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How To > Patterns > AGSAS Soldiers Sock Pattern

Atlantic Guard Soldiers’ Aid Society

Knitting the 1865 U.S. Sanitary Commission Sock
By Karin Timour

The Atlantic Guard Soldiers’ Aid Society wishes to encourage knitting in general – and period-correct sock knitting in particular.  Taking into account the recent research on period knitting, we wanted to revise the sock pattern on our website.

We have decided to expand our sock selection by not one but four versions of the “Directions for Knitting Socks” from the United States Sanitary Commission Bulletin (Volume I, Number 31, February 1, 1865, page 963).  We are including a) the original 19th century pattern; b) a modern “translation” of this pattern into modern knitting instructions for experienced knitters, using 3/8 JaggerSpun yarn; c) an intermediate version of the same pattern (more detailed explanations of terms and techniques); and c) a version for beginning knitters using worsted weight yarn.  Please note we have no documentation that period socks were ever knit with modern worsted weight yarn.

We will shortly include pictures to illustrate the various steps of sock construction.

This particular pattern uses a heel and a toe that were common in both the North and the South.  Nancy Bush in the book Folk Socks refers to this toe as the “Round Toe” and this heel as the “Dutch” or “Square” heel.   

Incidentally, Ms. Bush’s Folk Socks (ISBN:  0-934026-971) is a great addition to your knitting library.  Knitters interested in historical knitting should keep in mind that Folk Socks substitutes the more modern technique of “grafting” or “Kitchner stitching” where 19th century knitters would use the “three-needle bind-off.”   I have never seen a mid-nineteenth century pattern or surviving original sock constructed with the Kitchner stitch.  Neither grafting nor the three-needle bind off are needed to make the sock we are going to each you.

Here is the actual 19th century pattern

I have then written three interpretations of this pattern in modern knitting language.  The first version is intended for knitters who already know how to make socks, but who prefer modern language to 19th century knitting terms.  It includes modern needle sizes and gauge, but with no other modifications and is knit with 3/8 Jaggerspun yarn.  The second version is written for those who know the basics of knitting, but who may not have made a sock before. There are more thorough descriptions of the various steps of sock construction.   

For beginning knitters, I have written a modification to be knit with worsted weight yarn.  

What needles to use? 

Period knitting instructions don’t include modern gauge (the number of stitches per inch needed to achieve a correct fit).  Surviving original socks have gauges that range from 8-22 stitches per inch.  The clues we can use to figure out the correct yarn and modern needles are: a) the 19th century needle number; b) the number of stitches to be cast on to start the sock and c) very occasionally, the weight of the finished socks (this pattern states that a pair of socks should weigh a third of a pound, or just over 5 ounces).

Modern knitting needle numbers get larger as the needle’s diameter gets larger.  Period knitting needle numbers are just the opposite – the numbers indicating size get larger as the needle’s diameter shrinks. 

For this pattern I used a  “G. Chambers” bell gauge (patented in 1847).  Using the “notch” not the “circle” for the measurement, I found a size 13 needle to be the equivalent of a modern American size 1 needle (metric size 2.25 mm). 

What is a Needle Gauge and how are 19th Century Gauges Different from Modern Gauges?
A needle gauge is used to measure the diameter of the needle.  Nineteenth century needle gauges were different shapes.  Some were rectangles, others circles, but many were cut out in the shape of a two-dimensional bell, and so are called “bell gauges.”   Knitting needle gauges were based on the gauges used in wire drawing – the technique that was used to form metal wires of varying thinness.  Wire drawing was also used to mass-produce steel knitting needles (also called “knitting pins”) in our period.  Professionals in the wire trade needed to accurately measure the diameter of wires and developed a tool called a “wire gauge.”  These are circles with little cut-outs around the outer edges made to measure the size of different wires.  To this day the “British Standard Wire Gauge” and the “American Standard Wire Gauge” are used by trade professionals to determine whether a wire is a “19-gauge,” 18-gauge,” etc. 

Wire gauges were the models for the first knitting needle gauges.  The makers of knitting needle gauges copied the size and shape of the cut-outs used to measure the needles.  As with many aspects of the 19th century, needle gauges were not always uniform in their sizing, so the same needle might measure two different sizes on two different gauges.  Sometimes the knitting pattern specifies “Use No. 16 needle as measured on Walker’s Bell Gauge.”

Two Methods for Using a 19th Century Needle Gauge to Measure Knitting Needles
Most knitters are familiar with modern (21st century) needle gauges  They have a have a series of different sized holes -- you measure needles by poking the end of the needle into the hole until you find the one that fits. 

Bell gauges have a few of these circular holes, right in the middle of the gauge, for the very largest needles.  What makes them different from modern needle gauges are the line of gradually smaller holes, that ring the outside edge of the gauge.  Each of these smaller holes has a little notch that extends to the rim of the gauge.  On the very oldest bell gauges, these “outer rim” measures aren’t even circular holes, but flattened notches.  These were modeled on wire gauges which used the “notch” rather than the “circle” to measure the size of wires.  Some knitting books (and some gauges) flatly instruct readers to “use the notch” not the “circle,” to measure the needles.  Thus, it is my belief that when measuring needles using the numbers on the outer edges of the Bell gauge, it is the “notch” rather than the “circle” which is the measuring point.  

Measuring Blunt-tipped Knitting Needles

Nineteenth century needles are fairly blunt at the tips, with little taper.  The gauge is designed to measure the non-tapered part of the needle.  If you have a fairly blunt needle, you can lay the needle gauge flat on a table.  Lay your knitting needle flat on the same surface and insert the point into the “notches” until the point touches the inner edge of that particular circle.  If the needle slides easily into that notch, move down a notch and try again.  When you find a notch that is too small for your needle, the correct size is one larger than this notch. You are looking for the notch that is the snuggest fit for your needle, but which still allows it to be inserted into the notch.  In other words, the last notch into which you could comfortably fit your needle is the accurate size of that needle.

Montse Stanley in the Reader’s Digest Knitter’s Handbook (ISBN 0-89577-467-4) has a picture of how to do this on page 36.  This is also an excellent reference work for your knitting library.  I especially like the chapters illustrating numerous methods for casting on and off.  The book is peppered with Ms. Stanley’s delightfully opinionated thoughts about different techniques.

Measuring Knitting Needles with More Pointed Ends

If your knitting needles have more pointed ends, they may taper so gradually that the notch won’t be long enough to reach the non-tapered part of the needle.  Since the gauge needes to measure the needle’s diameter, the first method won’t work.  Try this instead:

Pick up the needle gauge, and poke the needle perpendicularly into a hole with a notch.  Keep it perpendicularly through the hole, so that the middle of the needle, not the point, is in the hole.  Holding the needle steady, try to move the gauge sideways, so that the middle of the needle passes out through the notch.  Do this with successive notches until you find the one that the needle can’t be pulled through. Your needle is the size of the last notch through which you could pull the needle.

How Many Needles Do I Need?

These patterns are written assuming the knitter will be using four double-pointed needles to hold the stitches, and knitting with the fifth.  If you prefer to use four double-points, a single circular or two circular needles, please adapt the pattern accordingly.


Warning on Fiber Content

Most modern wool sock yarn is made with a small amount of nylon or other man-made fiber. For fire safety reasons, I strongly recommend against using this yarn for re-enactor socks.  Re-enactors often sleep or work close to open flames.  Some have a tendency to put their feet too close to the fire.  If a spark lands on wool, it will smolder and resist burning, but man-made fibers, especially those made of petroleum or plastics will flame quickly and sometimes even melt onto the skin.  Even “wooly nylon” reinforcing yarn can be a potential hazard.   If your socks are made with any man-made content, tell the the re-enactor who will be wearing them so that they know to be extra careful around open flames or fires.

Merino wool is also a poor choice for socks – the famous softness will cause your socks to quickly wear through, sometimes in one wearing.

Single ply yarn is also too weak to be used for socks – period knitters used double- ply, triple-ply or even four-ply yarn for their socks.

Which yarn Will Produce the Most Historically Correct Sock?

This pattern tells us three important things about the proper material to use to make these socks:  use …”three-threaded yarn…” (three-ply wool), and …“1 lb. Yarn makes three pair socks.”

Yarn = wool?

In the 19th century, the word “yarn” referred to “wool” – if they wanted you to use “cotton” they’d call it “cotton” and if they wanted you to knit with linen they called it “thread.”

“Three-threaded” = three-ply

Socks needed to be made so that they could stand up to a lot of wear and tear.  Sock yarn automatically meant two or three ply yarn, never single-ply.  You can often get very thin single-ply yarn on cones for weaving and machine knitting.  Making socks of this is a waste of your efforts, because the single ply is so weak that it will quickly wear through in regular usage.

“…1 lb. Yarn makes three pair socks…” What about modern sport weight yarn?
For years this has puzzled me – because I couldn’t figure out a way to make a pair of socks that would weigh anywhere near 1/3 of a pound (5.33 ounces/151 grams).  All the surviving original socks I’d seen were knit of very tightly spun yarn, resembling modern fingering weight yarn (spun at 1800 yards per lb/1646m. per lb.).  But when I made socks with modern fingering yarn, they were less than 4 ounces in weight.  When I tried modern “sport weight” yarn (spun at 1670 yards per lb/1538 m per lb), the result was a) too light in weight (less than 4 ounces), and b) too wide and “fluffy” when knit on size 13 needles.  I needed a yarn that was spun with less than 1800 yards per pound but which was dense enough to give a pair of socks that would weigh 5 ounces or more per pair.

But then I discovered 3/8 Jagger Spun yarn (spun at 1490 yards per lb/1362m per lb ).  It was three-ply wool and when it was knit up on the needle specified in the pattern “…number 13…” (modern American size 1, metric 2.25mm) needle, a pair of socks weighed 5.5 ounces/156 grams!  

Help us Find the Perfect Yarn!

There is a problem with the 3/8 JaggerSpun.  It is suspiciously soft to the touch – a likely sign it’s made with wool from Merino sheep. Merino sheep were prized in the mid-19th century, but socks made from their wool won’t wear as well as yarn made from other sheep breeds.

Currently, the 3/8 JaggerSpun is the closest modern yarn we’ve found that fits this pattern’s specifications.  But we’re not satisfied yet, and we’re asking your help.  Can you help us find a source for a sturdier 3/8 wool yarn spun at about 1500 yards per pound?

If you know a yarn we should try, send a note to me at ktimour@aol.com and we’ll knit up a sample.  If it’s better than the Jaggerspun, we’ll post it, publicly thank you and refer others to the source, so that they can start making socks with that yarn as well.

Where to Buy Supplies:
Bartlett Yarns – www.bartlettyarns.com – Both fingering and worsted weight yarn spun on period spinning mules from the early 1800s.

Carodan Farms – www.carodanfarm.com – Located in the Shenandoah Valley, this family sheep farm has grown to include a small yarn store.  They sell a wide variety of modern sock yarns, but I really love their “Carodan Farms” yarns, spun from their own flock.  This yarn is available in both worsted weight and what they call “sport weight” – but it’s 1800 yards per pound, so that’s actually a fingering weight yarn.

Elann – www.elann.com – Has 3/8 Jagger Spun and many other yarns as well.

Halcyon Yarn – www.halcyon.com  – Has Bartlett yarn, 3/8 Jagger Spun (and a whole lot more besides).

The Mannings – www.the-mannings.com – A wide range of wonderful yarns, books and tools for knitting.

Patternworks – www.patternworks.com  – This is a large outlet for a wide variety of yarn and supplies.

Yarn Barn of Lawrence, Kansas – www.yarnbarn-ks.com – Another large, but extremely friendly outlet for a wide variety of yarn and supplies.  If you’re a beginning knitter, they also have “Victorian Videos” craft videos covering a wide range of needlecrafts, including knitting, crochet, tatting, etc.

Knitting needles and a knitting gauge:

The Bag Lady – www.baglady.com –- Very fine steel knitting needles, up to 000000 (6-0).  These needles have less sharp points than those sold by other sellers – very important if you tend to accidentally poke yourself from time to time.

Lacis – www.lacis.com – Fine knitting needles and a wealth of lace knitting supplies.

Needles! – www.needles-jkl.com  – Wide variety of knitting, lace and other needlework needles.

Moonrise Lace Knitting – www.moonriselaceknitting.com – I haven’t ordered their knitting needles, so I can’t give an opinion on them, but I really, really like their modern brass knitting needle gauge.  It measures lace size needles using American and metric measures from 0 – 00000000.

Bell Gauges – These often come up for sale on Ebay.


Bush, Nancy, Folk Socks (ISBN:  0-934026-971)

Stanley, Montse, Reader’s Digest Knitter’s Handbook (ISBN 0-89577-467-4)

Sock Construction Notes

The Seam Stitch

Every hand knit original sock I’ve ever studied has a line of purl stitches that run down the middle of the back of the leg.  This is called the “seam stitch,” and is used to mark the end of a row of knitting. If the sock is to have a shaped leg, the paired decreases that give it this shaping are done on either side of the seam stitch.  When the heel is reached, the seam stitch marks the middle of the heel flap. 

The Sanitary Commission Sock pattern does not have any leg shaping.  More authentic reproductions should be made with a seam stitch down the back of the leg, but if it really frustrates you, leave it out.

“Run Heels and Toes”

This is a period technique for reinforcing the heels and toes of your socks.  After the sock is made, you turn it inside out and cover the inside of the heel and toe with running stitches.  This does add to the amount of time needed to finish the sock, and period sock knitters must have disliked it because the pattern states that if you “want to avoid running” you can use the “purl one, slip one” heel flap pattern and skip having to run the heels.

I use a darning egg, a light bulb or a potato to keep from accidentally stitching the sock closed. Thread a bit of leftover yarn on a darning needle, turn the sock inside out, insert your darning egg and cover the “walking surface” of the toe as well as the bottom and back of the heel with running stitches.  If you knit the worsted weight version of this pattern, use a thinner yarn to reinforce.  Please don’t use “wooly nylon” or other man-made fibers  -- they are more likely to catch fire if the wearer gets too close to fires or open flames. Be careful not to go through the yarn, but just nip the upper surface.  If you used a contrasting color for your heels and toes, be careful to use the same color when “running” the heels and toes.

Tips for Using Double Point Needles

Don’t worry if you feel fumble fingered and clumsy, especially when casting on and getting your stitches distributed for the ribbing.  It usually takes a row or two before the needles are doing what I want them to do. 

How to Avoid a “Gap” when Casting-on

Sometimes the beginning and ending of your cast-on row can separate, causing a gap in your ribbing. To prevent this, when you have all the stitches cast on and evenly distributed over four needles (but haven’t yet joined them into a square), lay them down flat on a table surface.   In your mind, number the needles “1,” “2,” “3” and “4.”  Needle Number 1 should have the FIRST stitch that was cast on, as well as one fourth of all the stitches.  Needle Number 2 is next with one fourth of all the stitches, followed by Needle Number 3 with one fourth of all the stitches.
Needle Number 4should have the last fourth of all the stitches and end with the LAST stitch that was cast on.  Make sure that the needles are lying flat, and that all the stitches are, too.  I like to think of the little piece of the stitch that hangs below the needle is it’s personal “toe.”  Check out your stitches’ toes --they shouldn’t be twisting around the needles, but instead all be lined up below the stitches like little soldiers. 

  1. Carefully enlarge the LAST stitch that was made, so that it is much bigger than any of the others.  Leave it hanging on Needle Number 4, but just a much bigger  -- like a little lasso just hanging on off the end of the needle.. 
  2. Pick up Needle Number 1 and Needle Number 4.  Ignore Needles 2 and 3 for the time being. 
  3. Transfer ONLY the FIRST stitch cast on from Needle Number 1 to Needle Number 4.
  4. Leave all the other stitches that were originally on Needle number 1 on Needle number 1. 
  5. On Needle Number 4 you have both the first and last stitches, sitting next to each other.   Starting at the left hand point of Needle Number 4, you should have the stitch you just transferred from Needle Number 1, then your little lasso (the last stitch you cast on, which you enlarged but left hanging on Needle Number 4), and then all the rest of the stitches on Needle Number 4.
  6. Carefully pass the top of your lasso over the FIRST stitch that was cast on, and then completely off Needle Number 4, on to the right hand point of Needle Number 1.  Pull the excess yarn tight.  The bottom of this stitch will still be on Needle Number 4, and the stitch will slant over, but the top of the stitch will be on Needle Number 1.
  7. Start your ribbing with the stitch you crossed over, and knit it right where it is now located, on Needle Number 1.

The author thanks Meg Galante-DeAngelis, Colleen Formby and Virginia Mescher for advice and research help.  Bev Heath gave invaluable feedback as the first knitter to use the pattern --  she told us where to clarify and add more detail.

Copyright 2007 by Karin Timour.  This article may not be reproduced in any way without the permission of the author.