Beginner sock knitting: Sockalong – tension squares, casting on and Sock Stitch Calculation

This post was written as part of the Winwick Mum Sockalong, a series of free tutorials which tell you everything you need to know about how to knit socks for beginners.  This post deals with tension (gauge) and the formula to work out how many stitches to cast on for your socks – men, women and children!

If you are looking for the Sock Stitch Calculation, click here!  This formula will help you to work out the right size for any size of feet and weight of yarn!

It’s our third pre-Sockalong post … the start date is getting closer!

Hello to everyone who’s already said they’re joining in, and if you’re finding these posts for the first time, it’s not too late.  The Sockalong starts on Sunday 3 May so you’ve got time to have a look at the pattern, choose some yarn and make sure you’ve got some needles.

Today, we’re going to look at how to create a tension or gauge square (also known as a swatch). No, don’t sigh, it’s important that you know about it even if you choose not to do one.  I must confess that I’m not the world’s greatest at doing tension squares for myself but I’ve learned that with a new yarn it’s worth taking the time to check my knitting – or I find myself doing a lot of frogging!  (Technical term for when your knitting has gone wrong and you have to rip-it, rip-it, rip-it out!)

Let’s start by taking another look at the ball band on the yarn.  This the yarn I’m going to be using which I talked about the other day.  You can see the symbols panel with the washing instructions and the gauge information quite clearly.

Beginner sock knitting - Winwick Mum Sockalong - reading a ball band

If we take a closer look again then you can see that in the red oval is the recommended needle size – 2.5mm – and underneath that the number of rows and stitches the manufacturer says you should get knitting on 2.5mm needles.  Based on a 10 x 10cm (4 x 4 inches) square, you should get 30 stitches (M) and 42 rows (R).

Beginner sock knitting - Winwick Mum Sockalong - reading a ball band

If you know that you will get that number of stitches and rows without checking, then that’s fine and you can put your feet up until the next post.  However, if you’ve never knitted with the yarn before or you’re not quite sure, then it’s always best to check. Knitting in the round gives you a different tension to knitting on straight needles so it’s worth taking the time to see exactly what gauge you’re knitting to.  Additionally, you can use the number of stitches in your swatch to help you work out how many stitches you will need to cast on for your sock.

For a sock, the most important thing is to know the number of stitches per inch so working out the number of stitches to expect to get in one inch (using the ball band above: 30 stitches ÷ 4 inches = 7.5 stitches) is helpful before you start.  It’s not essential to make a huge swatch – just big enough to measure your stitches is fine – but I’m going to show you the process below. Generally, I use 2.5mm needles for any sock yarn even if the ball band suggests differently, and it usually works out at 7-8 stitches per inch.

I’m going to show you the swatching method used by Elizabeth Zimmerman which makes shorter work of the gauge swatch than having to cast on enough stitches to knit a whole sock.  In this example, I’m going to cast on 35 stitches to give me a margin at each side of my swatch (remember the ball band says I should be getting 30 stitches to 10 cm?).  This will make it easier when I come to measure the stitches.

First things first, you need to cast on, and it’s always best to use the type and size of needles with which you’re going to be knitting your sock then you know exactly how your knitting will work out.  For this example, I’m going to show you how to knit the square using DPNs but the process is the same whichever needle you use.  There are no hard and fast rules about casting on for socks; you can pretty much use whichever cast-on you like and you might find that you change your mind from sock to sock depending on the pattern you use.  My preference is the cable cast-on and I’ll show you how to do it in case you’ve not come across it before, but it really doesn’t matter as long as you cast on the right number of stitches.

Make a loop and slip it over your left needle.  Put your right needle into the loop knitwise.

Beginner sock knitting - Winwick Mum Sockalong - cable cast on

2  Put the yarn over the needle and pull it through as if you were creating a knit stitch, but instead of sliding it off the needle, put it over the end of the left needle to create a second stitch.

Beginner sock knitting - Winwick Mum Sockalong - cable cast on

3  Put your right needle between the two stitches and pull the yarn through …

Beginner sock knitting - Winwick Mum Sockalong - cable cast on

4  … putting the new stitch onto the left hand needle again

Beginner sock knitting - Winwick Mum Sockalong - cable cast on

5  Continue until you have the number of stitches you require, remembering not to pull the stitches too tight on your needle.

Beginner sock knitting - Winwick Mum Sockalong - cable cast on

When it comes to your sock, you’ll need to take a view of how tightly you cast on – this might be dependent on the cast-on method you choose.  I cast on with a size bigger needle and others cast on over two needles to make sure that you don’t pull the stitches too tight.

Once I’ve cast on the right number of stitches for my swatch, I work two rows of garter stitch (knit both rows).  This helps to stop the end of my work rolling up too much.

Beginner sock knitting - Winwick Mum Sockalong - tension swatch in the round

Next row: knit across all the stitches, but instead of turning the work and purling back across the row, leave a long length of yarn, go back to the beginning of the row and knit the row again.  This gives the same effect as knitting in the round as you don’t have a purl row.

Beginner sock knitting - Winwick Mum Sockalong - tension swatch in the round

It looks a bit messy on the back but it does the job!

Beginner sock knitting - Winwick Mum Sockalong - tension swatch in the round

Once you have worked the size of square that you need, you can measure your work.  It’s quite acceptable to work less than the required 10cm as long as you do the maths to work out the number of stitches per cm to get the number you should be working to.  If the number of stitches in your tension square match those on the ball band, then you’re knitting with the right size needles. If you’ve got more stitches, try going up one size to a bigger needle and if you’ve got less, try going down one size to a smaller needle.  If you’re not able to change your needle size, another alternative is to cast on more stitches so that you get the right diameter for your foot;  you will need to increase the pattern we’re using by 4 stitches each time.

Beginner sock knitting - Winwick Mum Sockalong - tension swatch in the round

Some people like to keep their tension squares and collect them to make into blankets, but I never do.  Once I know the information I need, I just unravel it and wind it back onto the ball ready to use for my socks.

That’s all there is to it – it’s not hard, is it?  My problem is that I’m usually too impatient to get started to want to knit a tension square but experience has taught me that being too impatient to get started often leads to having to start more than once!


Sock Stitch Calculation

Finally before we finish today, let me show you how I use the gauge information to work out the sizing for my socks.  If you search the internet, there are plenty of methods for working out the number of stitches you will need, some of them based on foot width and others on calf or ankle size. A good method, which can be adapted to any sock yarn, is this one which takes into account the size of your feet and the tension that you knit to.

The number of stitches that you choose to cast on must always be divisible by 4, so choose the nearest multiple of 4 to the result that you get from your stitch calculation.

Measure around the ball of your foot (in inches) and multiply that measurement by the number of stitches per inch from your swatch.

In my case, it would be 8 (foot measurement) x 8 (stitches per inch) = 64

Next, you need to allow for the negative ease (stretch in the knitted fabric) so take 10% off the total – in my case, 10% of 64 stitches would be 6.4 but it’s easiest to round it up or down to the nearest whole number. This would make the new calculation 64 (original number of stitches) – 6 (10% negative ease) = 58.

Remember that the number of stitches that you cast on needs to be a multiple of 4, so I could cast on either 56 or 60 stitches – I think that 56 would be just bit too tight so I am going to choose to cast on 60 stitches. It’s generally better for your sock fabric to be tighter than, say, for a jumper as that makes it more hard-wearing, but you don’t want it so tight that it pulls across your foot.

In the end, the gauge becomes a matter of preference – some people like tighter socks, others prefer looser socks and as you complete more pairs, you will see which you prefer for yourself. The nice thing about hand-knits is that you can try your socks on at every stage to make sure they are going to fit perfectly.

You can use this calculation for any weight of yarn and the pattern and tutorials will also work with any type of yarn, so there is no limit to the socks you can make!

There is now a video to go with this tutorial – click below!

Next week, we’ll talk about accessories and then the countdown really begins!  Don’t forget to ask any questions – it’s helpful for everybody if you’ve thought of something that I’ve not mentioned. Thanks again to everybody who’s going to join in whether you’ve commented or not; it’s great to think that lots of pairs of socks are going to be ongoing at the same time!


These Sockalong tutorials are free and will always remain so, but if you have enjoyed using them and would like to buy me a brew, it will be much appreciated!  You can find the donation button on the sidebar on the left hand side. Thank you! xx


Basic 4ply Socks pattern copyright © 2014 Winwick Mum
Sockalong tutorials copyright © 2015 Winwick Mum


More Sockalong posts:

Sockalong – yarns

Sockalong – needles

Sockalong – accessories and matching yarn

Sockalong – anatomy of a sock

Sockalong – Week 1 – Cast on, cuff and leg

Sockalong – Week 2 – Heel flap, heel turn and gusset

Sockalong – Week 3 – Foot, toe and grafting the toes

Sockalong Basic 4ply Socks pattern

Sockalong successes

Facebook Sockalong group for help, advice and encouragement



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44 Responses

  1. Lilly's Mom says:

    Wow, Christine! This is fascinating on how you do the swatch. I've never seen that before. There is so much great information here that I plan on using when I start my next pair of socks! Have a wonderful week 🙂 hugs, Pat

  2. Unknown says:

    Thank you for all the info. Your sockalong may be the thing that actually gets me knitting socks rather than just thinking about it! Love your blog, it's refreshing to read 'normal life' blogs.
    Do you knit continental or English style with your short circular?

    • Winwick Mum says:

      Thank you for your lovely comments, Elaine, it's great to see you and I'm looking forward to seeing your socks! 😉 I knit English style with any of my needles; I have tried knitting continental style – I've seen how fast some knitters can go and I like the look of that – it's no wonder they can produce so many pairs of socks! However, I found that because it was a new technique I was even slower than knitting my usual English style and I was impatient to get finished. I really must try it again and stick with it this time – I'm sure by the time I reached the end of a pair of socks I'd be quite a bit faster! What's your style? xx

    • Unknown says:

      English, although I did try Continental when knitting a fairisle jumper so I could hold one colour in each hand. Can't get the hang of purling though!

    • Winwick Mum says:

      I've watched a few videos on Continental purling and I can see how it works, but my hands don't want to do it at any kind of speed that would be of any use to me! You have inspired me to give it another go, though! xx

  3. Jill at emeraldcottage says:

    Haha your "no don't sigh" comment made me laugh, that's exactly what I did, sigh lol

    • Winwick Mum says:

      Ha ha, I spoke to another lady today who's going to join in with the sockalong; we were discussing needles and I told her that she should really do a tension square – and she sighed too! You know you'll thank me when your socks fit perfectly 🙂 xx

  4. eclectichomelife says:

    Ok this is new to me and soooo exciting…

  5. Unknown says:

    I'm really enjoying my swatch. It's ages since I knitted anything as I've been seduced by Lucy's gorgeous creations at Attic24. Bit of simple knitting in front of the World Snooker Semis – heaven.

    • Winwick Mum says:

      Socks are wonderful for TV knitting – as long as they don't have a complicated pattern that is! I'm easily seduced by Lucy's blankets too – I've got yarn shouting to me from a cupboard but it's all about the socks at the moment! xx

  6. Lokkette says:

    Hi there, do I need to worry about the number of rows in my swatch as long as the number of stitches is accurate? I'm not terribly fond of swatching, can you tell!

    • Winwick Mum says:

      Hi Lokkette, as long as you can do the maths to work out the number of rows you would have in a 10x10cm or 4x4inch square, then you don't have to do all the rows. Swatching isn't my favourite thing to do either so I very rarely make the whole square. As long as you've got enough to measure then you'll be fine xx

  7. Zoe says:

    What should I do if the yarn I bought doesn't list gauge info? It's from a really small company I guess, so it doesn't have that info. Should I cast on 60 and then try and stretch it around my leg to see if it will work?

    • Winwick Mum says:

      I would just do a tension square, Zoe, so that you can find out how many stitches per inch the yarn knits up to. I'd use 2.5mm needles and expect to get 7-8 stitches per inch if it's 4ply. Use the method above to knit in the round on a straight needle as it's faster – you don't need to do a huge square, just enough to be able to measure an inch or so of the fabric. Then you can do the stitch calculation to work out how many stitches will be perfect for your sock. Don't forget to take off 10% for negative ease and work to a multiple of 4. Hope that helps! xx

  8. Unknown says:

    Have some 2.50 dpns just bought 2.50 30 cms circulars on ebay. Have yarn ( bought years ago…lol ) there is nothing on the paper tag just knits to 4 ply. Dont think I have ever done a tension square but seeing your one what a fab way to do it!. have never ever knitted socks have been wanting to for ages.. Seeing Lucy's I just had to make some, seeing as it was through her blog that taught me to crochet! anyhoo my yarn is just a plain pink 75% wool 25% polymide. Im not at all good with numbers ( really really bad! ) so I will probably be asking for help on the numbers. I have asked to join the FB group though. You do make me giggle a bit when you say its easy as it dont look though I say that its easy to crochet to a friend who does'nt it all takes practice.. Loved the tiny knitted socks too. Thank you for sharing your knowledge and having patience with us newbies! x

    • Winwick Mum says:

      I think you're going to surprise yourself with how easy you find your socks, Jill. There will always be loads of help in the group thanks to the magic of time zones – always someone around! – and we always love to see progress pictures. Don't worry too much about not having a gauge on your yarn, just work from the number of stitches per inch when you do your tension swatch and it will be fine 🙂 xx

  9. Brief Background says:

    Good Day! I bookmarked your sock knitting information OVER A YEAR AGO…but now I am ready to try. I bought the sock yard…it gets 28 stitches (vs your 30) per 10 cm. I've got a circular needle on a 12 inch/30 cm cable. I'm using size 2 (the next size I've got is 3). I write because just casting on is making me crazy! I have the method down but I seem to keep splitting the yarn. Could this be because I'm holding/pulling the yarn too tight? I worry that if I loosen up then the whole thing will be a loose mess (mind you, all I'm trying to do right now is the swatch! lol).
    Thank you for your help.

    • Winwick Mum says:

      Hi! Well done for finally taking the plunge! Yes, I think you might be pulling your yarn a bit tight if it's splitting, so take a deep breath, pull your shoulders back down from around your ears, loosen that Knitter's Death Grip on your needles and relax! If you're only working on your swatch you're going to be pulling out anyway so nothing is spoilt, and it's entirely likely that your tension will change during the process of knitting your sock anyway as you get more comfortable with your needle. It's what makes your sock unique! 🙂 xx

    • Brief Background says:

      Thanks for replying! I'm certainly tense and tend to hold things too tight, so I am trying desperately to relax (easier said than done). I wanted to ask you…I put the 60 stitches on my needle and rather than starting with k2,p2 for the first two rows, I started with the first row as just knit, followed by the k2, p2. I hope this doesn't create a problem? Also, won't I have to sort of "stitch" the first two rows together with my tail end that is there when I'm done since it is after that point that I've transferred the job to circulars? That's what it seems to me.

    • Winwick Mum says:

      There's no reason why you can't do the first round as knit before you start your rib but it might roll over – some people like this effect and it also makes the cast on edge looser if you're not comfortable with tighter things around your ankles (I deliberately make my uncle's socks in this way as he prefers them like that). Yes, there will be a gap as you transfer to the circular but you can sew this up with your tail end later – I suggest working this way as it's easier than trying to join your stitches straight from casting on as there's more risk of them twisting (and an increased risk of frustration! 🙂 ) xx

  10. Heidi W. says:

    I've just found your sock along posts and am very excited to start. The information in the yarn and needle posts were very helpful and make me feel this is doable. Thanks for taking the time to write this all out and share it!

    • Winwick Mum says:

      You're very welcome, Heidi! It certainly is do-able so just take your time and shout if you get stuck (don't forget our lovely Facebook group for help too!) 🙂 xx

  11. Unknown says:

    Do you have to wash and block the swatch or is it OK to figure out the tension from the stitches off the needle?

  12. Pete says:

    If I'm using dpns instead of circulars should I just knit a stockinet stitch?

    • Winwick Mum says:

      Because you're working in the round, you just knit plain and it comes out as stockinette stitch, Pete. There's no purl required apart from on the cuffs and the heels. If you have a look at the Week 1 tutorial for cast on and leg, it'll all become clear! You'll need to scroll down the page a bit to find the DPN instructions 🙂

  13. Anonymous says:

    Hi, can you tell me why the safety pin. I have read through but must be missing it. Have just found your sockalong and bought pattern. Haven't started yet but love reading your blog. I'm in Brisbane in Queensland Australia. Thanks again jenny

    • Winwick Mum says:

      Hi Jenny, I only use the safety pin if I'm using the long circular (magic loop) method as it shows you which is the front and which is the back of your sock so that you can make sure you complete the whole round. It's easy to forget if you get distracted! Hope that helps! xx

  14. Lisa says:

    Hi Winwick Mum,
    I found your blog and sock a long via Ravelry.
    I'm in South Africa and I have just bought my first sets of circulars and dpns and some 4ply wool as I'm wanting to make my very first pair of socks.
    I've done the swatch for the wool I bought (band says 27 sts and 36 rows is a 10×10 cm [4in x 4in] square), however my swatch turns out to be 32stitches and 40 rows to get the same effect.

    My question is "do I just use my swatch workings or do I rather go up a needle or two size to figure out how many stitches for my socks?" My foot circumference is 8 and 1/4 inches round the ball of my foot.

    I did buy 2.5 DPN and a 2.5 80cm circular (couldn't find a shorter one where I am).
    the make of wool is by Elle and is natural cotton which is what I can wear and work with (severe allergies to manmade fibres like acrylic wool is the reason for this). Elle is a make here in South Africa.

    Hope to hear from you soon.

    Thanks for your generosity an easy to understand tutorials.

    • Winwick Mum says:

      Hi Lisa, it's lovely to see you! Your swatch sounds just right – you're looking to get 7-8 stitches per inch on 2.5mm needles and you've got 8 stitches based on what your swatch has measured up as. I would assume that your foot measurement is 8" x 8 stitches per inch = 64, take off 10% for negative ease (call it 6) and you're left with 56. This is divisible by 4 so you could use that number or you could use 60 instead if you preferred – you can try your sock on as you go so you'll know quite quickly if it's the right size or not. Hope that helps, and good luck with your socks! xx

    • Lisa says:

      Thank you very much…. I will try with the 56 sts cast on and I'm also going to try with the circular needles magic loop method. I don't think I can manage using the DPN's yet except for the cast on stitches.

      Do you do the first two rib rows on the dpn's ( I think that is how I'm understanding your pattern instructions)?

    • Winwick Mum says:

      Yes, it's easier to join into the round if you do that as the stitches are less likely to twist. Once you've got the hang of it you can join into the round straight away if you prefer to do that, but it's worth doing it this way at first so that you can see how it works 🙂 xx

    • Jeanne Bryan Insalaco says:

      I'm joining in to make my first pair of socks, but I plan to use a larger yarn, Caron Simply Soft for this practice pair. It calls for 8 needles, but I'm presently working on a small square with sz4 and its given me 6inches per inch. It is stretcy. My ball measures almost a 9. So I'm thinking I'd add 48 stitches to my needle to begin. But is even a 4 too large, should I go down to a three? This pair will just be a comfy, around the house socks.. thought it would be easier working with a larger yarn on my first pair. Any thoughts on my stitches as to the amount i should put on my needles. Thanks.

    • Winwick Mum says:

      What's the fabric like with your needles, Jeanne? Caron Simply Soft is an aran yarn so it will be quite a lot thicker than 4ply and you don't want your fabric to be too stiff. I generally use needles that are about one size smaller than what's suggested on the ball band so definitely work enough of your tension square so that you can tell if the fabric is one that you're happy with. If you have a look in the free patterns section (yellow picture on the top right hand of this page) then you'll find a pattern for DK (8ply) socks which also works with the Sockalong tutorials but is written for thicker yarn so it will give you some idea of the numbers that you'll be working with. DK works out usually at about 5-6 stitches per inch on 3.5mm needles which makes me think that you might need a bigger size, but you'll know from looking at your work. Hope that helps! xx

  15. Unknown says:

    I am wanting to know how many stiches to put on each needle when starting the heel. I have 57 stiches. Thanks

    • Winwick Mum says:

      Have you lost some stitches along the way or did you start off with 57 sts? The heel flap is half the number of stitches that you cast on so it's always easiest to work with an even number. If you're using the Sockalong pattern, it's written for 60 sts so the assumption is that your heel flap with be worked over 30 sts and you'll be able to follow the instructions as written for your heel turn. If you've lost 3 sts along the way, it's worth trying to find them so that you'll know you won't end up with a hole. If you started off with 56 sts and you've gained one, you can do an extra decrease to get back to 56 sts, and your heel turn set up row will be slip 1, P15, P2tog, P1, turn. Hope that helps! xx

  16. Sueblue says:

    Hello – I’m new here ! I’m just starting my first pair of socks, following the Basic socks, by Winwick Mum. I have size 6 shoes (sometimes 6.5) but the widest part of my foot, around the bottom heel and top, will be just over 12 inches. I’m a bit worried that I won’t be able to get the sock on, so how can I remedy this please ? Thanks. Sue.

  17. Yvonne says:

    I am really stuck. I’m looking at the 8 ply Regia Igloo pattern and it is for a medium sock. For larger, I am to add 4 stitches. That doesn’t help me. How much larger will it be, because how big is medium? I want to make size 12 men’s socks so it would really help me to know whether to add 4 or 8 or 12 or what. How many stitches do I need for size 12 in Regia Iglu, using that pattern? Sorry.

    • winwickmum says:

      Hello! I wrote this tutorial a long time ago and I’ve updated the pattern since but obviously haven’t changed the wording on the tutorial so thanks for letting me know! OK, let’s see if this helps 🙂 The pattern as it is written will fit a ball of the foot circumference of 8″. Hand knit sock size is based on foot circumference and not length so ideally, to make your size 12 socks you will need to know the ball of the foot size of the intended wearer. Then you can use the Sock Stitch Calculation to work out exactly how many stitches you’ll need to cast on. Because you always work with a number of stitches divisible by 4 to make it easier to work out decreases, you’ll increase the number of stitches by 4 to make the sock the right size. Does that make sense? If you have a look at the video that goes with the Sock Stitch Calculation it should help, and you can always give me a shout if you’re still stuck.

      You can also use the Sockalong tutorials to help you if you’re new to socks, you will just work with the numbers on the DK pattern.

      I don’t know if you can still get Regia Iglu but if not, have a look at the Novita DK yarns at Snufflebean Yarn as that’s a really good alternative. You can get 10% off with the code WINWICKMUM (this is an affiliate code but there’s no obligation to buy there, it just gives you a starting point if you’re looking around for yarn) 🙂 xx

  18. Jennifer Creamer says:

    Wow this was the MOST helpful breakdown of knitting math and stitch calculations. Thank you so much for making it so easy.

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