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swatch it

by Clara Parkes

When you think about socks, which do you think about first, the design or the yarn? Chances are, the design. Most people do.

But I hope you give a little thought to the yarn, too. This is the entire premise of my book, The Knitter’s Book of Socks, or as I like to think of it, Socks from the Yarn Up—that yarn makes a huge difference in your socks.

Why? Aren’t all sock yarns pretty much the same? Can’t one eensy-weensy strand of superfine stuff labeled “sock” be substituted for any other, equally eensy-weensy strand of superfine stuff, also labeled “sock”? Aren’t the stitches too small for anyone to notice a difference?

Yes and no. It’s true that usually only a trained eye will notice a difference in sock yarns at such a fine gauge. But we, as knitters, have that trained eye.

To help you understand the impact of twist and ply on socks, I chose to swatch Maria Näslund’s gorgeous Kamala socks. They feature a raised lotus motif of twisted stitches and lacy yarn-overs, dainty rosettes and swooping petals, all against a cobblestoned background of purls. This design has all the elements you’d want to test when trying out a new yarn.

The original pattern calls for Handwerks So-Soft Sock, a fingering-weight four-ply blend of 80% superwash Merino, 10% cashmere, and 10% nylon. The four fine strands are plied together at a medium angle that is neither languid nor springy and perpendicular. It renders the socks with smooth clarity and tidy penmanship.

I started with the easiest, most dramatic substitution. I took away the original smooth three-ply yarn and used, instead, a springy two-ply yarn. This format is quite popular among indie hand-dyers, many of whom use Louet Gems as their base. Instead, I picked Shibui Staccato Sock. This one is made from 65% superwash Merino, 30% silk, and 5% nylon.

Shibui Staccato Sock

Two-ply yarns are like slightly dented calligraphy pens. If you studied a cross-section of this yarn it would look like an airplane propeller—two strands side by side with lots of air in between. In rotation, those two plies hold open all the space around them. Between that open space and the deep shadows produced by the two plies, you get a fabric with dramatic wobble. Pure stockinette tends to take on an almost cobblestoned look.

Shibui Staccato Sock

The high silk content in Staccato Sock accentuates this shadow play, reflecting the highs and lows of the plies with rippling, almost glossy clarity. A yarn such as this one would be ideal if you wanted to tone down the stitch motif and introduce a little static, a little background noise.

From here I added one ply, switching to Socktopus’s springy three-ply Sokkusu. Spun from 100% organic Merino, this yarn manages to combine tight twist and perpendicular ply while retaining Merino’s natural liveliness and bounce. The yarn is hand-dyed, and the color I used—Summer Crush—had a varying saturation that contrasted nicely with the undyed white fibers underneath.

Socktopus Sokkusu

Knit up, the yarn’s perpendicular ply and varying saturations of color produce similarly wobbly stitches to the Staccato Sock, but with slightly fuller and more distinct stitches. If Staccato was the calligraphy pen, Sokkusu was the fine-tipped rollerball.

Socktopus Sokkusu

It’s also helpful to note that, while the Staccato Sock needed its 5% nylon to compensate for the presence of only two plies, Sokkusu thrives without synthetic reinforcement thanks to that tight twist and ply.

Finally, to balance out our experience I picked a sock yarn with the most plies I could find: Dream in Color’s Everlasting. It’s made from eight tiny strands of tightly twisted 100% superwash Merino that have been loosely plied together. The key here is that last part, the fact that the plies have been loosely twisted together.

Dream in Color Everlasting

This resulted in a knitted fabric with extraordinary roundedness and clarity to its stitches—both to the purl bumps and stockinette petals—while also maintaining cohesion. The stitch motifs are clear, yet each stitch blends nicely with its neighbor, presenting Maria’s beautiful pattern in broad, smooth brushstrokes.

Dream in Color Everlasting

See what I mean? There is a lot more to sock yarn than meets the eye.