Team toe up: why knitting socks toe up is the best

Lace and rib socks

Before I started knitting socks, I had absolutely no idea how on earth people managed to do it. I couldn’t get my head around the construction at all. Heels, in particular, baffled me. And it turns out that there are very many ways to knit a sock, and that indeed many of those ways have to do with heels. But there is a big battleground in the handknit sock world that I wasn’t expecting; whether you knit them top down, or toe up.

I’ve surprised myself by having incredibly strong opinions on this one. Indeed, in this Blur vs Oasis, or NSync vs Backstreet Boys, or other 90s musical analogy of a showdown, I fall firmly in the toe up camp.

Toe up socks are, as my three year old would state, “brilliant amazing”. Let me tell you why.

Starting knitting with the toe feels like magic

My favourite way to start knitting toe up socks – and the one you’ll find in my patterns – is with Judy’s magic cast-on. And trust me, this cast-on lives up to its name.

You start with a slipknot, you wiggle the needle around the yarn a bit, and then you’ve got a load of stitches on your needle. Start working in some increases at the edges, and you’ve suddenly got a sock toe.

And believe me, a little toe all on its own is very cute.

You can try toe up socks on as you go. Easily.

I don’t know if you’ve ever attempted to try on a pair of top down socks while you’re in the middle of knitting them, but it’s an absolute arse. You’ve got to adjust all your stitches across the needles, try and get your foot through without knocking any over to somewhere they shouldn’t be. If you’ve already turned the heel this is an absolute nightmare. Even if you haven’t, the fact that the needles are the last thing your foot comes to makes it something of a challenge.

Work in progress yellow sock being tried on

With toe up socks, you just put your foot in them. You can hold them by the needles, and pull them up. Simple.

Perfect foot length every time.

They’ve got a roomier gusset

Minds out of gutters, people. We’re talking the bit of the sock before you get to the heel turn, where your foot starts chunking up a bit.

If, like me, you have insanely wide plank feet then the extra stitches added to a toe-up gusset are you friends. Because seriously, my feet are the same shape as a your standard plank of wood. That period in the early 00s where all shoes were super pointy was a nightmare.

It’s really easy to add a decorative bind-off and jazz your socks up

I like to make my socks a little bit fancy. My Party As a Verb socks use a picot cast-off so they’ll look extra great peeking over the tops of ankle boots. This kind of thing is simple to do with a toe-up sock. And, because the cuff is the last bit you get to, you can decide to add a picot on a whim.

Picot cast-off on blue Party As a Verb handknit socks

Sure, if you’re knitting top down you could do a provisional cast-on and then go back and do something jazzy at the end, but I got tired just typing that out.

It’s super obvious how long to make the leg of your sock

Farewell, yarn chicken. There’s nothing worse than getting towards the end of your second sock and realising you don’t actually have enough yarn left to get to the toe. It’s an occupational hazard of the top-down knitter. So easy to get carried away with a lovely long leg and not leave yourself enough to work with.

That’s not going to happen if you toe-up it though. Especially if you’re one of those clever people who divides their yarn into two balls, so they’ve got one for each sock. You can just keep going until you run out of yarn.

Time to try out a toe up sock pattern?

Just in case I’ve not made myself totally clear: I’m all about team toe up. That’s why toe up is the method you’ll find in my patterns

Although, as with all rules, I make one exception: chunky bed socks. Which is a good thing, because they’re coming your way soon.

THe story of the Beatrice shawl

The lace and stocking stitch Beatrice shawl pattern may have just launched, but technically, its goes back to 1997. I’d just moved back to the UK after a stint in Australia, and I started at a new school. Which was where I met the friend after whom the Beatrice shawl is named.

But I can’t really claim that that was the genesis of the shawl, because back then I couldn’t even knit. And I definitely wasn’t planning to design any knitted accessories for my new friend. My main design ambitions were around having the best binder collage of snipped-out pictures from J17 and Bliss magazine. Important stuff when you’re in year 8.

Beatrice shawl opened up on one side to show lace detailing

So no, I’m not going to start this tale in 1997. We’re going to skip over 23 years of friendship, through the copied homework and the underage drinking and the gig-going and the time she locked me in the basement over a particularly fraught game of Who’s In The Bag and straight to where we are.

The knackered mum years. For since that first classroom encounter, between us we’ve gained four children, a shared interest in colourful crafts, and a total of about 6 hours sleep each.

The tale of the Beatrice shawl actually starts with the Great Shawl Frenzy of 2020, when my reaction to the absolute nightmare shitshow of a year that is 2020 seemed to be to knit shawls. Lots of shawls. All the shawls. Two things drew me to them; no seaming, and minimal ends. I do not like seaming, and I do not like sewing in ends. I especially do not like doing them when I’m a bit stressed, which this being 2020, I obviously was/am.

And so I found myself WhatsApping a lot of shawl photos to my friend, who did me the wonderful service of pretending to be interested. And then it happened; I found a load of mustard yellow lace yarn hiding in my stash. Just sitting, there, looking at me. Asking me to make it into a beautiful lace shawl.

Detail of mustard yellow lace shawl edging

Now, among the things Bea-the-person has introduced me to over the years is the incredible joy of mustard yellow. As a ginger I’d always steered clear of every colour except blue and green, because late 90s/early 00s TV and women’s journalism had convinced me that they were the only options for me. Then I had kids and the combination of jealousy of heir wardrobes and just not giving a crap anymore led me to decide my previous colour combinations – or lack thereof – were boring. Enter: Bea and her array of mustard yellow.

So obviously, this yarn (the Yarn Collective Portland lace in Keeping Bees, if you fancy some for yourself) was telling me that I had to make it into a shawl for Bea. But this was where I got adventurous; rather than spamming her with another 5,294 photos of potential shawls to knit I decided to go in a different direction.

I was going to design something just for her.

Of course, being as she lives in London and I’m in Bristol, this process still involved a lot of WhatsApp spam. But it was new spam. Spam of lace patterns from stitch dictionaries. Spam of shawl shapes. Spam of terribly executed sketches from my newly-purchased design notebook. I asked her to pick her favourites, and then I committed to Frankenstein’s monstering the whole lot together.

It was not as difficult as I expected it to be.

In amongst the chaos and catastrophe of 2020, it was actually really bloody good to have something to focus on and get completely absorbed by. I sat next to my eldest’s trainset as he crashed his Thomas trains, calculating stitch counts. I worked out the best order to use the lace motifs in. I sketched out lace charts and sorted out the placement of the pattern repeats. I did yet another shonky sketch, and then I told Bea I was good to go.

And thus began the Great Unknown Knit. I had a theoretical lace shawl in my notebook, but no idea if it would actually work in reality. The stocking stitch bands were fine; you just keep knitting back and forth. Perfect, soothing crafting fodder. But as I got to each lace panel I had small-scale terror that my maths would be wrong and I’d have to go right back to the start.

It wasn’t. And I didn’t.

Instead, I ended up with the shawl you see in the photos. Lightweight, lacy, and of course mustard yellow. It’s a good’un. I’m proud of it. It’s a testament to enduring friendship, and the soothing power of knitting, and the joy of a good pop of colour.

You can get your hands on the Beatrice shawl pattern in three places, which are all listed below. I hear you can even knit it in colours other than mustard yellow.