Maryanne Cleary, 41, sock authority at the Woolpack yarn store in Littleton, remembers an evening spent at a friend's home watching a movie. "I was knitting a sock. After a few minutes I looked over and saw that my friend's husband wasn't watching the movie anymore.
" 'Why are you looking at me?' " I asked.
" 'I'm looking at the yarn!' he said. 'It's unbelievable what's coming out!' "
The phenomenon that had this fellow so enthralled is called self-patterning yarn, dyed at intervals so that different colors and shapes emerge automatically, without your having to change yarn or, really, do anything but sit there and mindlessly, happily knit.
Along with the advent of the self-patterning yarn, which arrived in American stores about four years ago, have come new techniques in sock knitting, using circular rather than the traditional double-pointed needles. The two developments have given new meaning to the phrase "foot fetish," sparking interest in both beginning and experienced knitters.
With the magic of the self-patterning yarns, "even simple knitting can look fabulous," says Woolpack owner Janet Hampson, 58. Stripes, zigzags, dots, Fair Isle patterns, or random smudges of color emerge effortlessly from under the knitter's fingers in a hypnotic progression, and the choices are nearly infinite. The German manufacturer Regia, for example, offers about 50 varieties, in combinations ranging from sober grays and browns to wild marriages of bright yellow, green, pink, and blue.
To create the yarn, also known as jacquard, a photograph is taken of a pattern, which, with the aid of a computer, is translated into a stitch pattern; the yarn is then dyed according to the pattern. The first such yarns -- which can also be used to knit mittens, baby sweaters, and hats -- were made in Germany, but now every manufacturer has a version, says Jackie Katzenstein, owner of Wild & Woolly in Lexington. Ikat, a form of tie-dying in which sections of fabric are tied to resist dye, and which has a long tradition in India, Southeast Asia, and Central and South America, may have been the inspiration.
Besides its aesthetic appeal and simplicity, working with self-patterning yarn has another advantage over using multiple skeins of yarn -- the finished sock will have a perfectly smooth inside. With the old-fashioned technique, no matter how attentive or fastidious the finishing job, there's always the danger of snagging a toe on one of the loops of yarn carried along as the knitter switches between colors.
Another lure for knitters has been the creation of sock-making techniques on circular needles. In one, two medium-size -- 16 to 24 inches -- circular needles are used, with the stitches evenly divided between them. Another method, known as the Magic Loop, employs one very long -- 32 to 40 inches -- circular needle.
"People who are double-pointed-needle-phobic are running to these two techniques," says Randi Nelson, 57, owner of the World in Stitches in Littleton. The Magic Loop allows the knitter to make two socks at once (the socks are side by side on the needle, each worked with a separate ball of yarn), so that the shaping and size will be identical. It also helps prevent what Nelson calls the single sock syndrome, in which the knitter is so eager to try out another self-patterning yarn that he or she moves on to a new variety after finishing only one sock with the old one.
A third circular-needle technique employs a very small needle, about 4 inches long. For sock-knitting purposes, circular needles "have gotten both bigger, for Magic Loop, and smaller, as people have experimented with them," Cleary says.
With circular needles, there's no need to worry about stitches falling off your needles when you stow your work away. In the double-pointed method, in which there are always two active needles and two resting needles, one of the two resting needles is liable to slip out of the work, or be forgotten.
Another advantage is that circular needles don't create "laddering," a small gap that may form between stitches when switching from one double-pointed needle to another. They also allow you to try the sock on as you knit.
"People who make socks make a lot of socks," says Katzenstein, who says she has one customer who made 50 pairs last year. "People who make scarves are product-oriented; people who make socks enjoy the process."
For Donna Peterson, 68, of Concord, an accomplished knitter, part of the fun of making socks is that they can be finished so quickly. And with the self-patterning yarn, she says, they go quickly simply because you want to see the pattern develop. Also, "when you're done, you're done" -- there's no tedious finishing work that larger projects like sweaters require, she says.
Socks "appeal to various levels of knitting abilities," says Hampson of the Woolpack. You can make a basic model, such as a tube sock, or one with lace patterns or cables. "There is a pair of socks" for everyone, she says.
Cleary says she thinks handmade socks answer a need for people who always like to be wearing something that's knitted. In addition, she says, they provide the joy of craftsmanship and the meditative benefits of needlework, and in the end leave you with a personal, unique handmade gift -- all for about $15.
According to Alayne Freidel, 25, assistant manager at Woolcott & Co. in Cambridge, there's an anti-establishment element to socks' popularity. Making them flies "in the face of modern culture," she says. When you're knitting a sock, you're "in touch with fiber, not communicating via a computer screen, where the other person is so far away. . . . Making socks is really pointless except as a real gesture of love -- it shows you knitted every stitch, you shaped it, you worked in the ends, you blocked it, you spent hours making something that you could buy in five minutes at Target."