Where Did That Sock On Your Foot Come From?

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Recently I received an old photograph of my grandmother sitting outside on a warm spring day and I noticed her socks were, well, kind of crumpled and misshapen. I began to wonder why her socks were so ugly and then I began to wonder about the history of the sock. Where did the sock come from? Who invented the sock? What country makes the most socks? So I did a little research and I discovered the socks my grandmother wore in 1915 were very different from the socks I wear today.

People traveled the world on their feet long before they learned how to harness a horse or invent the wheel. Feet protection was a necessity, especially in the rocky regions and cold regions of our ancestors. Anthropology has determined that the first socks were probably made from animal skins and were somewhat like booties instead of the socks we think of today. Early socks were formed from the skins of animals, and usually worn with the fur on the inside and the tough leather on the outside.  The skin would be gathered up around the ankle and tied with vines or leather strips. If the skins where long enough, the sock may reach all the way up the calf and a crisscross pattern of vines or leather strips would hold the skin to the leg.

By 800 BC, the ancient Romans were protecting their feet with leather or woven fabrics. The first real knit socks were discovered by archeologists in Egyptian graves at Antinoe, dating form 300-600 A.D.

By 500 AD, socks, or “putties”, were worn by the holy people in Europe as an indication of purity. The name “socks” is said to come from two possible sources, a mispronunciation of the Latin word, “soccus”, a name given to a type of early shoe or slipper worn by actors in Rome, or it may be a shortening of the English word “stocking”.

By the end of 1000 AD, wearing socks became a symbol of nobility and wealth. Socks would be made from wool and knitted using a process similar to the way wool was pulled from sheep for clothing. Materials were either woven on a loom or knitted together to create a sock. Either method was time consuming and therefore expensive. In the areas of China and Japan, silk (a product of silk worms) was also used to make socks.

By the 12th century a sock was a low shoe or slipper and later a knitted foot covering, sometimes extending up the leg to the knee. In the 1490’s, breeches and knitted foot coverings were made as one piece, later known as tights. They were made of colorful oriental silks, wools and velvet. Each leg was often a different color. At the turn of the 15 century, knitted hose was being worn in France and Scotland.

By 1583 the word “stocking” was used to describe a covering for the feet and legs. “Hose” came from the Old English and Old High German word “hosa”, meaning leg covering. Shorter garments exposed the leg and required materials that was better supported and tighter fitting. Colors and other textiles were soon used in the manufacturing of foot and leg coverings. Oriental silk became a favorite material for socks and stockings of the English Court because of its softness and variety of colors.

Things changed quickly with the invention of the knitting machine in 1589 by Reverend William Lee of Nottinghamshire, England. This machine allowed socks to be knitted much faster, making them less time consuming to make and therefore less expensive. Socks became readily available to the growing middle class. Even with the use of the knitting machines, socks were still made by hand but as the materials were more refined, sock popularity increased. With the refinement of cotton production, cotton came into use in the late 17th century for all types of materials, including socks or stockings. Most socks at this time were made from wool, cotton or silk.

In the 1930s a new circular knitting machine was invented, allowing garments to be made in one piece, and socks no longer needed to be stitched together by hand. 1939 saw the invention of nylon, which is the blending of two or more yarns, resulting in a thin, lightweight fabric, perfect for hosiery and stockings. The first nylon stockings appeared in New York stores on May 15, 1940. Over 72,000 pairs were sold in the first day alone, and the Japanese silk market shrunk almost overnight. After WWII, nylon became popular for stockings because of its availability, texture, strength and elasticity.

Socks and Politics

To help the United States sock manufacturers keep a strong hold on the market, Congress imposed an import tax on socks made in other countries. However, in 2005, the U.S. signed a free trade agreement with Honduras and several other Central America nations, allowing them to send socks to the United States without paying an import tax. Honduras exports jumped from 14.6 million pairs of socks in 2006 to over 28 million in a few short months.

Due to competition from abroad, production of socks in the United States has declined to 29% of the market, with a majority of the socks made in foreign countries such as China and Honduras. In 2007, U. S. sock manufacturers asked President Bush to reinstate the tariff on socks to slow down the influx of foreign made socks. It is very likely that the sock you have on your foot was made in a foreign country, far, far, away.

Interesting Facts

Each recruit in the Spanish American War was issued twelve pairs of socks. As many of troops appeared to be losing their government issued socks, the Missing Sock Bureau, formed on August 1st, 1861 by founder Joseph Smithson, received its first official investigative assignment. It was soon discovered that the soldiers were trading the socks for certain sexual favors.

Socks have also been known to hide evidence during the act of a crime. The abductor of the Charles Lindbergh baby is said to have worn socks over his shoes, to hide his shoeprints in the snow as he carried off the child.

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