Friday, December 18, 2015

The Christmas Socks (a Tale of Woe), Part 1: False Starts and Yanky Ribbing

Some day I will have an organised Christmas. I will plan and make (or buy) all gifts well in advance. I will pre-bake batches of cookies to be stored in the freezer and pulled out on the big day. I will choose and sign Christmas cards - and address and stamp the envelopes - in November.

Some day my house will be company-clean all the time. I will brush cobwebs out of crevices all year long, and wash down the miles of woodwork on a monthly basis, instead of waiting until the weekend before Christmas, when pride (or shame) compels me to remove the dust of centuries months.

Some day I will sail serenely through December, secure in the knowledge that I am cool, calm, and ready for the hordes of loved ones that descend each year upon Micawber Towers to celebrate with us the birth of our Saviour.

Some day....

~ ~ ~

The above is a very False Start indeed. Let us now return to the Real World, where I -- even I, who have never yet completed a Second Sock -- am knitting away furiously at the first of a Pair of gift socks.

In the front of my mind I'm counting stitches (3 gray, 1 blue, 1 gray, 4 blue). At the back of my mind are various uneasy thoughts, all clamouring for attention: You need to post that free ornament pattern! You should have finished that Binding Off with a Hook series weeks ago! What about the 2015 wildflower list? Have you ordered gifts for the two great-nieces? Isn't it time to make the next batch of caramelcorn? Have you edited the Aged P's Christmas letter? Don't forget he needs help with his Christmas shopping. What about the latest call for magazine submissions? When are you going to finish those samples? Aack! A dpn has fallen out again. That clock can't be right - is it really that late?

The last-minute scramble to make Christmas gifts is an almost annual event at Micawber Towers. Usually it's my own fault: I suffer from a boundless optimism about time (how much I can get done in it, or how much is needed for a particular task); I also have delusions about working best under pressure.

But sometimes the pressure is caused by outward forces: the family name-drawing doesn't happen in a timely fashion, difficult gift requests are made, the gift theme (this year it's Made in the USA) is awkward or time-consuming to fulfil.

Which brings us to The Socks. My giftee requested "something knitted, Fair Isle, in pale grey - either big socks to wear around the house, or mittens." Not too tall an order for a Time Optimist. I can knit stranded colourwork. I've completed a sock in my lifetime. This gift request is not beyond my skillset. And good, reasonably-priced, quick-to-ship American-made yarn can't be that hard to find.

Cue the sinister music....

I will spare you the agonising details of time spent floundering in the Swamp of Indecision (located somewhere between the Valley of Decision and the Pit of Despair), of my struggles with a) finding yarn (thanks again, Amy, for pointing me to that sale); b) choosing motifs; c) deciding on the number of cast-on stitches; d) fitting the motifs attractively into the number of stitches available. (A reasonable person might have simply chosen an existing pattern to follow. I suffer from Designer's Itch and am therefore not reasonable.)

Let us turn from these scenes of laborious research, and jump ahead to the happy time when our heroine takes her needles and newly-acquired, luscious all-American yarn in hand. A rainy Sunday, Christmas music playing, lights shining softly from the tree by her side - what could be more pleasant?

The ribbing alone nearly made me give up. *K2, P2. Repeat from *. It should be simple, but for a beginner-to-intermediate, less-than-perfect-tension knitter like me, it's a recipe for wobbly columns and loopy frustration. This problem is not solely my own; from the wealth of tips available online, it would appear to be almost universal. Solutions range from the simple (knit more tightly) to the extremely creative (see this post by Techknitter for some examples).

First I tried knitting more tightly. It gave me a nice tidy ribbing, and I galloped happily on to the motif rounds. Then I noticed that the cuff edge was rather small - so small, I was afraid it would cut off the giftee's circulation. I also ran up against the stumbling block of Motifs Not Matching Up at Round Starts (seen on the right edge in photo below):

Version 1 - designed to cut off circulation at the ankle.

There followed much research and experimentation with tricks to overcome the motif problem, another lengthy flounder through the Swamp of Indecision, and at last a determination to redesign the motifs, allowing for a line of plain stitches down each side of the sock to minimise the offset at round ends.

So much for Version 1.

Then I had the bright idea of adding 8 stitches to the total count, as well as a rolled edge for comfort (an excellent idea culled from the pages of Techknitter's blog). I will call this Version 2.1. (No photos were taken; the human spirit can only stand so much.) Stitch tension was so relaxed on 2.1 that my dentist mistook it for a sleeve when he walked into the exam room and found me knitting away in the dental chair. (We've reached Tuesday, by the way. This is an Epic Sock.) Rip went Version 2.1.

Then came Version 2.2 - 4 stitches smaller, and back to the tighter-than-tight gauge on the ribbing. At first it wasn't so bad - the cuff now looked comfortably human-ankle-sized - but the sock body ballooned out into unreasonable proportions, and the new stitch pattern wasn't working out as well as I'd hoped. Several froggings later, snip went the scissors and Version 2.2 was thrown onto the Pile of Humiliation. Back to the Swamp of Indecision for Mrs. M.

Version 2.2 - leg nearly large enough for an elephant.

After strenuous thought (and a few desperate prayers), our intrepid knitter made the bold decision to reduce the stitch count to its original number, and to try to work the ribbing at a reasonable tension, using a compromise fix of her own devising. (She calls it Yanky Ribbing.)

"I may not be able to knit/purl with perfect tension, but by golly I'm going to show that yarn who's in charge - if not during the stitch, then after," she said to herself.

(Dear me - I seem to have strayed into the third person. What the heck - it's my blog. I can do what I want. "Within reason," whispers the soft yet relentless Voice of Syntactic Conscience....)

Every technique needs a good mantra, and here's the mantra for Yanky Ribbing: "Knit, knit, yank, purl-with-a-yank, purl." (If you pause for a beat after "yank" and "purl", it pairs rather nicely with the rhythm of "The Little Drummer Boy.")

"Knit, knit, yank" explains itself - knit one stitch, knit the next, then give the working yarn a tug. "Purl-with-a-yank", though mysterious-sounding at first, is equally simple: purl the first purl, but before you slip it off the needle, tug the working yarn again. Then work the second purl. Keep a moderately firm tension throughout, paying careful attention to the places where you switch needles.

Inelegant, you say? Bad knitting practice? Perhaps. But it seems to work. Here is Version 3 at the time of this writing:

Hope dawns....

You will notice that not only has our knitter produced a decent-looking cuff of reasonable size, she has also made significant progress into the charted portion of her project (after frogging and re-working a few inches when she found that some of her floats were improperly woven).

She now feels cautiously optimistic, and is not without hope that this Tale of Woe may yet turn into a quiet song of Triumph....

~ ~ ~

We now return to the first person.

I've been tempted to name this sock "The Doctor", for it's had about as many transformations as that fabled character. (And, as with him, some versions have been more appealing than others.)

My watchwords now are Patience and Perseverance. All I have to do is finish the Fair Isle-style ankle portion, decide what heel turn to use, figure out how to strengthen the sole for around-the-house wear, determine the proper length for someone who wears a size 8.5 shoe, and finish the sock. Then make another one. And block them both.

I can do that by next Friday, right?

~ ~ ~


  1. OH yes! the second sock will go smoother. YOu are on YOUR WAY!! with a whole week to go!

  2. I adore the colors you are working with. So awesome that you all are having a Made in America theme. I so love that. I have made only one pair of socks, but seeing this, makes me want to make more. I have a friend who does two at a time sock making....yeah, she's kind of a show off! Wishing you and your family a very Merry Christmas sweet friend. :)

  3. I only made 2 Christmas gifts and one of them is so homely I'm almost afraid to give it. I have no clue how to make socks, knitted, crocheted or otherwise, so you're ahead of me. Merry Christmas!!!

  4. It's nice to know I'm not the only crazy person who after saying I'm not falling into that trap every November , falls head first into Christmad gift making. I did do some baking early but a big mouse got into the freezer and ate everything....o would love to be ahead of the game...,one day! Your sock looks great!!

  5. You had me rolling on the floor laughing .. not really.. but I got a huge kick out of this story. And that... my friends... is why I have only knit one pair of socks and I was ready to strangle my darling little sister who insisted I must knit.. a.. pair.. of.......socks. You're a brave woman.
    *M*E*R*R*Y* * *C*H*R*I*S*T*M*A*S*!*
    ((hugs)), Teresa :-)

  6. Love this post. Many of us have been in a similar situation, except I didn't even try to speeding socks. Rest easy, the second sock will be much'll know exactly what do do! You can do it! I actually enjoy knitting socks now.

  7. Hahaha! I'm laughing out loud. This sound so familiar to me. I expecially love this sentence: "I also have delusions about working best under pressure." Take it easy. All the best. Regula :-)

  8. It's looking good, well done for persevering, and of course you can do it by Friday. Some day I will be all of those organised things as well, I know I will. Just not this year. Good luck with the second sock. CJ xx

  9. You are so brave to actually attempt to design a sock at this late stage I'm having problems completing a straight forward no nonsense pair of socks why do the stitches keep falling off the dpns! I'm pleased I'm not alone my preparations have hardly begun and I have actually gone beyond the panic stage, if it doesn't get done then so be it. You will complete the socks and they will be perfect. :) xx

  10. Thank you for the post. I was feeling that I was the only rat racing toward the holidays with handmade in mind. I found a wonderful pattern for a star wars fair isle hat on ravelry......and it was free. Frantic knitting commenced so that I would be finished by release date of movie. I did not frog anything when I noticed that the hat was looking ...big. I am now the proud owner of a navy and white, fair isle, tea cozy. (version 2 , after madly reworking pattern, was better but still unacceptable to son) sigh! Hope you have a good holiday and that your sock continues to go well.

  11. Patience and Perseverance - a newly discovered novel by Jane Austen;in which our heroine battles to steer her family through the terrible travails of the Christmas Sock.

    I'm so glad I'm not the only one who, despite vowing every year to be uber prepared and prepare hand made wrappings and cards, decorations, gifts and food; I am still panic buying presents and rushing to post things off in time. :-)

  12. So enjoyed this post. I go through the same process of ignoring every pattern I come across as not quite right... Then spend way too much time improvising one. By the time I'm really ready to start on my project, an afternoon has flown by. It's the journey, it's the journey. Right?

  13. P.S. Love the "yank" technique! I believe it will solve my wonky ribbing because my purl stitches are the problem!

  14. Dear Sue, I hope that composing this good post was cathartic for you as it was for me :) I am cheering you on to a fine finish! xx

  15. You make me laugh, best of luck on the finish. Someday I will be organized and actually enjoy Christmas, for now I will just be exhausted by the time it gets here.

  16. Now I completely understand why you've been so quiet... or should I say, contemplative. :) I like the changes you've made. It's going to be beautiful! THEY are going to be beautiful! I have faith you will lose out on all kinds of sleep to meet your deadline, and you will have one very happy gift recipient. And a clean house to boot!

    I just finished and mailed my final gift quilt of the year, and I wish for you the feeling I feel right now - SOON!

  17. You've got it! If possible, jump on the Cannondale for a ride when the pressure bug starts to squeeze its way in.

    Go USA!

  18. O Ambitious Woman! At least you are out of the Swamp of Indecision. (I like that term and realize that I've spent the last year or so there. Maybe now that I know that, I'll begin to find my way out?) The current version of sock looks adorable.

  19. Hello Mrs Micawber! You should write a book in the best English (British) writing style!
    I loved reading about your struggle to cope up with all the things which need to be done.. on time. Well, I gave up long ago and do things as they come :D Maybe its wrong.

    Anyway! Have happy holidays with your family! Enjoy being together!

  20. Oh dear, the pressures you put upon yourself! I hope you remember to take a photo of the pair of socks when they are done. Really, though, would it matter if one sock was a WIP if you promise to finish it by sometime in Janauary?

    Good luck. x

  21. Gosh, your perseverance is very impressive. They are going to be beautiful socks, the colours are perfect. I do hope the knitting goes smoothly from now on.
    I'm dreadful for leaving tbings until the last minute and for being over-optimistic about time - one day, I'd love to change character completely and sit back and relax through December 9but I suspect that's unlikely!). Wishing you a wonderful Christmas 2015. Juliex

  22. very pleased to visit this site and joined commented in his
    obat penghilang mioma uteri tradisional


I love comments! Speak on....