Unleash your inner freak with some sock innovation – part 1

Well, I have kind of set the tone of this post already, right? It’s all about socks, and different ones at that. Not the wearing of a pair that doesn’t match, but finding socks that are a little outside the standard mono-coloured, no added flavour, will do the job and not be noticed kind of socks. Granted, novelty socks are nothing new, there have always been crazy colours and wacky graphics around, but right now they appear to have landed here at the WDD mansion. In the style of a swarm of locusts, but with more vibrant colours and frankly, designs I wouldn’t have guessed at.

A fresh pair of Japanese made socks.

A fresh pair of Japanese made socks.

If we can back off just a second though, take a deep breath and consider the purpose of socks. And secondly, what makes a good pair of socks? I gathered the bearded sartorial sages here at the mansion for a session of deeply sock-related think-tank activity and put the questions to them. While initially there was some sock-puppet related silliness and sidetracks into such stickiness as socks worn in sandals, the fine minds soon zeroed in on the really big questions concerning the sock community.

There really are no rules at all in the world of socks!

There really are no rules at all in the world of socks!

Regarding the actual purpose of socks, it was agreed that technically the socks should provide a boundary layer between the wearers foot and chosen footwear. The boundary layer would ideally provide some thermal insulation in the cases where the temperature differential is such that the footwear is colder than the foot, or in the opposite case, provide some transport of humidity away from the foot in cases where the foot is working up something of a sweat, either through activity or warm weather. Another factor is often providing a layer of friction to allow the foot to move around with the foot wear without abrasive rubbing to the skin which can ultimately lead to unpleasant damage to the foot and staining of the footwear.

Why, of course, lobsters!

Why, of course, lobsters!

With this new-found wisdom about the purpose of our socks, we can consider what goes into making a pair that will achieve that highest of accolades, being deemed a “good sock”. For starters, the sizing has to be right. How many times have you seen socks proudly proclaiming to be One Size Fits All? Have you rolled your eyes and snorted? Of course. Any sensible person knows that the words after One Size should read “Fits None”. Oh ok, maybe “fits the proportion of the population that is sized within a few percent of the available size” would be more correct, but it’s much less of a sound-bite and you may have to stop to draw breath half-way though if you are stating it in the properly indignant manner.

Uk size 6-11, is that a large span? Well, consider the Japanese sizing, which happens to be in centimetres. These socks cover a 5cm/2inch range of sizes.

Uk size 6-11, is that a large span? Well, consider the Japanese sizing, which happens to be in centimetres. These socks cover a 5cm/2inch range of sizes.

Now, where were we… Yes, size must be right. Socks are no good if the fabric is really stretched, that just makes them thin and strange. On the other hand, socks that are lamentably large are no better, as they’ll just bunch up and feel uncomfortable. The finer the size grading of the socks is, the better. Secondly, what are they made of? Most will be cotton, which while cheap and available really is the worst option in 2015. Apart from the dire environmental aspects of cotton, cotton is also poor at retaining it’s shape, being flexible and it becomes noticeably less than pleasant when wet or sweaty. And damp cotton makes for a really poor thermal layer, which explains why your cotton-clad footsies are so miserably chilly during the winter, kids.

A typical mix of natural cotton and human-made fibres.

A typical mix of natural cotton and human-made fibres.

Cotton socks can be improved in some respects though by adding human-made fibres such as elastane or spandex. Yes, the same ingredients that when added to denim mean that women’s jeans fit so much tighter and smoother than mens. It’s the added stretchy factor, and accounts for a lot of that “one size” silliness. Cotton has another factor that can be improved by adding human-made fibres though and that is wear. Plain cotton just isn’t all that strong, and nothing is worse than a pair of socks wearing out well before their time. (Actually, to be fair, sock wear comes really far down the list of bad things in the world in 2015, but in this sock-related context, sock wear characteristics is battling with sock on leg friction for the honours, though we’ll get to that in the next paragraph). Adding polyester to the mix adds some strength to the soft cotton and means the socks will last longer. Too much polyester though and softness will turn to clamminess, so there is some science to getting this right.

Sock design is also an opportunity for the colour blind.

Sock design is also an opportunity for the colour blind.

And we arrive at sock design and construction, the technical side of things. Feet are feet, right? Unless you’ve been careless with a snow-blower or something horrible happened to your DNA, you will basically be the owner of two feet, 10 toes, 2 heels and there will really only be some variance in length and width. There are no real muscles to be built there, though I believe there is some potential for fat-related sizing issues, at least from the ankles up. And that must surely mean that life as a sock designer can’t be much fun at all! Imagine sitting there in your cubicle, top technical sock guy, with your CAD system all ready to take the foot-sheathing game to the next level and in comes the work order. “One size fits all, 6″ height”. I shed a tear for the poor guy, because really, the height the sock goes up above the ankle appears to be the only real “design feature”, and what with the trend now being for “invisible” socks to hide inside summer shoes, even that tasty feature has been taken out of the specification!

An example of a circular sock weaving machine, so no you know.

An example of a circular sock weaving machine, so no you know.

Naturally, I am exaggerating a little. There is so much more to be considered when designing a sock. The weave of the fabric, how thick and fluffy or thin and sleek should it be? What fibres should it include? Which machine gets to weave it’s magic to create this kinked, foot-shaped tube, and how should the heel and toe be sewn together? And so forth. It must still be a really hard sell to recruit young people to become Masters of Socks, as I am sure they are called. Socks are just not sexy at all. We should be grateful though, to those that find their meaning in the field of socks, as our toesies would no doubt be worse off without their valiant efforts.

There is that one aspect of sock design that makes it all worthwhile though, the x-factor that excites, the opportunity that unfolds, the arena where the creatives can find outlet for all their funkiness: The visual design of the sock!

Even socks can tell a story.

Even socks can tell a story.

We’ll get to that in part 2 though 😉

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