The best way to knit socks – Prelude to Part Two: My First Heel

Knowing how to knit a sock is like belonging in a special club of knitters. These knitters are daring enough to wield toothpick size needles and thread-thin yarn to knit a tube. And no, its not just a tube but a tube that magically changes directions halfway through.

A basic knitted sock

One of the many socks I’ve made

When I decided that I wanted to join this special club nearly a decade ago, Youtube was not full of instructional knitting videos. There were very few resources for a self-taught knitter like me. Nowadays if you want to learn anything about knitting, even auxiliary skills like how to read a chart, you key it into Google and get a host of eager instructors. I did it just now and found this fabulous video by Knit Purl Hunter. If I sound like a batty old lady on her porch made of dial up modems and AOL discs, I apologize and I am nothing but grateful for how much the internet knitting community has grown.

There I am, ten years ago, searching the internet for a primer on how to knit socks and I found Knitty’s Socks 101 guide. It is a wonderful introduction to sock knitting and I introduce it to everyone who asks me how they can learn.  I sat crosslegged on the floor of my room with the pattern pages and I cast on with the thinnest yarn I have ever used in my life.

I’ll skip the frustrations I had with the first few rows of the cuff. They’re naturally fiddly since there aren’t enough stitches yet and the needles just flop about. The leg was a joy to knit, just round and round feeling clever in tube-making.

When I got to the heel, I made sure I had told everyone in my family that I was turning in for the night so I knew no one would bother me.  I knew I would need absolute concentration for the heel. It is a magical thing, the heel. When I read Yarn Harlot’s words years later, I was glad that I wasn’t alone in being in awe of sock heels.

Turning the heel is a mythic act, one that sock knitters speak of with reverence

-Stephanie Pearl-McPhee, Knitting Rules

If you want to feel like a genius among your friends, study for many years about an abstract and complex subject, say, dark matter theory and discuss it without end. But if you ever want to feel like a wizard, turn a heel. You can pretend your needles are magic wands even. I do sometimes!

But, the post heel-turn glow quickly dissipated. I thought that the turn would be the hardest part, but I was dead wrong. What I read next on the pattern page was “Pick up stitches along the side of the heel flap”


Pick up the stitches…along the side of the heel flap. I read it to myself so many times, slowly like how I speak to little children when I’m frustrated with them. My imaginary all-knowing knitterly self shook me at the shoulders saying “Pick… up… the… stitches!!! Its not a difficult concept to grasp!”

But.. what does it mean, pick up?… like picking up a box? picking up kids from school?

What? What?

I had no idea what to do. The only things I had ever known about stitches was how to cast them on, how to knit them, how to purl them, how to cable them, how to create holes with yarnovers and how to bind them off. I never picked up a stitch, unless it was because I dropped it down the rows. But I hadn’t dropped any and no where in the pattern did it tell me to drop stitches.

What? What? What???

I wanted to cry. My needle had just a few stitches on it because that’s what you have at the end of a heel turn. I searched the internet. I looked through my knitting book, the only one I had. I couldn’t find anything to specifically show what picking up stitches meant. Maybe I was not meant to be part of the special club. Doubt came over me along with self-pity. Ugh.

I put it down for the night and later on I ended up getting through this step by piecing together what I could from what I read and what I thought a sock should look like. Perhaps this is the first time I’ve ever unvented something. (Thank you Elizabeth Zimmerman for that notion.  The quote here.)

My first sock had incredibly large holes down the side of the flap. Since then, I’ve perfected my technique. Hint: I knit the picked up stitches through the back loop to twist them and close the gap.

Comparing Standard Knit and Twisted Knit stitch

Berroco’s blog has an excellent post on the difference between knitting through the front loop (standard) and knitting through the back look (twisted). Photo by Berroco

For socks that I’ve knit after this first pair, I faithfully use the flap heel. I love the process to knitting it. When I get to the bottom of the leg, each row of the heel flap  crescendos because I know the heel turn comes next. The magic happens and then I pick up the stitches like a boss. I hardly think about how lost and frustrated I felt, but I always remember how clever I felt when I figured it out.

The induction into the sock knitters club happens automatically after you finish your first sock. It doesn’t even have to be a pair. After that I felt like I could tackle anything. I’ve knit a few different heels since then to broaden my horizon. I’ll tell you more about it in Part Two.

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