Sweet Tomato Heel

I love knitting socks. Whenever I grab a pair of skinny circs and a hundred grams of equally skinny yarn, I get fizzy and tingly, and all thoughts of chocolate and earthly delights leave my brain.

So imagine the biological upheaval that took place when I discovered that Cat Bordhi developed a new heel technique last summer, which she calls the sweet tomato. It produces a smooth, round heel without holes and other weirdness, and it’s one of those things that works right the first time. The heel uses short rows, but there’s no wrapping or picking up stitches, and once you practice it on medium weight yarn, you will understand what to do when working with the skinny stuff.

After you learn to do it, you can purchase her ebook for patterns. The book is a pdf file, which you can save as text, and it includes both text and charted instructions.

The Sweet Tomato Heel Explained

Bordhi describes her technique for the sweet tomato heel in a YouTube video. Her directions are easy to follow until, of course, the crucial step—hence this tutorial.

For our purposes, let’s say you’re making a slipper sock with medium weight yarn and 4 or 4.5 mm needles (i.e., worsted weight yarn and size 6 or 7needles). Because you like your slippers roomy, you’ll make them 36 stitches around, and because you’re a great planner, your math will be simple and your yarn will be big enough for you to identify things without too much trouble.

1. Start your slipper sock in the usual way. You can work cuff-down or toe-up. It doesn’t matter. Just do what you do until you’re ready to work the heel. (For this example, remember your slipper is 36 stitches around.)
2. For the heel, you will use two thirds of the stitches (24 of the 36), so separate the heel stitches from the instep stitches. You can use a pair of markers to let you know where the heel stitches begin and end, or you can put the instep stitches on one needle and the heel stitches on a different circ or on two dpn’s.
3. Knit across all (24) heel stitches, and stop.
4. Turn the work, slip one stitch, and purl across the rest of the heel stitches. Make a point of tightening the two stitches after the slipped stitch by giving the working yarn an extra tug as you finish each.
5. Run a finger over the work. You’ll notice a wide space between the stitches at the point where you turned in Step 4. A new gap like this one will appear every time you turn the work. Get to know it since it’ll help you decide when to turn again.
6. Turn the work, slip one stitch, and knit across the heel stitches. Stop when you are two stitches away from the gap. Make a point of tightening the two stitches after the slipped stitch by giving the working yarn an extra tug as you finish each.
7. Turn the work, slip one stitch, and purl across the heel stitches. Stop when you are two stitches away from the gap. Make a point of tightening the two stitches after the slipped stitch by giving the working yarn an extra tug as you finish each.
8. Repeat Steps 6 and 7, always turning when you are two stitches away from the nearest gap. Stop when there is about an inch or 2.5 cm between the two center most gaps. The last row is a purl row.

If you’ve played the video, you got this far without any problems at all. The trouble begins with what comes next. Here’s a sampling of my notes:

1 st before gap:
Let me lift this off.
Daughter, mother, grandmother; ignore grandmother.
Mother says, “Let me ride that horse with you. I’ll sit in front.”
Put Mother on the horse.
Call this “thanks, Ma.”

Now, if the movie in your head didn’t feature a lonely prairie and a cowboy with lots of stamina, you’re not as normal as the rest of us.

But I digress.

9. Turn the work, and knit the entire round. Do the following as you work across each section of the round:
a. As you work across the first half of the heel stitches, pause when you’re one stitch away from each gap. Insert the tip of the left needle into the stitch below the one you are about to knit; place that stitch on the left needle; and knit those two stitches together. You are not working a k2tog across the gap: you are knitting the stitch before the gap together with the stitch below it.
b. As you work across the instep, knit all stitches if you’re making a plain slipper sock, or work in pattern if you have a cable or some other fancy stitch going.
c. As you work across the second half of the heel stitches, pause after you knit the stitch before each gap. Insert the tip of the left needle into the stitch below the one you are about to knit; place that stitch on the left needle; and knit those two stitches together. You are not working a k2tog across the gap: you are knitting the stitch after the gap together with the stitch below it.
10. Knit two or 3 rounds even.
11. Repeat Steps 3 through 10 two more times, working three heel wedges in all.
12. Continue the slipper sock in the usual way.

Tips for Finding the Stitch Below

In Step 9, locating the “stitch below” is tricky the first couple of times, so practicing with larger yarn is a good idea.
• Some knitters suggest putting a pin in those stitches. This way, you can just grab the pin and lift the stitch onto the needle. This method works, but it can stretch the stitch out a little, which is what you’re trying to avoid in general.
• Another approach is to use your thumbnail to find the correct strand. When you’re working the first half of the heel, the strand is easier to locate on the public side, and when you’re working the second half of the heel, the strand is easier to locate from the wrong side of the slipper. In both cases, the strand is the outermost vertical line.
• A third way to find the “stitch below” is to make the “stitch above” submissive. When you’re working the first half of the heel, separate the needles so that the stitch you just worked and the one you are about to work are far apart; then use your thumb or the tip of the right needle to slide the “stitch below” toward the left needle. If you’ve got the correct stitch, it’ll slide. When you’re working the second half of the heel, slip the stitch you are about to work to the right needle and separate the needles; then use your thumb or the tip of the left needle to slide the “stitch below” toward the right needle. If you’ve got the correct stitch, it’ll slide.

Variations on a Theme for the Sweet Tomato Heel

I haven’t been working with this heel long enough to have strong opinions about it, but two things I noticed during my early experiments are these:

A. The heel might be a little tidier if you use k2tog tbl in the second half of the heel.
B. You can use this technique when working a more traditional short-row heel. Just make each row one stitch shorter than the previous one as you would when working the first half of the standard short-row heel. Then as you work Step 9 (above), knit each of the sloppy short-row stitches together with the stitch below it. Work the foot right after that, or work a couple of rounds even then do exactly what you did before.

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Magic Cast On

The third provisional cast on of the series is Judy Becker’s magic cast on, which was described in the spring 2006 issue of Knitty. It’s the most seamless of the cast ons if you’re doing stockinet or garter, and it’s perfect for making closed tubes, like socks and purses; for projects that start in the middle, like scarves and afghans with ends that are mirror images of each other; or for the start of a top-down triangular shawl. . It’s also fairly stable, so unlike the figure-8 cast on, you can freely put lots of stitches on the needles. The original directions are pretty clear, but Steps 4 and 5 of Becker’s article, where the actual stitch is being described, require much rereading and experimentation, so here’s an alternate explanation of the way it works.

For this cast on, you’ll need two needles (circs or dpn’s) or maybe one long circ and some practice yarn. My instructions aren’t identical to Becker’s, but they’re very close. The biggest difference is that, in Step 2, she has the knitter hang the tail end of the yarn over the index finger (opposite from the long-tail cast on), while I’m satisfied with holding the yarn in the standard long-tail cast on way. I’ve tried both methods, and it doesn’t seem to make a difference, so ….

1. Tie a slip knot around one of your needles, leaving a longish tail (about 12 inches or 30 cm).
2. Hold the yarn as if you were doing the long-tail cast on.
a. Your left hand is holding an imaginary glass of water.
b. Lay the yarn over the thumb and index finger of your left hand, with the tail end hanging from your thumb and the ball end hanging from your index finger.
c. Curl the middle, ring, and pinky fingers of your left hand into the palm and tuck the hanging strands of yarn into them.
d. The yarn itself forms an inverted triangle. A horizontal strand goes from your thumb to your index finger. One diagonal goes from your thumb to your middle finger, and another diagonal goes from your index to your middle finger. The needles are resting on the horizontal line at the top of the inverted triangle. The one with the slip knot is farthest from you, but we’ll get into that in the next step.

As you continue reading the instructions, it helps to think of the clock: 9:00 is to your left; 12:00 is in front of you; 3:00 is to your right; and 6:00 is behind you.

3. Hold both needles in starting position.
a. The needles are in your right hand. They point left to 9:00, and the needles are lying side by side, like the planks of a floor or the seat of a rocking chair.
b. It’s helpful to put the thumb of your right hand on this floor, so you always remember which side is the top.
c. The slip knot is on the needle that is farthest from you. Call this Needle 2.
4. Twist the needles so they point away from you to 12:00.
5. Tip the needles so that Needle 2 is above Needle 1. Imagine they’re a rocking chair you’re tipping to the left; your thumb is no longer on top, but to the left.
6. Twist the needles back to 9:00. On your way, make sure the horizontal part of the triangle that is nearest your left index finger slides between the two needles. When you are all the way back at 9:00, tip the needles back to starting position, with the right thumb on top and Needle 2 behind Needle 1.
7. Twist the needles so they point toward you to 6:00.
8. Tip the needles so that Needle 1 is above Needle 2. Imagine they’re a rocking chair you’re tipping to the right; your thumb is no longer on top, but to the right.
9. Twist the needles back to 9:00. On your way, make sure the horizontal part of the triangle that is nearest your left thumb slides between the two needles. When you are all the way back at 9:00, tip the needles back to starting position, with the right thumb on top and Needle 2 behind Needle 1.
10. Repeat Steps 4 to 9 until you finish casting on all of your stitches, ending with Step 6. If you do things right, you should feel a ridge forming on the underside of the needles.
11. Twist the working yarn and the cast-on tail once.
12. On Needle 1, knit all stitches (k), and on Needle 2, knit all stitches through the back of the loop (ktbl).
13. After that, do as the spirit moves you.

Once you get the hang of this cast on, the movements become smaller and subtler, a flick of the right wrist as the needles swing back and forth catching the yarn on their way.

Instead of starting with a slip knot, you can just twist the yarn around Needle 2. This sometimes produces a tiny hole at the end farthest from the cast-on tail, so if I’m making socks, I often work a couple of rows back and forth and just pick up stitches at the ends.