These days, we take it for granted that we wear socks on our feet next to the skin. It makes wearing shoes a lot more comfortable, absorbs and removes perspiration and can create quite an individualistic fashion statement.
But the traditional wool, synthetic or cotton socks in the form of an enclosed tubular design with which we’re most familiar wasn’t always the universal paradigm. In earlier times, socks made of leather or matted animal hair were not unusual. Foot coverings in the form of flat lengths of cloth wrapped around the feet were just as common as more conventional socks or stockings. In fact, foot wraps were part of the Finnish army’s soldiers as late as the early 1990’s. The British army didn’t dispense with “puttees” -bandage material wrapped from ankle to knee as lower leg coverings – until the Second World War.
British Indian Army soldiers all wearing puttees
Making the modern sock
Until the invention of the tubular knitting machine in the late 16th century, tubular socks were knitted entirely by hand. Although modern sock knitting machines may be faster than their earlier counterparts, sock manufacturing is one area of the modern textile industry in which old and new co-exist surprisingly well.
Mass produced socks are conventionally made using an automated process in which the fabric is knitted using a cylinder knitting machine and the toe end is automatically sewn. This basic template or “greige sock” is then dyed, pressed to shape and passed for inspection and packaging.
Some manufacturers, however, retain more traditional methods of sock production, in particular for the luxury end of the market. UK knitwear manufacturer Corgi Hosiery, for example, still use hand operated flat knitting machines for more luxurious socks and, even with more modern production techniques for fine gauge cotton socks, all toe closures are done individually by hand.
A material matter
Modern men’s socks are produced in a wide range of fibres, from the traditional to the more modern and even some which you might not expect.
Woollen socks are, of course, one of the earliest incarnations of footwear, yet even today wool is unsurpassed in many respects as a staple of sock manufacture. Wool socks are comfortable and are superb at keeping feet dry and warm in all climates. Merino wool is often used for the most luxurious wool socks.
Cashmere, taken from the undercoat of Chinese and Mongolian goats is supremely luxurious and indulgent, but it’s relatively expensive and definitely not for everyday wear.
Mass produced Cotton socks are a relatively more recent arrival, dating from the establishment of large scale American cotton farming in the southern states of the USA. Cotton socks tend to be softer and finer gauged than most varieties of wool and are arguably easier to care for, being machine washable.
Man-made fabrics such as nylon are also widely used in sock manufacture. Nylon is light in weight, keeps its shape and dyes well, but, although it insulates well, it can also trap and retains moisture leading to uncomfortably sweaty feet. When used in combination with natural fabrics such as wool or cotton, its elasticity can help ensure that socks keep their shape for longer.
One more modern fabric that you may be surprised to learn is used in sock manufacture is bamboo – that’s right, the stuff that grows as canes and whose shoots and leaves pandas are said to favour. With modern production techniques, it’s said to be a rival for more traditional cotton and wool socks for comfort and durability. More recently, bananas, coconuts and even pineapples are being suggested as possible alternative sources for fabrics of the future as this recent article in the Guardian newspaper reveals. Definitely one to watch.