The Iron Heel

October 13, 2010

I have been on a quest for a sturdy, easy to knit heel, ever since one of my first pairs of hand-knitted socks developed a hole.

I’ve tried using reinforcing thread on the bottom where I tend to wear through my socks. To avoid the thread going all the way around the sock, I was knitting across the heel, then pulling out a loop of reinforcing thread to use to knit across for every other row. I did that on several pairs. It works. It’s a PITA.

Then, I started experimenting with different heel types and different heel shapes. I was trying out a German heel one morning several months ago when inspiration hit. I quickly cast on for another pair of socks to try out my idea.

I made rapid progress on the first sock until I ran into an obstacle. When the heel is reversed with the gusset on the ankle instead of near the arch of the foot, the sock becomes too difficult to slip on the foot. Some tinkering required. The socks were set aside and other projects, including a little gift scarf, stepped in line.

Then we moved and knitting was set aside while we settled into the new/old house. Now, we’re situated and I’m whittling away at that stack of unfinished projects so that I can get back to my much preferred knitting monogamy. First Maia. Now, voila! Iron heel socks completed.

As you can see, I can get them on my feet. They fit well. The heel is simple to work with reinforcing thread and it cups the heel nicely.

Here’s how I worked the heel. I use a set of 5 dpn for my sock knitting. I split stitches evenly across the needles. You will need to adjust if you do something different, like magic loop or two circulars.

As you can see in the photos, the entire heel zone, from right behind the arch of the foot to the base of the ankle has been knit in a knit slip pattern with reinforcing thread. I continued the slip stitch sock heel pattern to the end of the gusset decreases. You could use stockinette and that would work out nicely too. Eye of the partridge heel stitch would also work, but would be a bit more complicated when you start to turn the heel.

To complete the heel, the sock is knitted toe-up until the foot is approximately 2 inches shorter than the total desired foot length. Then, work the heel flap using half the stitches as you normally would on a top-down heel-flap sock. This is where I added in the reinforcing thread. I worked back and forth on two needles, with the top of the foot, or instep stitches, just hanging out and being ignored on the other two needles.

Once the heel flap reaches the desired length — the total foot length you need — you will determine the stitch count for a third of the stitches. If you have 64 stitches around the entire sock, and you are working 32 stitches across the heel flap, as I did on this sock, split the heel flap stitches (in your mind) into three approximately equal sections: 11, 10, 11 stitches.

Now, work the 11 stitches across section 1, then work 9 of the stitches in section 2. Don’t knit the last stitch in section 2; instead, slip it, knit the first stitch in section 3, pass the slipped stitch over and turn the work. (Or, work an SSK if that’s your preference.)

{Note: I think you could adjust the way you split the stitches into thirds if you wanted a wider heel cup. However, that would require some adjustments to the number of rows between decreases as you work up the back of the ankle. I find that this narrow heel back fits very comfortably on my foot but of course, you may like something different.}

You will now purl across section two. Again, don’t purl the last stitch. Instead, purl it together with the adjacent stitch in section 1. Turn work, knit across to the last stitch, slip it, knit the first stitch in section 3, PSSO, turn, purl back, etc.

I maintained the slip stitch heel pattern, fitting in the heel stitch pattern’s slip, knit, psso and p2tog as best as I could. Eventually, you will eat up all the stitches on the two side sections of the heel flap and you will have an entirely reinforced heel cup. Cut your reinforcing thread, leaving a tail about three inches long. I work this tail into the knitting on the next row so I have less finishing to do when the sock is completed.

Now, pick up stitches as you normally would for a sock gusset (I grabbed 22 on each side) and start working all the way around the sock again, bringing the instep needles back into play. I maintained the slip stitch heel pattern on the two heel needles and maintained the sock pattern, which in this case was simply stockinette with an expansion joint — more on this later — on the two instep needles

Instead of working gusset decreases every other row as is typical on most socks, work the decreases on every third row. I found it looks nicer if (after you have picked up the stitches and worked a row all the way around in the back of the stitch, then worked another row all the way around in pattern) to start the decreases one stitch in from the end of each of the heel needles. I used a k2tog on one side and an ssk on the other. Continue to decrease every third row until you are back to your original stitch count.

Back to that expansion joint. On this pair of socks, I incorporated one 2-purl rib on either side of the the instep needles, starting at the end of the toe and continuing up the entire foot of the sock. I feel this helps the sock fit the entire foot quite smoothly. I used the expansion joint as the starting point for a simple diamond pattern in purl stitches on the leg of the sock. It was a simple way to give the top of this sock some interest without competing with the stripes of my (very own) hand-dyed yarn.

Jakob just had to get in on this photo shoot. Apparently, he felt he needed some credit for me inventing this heel. He likes to sit next to me on the sofa every morning for some mornin’-lovin’ and he was sitting next to me when I was working on the inspiration sock. So, thanks Bud.

If you find these instructions as clear as mud, let me know and I’ll try to help you out. I highly recommend trying this idea out if you are the type who wears out heels first and who wants your hand-knit socks to last as long as possible.

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5 Responses to “The Iron Heel”

  1. Kristi Says:

    Thanks for sharing! I don’t often reinforce heels, but I think DH’s socks could benefit. I’ll have to give a try on his next pair!

  2. Chris Says:

    Now that’s what I call a pioneering knitting invention. Congratulations. It looks great and sturdy too. I might have to give my toes (the ones of the sock and not of my feet) another consideration and apply what I have learned from you, as I always wear them out at the large toe. ;-)))


  3. […] take note – here is a new toe-up heel idea that makes using reinforcing thread […]

  4. Rabbitch Says:

    I want to know who made that exceptionally-delicious yarn (I hope it was me, but I don’t think so)

  5. ruth Says:

    That is a cool sock! I think you unvented somethinge, as EZ used to write.


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