How to knit traditional woollen socks for beginners

There are many ways to knit socks. Toe-up, two at a time, flat using two needles, and magic loop.

This step-by-step guide shows you how to knit a pair of socks the traditional way. Why?

Because this is a time-proven method that will fit anyone. You can knit your own socks in the colour of your choice; one or more.

In the illustrations I’ve signified each step with a change of colour, to make it easier to see the different sections of the sock.

What do you need?

A good starting point for wool sock size is your shoe number. You need a different amount of yarn for small socks than for large ones, for basic women’s short-sleeve socks, one skein of sock yarn is usually enough.

In addition to yarn, you need sock knitting needles. I prefer the metal ones because I’ve found the bamboo ones need to be very worn to allow the yarn to slide easily.

The instructions on the yarn usually give a needle recommendation, but before starting work you can us a swatch to check your knitting tension.

Different people have different tension in knitting: some looser, others tighter.

Your personal knitting tension can produce a different knitting density with the same needles as in a given pattern. If your tension differs a lot from the one indicated, the finished product will be a different size than in the instructions.

If you tend to knit loosely, you can use smaller needles than recommended in the pattern or for the yarn. If you knit very tightly, you can use larger needles to get closer to the right size.

The thickness of the yarn will also affect the finished size of the piece, so take this into consideration when choosing yarn.

Socks I knitted in Manos Del Uruguay, Algeria yarn, colour: Locura Fluo
Socks I knitted in Manos Del Uruguay, Algeria yarn, colour: Locura Fluo

Information about this knitting pattern

Yarn I used:

  • Manos Del Uruguay Alegria (75% superwash merino, 25% polyamide)
  • colour: 7105 Malvin
  • 100g / 405m

This is a hand-dyed yarn from Uruguay, which is a non-profit organisation.

Manos del Uruguay is a non-profit organisation, organised in 12 cooperatives, each one is a workshop located in a small village of Uruguay’s countryside. 

From their website: “That’s how Manos del Uruguay was founded, to give Uruguay’s rural women jobs, that would mean, not just an income, but also an opportunity to personally develop and gain independence, keeping their roots and traditions, close to their community and families.”

This yarn looks beautiful on the skein, but I’ve never used a yarn dyed like this, so I was curious if the clarity of the colours would hold up once it was knitted into a finished product, or if the colours would just swallow each other up.

I crocheted a quick swatch to see, and quickly decided that it would look great as socks (but I don’t want to use it for some of the sweater projects I’m planning):

(And yes, this is crocheted, not knitted because I was mostly wanting to see how the colours work and I find crocheting much faster.)

Double-pointed knitting needles: 3-3,5 mm (or depending on your tension).

These are long, slender needles with points at both ends. They are usually sold in sets of five. Socks are knitted in the round, distributing stitches among four needles and knitting with the fifth. This method allows for seamless knitting, ideal for socks.

Gauge: 21 stitches in stockinette stitch = 10 cm [3,9 in]

*-* = repeat instructions between asterisks

Size (for adults): S(M)L

Begin by casting on

Cast on 40(48)56 stitches and divide stitches onto four knitting needles, 10(12)14 on each.

You always switch rows between needles I and IV.

Traditional wool socks are knitted in the round with five needles

1) Knitting the cuff

Begin knitting in the round by using needle V. As you knit the stitches from needle I (onto needle V), you’ll end up with a free needle.

Ribbing is a pattern in which vertical stripes of stockinette stitch alternate with vertical stripes of reverse stockinette stitch. Knit in ribbing until your cuff measures 12(14)16 cm [4.7(5.51)6.3 in].

It will look like this:

2) Begin the heel

Knit the stitches from needle I onto needle IV, so that needle IV has 20(24)28 stitches. Turn the work.

Leave the other stitches (needle II and III) to wait and turn the work. If you feel like your needles are going to slip out while those stitches wait, you can transfer them onto stitch holders or some scrap yarn.

Here I’ve knitted the stitches from needle I to needle IV (I’m making a size L)

3) Reinforced knit for the heel

Typically the heel is a region that sees the most wear and tear, and this helps to prevent holes. I always recommend knitting a reinforced heel with slipped stitches.

Reinforced stockinette

Round 1: (purl side) slip 1 stitch (without purling it) and purl all stitches to the end of the row.

Round 2: (knit side): *slip 1 stitch (without knitting), knit 1 stitch* repeat 9(11)13 times.

Repeat these two rounds (1 & 2) a total of 10(12)14 times, until you have 20(24)28 rows in total. Finish by knitting the purl side once more.

Your work will look like this:

4) Turning the heel

Continue working in the same reinforced stockinette as before. Knit from the right edge until the left needle has 7(9)10 stitches left.

Next, slip, knit, pass over (SKPO) – you do this by moving the next stitch onto the right needle without knitting it, knit the next one, then move the first stitch (which you didn’t knit) over the one you did knit (and slipping it over and off the needle in the process to form a decrease).

Turn work.

5) Purlwise row

Slip the first stitch without purling, purl 6(6)8 stitches, then purl two together. Turn work.

6) Knitwise row

Slip the first stitch without knitting, knit until you’ve got 6(8)9 stitches left and SKPO.

Continue in this way, so that the stitches on each side continue to decrease, while the number of stitches in the middle stay the same; 8(8)10 stitches.

When you run out of stitches on the side, divide stitches onto two needles; 4,4(4,4)5,5 stitches. This is what you should have before dividing the remaining stitches onto two needles:

7) Picking up stitches on the left

Use a free needle and pick up 10(12)14 stitches from the left edge of the heel flap + 1 stitch from between the needles. Knit the stitches you picked up onto needle I.

Knit the stitches on needles II and III.

8) Picking up stitches on the right

Use a free needle and pick up 10(12)14 stitches from the right edge of the heel flap + 1 stitch from between the needles. Knit the stitches you picked up onto needle IV.

9) Knitting the gusset

Once you’ve picked up all stitches, you can start knitting the gusset. This boils down to decreasing until you’re back to your original number of stitches.

Continue with 50(58)68 stitches in stockinette and decrease as follows:

  • At the end of needle I, knit two together (K2TG)
  • At the beginning of needle IV, SKPO
  • Knit one row in between without decreases

Repeat decreases on every other row, until each needle has 10(12)14 stitches, stop doing decreases. It will look like this:

10) Knitting the foot

Once you’ve finished your decreases for the gusset, simply continue in stockinette, until the foot measures 15(20)25 cm [5.9(7.8)9.4 in] from the heel, or the little toe is covered.

11) Knitting the toe

At the end of needles I and III knit two together (K2TG) + knit one (K2TG, K1).

At the beginning of needles II and IV, first knit one, then slip, knit, pass over (K1, SKPO).

Decrease on every other round, until you have 5(6)7 stitches left on each needle. After that, decrease every round. It will look like this:

12) Finishing

When you have a total of 8 stitches left, cut the yarn and thread on a tapestry needle.

Slip each stitch in turn onto your tapestry needle, removing knitting needles as they come free.

Pull the yarn through the loops and weave in the end (I like to weave it in on the inside of the sock).

Congratulations, you’ve just finished a traditional wool sock!

Do you need to block wool socks?

In my opinion, no.

Of course, you can if you want to, but they’ll get washed soon enough, so I just tend to start using them straight away.

This pair was practically snatched off the needles as soon as they were done!