At last, it can be told … or, the Saga of the Socks

If the road to hell is paved with good intentions, then certainly these are the socks to wear on that road!

There was never a better-intentioned project, or simple. Two good friends, born and raised in a region with temperate winters, off to New England for their first winter there. What would make better Christmas gifts than socks — nice, warm, heavy handspun wool socks.

And since I knew in, oh, August? July? that they were going, certainly more than enough lead time, right?

The choice of wool should be easy. My personal preference for wool socks is Shetland and I have quite a stash. But, being special people, of course just any Shetland wouldn’t do, so I had to root around for something particularly nice. This is where I went wrong the first time. Well, the second time. The first time was putting off starting them until after Thanksgiving when I had had so much advance notice.

I found a few remaining skeins of a Shetland-Romney-Finn crossbred in a dark chocolate brown. It was an earlier spinning effort and had a tendency towards thick-and-thin. It also was an early processing effort, and was not blended so well. But this added to its charm — it had light streaks from the bleached tips and silvered swirls among the brown. It really was an interesting yarn and soft. I had used most of the fleece a couple of years ago when I knitted something like 4 dozen socks for the Buffalo Field Campaign in West Yellowstone, Montana. Socks field-tested to 50 below. I thought I had used all the yarn, but here were two and a half skeins that appeared to be more than enough for a pair of socks.

I then went wrong again when I decided to be clever and knit in a cable pattern. This broke my usual rule of “use a plain stitch to show off the yarn, or a decorative stitch to show off plain yarn.” The texture of the yarn was just not suited to a decorative stitch. I struggled dutifully on. I had remembered knitting the socks previously on a size 4 needle, and was using my new Kollage square DPNs but the yarn seemed bulkier somehow. I wasn’t getting the stitch definition I really wanted. Plus, I was getting a sock for the 50 below climate — the leg could probably stand up by itself.

I also was coming to the end of the first skein, which was a bit disconcerting. It was ending quicker than I expected. I had only reached the ankle of the sock when it ran out and I started on the second skein, hoping I hadn’t misjudged the amount. Turned out I need not worry. After two or three rounds of the new skein, I could see it was a completely different color. I held in the sunlight. I held it under a lamp. Nope. Definitely a different shade, and noticeably so. After a certain amount of wailing, I realized I might not have had enough anyway and decided to give up the whole thing as a bad bet.

Back to the drawing board and my wool stash. Now, the clock was really ticking. There was other Christmas knitting projects being done at the same time, and one unexpected request for an entrelac scarf. Simple socks were going to definitely be the way to go now, no messing around and showing off with intricate cables!

I found several large skeins of gray Shetland from Windswept Farm’s Lucretia. Lucretia’s fleece was interesting in that it had a very wide range of coloration from pale silver to black. I had blended the fleece prior to processing, the processor had blended the fleece, and we still wound up with a variegated roving which had not balanced out much in plying.

I started off right away with Lucretia and my usually k1, p1 rib for three inches and then switch to a k3, p1 rib for the length of the leg. I made headway alright, pounding away at those socks and alternating with the other projects. It is a wonder that part of the sock was not worked in entrelac stitch, I was so programmed to it at that point.

We now were rapidly approaching Christmas and there was clearly no way I was going to finish two pairs of socks, wash and block them, and parcel them up in the mail before December 25th. I contented myself, therefore, with expecting to spend time on Christmas day and immediately thereafter finishing the socks and trying to get them in the mail by New Year’s.

Except, who knew we were going to get so pounded with snow that no one was going anywhere for the next week, at least?

On Christmas afternoon, it began to snow. And snow. And snow. The storm was spectacular enough to sit up half the night tracking it. By midnight, we had white-out conditions and the plows had to stop and wait for the storm to abate. When we went to bed around 1:00, there was over a foot of snow on the ground. When we got up in the morning, there was 32.

Now, you would think, great, snowed in, can’t go anyplace, stay in and knit. It didn’t work that way. I was too agitated to knit. I didn’t like not being able to get my front door open and felt trapped. It took two days to dig out and I didn’t get much knitting done in that time, nor in the rest of the week. It was only after New Year’s that I settled down enough, finished the first sock and started on the second one.

I was almost finished the second one when I realized something. It was a different color than the first one. I thought I was hallucinating, or perhaps had gone permanently snow blind. The wool definitely was from the same fleece. I put all the skeins together to compare them. They all matched, but were all just vaguely different. The variegations of the fleece were such that you could knit with the wool and come up with different colors. Now, this is truly what makes handspun, handknit items one-of-a-kind but it was completely unintentional and I did want to make matching socks.

I was too far along at this point to change horses, or fleeces, again, so I forged ahead. The snow melted, it snowed again. That started to melt, it sleeted, everything turned to ice and then began to melt again. Finally, I got one pair finished. Washed, fulled, and blocked they only seemed a different color in indoor light. Outdoors, you didn’t notice the change as much.

Well, maybe one is a bit more silvery.

Or not. In any event, I had myself one pair of sock, now onto the second ones.

At this point, by the way, I was aiming to make these now Valentine’s Day presents. That didn’t quite happen either.

I rooted around in my stash again and found a real treasure — Zoe. Zoe was a mioget ewe from the Heart of the Valley Farm in Oregon. They were one of my first finds when I began networking with breeders and I got some very nice Shetland fleeces from them over time. Unfortunately, they developed a following and I seldom am quick enough these days to get a fleece from them, but I still have some finished yarn from their flock tucked away. I had been saving Zoe for a special occasion and this seemed to warrant finally using her. I wasn’t entirely sure of the yardage; there looked to be enough. However, to be on the safe side and just to be a little creative, I had a skein of Cocoa’s fleece — a dark chocolate brown. I would make the sock from Zoe with a toe and heel from Cocoa.

I finished one sock. Zoe’s fleece was also variegated, ranging from a cream to a brown. It made a nice tweedy effect with the dark brown spots mottled into the lighter cream. One sock finished, and the ribbing of the second one begun.

The weather by now had begun to break, and we were able to get back out on the road again for weekend adventures. The day before Valentine’s Day, we set out for New Hope, Pennsylvania. This was enforced knitting time and I was busting to get my second sock down. In the bright sunlit car, I pulled the two rolled skeins of Zoe out of my bag.

What were the chances? Even with a variegated fleece, there is a chance that the color will even out during plying. It would be a really odd occurance to have two really light singles just happen to come together at the exact point in time and space to create a light colored two-ply strand.

Clearly, the stars were against me on this one. I stared out the car window, mulling this over for awhile, when a little bell went off somewhere in the recesses of my long-term memory. Whether I dreamed it, or read it someplace, or lived it in another life, I have no clue, but somehow I recalled when knitting with handspun, you knit one row with one skein and then next row with another skein and by alternating, you prevent any pooling or separations in colors.

I had nothing to lose at this point, and so started in with the second skein. The problem was with knittin in the round. After about three rows, the switch of colors was leaving a definite seam. To avoid this, I advanced one stitch every row when I switched skeins. This avoid a seam down the back, but created a bit of a spiral pattern on the inside of the sock. At first the skeins were pretty even in color and so the shaft of the leg didn’t show much variation.

Suddenly, using the brown for the heel and toe seemed a really good idea because the sudden block of dark color also bounces out and distracts from color differences in the lighter section.

As luck would have it, the skeins were going in completely opposite directions, colorwise. As I knitted along, one got progressive lighter and one got darker. By the time I was in the homestretch on the foot, you could start to see some striping.

I finished with about 3 yards left of the very pale cream. Brown toes, close up the seam, and they were ready to go into a hot bath.

Washed, fulled, and blocked, they appear the same color, particularly in natural light although if you look closely enough, you can see the vague striping on one foot.

Regardless of color variations, the socks are nice, heavy, warm handspun wool socks out of 100% Shetland, so they meet the initial criteria of the project. The next time, I guess I will need add “matching color” to the list!

One Response to At last, it can be told … or, the Saga of the Socks

  1. Casey says:

    I’m sorry the socks gave you so much trouble! They are fantastic though–and so warm! Also, they’re really good for sliding across the kitchen floor. 🙂 And I thought the color variation was just a natural fleece thing. They look great.

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