Saturday, December 10, 2011

Improving Afterthought (or Forethought) Heels

To knit this type of heel, you first knit a tube sock (ie. one without a heel at all). Then afterwards you rip out one row, where you want the heel to appear, and pick up the stitches to insert the heel. So here's how to do that. Except that I'd use a darning needle and scrap slippery yarn to pick up the sts, rather that fighting through them with a knitting needle, as the Yarn Harlot does. Then after you've unpicked the row in between, you can transfer to a needle. It's easier.

If you know in advance where the heel is supposed to be, you can make life easier by knitting in one single row of waste yarn, which is then what you rip out. Then it's what Elizabeth Zimmerman calls a "forethought" heel. Here's a tutorial on that technique. And note the cute trick of knitting the scrap yarn, and then going back to the beginning of the row to continue overtop with the "real" yarn. This trick has many, many applications!

My improvements for the forethought heel:
  • right before you knit the scrap yarn in, put in a lifeline.
  • knit in the scrap yarn
  • after you've knit the row on top of the scrap yarn, put in another lifeline.
These lifelines will make it much, much easier to pick up the stitches long the top and bottom of the "heel slit", after you've ripped out the scrap yarn. No need to pick up any stitches, they're already picked up and waiting to be transferred to the needle!  Here are some photos to illustrate:
[forethought heel: green embroidery thread = lifelines before and after knitting in 1 row of pink scrap yarn.]

[unpicking the scrap yarn]
I usually start picking up the lifeline sts in the middle of the sole of the foot, not at one of the edges of the slit. This is because I want the new yarn join to be hidden on the bottom of my foot, and also because I find it easier to do short-rowing and decreasing in the middle of a needle, rather than at the end of one. There's a picture below.

Once you've unpicked the yarn and are transferring the lifeline sts to your needle(s), you might want to pick up a stitch or two at the slit's edges ("corners of the mouth") to close up the hole neatly:

[transferring the sts on the lifeline to a needle...and picking up 2 extra sts]

Now, about the decreases: you will see that both of the tutorials I've linked to above use exactly the same method of creating the heel; namely, the same construction as you would use for a "wedge toe", complete with kitchener-grafting the last row together. There are a couple of issues with this design:

1. Personally, I don't like the look of that wide diagonal band. But that's easy to play with, we'll explore some alternatives in this post. In fact, you don't have to knit this type of "wedge-toe" construction at all! You could substitute a "round" construction (where the decreases are distributed all 'round the needles, not concentrated at the "corners"), or a "star" construction (where the decreases form spirals). Think of your heel as a "hat"! If you take this further, it will lead you down the road to this... Note that hat-style constructions also remove the need for grafting!

2. the fit isn't great; this heel suffers from the same weakness as short-row heels in that it is tight across the instep. So we should discuss improvements to the fit.

Both the fore- and afterthought heels are easily reinforced by knitting in reinforcement thread, and are very easy to replace if they wear out. You just pick them out and reknit 'em, just like I do for toes. For this reason they are also called "peasant" or "depression" heels (as in, the Depression years). The bottom of the heel extends further than the usual "flap" style, so you may find that repair-by-reknitting is enough. The Winter 2011 edition of Knitty has a pattern with a variation after-thought heel that is larger than usual, if you find that your heel wears beyond the range of the afterthought heel.

The true afterthought heel has the added advantage that socks made this way are easily "gifted". You can just knit a bunch of tube socks in some generic size, and once you have a recipient in mind you can put the heel in the right spot to customize the things.  The right spot is where the recipient's heel footprint starts. Measure down from the top of the sock (tips of the toes) to the place where the pink arrow shows on the example footprint below:
[the afterthought heel is inserted at this point in the tube sock]
note: you can also use a cardboard template 
to decide where to put the heel, as shown here

In fact this is how I fit toe-up "forethought" heel socks as I knit 'em. Once the recipient tells me the knitting needles are at the right place I know I'm ready to knit in that scrap yarn.

Of course, if you really have no idea where the heel is going to be, you have to be a bit accomodating with the stitch design. All around? Front only? Guess at where the heel might go before starting (or stopping, depending on if you're knitting top-down or toe-up) the pattern?

As always, when playing with different heel constructions, put a lifeline into your work (or keep them in, after unpicking the slit!) so that if you have to rip it out, it's easy to restart. 

So, here's the good stuff:

Alternatives to wedge construction
I like a smaller, less obtrusive design on the decreases. There are unlimited numbers of these, but here are some I like. In prep, you should mark the single stitch in the "corner" of the slit on each side of the sock (as in, the corners of your mouth). This will define the center of the diagonal line that runs from your heel to you instep.

[sts picked up - note I've started in the middle of the sole...the stitch markers at either side show the edges of the slit, where the decreases will be.]
  • P3tog at each of the slit's "corners", every second row. The 2nd stitch in the 3-stitch cluster should be the one before the marker, so you'll have to adjust that marker every time. There's a photo at the bottom of this post.
  • 3 before marker, K2tog, P1, SM, SSK ... every second row.
  • 2 sts before marker, sl 2 tog KW, remove marker, K1, p2sso (translation: slip 2 sts together knitwise, K1, then pass the two slipped sts - which will be glommed together as one unit - over the knit st. This can be a bit of a struggle.), and replace marker. Gives a single, centered, stitch with no slant - see photo below. You can purl the centered stitch the next round for a "seed" effect. 
The purl sts I've indicated give a little "seed" effect on the diagonal line which I really like. You could try knitting them instead. Explore different double-decrease types. K3tog doesn't work well though. It has a slant and isn't nice.

Other alternatives include putting 4 markers around the sock at even intervals (either starting in one corner, or starting exactly between a corner and halfway 'round the heel), and
  • doing a K2tog before every marker, every second row. This creates a "spiral". Doing SSKs makes the spiral go the other way. You can alternate K2togs and SSKs on alternate decrease rows and the spiral will straighten.
  • making "spokes" - do a double-decrease (sl 2 tog KW, K1, p2sso) at the marker, every 4th row.
  • moving the decrease locations around so they do not create a pattern (concentric rings) - try this one with stripes and you'll get a bulls-eye heel. Could be fun on a man's black socks!
Fit Improvements
There are two approaches. If you know in advance where the heel is to be, start increasing the number of sts on either side of the heel, creating a gusset, until you've increased the stitch count by about 10%. Then put in that scrap yarn for the heel "slit", and proceed as usual.

The other approach, which I find works a bit better and doesn't require that you know where to put the heel or do math beforehand, is to do a few short rows in the corners, once you've made the slit and have got the stitches set to go:
  • starting at one corner, K8, place marker, and turn (performing your favourite hole-hiding technique such as wrap 'n turn, YO, double sts, or dig 'n lift).
  • P16, place marker, and turn - again performing your favorite hole-hiding technique.
  • K14 (to 2 before the first marker), turn while hiding your hole.
  • P12 (to 2 before marker), turn while hiding the hole.
  • K10 (to 2 before the first marker), turn while hiding your hole.
  • P8 (to 2 before marker), turn while hiding the hole.
  • knit across to the other corner, dealing with the wraps, YO's, or lifts to finish hiding the holes.
So here I go far away from the corner, and then slowly back to up it. You can do it the other way, too: start close to the corner and stray further and further from it as you go back and forth - I find this one a little easier.
  • starting at one corner, K2 beyond marker, turn (performing your favourite hole-hiding technique such as wrap 'n turn, YO, double sts, or dig 'n lift).
  • P4, to 2 beyond marker, turn - again performing your favorite hole-hiding technique.
  • K6 to 4 beyond marker, dealing with the wrap or YO or whatever as you come to it, turn while doing your YO, wrap, or what-have-you.
  • P8 to 4 beyond marker, dealing with the wrap (YO, lifted st...) as you pass it, turn while performing your hole-hiding.
  • K10 to 6 beyond marker, dealing with the wrap or YO or whatever as you come to it, turn while doing your YO, wrap, or what-have-you.
  • P12 to 6 beyond marker, dealing with the wrap (YO, lifted st...) as you pass it, turn while performing your hole-hiding.
  • knit across to the other corner, dealing with the wrap, YO, or lift to finish hiding the last turn. 
Repeat either procedure at the other side of the heel slit. Finish up at the first corner again, and then start the decreases for the heel shaping.

These short-rows create two little "half moon" shapes about 1cm wide, and add just enough ease to the instep to improve the fit. You might want to add a different number of short-rows depending on the instep clearance required - I've found that 3 passes back and forth - as I've listed - is sufficient for my family's feet. note: If you add more short-rows than the guidelines above, you'll find that the little crescent-gusset will start to "bump out". To counteract this, you will then also need to start your diagonal decreases during the short-rowing.

[crescent-shaped short-row gusset on afterthought heel. This gusset started wide and narrowed. note: the decrease line here is P3tog every other row.]

[another example; this gusset started small and grew out. This decrease line is a "double decrease" with no purl sts]

Note: I have made up a "recipe" or "template" pattern for this type of sock, it's available for download here.


  1. Thanks very much for your info on the extra ease. Being as I'm visually oriented, your photo has finally made it clearto me! E.

  2. Thanks! I am starting to make more of these heels and will post some more pictures about the various construction details...

  3. This post is just what I was looking for! I was trying to avoid the wide band in the wedge toe construction. Thanks!

  4. wow! thanks bunch! I've learned bunch... Is there some info on 10% increase on a sock then you know heel placement... I'm trying to find a pattern for self stripping sock with a guest without messing up stripe pattern...
    Thanks for your time...

  5. Hey Funky Hen, thanks for the comments. I've just been thinking along the same lines! Check out my latest post!

  6. Hi and thank you so much for your instructions !
    I've just discovered your blog and as a beginner sock knitter, I wanted to try this for baby socks (less work :p ). I tried to understand and follow your instructions as close as possible, but my heel doesn't look as nice as yours'. You can see it here. And if you have some spare time, i would be so grateful if you might help me figure out what I did wrong..
    Again thank you so much !


  7. I forgot the link...


  8. Hi, it looks as though you have knit both sides of the heel back-and-forth, and then kitchenered them together along the full diagonal line. Is that right? If so, that's not the intent of this post...

  9. might want to use the pattern I've made up for this type of sock, which is a bit more succint in the instructions. There's a link at the bottom of the blog post.

  10. I just loved this post! Thank you so much for boosting my confidence with afterthought heels!

  11. I make small gussets before. about 1 inch before the waste yarn marker, (and this is a personal spot... I USE the mid point on top of foot to measure!) I increase 1 stitch, each side, (working on the front of sock) every other R., Over an inch (about 10 R, this is 8 to 10 increases each side (or about 2 inches in total.) then I work a row of waste yarn, and decrease the top of the sock, till i am back to original count. for full details, see this sock, and read associated blog post--there is a tab linking to blog post

  12. Thanks for taking the time to document your experience. I've used the short row half moon on two pairs of socks and really like the way it improves the fit of this type of heel.

  13. Thanks for posting these instructions! I had a great time knitting a pair of socks with striped sock yarn. I used your instructions for one heel I K2tog and the other I SSK, and my stripes became rectangles spiraling in opposite directions. Which I find very interesting, also my sock yarn had some metallic element in it so they sparkle in the sunlight. Jack

  14. HI I've just finished my first after thought heel for a pair of socks for my toddler. My husband bought the Claire Devine book for socks for babies and I thought,. 'Fantastic - they look great and if I can crack this then Christmas should be a breeze!'. Not quite. I put the sock on the little wriggler but it seems 'flappy' at the end. It does pull onto the foot but doesn;t seem to stay to become flappy again!
    I'm not sure if I should a bit more to the length of the gusset, (for his growing foot) or take it back and use a completely different heel.
    It took me ages to get this far and Christmas is very soon.

  15. Hi Nicky, I don't knit socks for small kids (ie. less than 2), mostly because 1) I don't have any such folks in my immediate family to experiment on, and 2) the proportions of a their feet are rather different that older humans (they are much plumper), and 3) it's notoriously difficult to design a sock/bootie that STAYS ON their feet, what with all the kicking and crawling around they do. Booties with ties around the ankle were the only thing that stayed on my kids' feet when they were small.

    I'm not sure what you mean by "flappy". Is the sock foot too long and the toes flap? Is the heel too deep so that there is excess at the point of the heel? Does the sock slide off? I'm not familiar with the book you mention, so don't know what kind of pattern you're knitting.

  16. Popped her via Cozy things, I really want to crack this technique. Thanks for a very detailed break down. Jo x

  17. Fantastic idea. I have high arches so standard socks do not fit me. I am trying this on my next pair. Thank you for great instruction clear photos.