‘One can never have enough socks,’ is a frequent refrain, among the fashion conscious and the comfort conscious alike. Indeed, this very phrase has been attributed to J.K. Rowling, amongst others. And you can see why. There’s nothing quite like a great pair of socks to cheer you up on a dull day or the pleasure of choosing the right pair to make a statement: it could be your mood, your individuality, your ambition, your work life balance; it could be your natural sense of style or your instinctive insistence on quality in everything. Whatever the reason, it’s hard to beat a great pair of socks.
Modern socks come in myriad designs and colours and with multiple uses. But they have a long history. We know that Romans soldiers used them; letters home still survive from legionaries serving on cold northern frontiers, asking for more socks, please. And the earliest known reference to sock-like garments – made from matted animal hair – is from Greece in the 8th century BCE. Over time, ways of making socks changed, of course, but we would definitely recognise the socks worn by the Romans as the forerunners of the knitted footwear of 21st century.
Before mechanisation – and even then, really until the development of industrial knitting machines – most socks were knitted by hand. They were expensive. They were a prized possession, especially in northern climates, where the extra warmth was really appreciated. Socks of more than one color were a luxury for the rich, and even after the invention of the knitting machine in 1589, a good pair of socks was something special.
1589 was a magical year in the history of socks. It was the year that William Lee of Calverton, near Nottingham, England, invented the Stocking Frame, the first known knitting machine. Capable of producing socks five or six times faster than by hand, it was a real game changer. The result of careful planning and many experiments, it was real invention: a new device to make something in a way never done before. It was something that everybody wanted, although at the time it did not find royal favour in England. Lee ended up moving to France to get sponsorship for his first factory. Innovations followed, but it was not until the industrial revolution, with large, fast knitting machines, that the landscape changed once again.
We take knitting for granted, but the simple method of creating a fabric constructed of interconnected loops of yarn means that there is much greater flexibility and choice of shape when compared to woven materials. And this is what makes good socks so good. They just fit perfectly. So, when large scale mechanisation of knitting developed in the 19th century, it was transformational. No longer were comfortable (and colourful) socks the preserve of the rich. Socks were for everybody – and for every foot!
With the basic process mechanised efficiently, socks became a mass-produced item, but good quality retains it’s premium, especially when it came to how well socks fit. And then there was also the issue of how to keep them up. Garters were used frequently until more elastic yarns were introduced with the introduction of synthetic fibres in the 1930s and 1940s.
Today’s socks are a world away from even those made 20 or 30 years ago. Yarn mixes have proliferated and can be fine-tuned for style, comfort and purpose. Upcycled yarns (reclaimed fibres from recyclable clothing) provide an environmentally responsible option, while knitting fabrics of different depths now gives us the ever-comfortable sports sock. Socks have taken pride of place as a fashion statement and as a personal totem. Who does not have a favourite pair of socks? Who does not, even if we pretend otherwise, enjoy getting a great new pair of socks as a gift?
And if the Stocking Frame, steam-powered knitting machines and new fibres were milestones in the history of socks, surely the latest step forward has been computerisation. Now it’s possible to design socks knit by knit. Like the images in the game Minecraft, each knit, each loop, can be fine tuned by the pixel. Patterns are ever more flexible and our ability to predict how well a design will work has never been more accurate. And with this advance, the opportunity to create new designs – and to include company branding into the socks themselves – has never been better. At the click of a mouse there are socks for every style, for every purpose and for every business.
And after nearly 3000 years of socks, we’re still not tired of them. Socks are great. There are socks for every season and for every style. There’s a pair of socks out there just for you.