All About Socks

You may be surprised to learn how much development has gone into sock design over the years.

| September/October 1990


Sock design and technology is more complex than most give it credit for.


Socks are almost too personal. A pair of socks can live anonymously in your sock drawer for years, or can call out to you whenever its opened. They are the undergarment that shows. They are somber, over-the-calf business socks, confidently white athletic socks, thick and light. They are pink argyles you wear only to parties, and they are your Saturday socks.

I remember my Saturday socks. Yellow gold and of a fuzzy material that felt good when I pulled them on before listening to "Big John and Sparky" on the radio in the morning. With them I announced to myself that Saturday was mine. Now, on weekend mornings full of more stress than the ones I spent as a kid, I catch myself looking for them in my sock drawer.

But perhaps you think a sock is just a sock, a forgettable extra layer of fabric. Think again: once you've learned all about socks, you'll come to realize how much thought and development has gone into the sock that is so comfortable against your foot you can almost forget it's there. 

The foot is a mechanical wonder, a most adaptable appendage. It is a forest of sensitive nerves, a legacy of our distant past when feet were almost as useful for exploring the world as hands. As the foot's shape changes constantly with angle and pressure, its pliant form is kept taut by a web of impressive muscles. These muscles, dozens of them, are sustained by a high-volume blood supply. Straining and relaxing with each step, each shift in balance, the muscles use sweat glands to expel the heat of their work in the form of water vapor. There you have it: strong, sweaty feet, imprisoned when we aren't barefoot and occasionally producing an odor offensive to everyone.

Sock Origins: Natural Fibers

In truth it is not feet that produce unkindly odor but microorganisms that flourish in perspiration and oils, dark and heat. The intelligent foot-owner will cover the extremity with a porous layer that can wick away some of the moisture given off by exertion, insulate the nerve-dense foot against cold and heat and buffer the interface between foot and shoe.

The traditional material for this layer was wool, and the traditional technology that went with it was of a fairly high order: Instead of weaving a flat cloth to be pieced around the foot (the way Russian soldiers do it), it was possible to twist large, light yarns and produce a seamless, form-fitting product by knotting them—that is to say, knitting. Wool has a strong crimp ("spring") and a major advantage over cotton. Cotton dries from the outside, retaining its last moisture on the inside next to the foot, while wool dries from the inside out, so that anything less than full saturation places a measure of comfort next to the skin.

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