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Darning socks to avoid knitting new ones...

November 29, 2013

Unlike many knitters, I do not love to knit socks.  I have nothing against the 4-ply yarn, or even the 2.5mm needles.  On occasion, I have even been known to enjoy knitting that first sock.  Its that second sock that always causes me problems.

The official term, I believe, is "Second Sock Syndrome" - you know you have it when you knit your first sock pretty quickly, but then let the second one loiter on the needles for weeks, months, or even years in my case.

Second Sock Syndrome is a recognized condition.  Google it, and you'll find several websites offering suggestions on how to fight and possibly even cure it.  2-socks at once, usually using the Magic Loop technique, seems to be the most common remedy.  My solution (aside from avoiding socks entirely!) is to knit only heavyweight socks, usually with our Custom Woolen Mills' 2-Ply Mulespun yarn (Or variations thereof - The pair in this photo was made with 100% wool yarn from Sunset Farm on Saltspring Island, which I am pretty sure was also spun at the mill in Carstairs, AB!).

Fortunately, Mike happens to LOVE these thick socks, so if I knit them he's more than happy to wear them.  Unfortunately, Mike also tends to wear the heels through after a year or so of wear.  Some people might use this as on opportunity to knit new socks - I mean, really, 2 years is a pretty good lifespan for a pair of socks (these socks were knit in the spring of 2011).  And one could argue that the more socks you have, the less often you wear each pair, meaning that they should last even longer.  Me?  I choose to just darn the socks.  Finicky, yes, but still so much easier than knitting a whole new pair!** ;) 

The secret to my approach is to catch the socks before they develop a proper hole.  Holes are hard to fix. Thin spots just take a bit of time and some know-how.  Today I thought I'd share some of that know-how, so that you can avoid knitting new socks too use it to fix your own socks!

On the right is a close up of the heel on Mike's sock, with the thinning area highlighted.  I'm sure a podiatrist could use this to analyze Mike's walking patterns, but all I'm concerned about is the fact that this section is thinner than the rest of the heel.  To be fair, this wear spot isn't very bad just yet... but fixing it now means less work later on!

To darn the hole, I take a length of matching yarn (or not-matching, if you want to highlight your hard work!), thread it through a needle, and get to work on the swiss darn/duplicate stitch embroidery technique.  If you haven't done this before, the Purl Bee blog has a fantastic tutiorial to help you out.

I prefer to knit cuff-down, heel-flap socks, which means that the sole was worked from the heel to the toe.  Align your sock with the heel facing you, and start in the lower corner of the heel (Left vs. right doesn't matter - go with what's comfortable for you).  Leaving a 6" tail on the inside of the sock, bring the needle up at the bottom of the 'V' in your stitch and then across the back of the stitch directly above.  Pull the yarn through, and then feed the needle back into the bottom of the stitch (exactly where the needle came out the first time).

Following the directions in the tutorial, cover each existing heel stitch with a stitch of the new yarn.  From experience, I've found that it works best to work back and forth across the whole width of the heel, from the tip of the turned heel up to the wider part of the foot.  I do this with all types of swiss darning embroidery, whether its for reinforcement, or for decoration -left to right on one row, then right to left on the row above, and so on.  I find this approach keeps the stitches neat and tidy, and relatively flat overall.  I'm not sure why it works best, but I think its because it emulates the creation of the knit fabric.  In knitting, you cast on at the bottom, and work upwards, creating one row at a time; when embroidering, the lower stitches are gradually being covered up by the higher ones, creating an even, smooth fabric.  It's not wrong to work the Swiss darn from top to bottom, but I find it doesn't usually look as good.

Keep working at it, swiss darning over every stitch, until you've covered the entire heel area - this is where a few extra stitches in time really do save nine!  If your yarn runs out, pull your 4-6" tail to the inside, and continue with a new piece (you can weave in all those ends later).  Here's a pic of my half-finished white sock:


and of the sister socks to this pair, with both heels mended using a similar, but not identical yarn.  I knit these socks in 2010, and fixed them in 2011.  As far as I know, they're still going strong... (Note to self: check on these socks tonight, just to make sure!)  ;)

My lackadaisical sock darning technique should work on any hand-knit socks, regardless of gauge.  Just remember that you have to do this before any holes appear - Swiss darning only works when you are reinforcing existing stitches.  If you already have a hole, you will need to use a more traditional (and more complicated!) technique, in which you first create a gridwork of yarn, and then go back and weave yarn over the gaps - this tutorial explains it fairly well.  I have never used this other method.  It looks hard, whereas my way is actually pretty easy... not to mention much faster than knitting a whole new pair of socks!  One day I may have to try it, but for now, I'll just keep checking Mike's socks when I take them out of the washer!  (Yes, I machine wash my 100% wool socks - cold water in an over-stuffed, coin-op washer, and hang to dry.  Over time, the socks will full ever so slightly, but we haven't had any felting accidents.  Please don't try this with your sweaters - it might make me cry).


**If you also dislike knitting socks, stay tuned... in the spring I plan to tackle Elizabeth Zimmermann's Moccasin socks, which have a removable - and therefore replaceable! - foot bed.  If the heels or toes wear out, you just take off the foot, knit a new one, and then attach it to your existing cuff!  New socks, and half as much knitting - sounds perfect to me!