I learned to knit socks in a drugged state. I’d had emergency surgery for appendicitis and, finding myself marooned on the couch, needed something other than the Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” to occupy my attention. Although I’d been a knitter for thirty years, I’d never mastered anything beyond dishcloths and misshapen sweaters. As I contemplated the ugly hospital-issue socks adorning my toes, it struck me: I should teach myself to knit socks. Just two days previously, I’d been churning out festive red dishcloths — festooned with knitted holly leaves — during the family’s traditional Christmas viewing of The Lion in Winter when my brother-in-law-to-be, Thomas (slightly bored, during the lengthy bit in the middle where Katherine Hepburn’s Eleanor of Aquitaine enters her reflective, maudlin stage), asked if I “could knit anything else.” Challenge, good sir, accepted.
The earliest hand-knit socks on record date back to the third century—a pair of grubby red socks hailing from Egypt. They have a bifurcated toe to allow for the wearing of an early flip-flop-type shoe and are housed in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, where they take pride of place in the Knitting Collection. These early Egyptian sockettes must have required extensive planning on the knitter’s part, for even the most straightforward of socks is a complex creature. One must consider the length of the foot, the angle of the toe shaping, the height of the arch, the girth of the ankle, the width of the heel, the wearer’s preference for sock height—ankle or calf length, mid- or high-calf, worn pulled up straight or slouched loosely, and with what kind of outer footwear (boots, shoes, sneakers)? Will the upper part of the sock be visible or concealed?
The preparation stage alone would seem to require college-level calculus. In my narcotically enhanced condition, I knew that such numerical gymnastics were well beyond my grasp. I decided to wing it, even though such recklessness is generally frowned upon by The Knitting Guild Association. I would just cast on and knit.
Once one gets through the lengthy groundwork, hand-knitting socks is a mostly uncomplicated process. “Knitting in the round,” the process by which most hand-knit socks are created, involves the creation of a tube of knitting with no apparent end or beginning. It looks impressive; a magical, seamless construction flowing with sprezzaturra, sometimes from as many as four moving needles. There are no interruptions or pauses when knitting in this way; it’s the knitting equivalent of an 80-person round of “Frere Jacques.” From my sick bed, this seemed like a good idea.
Despite my determination to eschew mathematical preliminaries, I still had one important choice to make: Which needles to use? Unlike “traditional” knitting, which requires the familiar two pointed sticks, knitting in the round requires either four smaller double-pointed needles or one extremely long circular needle. I considered four double-pointed needles for half a minute, but knew there was no way I’d be able to juggle four needles and a ball of yarn in my compromised state. Out came the circular needle—a 40” length of flexible cable connecting two shafts of polished bamboo with sharp ends. With the help of YouTube, I twisted the cable upon itself, turning and twiddling seemingly at random until the cable morphed and took on the vague appearance of odd, misshapen rabbit ears. With the stitches in place, and the cable looking as close to rabbit ears as a hot pink plastic cable possibly can, the knitting could finally commence.
I’d planned a fairly basic pair of socks for Thomas; these days I might even go so far as to call them “vanilla.” A band of knit-one, purl-one rib to create the cuff, followed by endless rows of plain stocking stitch: knit stitch after knit stitch after knit stitch until—if we ignore the enigma that is the heel—I arrived at a length that would encase both the foot and a decent portion of the ankle and lower calf. But I hadn’t accounted for the size of the intended foot. Thomas has smaller feet than most men, but nonetheless, a sock designed to custom-fit his foot was a good two inches longer, maybe more, than one designed for a more diminutive appendage.
Given that the yarn traditionally used for sock knitting is of a fine, slender heft, the average sock takes a lot of stitches. Consider, now, these salient facts: the average adult sock requires a cast-on of between 70 and 80 stitches. In order to construct the leg, those 80 stitches are knit over again for sometimes as many as 200 rows. After we’ve ignored the heel—for we’ve already established that the heel is a law unto itself—we move on to the foot: probably another 100 or so rows at least, let’s say 120 to be on the safe side, and then the final toe shaping. The transformation of one 200-yard ball of sock yarn into one man-sized vanilla sock requires somewhere in the region of 25,000 stitches.
And, of course, there’s never just one sock.
I knit pretty quickly, but my stitches-per-minute never exceeds 50spm, which in this instance translates to an Estimated Knitting Time of 500 minutes—just over eight hours—per sock, if I knit nonstop. Eight hours without pausing, halting to gulp down another Vicodin, sip from a mug of tea, nibble from a slice of toast, rearrange the pillows, or hobble, pillow clutched to tender navel, to the bathroom. Eight hours without succumbing to the viewing temptations of Ina Garten’s culinary delights; eight hours without laying down the needles to uncramp my bent fingers. Eight whole hours. Despite the fact that, once one gets going, simple sock-knitting is mostly mindless work, it is nonetheless equivalent to taking that road trip out west: there is always—always—a compelling reason to stop.
In “Where it Begins: Knitting as Creation Story,” Barbara Kingsolver has a more romantic notion of what it means to knit. Kingsolver’s knitting is of great importance; it is evolution; it is, as her title suggests, creation; it is ultimately inexorable. I doubt that Kingsolver halts for toast breaks once she starts. She tells us that “there’s no stopping”; once that act of creation is underway, it is relentless, her needles “a sturdy raised bed from which she cultivates the lively apical stem of sock-sleeve-stocking-cap,” an organic process that bears little if any resemblance to my clumsy tangle of rabbit-eared cables and messy yarn. My needles are not a sturdy raised bed; they will not give rise to something miraculous or even vaguely wondrous. I doubt that Barbara and I would knit well together. While she created custom-made gloves for “the firecracker nephew with one digit missing in action,” and promised to envelop her best-beloveds in “the bliss of a perfect fit,” I was distracted by a particularly tempting potato dish that Guy Fieri informed me was “off the hook” while wrestling with too many strands of too many things and letting loose gentle obscenities.
Every knitter has a List of Knitworthiness, and Kingsolver’s seems to be populated with friends and relations more than worthy of a bespoke knitted garment. On that front we agree, although I wonder what private merits would gain one inclusion on her list. During the early stages of my knitting career, inclusion on the List of Knitworthiness was fairly straightforward: If you’d shown any degree of interest in my knitting, I’d happily adorn you with a cute scarf or a jaunty hat, possibly even with a pom-pom. Thomas had indeed demonstrated an appropriate degree of interest and had made an impressive leap up the List of Knitworthiness. He had jumped past the blanket I’d promised to my sister-in-law for her new baby, overtaken the purple-and-black-striped hat my brother had requested, and run rampant past the cable-knit scarf I’d been planning to knit for Susan ever since we’d become serious enough to know that our relationship could withstand the Curse of the Love Sweater.
(Let me take a second here to explain: the Curse of the Love Sweater refers to the certain knowledge that if a knitter embarks on a large project, like a sweater, for a significant other, the relationship is doomed to fail before the final stitch is cast-off. Should the relationship survive the knitting phase, the preordained refusal of the recipient to wear the finished garment will hammer the final, inevitable nails into the coffin of the condemned relationship. After a 4:00am conversation during which I had woken Susan from a dead sleep and offered to knit her a replica of a worn-out high-school sweater, we decided that a scarf would be a much safer alternative. But her scarf was now pushed to the bottom of a knitting bag; Thomas’s brief moment of interest had taken precedence.)
My List of Knitworthiness is a transient, unstable being. Engage in anything that warrants a thank-you beyond a 12-for-three-dollars note card, and you’re on the list. But even though I have a yarn stash equal to the task (my stash long since acquired SABLE status: Stash Acquired Beyond Life Expectancy), few of these planned demonstrations of affection come to fruition. I have grander knitting ambitions than I can ever hope to achieve.
But it is equally easy to be removed from the List of Knitworthiness. Some individuals will remain consistently knitworthy, regardless of their actions; others will occupy the list for a short time, never knowing they were once in line for a pair of lace-knit fingerless gloves inspired by the Twilight movies. My sister-in-law, Steph, has a fairly safe spot on the List; she always sends photographs of my niece and nephew wearing my knitted creations and never tires of telling me I could make a killing if I could turn out enough cute fox cardigans—complete with ears and tail—to meet her toddler-group friends’ demands. My parents occupy the list permanently, although they have recently asked to be taken off it. Over the years, I have given them both innumerable pairs of hand-knit socks: Mum has lacy socks with leaves in her favorite shade of green, socks with fox faces in a vibrant copper yarn, at least two pairs of legwarmers, and several pairs of practical socks to wear with her Wellingtons when it rains; Dad owns dress socks in tan, bottle-green knee-length socks with turn-down cuffs to wear with an elastic garter when he’s dressed in his traditional gamekeeping breeches, and thick boot socks by the half-dozen.
“There are only so many socks we can wear,” Mum told me over a Skype conversation last summer, “and it doesn’t help that I have to hand-wash them.”
Most recently, during an inconvenient run-in with breast cancer, Susan’s Cowboy-Boot-Wearing-Surgeon made it onto the list, and I sweetened our interactions with her Highly-Personable-Head-Oncologist with a pair of striped socks in his navy and red med school colors. Since the other chap, the Handsome Oncologist, insisted on committing the fashion faux pas of black socks with brown shoes, the blue-and-white-striped University of Kentucky-themed socks I made for him stand a strong chance of becoming a staple of his work wardrobe. I’m sure that none of these recipients will ever have been gifted a pair of hand-knit socks before, but I have confidence that once they slip those custom-made merino confections onto their tired feet, they’ll be skipping on cushions of air.
After weekly pedicures, hand-knit socks are the kindest thing you can do for your feet. I’m not the only person to think so: Pablo Neruda waxed about the magnificence Mara Mori’s socks, knit with her “sheepherder’s hands.” Those socks were “as soft as rabbits…knitted with threads of twilight and goatskin,” worship-worthy socks which rendered his feet somehow less than they had ever been before, yet simultaneously elevated them to a preeminent attractiveness.
After experiencing my hand-knit socks, I was sure that Thomas would reject all other footwear as unfit for his feet and beg me to knit more; that thought drove me on as I juggled with needles and yarn, progressing past the cuff, past the leg, and down to the enigma that is the heel. Knitting a sock heel requires faith on the part of the knitter. This is where the proverbial wheat is sorted from the chaff, when the serious knitters show themselves to be serious and those destined only to knit scarves and piles of dishcloths are committed to their rectangular fate. The heel is where the sock bends, changes direction; where it ceases to be a simple tube of knitted fabric and becomes a useful garment. The gusset must be of the right depth or the sock will dangle from the body of the foot, and no amount of tugging and pulling will allow the wearer to ease the sock past the heel and onto the calf. The heel is where the success—or failure—of a sock rests, at once mysterious and intimidating. Many a knitter has advanced toward the heel, wits intact, only to find the perplexing combination of knit stitches, slip stitches, wraps, and turns too much for the nerves.
Perhaps it was the Vicodin, but I faced my virginal heel experience with a casual bravado. By this time, I had manipulated needles and yarn into a passable sock leg, and felt unstoppable. I squinted at the coded cyphers. “WS facing,” they read, followed by “sl1, p16, p2tog, p1, turn.” I took a deep breath and complied. There were stitches left on my needle, which didn’t seem right, but I trusted the process and moved on. “sl1, k3, ssk, k1, turn”, and then “sl1, p4, 2tog, p1, turn.” Unconvinced, I halted, sipped tea, and scrutinized the print: I was to continue in this mysterious vein for several more rows, before attempting an elusive maneuver called “picking up the heel flap.” There was nothing to lose; if I’d made a mistake it was already too late. I continued until the instructions for picking up the heel flap were the only thing in my way. I advanced obediently, “using the ndl holding the heel sts (now referred to as ndl 1)” to “pu 16 sts along the heel flap, pu 1 extra st between the heel flap and the instep (to close the gap), pm,” and, finally, “k across half of the instep sts (16 sts).” My Stitches Per Minute took a massive hit and plummeted to an all-time-low of three.
The expected disaster failed to materialize, and slowly a familiar shape started to appear. Could it be the gentle curve of a sock heel? Encouraged, I galloped along without pause, not daring to stop until the last stitch was picked up, the heel flaps were connected to the gusset, the gaps between flap, gusset and upper were safely closed, and I could finally let out the breath I’d been holding, feeling the achievement shiver its way through tensed shoulders and wrists. My inaugural sock neared completion.
Thomas’s first sock had taken almost a week to complete, and I was about to commence the second sock. Aided by familiarity, pride, and continued confinement to the couch, I dodged the dangers of Second Sock Syndrome, and the first sock’s twin fairly rattled off my needles. It was hard for me to say goodbye to those socks; watching Thomas slip what were now his socks into a plastic supermarket bag was almost too much to bear. But I allowed those socks to take flight—I was sure they would be much loved—consoled myself with thoughts of socks to come, and committed Thomas’ socks to memory.
I asked Thomas about his hand-knit socks once, about six months after I had presented them to him. “What did you think of your socks, Thomas? Did they fit okay?”
“Oh, I must have lost them,” he said. “I tossed them in the back of the car and never saw them again.”
He’d recently disposed of the car into which he thought my socks had been tossed. It was old, beaten-up, and had become akin to a black hole. Opening the driver’s door was like stepping over the event horizon; an entropic soup of fast-food bags, empty soda cans, and candy wrappers lurked in the space where the back seat should have been. Somewhere in there, he thought, were the socks I’d made for him.He hadn’t even tried to retrieve the socks before handing his battered car over to Charlie, his next-door neighbor.
Charlie took the Corolla off his hands without raising an eyebrow at what was going on in the back seat; he planned to strip the car down for parts, and didn’t care about a little leftover rubbish. But I find myself wondering, now, if Charlie ever saw fit to clean out the back of that car. Perhaps he stumbled across a pale brown Kroger bag and pulled it out, intrigued by the slight bulge of softness. Perhaps, upon digging through that bag, he discovered a pair of blue and green socks, all the colours of a Floridian sea, knitted into a gift for someone’s tired feet.
Maybe Charlie washed those socks and slipped them onto his feet, just to see if they’d fit, and maybe he wears them still. I wouldn’t know Charlie if I fell over him. But I’d know those socks anywhere.
Catherine A. Brereton is from England, but now lives in Lexington, Kentucky with her wife and two daughters. Among other publications, her work appears in Crack the Spine, The Flounce, and The Watershed Review. Her essay "Trance," published by SLICE, was selected as a Notable Essay in Best American Essays, 2015. She is the current Editor-in-Chief of Limestone, the University of Kentucky's literary journal.