The Comfort Zone

After spending the summer knitting wall art whose sole function was to hang from a wall and be looked at, I finally finished those works and returned to knitting that keeps people warm and answers my own aesthetic and technical questions. My comfort zone. Not to mention the comfort of the wearer’s feet.

My younger daughter has moved to the Frozen North to begin her medical residency, and my way of channeling my grief over the loss of her delightful daily presence is to knit socks for her. In my view, socks should be pretty, but more importantly, they should be a functional, sturdy, durable, and well-fitting layer of protection against cold and abrasion. In my opinion, the socks that achieve that the best are stranded socks that provide two layers of yarn from leg to toe, with a sturdy, hole-free heel. I’m disenchanted with heel flaps and turned heels that require picked-up stitches along the sides of the flap because the picked up edge is a line of weak points, especially at the stress points nearest the bend where the ankle meets the instep. I like the kind of heels that use increases, decreases, and short rows to achieve the shape of the foot.

I decided to use a pattern in a booklet I’ve had lying around for years, ever since I took a workshop with Katherine Misegades at the 2010 Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival. The workshop taught how to make a line of increases and then decrease them away in a gusset that shaped the heel of a sock. At the time the workshop went right over my head, but I still had the booklet Katherine gave us at the workshop, and the Peaks & Valleys pattern was the one that seemed to have my daughter’s name on it. The pattern relied very heavily on its chart, with minimal verbal instructions, and the rows and stitch squares weren’t numbered. But I am pretty comfortable with charts, and the charts were an adequate guide most of the time. When they weren’t, Ravelry bailed me out.

The gussets in the pattern were formed by mirrored increases that spread out in opposite directions. On the side of the heel that was knitted first, the pattern asked you to do increases that started at the left-hand side of the gusset and grew outward toward the right, by first knitting the stitch that formed the edge of the gusset and then making a new stitch by knitting into the stitch below. On the opposite side of the heel, you knit into the stitch below the edge stitch and then knit the edge stitch itself. When the sock is worn, the first-knitted side is on the left side, where the edge stitch delineates the instep and the gusset stripes go rightward toward the back of the heel, and the second-knitted side is on the right side of the heel and the gusset stripes go leftward from the instep line toward the back of the heel.

The second step in forming this kind of heel is to decrease the gusset stitches until you have the original number of stitches again. This is done by knitting back and forth on either side of a group of stitches in the center of the heel, and decreasing the stitches by doing an SSK decrease (slip one stitch knitwise, slip the next stitch knitwise, put the left needle into the front loops of the two stitches and knit them together) on the stockinette side, then wrapping the yarn from front to back around the next stitch to close the hole, turning the work and slipping the wrapped stitch to the right-hand needle, and purling through the center stitches to the next stitches that needed to be decreased, purling them together, and wrapping-and-turning. I found the pattern’s verbal instructions to be confusing, so I went to Ravelry to see if people who had previously knitted the pattern had encountered the problem and explained how they resolved it, and also to look at their photos, since the pamphlet lacked close-up photos of the heel construction. There I found my friend Nancy’s project from 2012. Nancy is one of the smartest knitters I know, so it was comforting to see that she had also been confused by the instructions. She provided information from a now-defunct website of the designer’s that explained that both yarns are used in the wrap-and-turn. She also said she had gotten past the confusing instructions by ignoring them and doing what made sense. Thanks to Nancy’s photos, I could see what the concept was. It produced a firm and tidy heel shaping that I have decided to adopt as my go-to heel from now on.

Detail of Strong heel construction
Shaping the heel by decreasing the stitches between the center of the heel to the edge of the instep. Note the yarns wrapped around the last stitch on the left needle. The just-completed row was a purl row, and now the wrapped stitch will be slipped to the right needle and the next row will be knitted, up to the last slipped stitch, which will be knitted together with the next stitch in an SSK decrease. The stitch after that will be wrapped with the yarns, and the work will be turned for a purl row.

But it would have been nice if the verbal instructions had been clearer. I would have been happier if the instructions had explicitly said that there should be 12 increase rows. I counted only 22 gusset rows in the chart and belatedly noticed a tiny, faint increase symbol in the chart on the row where the decreases start, after I had done the increase anyway as a fudge because my stitch count wasn’t coming out right without it. Despite the difficulties caused by the taciturn instructions, I ended up with a really nice heel, and I decided to immediately embark on a pair of socks for myself that would apply the method to a different chart.

Gussets in completed Katherine Misegades sock pattern

Front and side of Katherine Misegades' Peaks & Valleys socks

The chart I chose was from a beautiful Finnish sock pattern with a top-down construction and a heel with decorative sole shaping, formed by a series of decreases from the sides of the sole converging at the end of the heel. It’s a really pretty heel and well worth doing the pattern as written, but I was on a mission to solidify my grasp of what I now knew as the Strong heel. Someone on my group had explained that “Strong” wasn’t descriptive, although the construction is as strong as a sock heel can be, but eponymous, named after its inventor Geraldine Crawford Strong about 15 years ago. Apart from the prettiness of the chart, which has flowers growing out of a pinstriped background in V-shaped lines, the stitch count is 72, same as the socks I had just finished, so I wouldn’t have to change the math of the Misegades pattern in order to apply the method to these new socks.

All summer long, while I did my exercises on the floor of my living room, I was looking at some yarn randomly stored together in a Ziplock bag, right at eye level. One of them was a pink and white Wollmeise multi colorway named Törtchen, meaning “cupcake”, a very juvenile, hyper-feminine, little-girl-toy-aisle kind of color arrangement, the kind of thing that serious adult women love to hate. In fact, the white-based Wollmeise colorways are usually my least favorites because I find it hard to use white effectively, and in this colorway the white is combined with the cultural baggage of pink. So I spent my time on the floor thinking of ways to make that pink and white mean something different than the little girl aisle of the Walmart toy department.

There were some dark reds jumbled up in the same bag as the Törtchen, so I checked their value against the colors in the Törtchen to get a sense of what would contrast and what would blend in, because I wanted enough contrast to enable the patterning to read, but enough blurring to make it interesting for the eye to work out the design. I found several dark reds to create a gradient. I especially like them together in the cuffs. Sometimes the reds in the background color were almost the same as the reds in the Törtchen, which complicated the knitting a bit, but I liked the effect. This was a usage in which the white was essential to the messaging of the colors, not only because it provided the required contrast to the pink-red gradients in the background and the multi itself, but also because it made the pin striping of the patterning look like batik. For me, this was a very successful use of white.

Use of pink-white colorway with red background

I struggled a bit to apply the Strong heel to this chart. I found the halfway points in the chart from which the pinstriped gussets could grow, but I kept getting disoriented about which stitch on either side to use as the base of the increases, and the direction in which to send them. I also wasn’t clear about how many increases I needed and how many rows were required to get the gusset to fit comfortably while also enabling me to decrease back to the original stitch count. My first sock fits a bit tightly, although I think it will loosen with wear. I did several iterations of knitting and tinking (knitter jargon, the word “knit” spelled backward to indicate unknitting your work stitch by stitch), and some fudging at the end of my decreases, before I got through the heels. They looked acceptable, but somehow they didn’t mirror each other. There was some part of the formula that I wasn’t getting.

Error in knitting Strong heel gussets
One of these heels is not like the other, to paraphrase Sesame Street
Stranded flowers on sock sole
I may have messed up the direction of the gusset increases, but how about the cute flowers on the sole?

I was lying awake in bed early one morning waiting for the alarm to go off, trying to work out why my numbers weren’t working out when I knew I had 36 stitches for the instep and 36 stitches for the heel. I was mentally adding up the stitches in the components of the heel, right side, middle section, left side, when I realized what my logical flaw was. I had been using the wrong part of the chart to determine the starting point of the gussets and to calculate the number of increases, increase rows, and decreases. I was using the edges of the heel section as my starting point, when I should have been counting outward from the center of the heel, and I had failed to account for the fact that my middle section was an odd number and therefore my number of heel stitches had to be an odd number! Well, I felt stupid! (I should not feel stupid. Scientists and mathematicians always have theoretical notions of what should happen in their concept of a real-life situation, only to be shown in experiments that they have failed to consider a factor that seems obvious in retrospect. That’s why scientists and mathematicians do experiments.)

What I now understood was that the heel uses approximately half the stitches of the total number of stitches on the needles, but the precise number of stitches in the heel is determined by the size of its middle section, the part that doesn’t get decreased. You count outward from the edges of the middle section toward the instep so that you have the same number of stitches on either side, covering half or almost half of the total number of stitches. That last stitch on either side is where you build your gussets.

So I had a total of 72 stitches. The middle section of the heel was 11 stitches, where I knitted my flower motifs. Half of 72 is 36. Subtract 11 from 36, and that’s 25, which does not divide evenly, so I made my heel 35 stitches: 12 on the right, 11 in the middle, 12 on the right.

The increase stitch is made by knitting into the stitch below the existing stitch. The existing stitch has a straight vertical direction, whereas if you first knit the stitch below the existing stitch and then the stitch below it, the increased stitch will angle off to the right, and if you knit the existing stitch first and then the stitch below, the new stitch will angle off to the left. You can decide which side gets which increase, but the symmetry comes from one side getting one increase and the other side getting the other and doing that consistently, which I had failed to do in my second pair of Strong heel socks. In my third pair of socks, I found that I could maintain the color alternation better by giving the right side the knit-below-knit-stitch increase and the left side the knit-stitch-knit-below increase. That had the pinstriping going rightward on the right side and leftward on the left and gave me a nice distinct heel “flap” with symmetrical gussets forming similar triangles on either side.

So the number of increases is the same as the number of stitches to the right and left of the middle stitches so that you are doubling the number of those stitches. In my case, that was 12 sets of increases, every other row, for a total of 24 rows. After the last set of increases, you knit to the middle section, knit those stitches, then SSK the next two stitches and wrap the two yarns (if you’re stranding) around the next stitch so that you bring the yarn/s around the stitch from front to the back and around to the front. Then turn and slip the wrapped stitch and purl back to the other side of the middle section, purl the next two stitches together, and wrap the next stitch the same way. Turn, slip the wrapped stitch and knit back to the wrapped stitch, and ssk it and the next stitch together, wrap and turn. And so forth until you have decreased all of the gusset stitches and are back to your original stitch count.

As I mentioned, I knitted a third pair of socks using my new understanding of the heel structure. It is a perfected version of the second pair, with a longer leg and better math and consequently a better fit and complete symmetry. It’s for the daughter in the Frozen North, where, while I was knitting the socks, the temperatures were in the 30’s Fahrenheit while ours were in the 80’s with humidity to match. I decided to use another white-based Wollmeise multi, consisting of white, pink, yellow, and green, paired with a deep teal. The effect is no longer quite so Easter egg, which was the goal, and more like a garden. There are no flaws in the construction of these socks. It’s not modest to say that, but it is factually true. These socks are technically perfect.

Perfected version of Strong heel socks

Stranded flowers on sole of Strong heel sock
Huge feet, tiny hands

Front view of Strong heel socks

Now I’m working on a fourth pair of Strong heel socks, and this one is for myself. I’ve been interested in patterning done with right angles, so I’m doing a 72-stitch stranded sock patterned with colored rectangles whose dimensions are 4 stitches X 6 rows each. I chose those dimensions to accommodate a Strong heel with a 12-stitch center and a 24-row gusset. I’m working on the first sock, approaching the toe as I write this, and I’m not totally satisfied with it. I’m having trouble getting the tension to lie evenly, although perhaps that’s because it’s hard to make 4-stitch squares lie flat in stranded knitting, and not some fault in my stranding. My needles might be a big large too. Maybe it will all work out in the blocking. But the heel looks great. I have mastered the Strong heel.

Strong sock heel placed in checkerboard patterning

Four different socks made with Strong heel

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6 thoughts on “The Comfort Zone

  1. I always enjoy your posts. Your socks are beautiful. Your knitting, machine or otherwise, is way beyond my skill level at this point. However, I am interested in combining hand knitting with machine knitting. Thanks.

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    1. Thank you! I’m interested in combining machine knitting with hand knitting too, mostly because I am a lot better at hand knitting than I am at machine knitting. The project I have on the machine now will have a hand knitted yoke.

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  2. What a nice job figuring out a fairly complicated heel structure! My favorite heel (that fits my heel the best) is in these socks by Tiina Kuu: https://www.ravelry.com/patterns/library/kanteletar . I also live in Minnesota and love wearing my handmade socks every day in winter. I’ve come to like the simplest socks the best–a smooth surface (no cables or lace and definitely no beads!) and thin sock fits in all my shoes and doesn’t bother my feet. For me the thicker socks are for wearing at home only. I’ve given up doing any kind of strengthening of the heel (e.g., slipped stitches in the back) because I’ve never had a sock wear out from the areas that are usually strengthened. My socks always just wear out in the bottom, first under the ball of my foot and then under the heel. I’m also lazy about washing them and just throw them in the washer with the rest of the laundry. I usually get a good 3-4 years from a pair of socks before they’re done, and by that point, they are both worn out from the bottom and starting to felt elsewhere. 🙂

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    1. The Strong heel is only complicated until you figure it out, then it’s simple and logical! I should have mentioned it in my post that Tiina Kuu is also the designer of the socks whose chart I ganked for my second and third pairs of Strong heel socks. The pattern is “Call Them Cherry Blossoms”, and I believe it uses the same heel you like in the Kanteletar pattern. I appreciate the virtues of plain vanilla socks but can’t knit them because it’s too much unrelieved stockinette for me. I also throw my socks into the washer and dryer with the rest of the laundry because that’s why God created superwash yarn.

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  3. Absolutely lovely…and as clear as ancient Greek not having the pattern in front of me. But happily I saw the completed socks, and they are magnificent! Maybe one day you’ll teach a Strong heel workshop….!!!

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