I should say a few things before I begin: I love knitting socks. I have knit numerous pairs in varying yarn weights, with different stitch motifs. My favorite pairs have been knit with a heavy fingering two-ply 100% superwash merino wool. I find them to be most comfortable after the have been machine washed and machine dried. I make my knits work.
Now, with that out of the way…
Hand knit socks are not warm. Not inherently, anyways. Using super thin yarn in varying stitch motifs somehow creates a surprisingly thick but oddly not warm sock. They also don’t stay on very well. Yes, you can shape a sock perfectly to your foot, but that is fiddly, not easy, and doesn’t allocate for stretch over time.
Of the numerous sets of socks I have knit, only 1 pair stays on well and fits my foot nearly perfectly after numerous wears and washes (Skew!). Only 2 pairs are warm enough to wear without another pair of socks underneath, both of which are simple: either 2×2 ribbing, or stockinette, both with 100% superwash merino in a two-ply.
And what do I mean by “warm enough”? I mean that no only will they keep my feet warm, but they will help to warm them up after they have become freezing blocks of ice. I live in Chicago. I make my knits work hard.
And most knitted sock patterns, while adorable, make for horrible socks. I myself am guilty of this in designing sock patterns. I blame being raised in California. I didn’t need warm socks until now.
As I’m typing this to you, I’m wearing a pair of hand knit socks over a pair of knee high purple and gray striped socks from Target. The hand knit socks were made on my trip from California to Chicago in a moving truck, and they’re made with 100% superwash merino wool, two-ply, sport weight. They’ve been machine washed and dried. And yes, they’ve pilled like crazy, but they haven’t felted at all and they manage to keep in warmth.
I’ve learned over time that a four-ply superwash merino sucks for a sock. It never relaxes and doesn’t puff up to keep your toes cozy. Sure, the stitches last longer, but what good are socks that last forever if they don’t keep you warm? Nada, I say. Single ply pills far too much and the socks wear out too quickly to be worth the effort of knitting. Two-ply. That’s my jam.
I’ve also tried blends: superwash merino and nylon, the ever-popular merino, cashmere, nylon, and a few others with silk, bamboo, or other exotic fibers. And while the stretch from the nylon is nice, and the luxurious feel of the cashmere is amazing, I really think that socks work best for warmth, comfort, and durability if they’re knit with a superwash merino.
Sure, you could blame my gauge or needle selection as the reason why my socks aren’t warm enough. But believe me, I’ve tried everything. I went through an entire year that I dubbed “Sock Quest” where I tried to find the best gauge, yarn, and stitch motif for socks. It was very scientific.
So in the winter when it’s -2 F outside with a “feels like” temperature of -19 F, I don’t reach for my hand knit socks (not even the two warm pairs). I reach for my bad ass snowboarding socks that are an inch thick, or my hiking socks from REI.
I love knitting socks. I love the art of intricate stitch patterns, and I love the insane yarn colors people make available for things that you wear inside of shoes. I love the myriad techniques available for toes, heels, shaping, casting on, binding off, and grafting. Everything about knitting socks I love… except for wearing them when my feet are cold. And I suppose I could try reversing the way I think about socks, but I don’t know how successful I would be. I don’t like wear shoes or socks unless I really need to, so the idea of knitting something for my feet to wear when I didn’t have a real need is totally bizarre to me.
My favorite socks? These guys. Plain old 2×2 ribbing, knit with a two-ply 100% superwash merino, hand dyed by me a few years ago, and knit up with a US 1 1/2 (2.5mm) needle using an afterthought heel and plain old wedge toe. Machine washed and machine dried. Cozy, warm, amazing. All of my other socks? Not worth the effort. It kills me to say that, because some of them are truly beautiful, but they just don’t do it for me.
Edited to clarify: this isn’t just regarding lace socks, I’m talking about knit socks in general, regardless of the motif. I’ve knit several pairs each with ribbing, lace, cables, etc and none are warm. Except for those mentioned above, which happened to be ribbed.