As a long-standing sock knitter and teacher of sock knitting (I wrote a whole book about it), I’m thrilled to see so many MDK readers join the Loyal Order of Sockists.
The socks of MDK Field Guide No. 11: Wanderlust, as so clearly and helpfully explained by Wendy Bernard, feature the popular short-row heel. This type of heel is loved for several reasons: it’s straightforward to execute, it looks very tidy and pleasing (just like store-bought socks), and its construction is symmetrical, so it works equally well in top-down and toe-up socks.
One of the wonderful things about sock knitting is that you can adjust your socks to suit your own feet and your own preferences. Experienced sock knitters are always going on about insteps and customizing heels and measurements, and it can all be a bit overwhelming if you’re just coming to sock knitting.
My feeling is that if you’re going to invest your valuable time and gorgeous yarn in making socks, let’s make sure they feel great, and last as long as possible. And fit is a big part of that.
The good news is that there are some fantastically easy ways to assess and tweak the fit of your sock, without doing any intensive calculations or pattern adjustments.
A Reminder About Sock Sizing
A sock should stretch a little bit to fit your foot. A sock that has to stretch to fit stays in place on your foot, doesn’t move around or bunch up in your shoes, and doesn’t sag.
The technical term for this stretch-to-fit concept is negative ease. This simply means that the sock’s measurement should be smaller than your foot measurement.
For best comfort and wear, I recommend about 10% negative ease. For an adult foot, an inch or so is about right. If your foot measures 9 inches around, then your sock should be 8 inches around.
There’s a wonderful symmetry in feet. Most people’s feet are the same circumference—or pretty heckin’ close—around their ankle and around the ball of their foot.
This is why socks are typically worked with the same number of stitches in the foot and the leg.
If you look at a sock with the short-row heel, you can see that the sock foot (and leg) are the same circumference all the way along.
Photo by Elysa Weitala From MDK Field Guide No. 11.
While I adore the tidiness and symmetry of this construction, the socks I made this way never fit me right, never felt quite comfortable. It took some measuring and research to work out why: it’s about the shape of my feet. My feet are larger in circumference just in front of the heel. They measure 8 inches around the ball of my foot, and nearly 9 ½ inches just in front of my heel.
If your feet are shaped liked this—and it turns out that many feet are—a short-row heel can create a fit challenge. If you’re wearing the sock with 10% negative ease around the ball of foot and the ankle, then you may well find that the sock is too tight around the heel. What’s more, a sock that’s tighter around the heel is stretched out more, and a fabric that is stretched out a lot wears out faster.
One solution is to choose the size of the sock based on that front-of-heel circumference. This is particularly appropriate if you’ve got shapely and strong legs, as it gives you a slightly larger sock leg. The downside is that, depending on the shape and size of your foot, the sock might be a smidge loose around the lower portion of the foot, and the toe.
If that would bother you, fear not: I have tweaks!
Short-Row Heel Fit Tweak Number 1: Deeper Heel
Sock heels, no matter what the construction, are usually worked on half of the sock stitches. To loosen up the heel and improve the fit, an easy solution is to work the short row heel on more of the stitches. You can easily go up to about 60% of the sock stitches.
Doing this adds depth in the heel diagonal, making it more comfortable, and keeping the fabric denser and therefore longer-wearing.
For example, if you’re working a 72-stitch sock, instead of 36 for the heel, you can safely work the heel over 42 or even 44 stitches. If you’re working a sock on 60 stitches, instead of doing a 30-stitch heel, try it on 34 stitches.
(If you do this, there’s no need to change the toe, keep it set up so the shaping is mirrored on two equal halves of the sock.)
If you’re working plain stockinette stitch, there’s no planning required!
And even if there’s a pattern on the foot/instep, this is still super easy. Just make sure that the stitch count you have on your instep works for your pattern. For example, if you’re working a pattern stitch that requires a multiple of four stitches, make sure you have a multiple of four stitches on the instep. If you’re working a 64-stitch sock, your usual heel would be 32 stitches (leaving 32 for the instep). If you want to do a deeper heel, go with 36 stitches, so that the instep is 28, tidily divisible by four.
If you’re working cuff-down, you don’t even have to decide what you’re doing before you start the sock. If you’re working toe-up, do a tiny bit of planning head: once you’ve completed the toe, determine how many stitches you’re going to use for the heel, so you know how many stitches to work in pattern on the foot.
If the difference between your front-of-heel and ball-of-foot circumferences isn’t very much—say, less than half an inch—then this may well be all the adjustment you need.
But if the difference is bigger, then you might find this hack is not quite enough to make things comfy.
Short-Row Heel Fit Tweak Number 2: The Frankensock
Here’s a neat fix: combine two sizes!
The summary is this: you’ll take two measurements, and then work the toe based on your ball-of-foot measurement, and the rest of the sock based on your front-of-heel measurement.
Step 1: Measure around the ball of the foot, subtract off a bit for negative ease: that sets the size for the toe and lower foot.
Step 2: Measure the front of heel circumference, subtract off a bit for negative ease: that sets the size for the rest of the sock.
For example, if your foot is 8 inches around at the ball and 9 inches around at front of heel, it goes like this: for the toe, follow the instructions for the 7-inch finished circumference; for the rest of the sock, follow the 8-inch finished circumference. If you’re working at 8 stitches per inch, you need 56 stitches for the lower foot and toe, and 64 stitches for the rest of the sock.
Here’s the step by step for making your custom-fit Frankensock.
Starting a couple of inches past the heel, start working some decreases.
Specifically, work the sole-only part of the toe decreases, like this:
K to 3 sts before instep, k2tog, k1; work across instep in pattern as set; k1, ssk, k to end of round. 2 sts decreased.
Work this round every half inch or so until you hit the stitch count you need for the toe. Then just follow the instructions for this smaller stitch count, the smaller size, working until you have the required distance left for the toe. Before you do the actual toe decreases, rearrange your stitches so that they’re evenly split across sole and instep.
Start the pattern for the smaller size. Once the toe is done, then every inch or so work an increase round, until you hit the stitch count you need for the rest of the sock.
The increase round goes as follows: K1, M1R, k to last st of sole, M1L, k1. Work the instep in pattern as set. 2 sts increased.
Then continue, following the instructions for the larger size, working until you have the required distance left for the heel. Before you work the heel, rearrange your stitches so that they’re evenly split across sole and instep. And then just continue with the larger pattern.
In Either Direction
It might surprise you to learn that you can be pretty casual about this. You don’t need to be super-precise with the spacing or placement of the increases or decreases, as long as they’re reasonably spaced out, and you’ve got the larger stitch count at the heel, and the smaller stitch count as you approach the toe.
This does mean that you’ll have different stitch counts as you go—that’s perfectly fine! No one will know, and you won’t be able to tell in the finished result.
But Wait, There’s More
In a future column, I’ll talk about another type of heel: the flap and gusset. This construction is perhaps a smidge more involved, but provides more opportunities to adjust the fit, and the ability to to add reinforcement to make your socks last even longer.