJoy!.

KnittedSocks. Description of Turkish sock knitting with photos from turkishculture.org.

Turkish Cast On. Step-by-step tutorial with photos by Debi at FluffyKnitterDeb.

FI 101 – the absolute basics of the two-handed fair isle technique by Anne at She Ewe Knits.

The Two-handed Fair Isle Technique video tutorial from The Philosopher’s Wool Company.

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