How I knit socks

After making several pairs Ive converged on a technique that differs significantly from the patterns I started with, so it seems worth writing it up.

What you need

Sock yarn: I use a 4-ply yarn made from 75% Merino wool and 25% nylon. Im slightly allergic to wool, but Merino seems to be OK (its lovely and soft). You need the nylon content, otherwise they wear out really quickly. A pair of socks in the smaller of the two sizes given here uses about 60g of this. A longer pair in the larger size uses 85g.

Needles: I use a set of 2.5mm double-pointed needles. I prefer KnitPro Karbonz, which dont feel cold to the touch, and are just slippery enough without being too slippery. They come in sets of five. I find, however, that to make the gusset (the wide bit around the ankle) its much easier to use six needles. Unfortunately this means buying two sets, but spares come in handy sometimes anyway. You also need one ordinary straight needle in a slightly larger size, just for casting on. I use a 3mm needle for that.

Tapestry needle: You just need this at the end to do the Kitchener Stitch at the tip of the toe, and to weave the ends in.

Sizing, comfort and fit

The pattern here is based on a module size, which Ive called n. Socks to fit me (average-sized female foot, shoe size EU 39 / UK 5.5) are done with n = 15. To fit my husband, a man with long feet (UK shoe size 11), I use n = 18.

Socks should have negative ease. This means they should be slightly stretched when you wear them, not loose. Also, its very important that the top of a sock is stretchy, because you have to get your whole foot and ankle through the top to put the sock on.

To make a sock stretchy I use a 2×1 rib for most of the knitting. However, I stick to stocking stitch for the sole of the foot (for comfort, because its smoother) and I use a slipstitch rib for the heel flap (for durability). I start with a tighter band of 1×1 rib at the top, to stop the leg sagging.

The method

This is a top-down sock pattern. I use ordinary knitting abbreviations.

Working top down makes it easy to try on an unfinished sock to make decisions about length.

The leg

Cast on 4n – 4 stitches (thats 56 stitches for the smaller size or 68 for the larger one). Use a very stretchy cast on, and do it with a 3mm needle (one size larger than youll be using for the rest of the work). I use the Estonian (or Latvian) Double cast-on. Instructions for this are in Leslie Ann Bestors excellent Cast On/ Bind Off book, which I recommend. Using a suitable cast-on is extremely important. Socks that arent stretchy enough at the top are unwearable.

Join the stitches into a round, and start working on five 2.5mm double-pointed needles (so you have n-1 stitches on each of four needles, and one needle more to work onto).

Top edge of sock on four double-pointed needles
Top edge of the sock: the start of the 1×1 rib

Do about 12 rounds of K1 P1 rib to start with. The exact length of this ribbed section is a matter of taste, of course. At the end of this, increase by four stitches, evenly distributed around the sock (one for each of four needles). Now you have n stitches on each of four needles.

Change to 2×1 ( K1 P1 K1) rib, and continue in rounds till the leg is long enough. This length is also a matter of taste. For my socks, I like to make the leg about 40 rounds long (plus the dozen rounds of 1×1 rib at the beginning). My husband likes longer socks, so I do 60 rounds for his.

When thinking about the design, I find it really helps to consider the 2×1 rib as “K1 P1 K1” rather than “K2 P1”. If you do that, then you naturally place the repeats of the pattern symmetrically. Later on, when youre doing the shaping, it comes out looking neater.

The heel flap

Leave 2n of the stitches (half the total) on two of your needles. Youll be joining these stitches in again later, after youve turned the heel. You could put them on a stitch holder if you prefer, but I find with the Karbonz needles, which arent too slippery, I can just leave them sitting there. These stitches are the ones that will be at the top of the foot.

Continue working to-and-fro on the other 2n stitches, in slipstitch rib. It goes like this:

  1. (right side) [Slip one purlwise, K1] repeat to end
  2. (wrong side) Slip one purlwise, [P] repeat to end

Repeat those two rows n + 1 times (so thats 16 times, or 19 times, depending which size youre doing).

Turning the heel

This is the fun part. Continuing on the heel flap stitches, starting with the right side, do the following four rows:

  1. (right side) Slip one purlwise, Kn, SSK, K1, turn (leaving n – 4 stitches on the left needle)
  2. Slip one purlwise, P3, P2 tog, P1, turn (leaving n – 4 stitches on the left needle)
  3. Slip one purlwise, K to one stitch before the gap, SSK, K1, turn
  4. Slip one purlwise, P to one stitch before the gap, P2 tog, P1, turn

Then keep repeating Rows 3 and 4 until you have used all the stitches, ending with a wrong-side row.

To confirm this is working, check when you turn at the end of Row 1 that you have n – 4 stitches remaining on the left needle. Similarly, when you turn at the end of Row 2, youll have n – 4 stitches left. So the heel is symmetrically placed under the foot.

The gusset

Now we join it all back up into a round. This is the stage where I find it really useful to work with six needles.

You just finished the heel turn with a wrong-side row, so you have the right side facing, and you should now have just over n stitches on the needle (its going to be an even number of course, so for n = 15 you have 16 stitches at this point, and for n = 18 you have 20). The detail of what you do here depends on how tight you want the foot. When working with n = 18 I usually reduce the width of the sole of the foot to 18 at this point by doing two more decreases; for n = 15 I leave it at 16. In any case, start by knitting across those stitches (across what will be the start of the sole of the foot), putting in the decreases at the start and end, if you want to do them.

Next, pick up and knit n stitches, evenly distributed along the side of the heel flap. This is what will become the edge of the gusset at the right-hand side of the sock. These go on your second needle.

Now work the 2n stitches you had parked earlier, at the top of the foot, continuing the 2×1 rib pattern. This naturally goes onto two more needles.

To complete the round, pick up and knit another n stitches, evenly distributed down the other edge of the heel flap, heading back towards the sole of the foot. This naturally goes onto a fifth needle, which is why I think it works so nicely to have six at this point (five for the five sections of the round, and a sixth to work onto).

Now you have approximately 5n stitches (with a bit of fudging of the numbers at the sole of the foot). Do a complete round to establish the pattern, continuing the 2×1 rib from the top of the foot, and also doing the sides of the gusset in 2×1 rib to match, but keeping the sole in stocking stitch (K only), so that it will be smooth under the wearers foot.

Continue in rounds, keeping the ribbed pattern going, but decreasing by one stitch on each side of the foot on every other row. Make the decreases look pretty by being consistent about how you do them. I like to do them at the top of the gusset, using K2 tog at the right-hand side of the sock and SSK at the left-hand side. But there are several other ways to do this. You could experiment with having the decreases at the bottom edge, and using a different decreasing stitch.

Do that until you are back to 4n stitches (the same number as on the main part of the leg).

The foot

At this point I like to go back to the normal set of five needles. The two that hold the stitches that began on the sides of the heel flap now only have about half-n stitches on them, which is too few to work with. So I transfer half of the (approximately) n stitches of the sole of the foot to each of them, and were back to a symmetrical round based on four needles, with a fifth one to work onto.

Continue in rounds with no further decreasing until the foot is as long as you want it. I suggest you measure against a pair of socks that already fit the intended wearer comfortably. For mine, I make the entire foot (including the gusset) 62 rounds long (counting from the edge of the heel flap). For my husbands, it’s 75. But, really, you should measure this for yourself. Most people have one pair of socks that fits them already.

The toe

Start at one side of the sock. Make sure you are in the right place, otherwise the toe wont be symmetrically placed! Work in rounds as follows:

  1. [K1, SSK, K(2n – 6), K2tog, K1] twice
  2. K
  3. [K1, SSK, K to 3 stitches before the middle, K2tog, K1] twice
  4. K

Repeat Rounds 3 and 4, either two or three more times (its two more for the smaller size and three for the larger one). Then repeat just Round 3 (in other words, decreasing in every round) until you have just fewer than n stitches left (it has to be an even number, so for n = 18, stop when you have 16 stitches; for n = 15, stop at 12). At some stage during this, you might find it convenient to reduce the number of needles youre using.

Finish the toe by grafting the ends (the modern name for Kitchener Stitch). This is well described online at Tin Can Knits, and in the Cast On / Bind Off book that I mentioned before.


For my green socks, I used a mixture of three different yarns; I alternated them more or less, trying to randomize it a bit while doing the first sock, and then copying what Id done for the second one. For the heels, toes and cuffs I wanted an effect like the points of a Siamese cat, using the dark green as a highlight. However, I hadnt enough dark green yarn when I got to the toes, so they are in one of the other colours.

I knitted the blue-and-magenta socks from a single space-dyed yarn that I bought at a craft fair a couple of years ago.

Two pairs of socks knitted according to the pattern given here, shown on my feet and my husband's
The legs arent tight at all, but we find they dont sag or fall down in wear. When photographed, these had already been through the washing machine several times (though, of course, on the Wool setting and using a wool-friendly washing liquid, not ordinary detergent).

[Updated 6 July 2022 to clarify details of the heel turn and stitch count for the sole of the foot, and 8 Mar 2024 to add a link for the grafting technique.]

Old front page

It’s time to remove the word cloud from the front page, if only to stop people asking why Downham Market is so important to me (actually it isn’t, it’s just a place I passed though on a long walk more than ten years ago). Here it is, for nostalgia’s sake.

Words from my blog
See my blog for details

[Word cloud made using Wordle.]

Register to vote leaflets

It’s urgent to get people registered to vote before the election. Here are some leaflet designs that I’ve modified to add the important deadline dates. The originals were copied from (I hope she doesn’t mind). I’m not proud of my edits, which were done in haste, but time is of the essence, so here they are in case anyone else can make use of them.

Register to Vote Leaflet page 1
Register to Vote Leaflet page 2

A plea to LibDems in Cambridge

Your publicity says that Brexit is the most important issue facing the country. I agree wholeheartedly. I have been campaigning with you against it.

Here in Cambridge we are sure to get a passionately pro-EU MP. The only realistic candidates are both of that opinion. I think the better choice is Daniel Zeichner MP because he’s a voice of reason within the Labour Party, and as an MP he can have the most influence on the leadership. You prefer your own man. OK.

But given the scale of the disaster facing the country, the question of who gets to be MP for Cambridge is just not that important. What matters is to win as many seats as we can from the parties who are set on steering us towards the edge of the precipice. We can all do that best by directing our efforts to other constituencies.

As a Labour Party member with experience of the party’s organizational techniques, I can be most useful in a place where there is a straight, winnable fight between Labour and the forces of darkness. The obvious choice for me therefore is Peterborough. So today I have contacted the secretary of Peterborough Labour Party and volunteered my services.

I urge you to do likewise: go outside the city and direct your efforts where you can make a real difference on the most important issue. Please give it some serious thought.

Update: the excellent Get Voting tactical voting dashboard from Best for Britain supports my view. It recommends “either Labour or Lib Dem” in Cambridge (and it notes the “current Labour MP’s excellent record on Europe in Parliament”). Meanwhile for Peterborough it urges a Labour vote, and in both South Cambs and South-East Cambs it recommends Lib Dem.

Fairphone 2 proximity sensor

I’ve learned the solution to an annoyance with the otherwise lovely Fairphone 2.

The proximity sensor wasn’t working properly for me. The problem seemed to get worse after I replaced the top module for a camera upgrade, but it had never been good. Taking a call almost always resulted in unpredictable weirdness—menu settings changing at random as I accidentally touched the screen, which should have been disabled, but wasn’t. Several goes at calibrating the sensor didn’t fix it.

A conversation with another user (there are other users!) gave me the solution. He pointed out that I was holding my phone in my left hand. Doesn’t every right-handed person? Apparently not. I’ve been holding phones in my non-dominant hand all my life, using the other to write notes or whatever, but it seems I’m not typical, and the proximity sensor on the phone is asymmetrically placed, at the top left corner of the phone screen.

So I have retrained myself to hold this phone in my right hand. Problem solved—it now works reliably.

In Cambridge, Vote Labour

Furious, yesterday evening, to see Lib Dems all over the streets of Chesterton like a rash, throwing huge efforts into — what? Into trying to unseat a passionately pro-European MP! One who is a voice of reason in the Labour Party nationally, one who cares about all the best things they care about (electoral reform, green issues, refugees, …).

Just a few miles outside this city in any direction are Tory-held constituencies where the only possible contender is a Lib Dem, and where huge swathes of the population voted Remain — where there is some chance that they could use their energies to achieve something worth achieving, to help in some small way to avert the coming national disaster.

Well, I guess they’ve achieved one small thing: they’ve prompted a moment of clarity in this muddle-headed and dithering erstwhile Labour activist. At last I have seen one thing clearly enough to know which side of the fence I’m on. Daniel Zeichner in Parliament is an indisputable force for good. If the election nationally turns out the way the polls suggest, his presence in the PLP will be even more important than it is already. We need him to help pick up the pieces and rebuild a credible opposition. Don’t mess that up, please! In Cambridge, vote Labour.

Doing something about this blog

I’ve been a bit busy since – well, since 2012 actually. I’ve only posted here once since I resumed working in the computer industry, and that was only because I couldn’t let Darcy’s death go by without comment. I haven’t even updated my CV or LinkedIn to reflect the new reality. I have a one-track mind, I guess: I either live my life or I write about it.

This blog needs picking up and giving a good shake to straighten it out: a mobile-friendly redesign, a replacement of the photo (I don’t actually look like that any more). A slight change of direction; maybe a few posts about software engineering, even? With a bit of tagging and filtering to allow people to skip them if bored. Maybe next year.

Meanwhile, though, there is one thing I’ve been meaning to put online somewhere ever since it happened, and here’s the place to put it. So I’m going to post it here, and if I can work out how, it’ll be backdated to June, which is when it actually happened.


She was a rare thing

Darcy reclining on her amplifier

She was a rare thing, fine as a bee’s wing
So fine a breath of wind might blow her away

I’ve been slow getting started on this, but it’s been a month, and I can’t put it off any more. It’s a hard one to write because I want to say it well enough.

This was Darcy—my Miss D. Of all the cats in my life, one of the two best beloved. Born July 2000. Killed by a dog on 15 July 2013 in the garden of the Green Dragon, well within her own territory.

She was a grand adventurer and a great climber. I’ll never forget the first time we saw her dancing along the ridge of the roof, and I’m glad I was never personally a witness to her trick of dodging outside the parapet of the footbridge and trotting over the river along the outer edge. She adored boating, too.

Despite her great spirit and her grand ideas, she was a delicate, fairylike little cat. But she was astonishingly robust. She never knew a day’s ill-health—well, she once had to be anaesthetized for the removal of a grass-seed she’d incautiously attempted to swallow, but apart from that it was, literally, never.

She hated to be shut in, and I always knew there were dangers out there. I tried to protect her as far as I could (that’s why it isn’t generally known that her real name was Brandywell Tenderberry, and that she was a chocolate-shaded silver Burmilla, descended from Grand Champions).

She knew there were dangers, too, and she was careful in her own way. She would meet us at the footbridge when we walked home from town, telling us off roundly with vociferous miaows for having strayed beyond what she deemed to be safe limits. She would permit us to pick her up and carry her home so long as there were no bicycles or cars around, but she preferred to trust her own judgement if there were.

Her attitude to the rest of the animal kingdom was basically hostile. She saw them all as either something to chase or something to run away from. She was deeply suspicious of dogs and certainly wouldn’t have courted her own disaster. But she was a free spirit. ‘Maybe that’s the price you pay for the chains that you refuse.’

She loved people, though—all people: friends, neighbours, strangers and even small children. She had a magnificent, luxurious purr, and she bestowed it lavishly on all her admirers. She spent most of the nights of her life on our bed, often sharing a pillow, sometimes curled up on top of one of us (on her last ever night, it was me) and sometimes more decorously arranged between our feet.

She was a joyously enthusiastic carnivore—red in tooth and claw—so I can’t truthfully claim that the manner of her death was unfitting, though it was horrible and upsetting (but mercifully quick). Her victims must have numbered in the hundreds, and she’d killed a mouse that very morning. But at least she usually ate them afterwards—and a cat can’t live without meat.

She was a rare thing, fine as a bee’s wing
I miss her more than ever words can say
If I could just taste all of her wildness now
If I could hold her in my arms today…..
I wouldn’t want her any other way

(Lyrics by Richard Thompson, though it’s Christy Moore’s version that stays with me, and I’ve taken the words from his site. The rest of the song doesn’t fit what I wanted to say here, but that chorus came rushing into my head four weeks ago, as I stood by our sundial looking down at the fresh little grave, and it’s been there ever since.)

‘Girnham’ College

[I wrote this introduction for The Scholarship Girl at Cambridge, which was published by Girls Gone By in August 2012.]

‘Girnham’, despite its name, is not a hybrid of Girton and Newnham. The establishment that Josephine Elder describes so vividly in The Scholarship Girl at Cambridge is firmly rooted in the reality of just one college. All the details, from its location on the Huntingdon Road and its architectural eccentricities (the tower, for example) to its celebrated Fire Brigade, point only to Girton—the college that, under its own name, the schoolgirls Monica and Francesca have already visited in The Scholarship Girl.

To my surprise, reading the descriptions of college life in this book have brought memories of my own years at Girton in the late 1970s flooding back. Despite the huge differences in our worlds (my generation’s experience of sex, drugs and rock’n’roll would of course have been unimaginable to Monica and her friends; on the other hand, the Fire Brigade was disbanded in 1932, so our opportunities for extraordinary heroism were much more limited than theirs) an astonishing amount apparently did not change at all between her day and mine.

The social lives of the students as described in this book—the ebb and flow of friendships, the gatherings in one another’s rooms for work, for fun and for serious talk, and the expeditions by bicycle into town for lectures, for exams and for punting in May Week—were immediately familiar to me. Even the antics of the hockey team in Chapter X ring absolutely true (in my day the Boat Club were the usual suspects, but the behaviour was strikingly similar), though I was amused to read that in the 1920s they seem to have been fuelled by nothing stronger than cocoa. And the unconcerned and rather dismissive attitude (p100) of some students to the funny old ladies (as they appeared to them) who had played such an honourable part in breaking down the barriers and paving the way for their own, much easier, path towards educated adulthood is exactly what I remember. Some things will always be true of a group of intelligent not-quite-grown-up girls, and it’s a measure of Josephine Elder’s skill that they are so recognisable to one who was a student two generations later.

I wasn’t anything like Monica. In fact, I can see more of my young self in the awkward outsider, Hester Williams, than in any of the confident, clubbable public schoolgirls. I met many just like them, though. Clearly Hester is of a type that was not Josephine Elder’s cup of tea, but I was delighted, in reading to the end of the book, to see how fair-minded the author is. Every character is shown to contain something of value, and all are improved and enriched by the influence of ‘Girnham’. That was my experience, too.