There have been so many amazing developments in sock knitting technology in recent years.
More than 25 years ago, when I first started making socks, it was DPNs—double-pointed needles—or nothing.
Now you can work socks on tiny circulars, two circulars, magic loop, and the latest innovation—flexible DPNs. These are all alternatives for working small-circumference pieces, offering a choice for those who don’t love DPNs.
For a refresher on joining your cast-on stitches to work in the round, see my column on the subject.
By way of background, to knit in the round, there’s the full needle method, whereby you use a standard circular needle—typically 16 inches/40 cm or longer—and cast on enough stitches to go all the way around. Some manufacturers do sell a 12-inch/30 cm long needle, but they’re not that common.
For a piece that’s smaller in circumference than the shortest standard needle, like a sock or a mitten, you need to use another needle configuration. The traditional method is to distribute the stitches over 3 or 4 DPNs, and then knit them with a 4th or 5th DPN.
Each of these alternative small-circumference methods achieves the same result. Which one you use is a matter of personal preference.
But the patterns themselves aren’t always so easy-going. A lot of patterns are specific to a particular needle set-up, telling you how many stitches to put on which needle, and then giving instructions specific to each needle. This made sense in Olden Times, when DPNs were the only way to go, but it doesn’t really work anymore.
If you’re a dyed-in-the-wool magic looper, for example, it’s entirely possible you’ve never even used DPNs, so if you’re confronted with a pattern that’s written with references to those pesky double-pointers, you may struggle. We’re here to help.
There Is No One True Church of Sock Needles
As a pattern editor, I encourage designers to write patterns in a manner that is “needle-agnostic,” enabling knitters to use whatever needle configuration they want. As long as you’re not writing patterns for a sock novice, then you likely don’t need to dictate how to divide the stitches. After all, if you’ve got 60 stitches, it really doesn’t matter if you have 15 each on four DPNs, 20 each on three, 30 on two circulars, or on two sides of your magic loop, or whatever.
If you encounter a pattern that’s written for a different method than you’re using, don’t be put off. Armed with a little knowledge about how socks (or mittens or sleeves) are constructed, you can easily convert it to your preferred setup.
One note about terminology: I refer to “needle” in the instructions below. If you’re using magic loop, read that as “side.”
Notes on Stitch Arrangement for Any Configuration
No matter what multi-needle setup you’re using, it’s a good habit to make sure that you have full multiples of any pattern repeats on each needle. You should care about repeats for two reasons: It can help you keep track of the pattern and reduce the risk of ladders. Starting a needle with a purl stitch can make laddering worse.
There’s no need to have the same number of stitches on each needle, either. This article discusses that in detail.
Tiny circulars—those with an 8- or 9-inch circumference—make stitch management very easy, as there’s no breaking up of the stitches at all. Use stitch markers to navigate, either marking the geography of the sock—e.g. instep, heel—or needle-identifiers, if the pattern is set up that way. Just make sure that you’re using distinct markers, and that you write down on the pattern which one is which. For example, I always use a green marker for the start of the round, and other colors for the rest.
These needles make for very fast knitting. I like them a lot—in principle. There are three drawbacks: The crucial one is that not every knitter finds them comfortable to hold. (The same is true of flexible DPNs.) The other issues are technical. You will probably need to slip the instep stitches to another needle or stitch holder while working the heel, as the angles get a bit weird. And you’ll still need another solution for the toe, since that section is smaller still.
In the MDK Shop
For all needle set-ups, how you split up the stitches for the leg is entirely irrelevant.
Once it’s time for the heel, divide the sock into two sections that you will retain for the rest of the knitting.
Group all the stitches for the heel together on one needle. Easy! This might take a little bit of reading: I’ve seen patterns that say things like “the heel is worked on the stitches on needle 1.” If you’re not sure how many stitches that is, go back and reread the bit you ignored at the start, about how to set the stitches up. See how many stitches you were supposed to have on needle 1, and arrange appropriately.
If you’re working with DPNs it’s also useful to take a moment to arrange your instep stitches: group those on a single needle, too. If you’re on magic loop, two circulars or flexible DPNs, you’re already set up this way.
Once the heel turn is complete, keep those instep stitches grouped together. If you distribute across four DPNs, then divide the instep stitches at the midpoint; if three, then have the instep all on one needle.
If it’s a short-row heel, once the heel turn is done it’s very straightforward: For all but DPNs, the heel/sole stitches are one the other needle/side. If you’re on DPNs, split them across two needles
If it’s a heel that requires picking up stitches, then the objective is to have the entire sole grouped together: split across two needles for DPNs, and on one needle for all other setups. Follow these steps and all will be well: After the heel turn, pick up the first set of stitches with the same needle that is holding the just-worked heel stitches. Then work the instep stitches with their own needle. If you’re on magic loop, you’ll pull out the loop before you start them.
Where it can get weird is picking up the second set of stitches. If you’re on traditional or flexible DPNs, use an empty/new needle. If you’re on magic loop, pull out the loop at this point.
Ready to pick up the second set of stitches.
And—second set of stitches picked up.
If you’re using two circulars or flexible DPNs, use the needle that’s holding the rest of the heel and gusset stitches.
Most Top Down flap-and-gusset sock patterns have the start of the round at the center of the heel. After you’ve picked up the second set of stitches you’ll need to work partway across the stitches of the heel turn, continuing with that same needle. If you’re on traditional DPNs, this position will mark the break between the first and last needles of the round.
If you’re on the other setups, then you’ll be in the middle of a needle. Just place a marker here, on the needle, and continue working.
If you’re on magic loop, 2 circulars, or flexible DPNs, avoid the temptation to rearrange your stitches. Having the start of the round in the center of a needle might seem a little weird, but it’s actually very sensible. This way, the breaks between needles are positioned at the sides of the foot, and if you experience any laddering, it’s much less obvious there.
When it’s time to decrease for the toe, just make sure you understand where the toe decreases take place. Look at the picture: the vast majority of sock patterns use a wedge toe: two decreases worked at the sides of both the instep and the sole, usually one stitch from the edge. If your sole and instep are divided up as above, you’re already set.
For the best results on a the sock has a spiral toe (like a hat), divide the stitches into even groups for the decrease. If, for example, it’s a 6-point spiral, then make sure that each needle is holding full groups of stitches. If you’re on three DPNs, put two of the 6 groups on each needle. If you’re on magic loop, you’ll have three groups on each needle. Once you’re into the toe, don’t worry about a break on the instep.
Toe-up Socks can be a little easier to convert to different needle set-ups, since the start of the round is generally at the side of the foot, between sole and instep. If you’re on magic loop, two circulars, or flexible DPNs, just put half of the stitches on each needle. Note the removable stitch marker clipped in the fabric at the start of the round.
If using traditional DPNs, divide the sole across two needles, and then the instep across one or two as you prefer. Simple. Then you’re already set up for the heel, with all the heel stitches grouped together neatly. The only change in set-up is if you’re using traditional DPNs: Just get the heel stitches all onto one needle.
Then once the heel turn is done, you can set up the stitches anyway you like for the leg. Easy!