The pleasure of knitting socks began for me many years ago in the 1970s, when my sister Nancy decided to learn to knit. She acquired the skill from her mother-in-law and from her husband’s grandmother. My sister was not one to sit and do nothing. In fact, she wasn’t much for sitting at all. She liked to be in motion doing things.
Even though my sister had never shown any interest in needlework of any kind, she took to knitting as if she had been born knowing how. Perhaps she had absorbed the basics, as I had, from watching our grandmother knit mittens when we were children.
But it wasn’t mittens my sister yearned to knit, though she knit many a pair, as well as sweaters, scarves and hats. What she liked on her double-point, No. 5 needles was what she termed “stockins,” the worsted-weight wool boot socks that her husband and the other men in our family pulled on at the start of hunting season and wore until ice-out in the spring when they kicked off their rubber boots for the summer.
In the decades before the current knitting craze, wool yarn was not always an easy item to acquire in the small town where my sister lived. By the time she learned to knit, most knitters had abandoned wool for acrylic yarns, which were washable, but not warm when it came to feet. But a local grocery store carried Red Heart wool yarn, in addition to the acrylic skeins beaming garishly from the shelves.
When it came to socks, the only bright colors my sister had any patience for were red and green, the hues she used for making narrow stripes at the top of every pair of socks she knit — though sometimes the stripes were white. The main colors she chose for her socks were gray, brown, navy blue and tan, the colors of utility.
The leg part of my sister’s boot socks came up to a man’s knee, sometimes a little longer so that a cuff could be turned down over the top of the boot, thus showing off those narrow red, green or white stripes. These were serious socks, workingman’s socks, hunter’s socks, and my sister knit them in the tradition the women of her husband’s family taught her. She never knit cables or fancy stitches into her socks. And like so many women who knit socks for the men in the family, she seldom knit a pair for herself.
My sister knit so many pairs of socks she stockpiled them on a closet shelf. These were socks to covet, and whenever the men in the family received a pair for Christmas, they knew it was an honor. If the double-knit heels in the socks wore out, my sister offered to knit in new heels or to darn the holes.
When my sister was in her late 40s, she had something of a knitting midlife crisis. She began to knit crazy socks using odd balls of yarn left from her serious sock knitting. Her crazy socks were blocks of color, as if the narrow stripes she had knit so carefully all those years had escaped their snug boundaries and run wild. But there was a practical reason behind the multihued socks. I had begun to wear Birkenstock sandals, even in the winter months, and I needed warm, colorful socks to keep frostbite at bay. My sister’s striped socks made my feet look like they were laughing.
My sister was a practical woman, and she used only one sock pattern, the one given to her by her mother-in-law. The pattern was from a knitting booklet published in the 1940s, probably during World War II, before my sister was born, and was titled “Plain Sock, No. S-112,” in sizes small, medium and large. She liked the pattern so much she made a copy for me when she taught me to knit socks. And like my sister, I’ve never used another sock pattern. “There’s no need to,” she said.
Of all the things my sister left behind after her death, that sock pattern is the thing I treasure most — because a big part of the pleasure I get from knitting socks is the memories of her.
Those who wish to knit scarves for veterans through the National World War II Museum Knit Your Bit program will find information and a free scarf pattern available at nationalww2musem.org.
A knitting group, free and open to all, meets 6-8 p.m. Wednesdays at the Spin a Yarn shop, corner of Main Street, just across from the Joshua Chamberlain Bridge in Brewer. For information, call the shop at 989-5002.
Call Ardeana Hamlin at 990-8153 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.