Friday, 28 August 2015

The Thing About Socks

The thing about socks is -- well, I'm not really sure what it is. I have knit hundreds of pairs of socks and I know hundreds of knitters who have done the same. Despite the seeming monotony of turning out all these thousands of pairs of socks, not one of us is bored. Investing in sock yarn companies has continued to be a wise financial decision. There's something about socks that's special.

It could be because they are so portable. Dedicated sock knitters love the way you can tuck a sock into your bag no matter where you're going. A sock, no matter how close to completion, never becomes unwieldy or enormous or spills off your lap onto the floor of the waiting room or muddy bottom of the bus.

It could be because socks are so practical. Shawls are for special occasions; sweaters for cold days when they match your outfit; hats, scarves, and mittens are destined to stand between us and weather -- but socks? Socks are everyday usefulness. Everybody needs them, from newborns to centenarians. A commonplace pair of handknit socks meets the human gold standard for belongings, being both beautiful and useful.

It could be because of socks' enormous variety. You can make cable socks, plain socks, socks with ribbing that goes all the way to the toes. Socks with intarsia, socks with Fair Isle bands, socks in intricate lace form top to toe. Get silk sock yarn that knits up all day by itself into fetching patterns, sock yarn with mohair, or nylon or cotton. Feeling tired of tiny needles? Make boot socks from worsted weight handspun. Make tiny ankle high shorties or make a commitment, dammit, and knit a pair of knee-high kilt hose for your favourite kilt-wearing darling.

It could be because socks are cheap. Not as cheap as picking up five pairs for $10 at your local discount store, but cheaper than sweaters or afghans or scarves. A pair of socks takes only a skein or two, a finished project with a minimum of yarn investment. You don't have to save up for months to buy the materials and even an outrageous sock yarn stash can fit in the most modest of closets. (You might not be able to get anything else in there, but the stash will fit.)

Or it could be because socks are so intimate. Socks go on over bare skin, the only thing between the feet of your heart and the big cold world. Your rounds of stitches cradle the recipient's feet on their journey over the planet. Socks protect sensitive toes from cold floors and wrap them cosy before bedtime.

These are all really good reasons to knit socks, but they aren't the reason I knit them. I knit them because they are an unmistakable expression of love, simply because they do not last forever.

Used as it is intended, a sweater can be with you your whole life. Knitted blankets are passed down as heirlooms and sweet tiny baby things you make for your own little ones can be tucked away until your babies have babies of their own. Not socks. Used as intended, even with careful hand washing and conscientious care, a pair of socks has a lifespan. They can, of course be darned. (I use my mother's method: I hold the holey sock over the garbage bin and loudly exclaim, "Darn it," before dropping it in. I'm a knitter not a sock repair person.) Socks can be humoured, but in the end -- which isn't very far off, let me tell you -- socks will be walked through. You can get reinforcing thread; you can knit in wooly nylon; you can carefully work a double thickness into the heel or toe, but socks are doomed.

This means that there's a lot of love in a pair of socks. The first one is a triumph of knitterly cleverness. The knitter casts on the right number, not so many that the socks fall down, not so few that they cut off circulation and turn your toes blue; then he or she works ribbing or picot or something to keep them from puddling unattractively around the ankles. There's the jaunt down the leg, perhaps with entertaining experiments in Fair Isle or cabling or lace panels. The heel flap, solid and practical -- and then that miracle, the cunning three-dimensional heel (far simpler than it looks). The knitter picks up stitches for the gussets and then cruises down the foot (note: Marry small-footed persons), decreasing for the toe and grafting it shut, since the best socks are seamless. Feel the love? You should, since the sock knitter is only halfway there. The second sock of a pair becomes a deeply personal testament to stick-to-itiveness as the knitter conquers the dreaded second-sock syndrome, surmounting the urge to cast on something new and exciting, something that doesn't come in boring, lacklustre twos. When it is all over, when the socks are done, a knitter will have invested an average of 20,000 stitches in the name of love and warm feet, knowing full well that the socks will wear out.

The knitter then gives the finished socks to a worthy recipient who will, the first time that he or she puts them on, undergo a transformation, a moment of sacred joy, swearing off machine-made socks forever. And then -- in a celebration of the knitter's art, a festivity of yarn, an homage to knitting in the round and needleworkers everywhere -- the recipient will walk big honking' holes in them.

That's love. That's why socks are special.

Stephanie Pearl-McPhee, Yarn Harlot: The Secret Life of a Knitter

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