The evolution of humble socks history

March 11, 2022

Where would we be without a good pair of socks? We all have various pairs of socks in a drawer, from the nice ones with the fun patterns to the fluffier ones for cold nights and a few worn and mismatched pairs along the way. They have been an essential part of our wardrobe since we were infants to keep our toes warm and protect our feet as we walk. But, we can easily take these little foot coverings for granted. They have come a long way since their invention and developed into a range of practical and comfortable styles. So, when were socks invented and how have they developed over the years.

The invention of the sock in the 8th century BC.

There is an assumption that the sock is quite a modern invention. We assume that the materials and processes used to make socks as we know them as so modern that they must have had something very different a few centuries ago. In fact, the history of sockz goes back much further than that.

Stone age ancient human socks
Stone age ancient human socks

There is some debate over the invention of the sock. Some would argue that our cave-dwelling ancestors wore socks by tying animal pelts around their feet, but this outer footwear is more of an early shoe. To be a sock, we’re looking at a soft covering over the foot and inside another shoe. This takes us to the piloi worn by Greeks under their sandals in the 8th century. The crude structure of matted animal hair sounds a little uncomfortable by today’s standards but paved the way for softer knitted socks made from hair and wool.

The development of the sewn sock in the 2nd century AD.

For a long time, people made socks by hand using a range of materials. Their choices in material and style would have depended on the skill of the craftsman and the fibers available at the time. Natural fibers like wool and animal hair were the go-to product but creators had evolved from matting the material to knitting fibers and sewing more substantial pieces of footwear.

Examples of woolen and knitted socks have been found dating back to the 1st and 2nd century AD. A pair of child’s socks from a Roman settlement in the UK is one of the earliest examples. There are also socks from Ancient Egypt with similar materials. What makes the Egyptian socks so interesting is the split toe design. If you thought your funky multicolored socks with individual toes were a modern invention, this shows that the Egyptians were way ahead of us.

Socks and golden sandals worn by Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamun, nearly 3,000 years old
Socks and golden sandals worn by Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamun, nearly 3,000 years old

12th century socks history – status symbol

We rarely judge each other on our socks today. We may show off a nice new pair if they have a fun design but that’s about it. This wasn’t the case in the 12th century when there was a greater divide between the basic homemade woolen socks of the average wearer and the high-end products made for those in high society. Here, the material, fit, and overall craftsmanship of the socks were important. A good fit from a smooth silk stocking was a must-have for European aristocrats. Today, we would prefer the homemade fluffy wool to the slippery silk.

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European aristocrats in the mid-16th century wore stocking
European aristocrats in the mid-16th century wore stocking

The invention of the machine-made sock in the 16th century.

When we say “machine-made” sock, it is easy to think of a large-scale factory producing products in high numbers for the mass market. But, long before this, there was the knitting loom. This was invented in Nottingham, England, in 1589 and the perfect tool for creating socks via a time-saving machine rather than by hand. Over time, there was a rise in machine-made socks, although many producers still preferred to work by hand.

The growth of machine production in the 19th century.

The history of socks comes to the 18th century, The Industrial Revolution brought a new kind of machine with advanced processes and large-scale factories. There was a shift in production methods with factory owners employing people in mill towns to run their machines for great mass production. These goods could then be shipped out across those growing trade routes and to local consumers at a lower cost. The desire for homemade hand-knitted socks began to die away.

At the same time, the 1800s saw a rise in the use of alternative materials. Wool was the most popular material before the industrial revolution and regular wool for local sheep was the most economical choice in mass production. However, increased trade routes and connections between countries allow for imports of other materials.

Cotton trade routes allowed for more of the lighter breathable socks we prefer today. Cashmere wool was no longer a specialty of its region and would become the expensive sought-after luxury item it is today. It was also possible to get hold of Merino wool outside of Australia and use this softer material in high-end products.

The diversification of socks in the 20th century.

nylon yarn for socks
nylon yarn for socks

One of the biggest developments in the history of socks was the use of synthetic materials in clothing. Nylon was invented in 1938 and became a must-have in the fashion industry. It allowed for clothing with more durability and was easy to mass-produce. The addition of elastane then enhanced the materials further. Other synthetic materials include polyester, acrylic, and olefins. You can now get purely natural socks that stick with cotton and wool, or blends that are cheaper and more durable.

This shift in the availability and use of alternative materials also led to another benefit that we take for granted. Most socks have some degree of stretch and elasticity so they fit nicely and stay in place on our calves. This wouldn’t be possible without the creation of nylon and the elastic band at the time. Without this, we would still have to mess a round with garters.

cotton yarn for socks
cotton yarn for socks

An increase in fabric choice and better production methods also meant a wider range of forms and designs over the decades. Socks no longer had to conform to a certain length and there was an increasing range of knee-high options as well as ankle socks for sneakers. Some socks were a little thicker for hiking and others lighter for breathability. It also becomes possible to print any design in any color.

Another important change in the history of socks came in the women’s footwear industry. Men had long worn socks as a common piece of attire to protect their feet and stay warm while outside and at work. Women, on the other hand, were often expected to wear more feminine items such as stockings and hosiery. This changed during a significant moment in women’s rights and liberation – the first world war. WW1 and WW2 saw women taking on more practical roles on the land, in factories, and in previously male-dominated professions. They needed clothing to suit their new roles, which meant fewer stockings and skirts and more socks and trousers.

The focus on clean and practical materials in the 21st century.

The world of sock production is ever-evolving to meet the needs of consumers, and this means finding the best possible materials and fibers for comfort and practicality. The introduction of nylon in the 1930s was game-changing. But, expectations have evolved since then. There is a stronger desire for sustainable materials that are comfortable and durable. If the socks can also offer properties for better hygiene, all the better.

This is where we see a lot more bamboo entering the fashion industry. This is a durable and lightweight material that also has antimicrobial properties. Therefore, the socks should last longer while keeping feet fresher. It is still possible to produce these socks in a range of patterns and colors to remain visually interesting.

Another interesting development in the fashion world right now is the desire for quality hand-made items over something mass-produced. Where we once leaned into the convenience and lower cost of factory-made socks, we now turn away because of the environmental impact of factories, the lower quality items, and the preference for something unique and interesting.

modern socks, multiple colors for more comfort
modern socks, multiple colors for more comfort

We have gone back to a mentality where we want quality items that last and will happily knit, sew, and upcycle materials ourselves. Younger consumers may be more inclined to get a hand-made pair of eco-friendly socks from an independent supplier on Etsy than a cheap pack from a big name brand.

The future of the sock industry.

There is no doubt that the humble sock will continue to evolve further with some beneficial new material or some adaptation to make them even more advantageous. We don’t have to settle for cheap cotton socks all the time and can bring in options better suited for sporting activities, long walk, or just lounging on the sofa on a cold evening. Still, even the most basic of socks have come a long way from the matted hair and awkward shapes of those worn in the Middle Ages. As long as companies are prepared to better themselves and improve their range, we can enjoy a plethora of interesting footwear.

OKSOX specializes in making beautiful custom socks, join the new history of creating modern socks. Contact us now!

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