Archive for August 19th, 2009

The Great Sock Rant of '09

Sharon August 19th, 2009

This was actually one of my first posts on the blog, ever.  Inspired by my desire to produce a pair of socks that are impressively elaborate enough and without any mistakes (I tend to be very lazy about mistakes I don’t notice immediately, unless they are egregiously annoying ;-) ) for the fair, I thought I’d re-run it while I focus on produce in need o’canning.  This was originally titled “The Great Sock Rant of ’05″ so you can get a sense of how long it has been.

Ok, I’m going to violate a personal rule against over-generalizing by saying that everyone preparing for peak oil ought to know how to make socks. I mean everyone – that means gentlemen as well as ladies, the crafty and the uncrafty, rural and urban. Why? Because the one category of clothing that someone is bound to run out of sooner or later is socks – the simply wear out too fast. And they are totally essential – ask anyone who has ever walked 30 miles in boots without socks how the experience went. Or ask someone living in a cold climate who doesn’t have good socks how many toes he has left after working outside all day in -20 degrees.

Even if you live somewhere warm and your bare feet are as hard as diamonds, I’m going to suggest you know how to make socks anyhow – first of all, hard times make a lot of refugees, and none of us knows for sure where we’re going to end up. Second of all, it is a simple, useful skill that could make you some money with little outlay of cash. For the disabled, elderly, pregnant and those tied down by infants, sock knitting is an essential service that you can provide and be useful with. With practice, it can be done by the blind or in very low-light situations, making it possible to do useful work while sitting around and singing, talking, but without extra lighting. It is a lot of fun, almost everyone can do it, and it can be done almost anywhere. You need not have a farm, money, lots of free time, expensive tools or anything else to start.

Basic information – socks are made from yarn. You could sew fabric socks with cloth and elastic, but the quality is not as high as knitted or crocheted, and they wouldn’t stay up as well or wear well. Now where do you get yarn after peak oil? Well, first of all, you can store yarn for sock making. Socks can be knitted from any natural fiber, although wool, hemp and cotton make the most sense for most people – they are natural and breathable. Most sock yarn is pricey, and has some nylon in it to give it extra strength. If you have the money, you can buy that stuff, of course, but otherwise, you could easily buy any cheap wool, cotton or blend yarn and store a lot of it.  Or you could pick out yarn from old sweaters, wool socks, etc… 

Or, you can make your own yarn. Yarn can be made from a large range of animal fibers – urban dwellers without easy access to sheep, for example, might try using dog hair (although I’m told that it smells like wet dog when wet ;-P, or keeping a few angora or angora cross rabbits for meat and fiber). Neither angora nor dog will last as long as wool or cotton, but it is better than nothing, and both are tremendously warm. You also could buy roving or raw fleece from someone with sheep, or some raw cotton. You might find some to practice on at but probably would get the best deals buying direct from shepherds or small scale cotton growers. If you live in a warm climate and have a garden, you can grow cotton. If you live somewhere cold you can grow flax for linen. If you have land and inclination, you can have sheep or rabbits, alpacas or camels, yaks or llamas or some other fiber animal. You might want to stick with wool and cotton to start, though.

Yarn is made by spinning, and you do not need an expensive spinning wheel to make yarn. You can easily buy a drop spindle on ebay or at, or make one by following the instructions here  They can also be made with free AOL CDs.   Drop spindle spinning is considerably slower than wheel spinning, but much cheaper, the equipment fits easily in a pack or bug-out bag, and if all you are going to do is make socks, it probably isn’t worth buying a wheel. Instructions for using one are available here:  it takes practice, but it isn’t a terribly hard skill to learn.

Like all skills, it is best if someone shows you, but you can learn it fairly well from written instructions. If you do want to buy a spinning wheel, take a class or at least try a bunch of wheels. My personal recommendation is for a Kromski wheel – reasonably priced for a beginner, good enough for when you get better, and made entirely of wood and metal parts, so that it can easily be repaired or parts made after the peak (I have no connection to Kromski, other than owning and liking their stuff.) Lee Raven’s book Hands On Spinning is a really good place to start learning.

Once you have yarn, you need to know how to knit or crochet. It is impossible to learn how to knit socks without learning how to knit other things. First you’ve got to learn straight needles. Knitting is definitely one of those things best learned from another person, so take a class in adult ed or at a yarn shop, get a friend or family member to show you, or try trading visits at a local nursing home for knitting lessons. But if you must learn from written instructions, the best book I’ve found is Melanie Falick’s Kids Knitting – well worth the money or the interlibrary loan. The book is pitched to 8 year olds, but is great for uncoordinated adults like me who have trouble with visual instructions. It also has a very simple sock pattern, with no heel turning in it, not a terrible place to start. You could also try to learn from but I’ve not tried it, and I can’t promise anything.

The initial investment for knitting need not be large. In a pinch, you can make needles out wooden dowels, sharpened in a pencil sharpener. Otherwise, a good way to get a reasonable range of needle sizes is to buy a bunch from an estate sale or on ebay – large batches often go quite cheap. You could easily get away with one pair of straight needles, size 10 (for learning basic skills) and a couple of sets of double pointed needles, but more is better. You really can make them too. They come up cheap at yard sales too.

Socks are tubular, so they are knitted on double pointed needles, or on two circular needles. Here’s a link to instructions and a basic sock pattern for dpns  - most patterns are written for these. If you want to get fancier, Nancy Bush’s _Folk Socks_ has wonderful patterns and a wealth of information. The most useful book on doing it with two circulars (which requires a larger initial investment but is my preferred method and IMHO is faster) is the inanely titled (but useful) Socks Soar on Two Circular Needles_ by Cat Bordhi. There’s another book out there called _The Magic Loop_ (don’t know the author) about doing them on one really long circular as well, but I know nothing about this.

Crocheting is easier than knitting, although I find it more irritating as repetetive motions go since I have carpal, and IMHO, not as versatile for socks, but you certainly can make plenty of socks by crocheting. To crochet, you need a couple of hooks, which could be easily made by anyone with a modicum of woodworking skill, or which can be bought cheaply in bunches on ebay or at walmart. A good size range of aluminum hooks costs about $5. One advantage crocheting has over knitting is that the hooks are not tied up in the piece of work – you can have six pairs of socks going at once using the same two hooks.  Here are some basic crochet instructions:

The best book I’ve seen for beginners is Pauline Turner’s How to Crochet although it does not include a sock pattern. The best book on socks is Rehfeldt and Wood’s Crocheted Socks! Again, you really only need one basic pattern, and can probably find some easily on the web. But if you can, get someone to show you the tricks – it really is easier.  Here are many patterns for crocheted socks:

Felted boots can be easily made by knitting or crocheting a large sock and then felting it – felting is what happens when you accidentally throw a wool sweater in the dryer – it shrinks, the material becomes less permeable to water, thicker, warmer – all good things in footwear. I don’t know of a pattern for felted boots, but I more or less made up my own by knitting some really big socks on size 15 needles, and then felting them, and using laces (made of felted wool or leather) to tie them tight – it doesn’t really matter if they are a little big. Felting only works with wool or other animal fibers, which is why, unless you live in the tropics, wool is probably the most practical material for boot making – but if you live in the tropics, you probably don’t need snow boots anyhow, and can simply use the tire sandals. A good book on felting is Knit One, Felt Too , although I’ve forgotten the author’s name, but while it has some sock and slipper patterns, it doesn’t have a scandinavian style felted boot – but you can figure it out. Crocheting should work fine too, but I haven’t tried it.

Re:wool – lots of people think they are allergic to wool, and some genuinely are. But many are allergic to the chemicals used to strip the lanolin from wool, not the wool itself, and can use organic wool or handspun. If by allergic, you mean you find wool scratchy or itchy, you might try merino wool, which is very fine, and commonly worn next to the skin by babies. My mother, who has severe skin issues and thought she was allergic to wool can easily wear merino handspun. If you are allergic to wool, you might still try the felted boot idea, if you can get someone else to make it for you, since there is no reason you can’t wear socks of some other material between your skin and the boot.

One more thing about learning these skills – if you are the sort of person who wants to be instantly good at things, knitting, crocheting and spinning are somewhat frustrating.  You feel very incompetent at first, waggling these huge-seeming sticks, making mistakes, not sure how to fix them.  It is annoying.  But I promise you that if I can do it (I win international klutz awards) you can – there comes a point where it gets into your muscle memory, and all of a sudden, it all makes sense, and your body can do it without thought.  Getting to that point is annoying, but is worth the minor suffering.