Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Sock heels; yo-yo and boomerang analyzed

When I began knitting socks last year, I learned that there were two basic heel types commonly used in hand-knit socks, heel flap and short row. Undeniably, there are other ways to knit a sock heel, but these two are the most common. Of these two I've come to prefer the short row heel. Even non-knitters will be familar with it, as it is the type of heel used for machine-knit socks.

Recently, I came across a couple of new terms applied to short row heels--yo-yo and boomerang. The yo-yo heel I found described in a blog, Tess Knits. The boomerang heel I saw described in a German publication, and have been told that instructions for this heel are offered in a pamphlet published by Regia. While knitting my last few short row heels, I figured out something about these terms and the heels they describe.

I hope that my observations here seem simple. In fact, all that I have discovered is the simplicity of short row heels. There are only two steps to such a heel--short rowing in and short rowing out. The boomerang and yo yo heels add a third step in between these two. The insight which has helped me understand this third step and its advantages came from considering the names, boomerang and yo-yo.

I have some familarity with yo-yos and boomerangs, having played with both as a child. While both of these devices can be thrown away from a person to return to the point of departure, a yo-yo returns back along the same path. There are many variations from the usual path that can be imposed on a yo-yo by the person manipulating it. However, the basic path is up and down, or to and fro, or back and forth--it's all the same. A boomerang, once properly thrown, returns to the thrower in an elipse, a more circular path. This simple difference, yo-yos--back and forth and boomerangs--around, sparked my revelation.

The difference between these two types of short row heels and the standard short row heel, regardless of how the turns of the short rows are secured, is this path. On a standard short row heel, the knitter knits ever shorter rows, securing the turns in some way (with wraps, regular or japanese style, double stitches, or yarn overs) to tighten the space between stitches at the turn. In the photo below is a standard short row heel.

The turns at the beginning of each short row are secured by backwards yarn overs so that each turn is marked by a pair of two loops on the needle. Look closely (click on the photo to make it bigger) and you will see that the middle five stitches on each needle have only one loop. The other stitches all have two loops, a yarn over and stitch pair. The plain stitches are the ten stitches I will leave in the middle of the heel. There are 10 pairs of stitches and yarn overs on each side of the plain stitches, plus one additional unworked stitch at each end. I'll explain these unworked stitches later. At this point, to knit a standard short row heel with yarn overs (a heel developed by Priscilla Gibson-Roberts), I would begin knitting increasingly longer short rows back out to the edges of the heel.

With each row, I would knit a yarn over and the next outside stitch together, thus closing the hole at the end of the short row. However, the next step would be to turn my work, requiring another yarn over or double stitch or wrap, producing three loops to knit or purl together on each subsequent short row. Both the boomerang heel and the yo-yo heel eliminate the third loop. Here's how:

After the heel is short rowed in, the next row is knit out to the end, knitting together stitches and yarn overs. This step eliminates the extra loops on one side of the heel. Below is the heel after I have knit out and turned it around so you can see the single loops on the right side as opposed to the 10 double loops (in this case, stitch and yarn over pairs) on the left side.

If this were to be a what I would call a boomerang heel, I would continue the round on the next needle (the one at the bottom right), across the third needle (the one on the bottom left), and then knit the yarn overs and stitches together across left side of the heel. My boomerang heel would have two normal rounds between the short rows in and the short rows out, just like the heel described in Tess Knits. It may not be what others call it, but it makes more sense to me that the rows between the two halves of a boomerang heel would continue around the sock, as a boomerang turns around in a circular path to return to the thrower.

Calling this type of heel a boomerang heel helped me understand it. It may be called a yo-yo heel, or a jo-jo heel, or some other name, but I think "boomerang" is much more descriptive. It is a neat trick, this third step to eliminate the difficult and bumpy k3togs and p3togs. There's just one drawback.

When using patterned yarn, these two rounds break up the pattern. I use patterned sock yarn a lot. I wanted to knit this type of heel to avoid the k3togs, but I didn't want those two odd rounds around my ankle. I began to wonder, "If this is a boomerang heel, what is a yo-yo heel?"

Once I thought about the up-down, back-forth motion of a yo-yo, I had it. A yo-yo heel must avoid this problem by just going back and forth, by knitting the extra rows back and forth rather than around the instep. I tried it, and it worked fine. I don't know if this method is the yo-yo heel that I've heard about, having never read instructions for a heel that was definitely called a yo-yo heel. However, this is the method that works for me.

After I knit across to the edge of the heel, I take another stitch from the instep before I turn the work (I prepare for this by leaving an extra unworked stitch on the end each needle). This turn is secured by whatever method has been used to secure the other short rows. In this case, I turned, made a backwards yarn over and purled the stitch. Now I can purl back across the heel, knitting the yarn overs and next stitches together, eliminating those extra loops on the left side. You see the heel afterwards in the photo below:

Again, I'll take another stitch from the instep (it's already on my needle, but could have been left on the instep needle until I reached this step), yarn over and knit it, then knit across to the point where I'll begin working short rows back out for the other half of the heel.

In summary: The only difference, which is to me an advantage, between a standard short row heel and a boomerang or a yo-yo short row heel is that knitting or purling three loops together is completely eliminated. The boomerang and yo-yo heels only require knitting two loops together at any time. To do this, these two types of heels add two rows between the short rows in and the short rows out.

Once I finished the heel and began full rounds of knitting, I found a difference between the boomerang and the yo-yo methods. With a boomerang heel, the gap between the heel and the instep is small. With a yo yo heel, since there are no matching rows on the instep, the two extra rows may increase the size of the gap between the heel and the instep when they are knit together in the first full round. I find that it is necessary to add another stitch or two between the heel and the instep to close the gap there. This isn't a big problem for me, since I like to add stitches there to provide more room for my ankle. With the heel below, I picked up three stitches on each side. I decreased these extra stitches and a couple more away later in the foot, forming a mini-gusset after the heel.

Now that I have analyzed and understood these two methods, the boomerang and the yo-yo, I can use these methods with any type of short row heel I knit to eliminate those knitting two wraps or two yarn overs and a stitch together. The resulting heels are pretty, much smoother than those with the lumpy triple stitches on the inside. (The one above will look much flatter after it is blocked.) My German friend insists that the double stitch heel is even smoother, but I don't find that using wraps, yarn overs, or double stitches makes much difference.

If you knit socks, but you've never tried a short-row heel, try one on your next pair of socks. It's only a heel--you can rip it out if you don't like it. Clicking the link above will take you to the post I wrote when I first heard of short row heels. It has basic information and links to patterns explaining that type of heel.

(Added 3/24/10) If you'd like specific instructions for a boomerang heel, I have a pattern based on this heel available for sale. Besides the boomerang heel, the pattern includes a decorative seam stitch and in interesting approach to stripes.

Burning Stripes socks, for more info, see the pattern page

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Marjorie said...

That is a great post, and I'll have to come back to it when I experiment with short-row heels. I've clung stubbornly to heel flaps because I can do them--and they fit.

Sam said...

Great instructions, I appreciate you sharing this. I might have to try a short row heel, yo-yo style as you have described, for my next socks -- the finish is very clean. Great yarn btw!

Wool Winder said...

I do like the looks of that heel.

Loplolly Blue said...

Wow, are you the clever one. I felt such relief after reading your post because I am now on the 4th try at PGR's yo heel. Everything about it is fine EXCEPT for purling 3 tog tbl. That, for me, is seemingly impossible. So again, thank you for this simplification. It just makes so much sense.