In many parts of the world, people wake up every day and put on a pair of socks without giving it too much thought. From preventing blisters and stinky shoes to keeping our feet warm, socks serve many purposes and come in different shapes, sizes, thicknesses, colors, and patterns to suit these different needs. This article of clothing has become a wardrobe staple that most of us know very little about despite putting it on our bodies every morning.
Although we now think of socks as commonplace, these garments were once a luxury worn only by the nobility for many centuries. If you’re interested in learning more about the history of socks, you’re in the right place. From primitive forms of socks used by cavemen to luxurious silk stockings worn as a fashion accessory in the Middle Ages, this post traces the evolution of socks through the ages.
Origin of the Word ‘Sock’
The etymology of the word ‘sock’ varies from language to language. In English, ‘sock’ comes from the Old English word socc, referring to a light slipper. This term traces its roots to the Latin word soccus, which was used to describe a type of light and low-heeled shoe that Roman comic actors wore. Going back even further, the word soccus can be traced to Ancient Greece. The Greek word sykchos also described a low-heeled shoe commonly worn by actors.
Early Examples of Socks
Some of the earliest forms of socks bear little resemblance to modern garments. Despite the differences in materials and appearances, socks are one of the oldest articles of clothing that we still use today.
As far back as around 5000 BC, Stone Age socks likely consisted of animal skins, pelts, and plant matter wrapped around the foot and tied around the ankle. None of these footwraps survived, but archaeological evidence and cave paintings provide clues as to how they were used and what they looked like. These early socks were likely not very durable, but they would have protected the feet from abrasions, cuts, and subsequent infections.
Other early evidence of socks comes from Ancient Greece. In the 8th century BC, the Greek Poet Hesiod mentioned piloi in his poem “Works and Days.” Piloi were a type of sock designed to be worn under sandals and made from matted animal hair.
The earliest evidence of humans wearing socks that more closely resemble what we have today appeared in Ancient Rome, centuries after Hesiod’s poem. Around the 2nd century AD, Romans began to make fitted socks called udones by sewing fabric pieces together. Around this time, people in northern England were also wearing socks. A child-sized pair of woolen booties, which would have been used similarly to socks, was discovered at Vindolanda in Northumbria. The socks date back to the 2nd century AD.
By the 5th century AD, socks took on a religious association. Created and popularized by the Catholic Church, a type of socks called puttees were worn to symbolize purity. Socks also appeared in Egypt around this time. A pair of split-toe socks dating back to the 4th or 5th century AD was excavated in Oxyrhynchus, a Greek colony on the Nile. Although these are the oldest surviving examples of socks, historians are unsure whether the garments were worn as foot coverings or if they were instead offerings to the dead.
You can see the Oxyrhynchus socks on display in London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. The wool socks were made by hand using a process known as nålbindning, which is occasionally called single-needle knitting or knotless netting. Although often confused with knitting, this technique is more similar to the process of sewing. Nålbindning predates true knitting and has been used since prehistoric times. However, as demand for elastic forms of clothing increased between 500 and 1200 AD, true knitting replaced nålbindning since it was significantly faster and more affordable.
Evolution of Socks: the Middle Ages & Early Modern Era
By the Middle Ages, wearing socks became synonymous with nobility and wealth, and socks were valued for their aesthetics in addition to their function. Prior to the invention of sewing and knitting machines in Europe in the 1500s, manufacturing socks was time-consuming and costly. Although some working-class people made their own socks and stockings, generally, only the wealthy could afford more stylish articles of clothing.
Changing fashions also influenced the types and styles of socks available. As breeches became shorter, socks were made in longer lengths and new colors and patterns. Over time, socks became progressively longer until they developed into something similar to a pair of tights today.
By the 15th century, men in France and Italy were wearing highly valued silk stockings, setting a trend other Europeans soon followed. Wearers loved the stretchy material since it made movement easier and highlighted the shape of their legs. By 1490, breeches and hosiery were joined together to create tights in bright colors and patterns, usually made of silk, velvet, or wool.
At the time, society placed great emphasis on public appearances, and socks were no exception. London created its own “sock police” in 1566 to ensure that no one in the city wore the wrong type of socks. Guards positioned at the gates of London would check those who entered and exited for improper hosiery.
In 1589, an English clergyman named William Lee invented the knitting machine, making it easier and faster to produce stockings. These new machines could knit socks six times faster than knitting them by hand. Lee’s invention, together with some improvements added by his assistant John Ashton, would come to revolutionize textile production. Many of the techniques and principles he developed are still used today.
However, at the time, many people failed to see the enormous potential of this technology and its impact on the evolution of socks. When Lee approached Queen Elizabeth I in search of a patent, she was not impressed. According to historians, the Queen said the wool stockings Lee’s machine created were too coarse and uncomfortable for her ankles. She also expressed concerns that the machine would take jobs away from those who knit stockings by hand.
Lee then decided to take his invention to France. After receiving financial support from France’s King Henri IV, Lee built a stocking factory in Rouen. Soon, knitting looms spread throughout Europe, and stockings became more widely available. Typically, lower classes wore stockings made of wool, while higher classes wore garments made from colored silk.
In the late 17th century, fashions began to change, and new styles and materials emerged in sock production. Trousers got longer, requiring a shorter sock extending to the mid-calf or mid-thigh. Additionally, cotton emerged as a popular material for many types of clothing, including socks. Eventually, the term ‘socks’ became widely used and started to replace the term ‘stockings.’
Despite the advances in materials, technology, and styles, the poor continued to use ancient techniques of protecting and warming their feet. While noblemen were accessorized with socks of varying lengths and colors, poorer classes wrapped simple cloths around their feet. Although these kinds of footwraps declined in use over the years, Eastern European armies reportedly used them as late as the 20th century.
The Industrial Revolution
Like many products, the evolution of socks was massively influenced by the Industrial Revolution. Until the 1800s, hand-knitters continued to make socks alongside machines after they were introduced in the 16th century. That all changed during the Industrial Revolution – as technologies and machinery improved, they began to replace workers in nearly every trade.
Towards the beginning of the 19th century, circular knitting frames became part of sock production and further mechanized this process. Many people lost their jobs as a result, but the technology made socks widely available to people from all different social and economic classes.
After the industrial revolution, sock styles and designs remained little changed until about 1938, when the invention of nylon dramatically reshaped the clothing industry. Until 1938, socks and many other articles of clothing were made from silk, cotton, and wool. The introduction of synthetic fibers like nylon and elastane (also known as spandex) allowed for the creation of new fabric blends with varying ratios to achieve the optimal characteristics. These stretchy fabrics allowed socks to be worn without the use of garters to hold them up and meant that a single standard size sock would fit a wide range of foot sizes.
In recent years, sock technology has improved further to allow for even more specialized and high-performance garments. Silverlight socks, for example, use silver-infused threads to kill bacteria and keep your feet stink-free. Additionally, a blend of merino wool, nylon, silver yarn, and spandex creates a fast-drying, durable, and comfortable sock that forms to your foot and provides just the right amount of support.
Without the introduction of synthetic fibers, the characteristics we have come to expect in high-performance socks would be nearly impossible to achieve. Check out our post answering common hiking sock questions to learn more about how these different materials impact the performance and properties of socks.
Evolving Purposes and Types of Socks
Historically, socks were mostly used to warm and protect the feet and later served as a fashion statement for the wealthy. Although their appearances have varied substantially over different time periods, socks within a particular period were relatively homogenous when compared to modern times.
Today, socks have many different functions and purposes, with countless specialized styles and designs available to meet a wide variety of needs. These include:
- Keeping the feet warm
- Regulating sweating and moisture
- Preventing blisters
- Preventing stinky feet and shoes
- Serving as a fashion statement
- Serving as part of a sports uniform
- Improving circulation (such as compression socks)
Socks have become an essential piece of gear in many sports and pastimes. Hiking is the perfect example since choosing the right hiking socks can have a massive impact on your hiking experience. Like hiking, diverse activities like hunting, football, and scuba diving all have their own specialized socks with unique characteristics.
We can’t talk about socks today without also discussing fashion. While socks are arguably less of a fashion statement today than they were in the 1400s to 1700s, many people enjoy accessorizing and adding to their outfits with strategic sock choices. We even have socks that are designed to make it look like you’re not wearing any socks at all. Known as no-show socks, this style allows the wearer to reap the benefits of socks without having them be visible.
Modern Sock Production
Do you know what city is known as the “Sock Capital of the World?” If you guessed Fort Payne, Alabama, you’re correct! In the early 2000s, Fort Payne’s sock industry employed more than 7,000 people in over 100 mills. At the time, Fort Payne produced over half of all socks made in America.
Since then, a significant portion of the United States’s sock production has been moved overseas (especially to China), but Fort Payne is still known as a sock production hub within the US. The Datang district of Zhuji in China’s Zhejiang Province has overtaken Fort Payne in global sock production. Known as Sock City, Datang makes more than 22 billion pairs of socks every year, a figure equal to about 35% of the world’s total sock production.
Sock Fun Facts
Before wrapping up the article, we wanted to leave you with a few sock fun facts. Here are six interesting things you may not have known about socks:
- We all know that socks have a way of mysteriously disappearing, but the rate at which people experience that is quite shocking. On average, a family of four will lose as many as 60 pairs of socks each year.
- December 4th is National Sock Day in the United States. You can also celebrate National No Sock Day on May 8th with some barefoot activities, like barefoot hiking.
- Putting on socks has become a standard part of our daily routine for many people. Despite this being a mundane day-to-day task, people mention putting on their socks around 10,000 times a day on Twitter.
- Those who wear mismatched socks are more likely to be married than single. This is because married people are more likely to get dressed in the dark (to avoid waking up their spouse) and inadvertently put on two different socks.
- Some experts believe wearing socks to bed can help you sleep better due to improved circulation.
- Many people today consider wearing socks with sandals a fashion faux pas. However, early forms of socks used in Ancient Greece, Egypt, and Rome were designed for exactly that purpose.
The purpose of socks today varies widely, ranging from a functional article of clothing to a fashion statement. From high-performance sports socks to sleek business or special occasion socks, there are different types of socks for almost any occasion. Given the wide variety of socks available to us, it’s easy to take this article of clothing for granted. Next time you put on a cozy pair of socks or your favorite fast-drying hiking socks, you can imagine what it must have been like to live without this luxury.
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