To understand another person, it is said, you must walk a mile in their shoes. Well, what goes inside shoes if not socks?
Knitters must take this to heart, and every time we knit a pair of socks to warm our toes, we should take the opportunity to learn about the stitches, patterns, and techniques we use. And we should also take it further, and learn about the people who originally created the beautiful socks that inspire our knitting today. In America, after all, all knitting came with immigrants. Some of those immigrants may have looked a lot like me or like you. Others may have borne little resemblance to us. But they brought the craft that we love to our shores.
Even something as simple the difference between cuff-down and toe-up construction tells a story:
- In northern Europe knitters have traditionally made cuff-down socks (mid-calf length) and stockings (knee-high socks) that were close fitting. The upper classes often wore slender fitting shoes, but many of the rural poor wore wooden shoes, shoes made of leather without heavy soles, and even shoes crocheted from heavy linen cord. Under all of these shoes were snug-fitting socks. The heel was worked with a flap–a simple rectangle–closed at the bottom with a seam or with shaping to create a corner. After the heel, stitches were picked up on the sides of the flap rectangle, resulting in more stitches being on the needles than there had been at the ankle. These extra stitches were decreased away to form a gusset on each side of the heel. The foot was worked straight, then decreased, usually in four sections, for the toe. When worked in lace or texture stitches, the foot of the sock was normally worked plain and often the entire sock below ribbing at the cuff was worked in plain knitting, which came to be known as “stocking stitch” in England (what we now call stockinette stitch in the United States).
- In the Middle East, the Ottoman Empire, and south-eastern Europe, knitters made toe-up socks that were often looser fitting and thicker than the socks made in northern Europe. These socks were often worn under leather sandals that were less form-fitting than the shoes worn in colder climates to the north. Knit with elaborate colorwork, the socks were also often less stretchy as well. The leg length varied from short anklets and mid-calf socks to knee-highs. The foot was worked straight with no shaping, and in many cases the heel was added after the foot and leg were finished. Because the shoes were also less fitted, many of these socks were more like what we would consider slipper socks today. In fact, the socks were worn indoors as slippers and in some areas, two pairs of socks were worn together: an inner undyed sock with stockinette stitch on the foot and lace or cables on the leg would be worn inside a larger colorwork slipper sock that served as a house shoe when leather slippers were removed at the door upon entering the house.
It seems sad and perhaps ironic to me that today, when toe-up socks are all the rage, that there is a movement in politics to ban Muslims from immigrating to the USA, there is fear that refugees from the Middle East are terrorists, and the number and frequency of anti-Arab hate crimes are rising.
I know it may be difficult to connect a sock, a piece of fabric–that you are holding in your hands, that you understand because you made it stitch by stitch–to a group of people who may seem strange and foreign to you–who live far away or who live in a very different way than you do. But I think we, as knitters and as human beings, need to make the effort to see the connections, the commonalities. Making things by hand, after all, is an intimate human endeavor and we should use it not only to knit strings into socks, but also to knit person to person, strangers into friends.
Socks from Stories In Stitches 3
Every pair of socks is a picture of history, culture, life, and politics. Every pair of socks can hold the hopes and dreams of yesterday, today, and tomorrow, as we use traditional techniques and vintage patterns to create todays comforts to pass on to tomorrow’s knitters, researchers, and readers.
We can use our knitting as a way to spread love and understanding among ourselves and into the wider world. Every sock we knit can say,
I am with you!
One way we can do work to create community and connections through knitting is by organizing events that give knitters in our communities the chance to connect to people they might not otherwise get to spend time with. For an exciting project that is working to create a guide for organizers to make this happen, check out Knit 200 Together: Knitting Communities Together Transcending Barriers.