I have recently become obsessed with knitting socks. And when I say “obsessed” I mean mostly that I knit a single pair of socks. But I have certainly purchased an obsessive amount of sock yarn and have certainly looked at an obsessive number of images of knitted socks on instagram and elsewhere (who are we kidding? mostly instagram). My first sock I knitted using a technique (new, to me at least) called “magic loop”. The second I went with the traditional “double pointed needle” method. What follows is my breakdown — and I do mean breakdown (like I was probably very close to a breakdown)– of the difference between the two.
There was a time when there was no magic loop knitting. And before that, there was a time when all socks were knit flat and then sewn together, creating a seam or two or, perhaps for those unfortunates who were “knitting with very short skeins” (which is not a euphemism but could be) from which they could only create tiny patches that then had to be grafted together into larger patches and then stitched together into something approximating a sock. And way before that there were no socks at all and people just stuffed grass into their shoes. And a long, long time before that, there were no people. We’ve gone too far back. Let’s go forward to a time when there were people, with feet, but questionable means of protecting these appendages and keeping them warm. In all these periods of time when there were people, all the people had one thing in common: they were miserable. Their feet were either cold or grassy or they spent all their days with their feet warmish but with seams digging into their skin and leaving horrid red marks and impressions when they pulled off their socks before climbing into bed (because only monsters sleep with socks on[*]) and generally making them irritable throughout the day.
And then someone (a misunderstood genius perhaps) was like “screw this! I’m figuring out a way to knit a tube in one continuous spiral so that we don’t have to have these ridiculous, uncomfortable bulky seams.” And so (cue climactic music) the double pointed needle was created. Well, no. There was probably some fiddling around for a while. Someone probably figured out how to “knit in the round” (as knitting one continuous tube is called) using two regular needles, painstakingly sliding the stitches off and on each needle as they went. But, eventually, someone (who everyone probably assumed was a sadist initially) decided that instead of sliding each stitch onto the other needle, they could use three, four, or even five! (ergo, sadist) double pointed needles (ergo: super-sadist) and just keep going around in a circle from one needle to the next, knitting merrily away. And people were probably at first like, “who is this insane person knitting with three, four, or even FIVE needles and with double the number of pointy bits?” But! But! when said person was able to create seamless socks, everyone was like, “hang on a minute, this person is on to something. I was wrong to judge them.” And then probably paid this genius knitter millions of silver coins (or quid or ducats or horses or whale fat for their lamps or whatever the currency of the time was) for pairs of seamless socks.
And so knitters happily went along knitting their socks on double pointed needles (DPNs) for hundreds, perhaps thousands, maybe millions (I never claimed to be a historian) of years. Until someone came along and said, “hang on! why are we knitting in the round with double pointed needles, we have all sorts of plastics and other bendy materials that we can use instead now?” And so they took two straight needles and joined the back (not pointy) ends together with a bendy piece of plastic and now people could knit in the round by simply going around and around and around and never stopping. Ever. No more back and forth. No more switching between double pointed needles. And it was a miracle and amazing and all the people rejoiced. Or, well, at least the knitters rejoiced. But this allowed them to knit large tubes (like the body of a sweater) faster and so their previously cold loved ones also rejoiced.
But there was one problem. Because of some basic laws of physics (like two objects cannot occupy the same space at the same time), it was impossible to knit socks in the round using these new “circular needles.” Basically, in order for circular needles to work, the knitter ends up bunching the stitches that are not being worked on the plastic part and so the only way they can be used is if the circumference of the finished product goal is larger than the circumference of the knitting needles. For socks, the tubes have to be relatively small. And therefore the circumference of the circular needle would have to be so small as to make it impossible to hold the needles at the appropriate angle (which at times has to be close to 180 degrees) to knit.
But the sock knitters were fine with that. They were all like, “No. It’s fine. I’m fine with that. You sweater knitters just keep on doing your circular needle thing. We will be fine over here with our double pointed needles. It’s cool. I mean, someone has to use these old things. Amiright? Heh. Heh.”
But secretly, some of them weren’t ok with it. They desperately wanted to get their hands on some of those circular needles. They wanted to feel their stitches sliding across the cool flexibility of the plastic cords. They wanted to be able to push their stitches all on to the cord and jam their half-knitted socks into their project bags and run to make their train, their precious stitches and needles and yarn banging against their hip without the constant nagging fear that stitches and stitches were falling off of either of the two ends of the three needles they had in there, precariously jostling about. SIX! SIX! SIX! … opportunities for stitches to be dropped. Oh, how they suffered with their quiet fears and thirsty jealousy.
And so, one of the more, shall we say … industrious (but perhaps what we really mean is opportunistic) amongst them created a new way to knit socks. It would combine all of the ease and convenience of circular needles with the cachet that comes with being a creator of socks. Above all, it would be called something that would make it attractive and undeniable to knitters (and, frankly, to non-knitter as well) everywhere: MAGIC LOOP.
I must admit that I was one of those pulled in by the name. Magic? I thought to myself. You mean, I can use MAGIC to make these socks rather than hard work and meticulous care? Hand over the size 2 circular needles with an extra long cord! Amiright?
That’s right. I might as well have made a pact with the devil himself. Not that I’m proud of this. But I’m not here to sugar coat anything, least of all myself and my guileless willingness to be pulled in by a mere word: magic.
Perhaps I was naive. Perhaps I was just desperate to knit socks, to join the rarefied air that those knitters of foot attire occupy with a breezy attitude of “yes, I turn a heel and form a gusset and graft a toe” as if it was nothing. NOTHING. NO-THING.
But I digress.
I did sit down to knit my first sock. And I did use the magic loop technique. And I must have been through most of the cuff and nearing the heel when it suddenly dawned on me, “There’s nothing magic about this. Like. At all. At. All. It’s just knitting in the round and using this chintzy cord to hold stitches and then sliding the needle through your work to “turn it” rather than the elegant constancy of a DOUBLE POINTED NEEDLE!” The man behind the curtain was revealed. And I was crushed.
I hate to tell you, dear reader, but there is NO magic in magic loop. It’s all just smoke and mirrors and a fancy (and, really, all too obvious) name. And in addition? That loop that was supposed to be magic, all it did for me was create more opportunity for “ladders”, which I will not explain here NOT because it is too hard to explain but because if you don’t already know what a ladder is in knitting, we must preserve your innocence at all costs.
For my second sock, I shamefully, apologetically picked up my double pointed needles. And, almost as if by magic, the second sock practically knit itself. Not really. It was painstaking work. I had to be attentive at every phase, making sure that I wasn’t dropping stitches, picking up my work with thought and care and only when I knew I would be able to give it my full attention and putting it away when I was done for the time being. In other words: exactly what the process of making something should be. And the end result? No ladders. Instead: one cozy, slow-knit, comfy sock fit perfectly to my foot mismatched to it’s less-than-perfect companion.
I am not anti-innovation and I’m certainly not anti-circular needle. But sometimes we already have the right tools for the job, tools that, like the double pointed needle, have hit a sweet spot between adapting a previous iteration without going so far as to reinventing and adapting something that, well, really didn’t need reinvention or adaptation. Double pointed needles do the trick. And, yes, “magic loop” might be slightly faster or more convenient, but the end product also, well, sometimes kinda looks faster and more convenient. Sock knitting with double pointed needles is a challenge. And that’s ok.
[*]OK, fine, I sleep with socks on.