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The History of socks


Socks. Pretty much all of us are used to simply pulling on a pair in the morning and not giving the matter any further thought. Yet the history of socks can be traced right back to Ancient Egypt, where evidence has been found in excavated graves that revealed their existence way back in time, from around 1500 BC. Ancient Egyptian socks were made from brightly coloured wool and designed to be worn with sandals – now considered an example of questionable sartorial taste!

Ancient Egypt

Early days

Romans were fans of the sock-sandal combination too and found warm foot coverings made from leather and fabric strips essential in the colder climates of Britain during their invasion. Indeed, Roman soldiers apparently sent word regularly back to Rome asking for more socks to be dispatched to keep their feet warm during battle.

Stockings and socks were popular with men and women throughout history, and fashions changed and evolved to incorporate them in various guises. During the Middle Ages, socks grew in length to cover the whole leg and become known as stockings. Garters, or bands, were placed over the top of them to prevent them from falling down. Higher-born women were especially fond of silk stockings, delicately crafted by hand using many different colours of silk and worn to display the owner’s wealth and accentuate their shapely legs and ankles.

Knitting know-how

In 1589, an English clergyman called William Lee invented the first stocking frame knitting machine. Its main principles are still used in modern-day knitting machines and its creation enabled the mass production of knitted stockings and socks. Lee sent a pair of knitted stocking to Queen Elizabeth I in the hope of securing her patronage. However, the monarch was horrified by the crude design of the machine-manufactured stockings and declined to give the project her approval. Instead, Lee received financial support from King Henri IV of France, which enabled him to open a stocking factory in Rouen in France.

Over time, the Huguenots spread the word of the knitting machine throughout Europe, ensuring their appeal across the entire continent. As the Industrial Revolution came and went, knitted stockings became more widely accessible, yet they still remained a privilege of the rich and, quite literally, well-heeled parts of society.

knitting machine

First aid for feet

Soldiers have known the benefits of socks throughout history, following in the footsteps of the Romans in their quest for warm, dry feet. In the First World War, soldiers relied on socks to protect them from a nasty condition known as trench foot that caused necrosis in their leg tissue from the damp conditions in the trenches. Thousands of people knitted men’s socks to send to the front line as a result.

Eventually, better waterproofing in the soldiers’ boots and shoes largely put a stop to this particular threat.

Socks have since evolved over time to be made from a wide range of materials. From strips of leather and fabrics to heavy, homespun wools to silk and the invention of nylon in 1938 socks have shown their suitability to be made from all kinds of textiles. Today, sock design has broadened out to create different styles for different needs, such as sports socks for athletes that wick away perspiration and aid physical performance, thermal pairs that protect the feet in colder conditions, such as the ski slopes, women’s hosiery with in-built slimming panels to follow fashion and change the body’s silhouette. Finally, medical aids, such as compression stockings help stimulate blood flow in more sedentary patients to prevent clots and DVT.

Five fascinating facts about socks

  • Time to play

Socks have featured heavily in children’s games and traditions over the centuries. Christmas stockings have been hung by the fireplace in Britain, Europe and beyond since the early 19th Century as an invitation for Father Christmas to fill them with gifts. Children also enjoy taking old socks, buttons and bits of old fabric to create sock puppets and then use them to act out a story.

  • American Baseball Teams

Two major American baseball teams have sock-themed nicknames. The Boston Red Sox owe their identity to their distinctive leg and footwear in a moniker given to them in 1867. The Chicago White Sox were originally known as the Chicago White Stockings, a name that was shortened to White Sox in 1901 when the team joined the prestigious American League.

  • Blue Stocking

The term ‘blue stocking’, used to describe an intellectual, affluent person of standing comes from the blue worsted (wool) stockings worn by men attending literary assemblies in London in the late 17th Century.

  • Sock etiquette

There is a whole world of etiquette that must be observed when wearing socks. Traditionally, the sock colour should match the trousers and/or shoes. If this is not possible, the socks can be one shade darker than the trousers, and/or one shade lighter than the shoes.

  • Missing Socks

No-one knows where all those missing socks go after they vanish from the washing machine, leaving their desolate partner behind. Some say the fairy folk use them to make sleeping bags, but we couldn’t possibly comment…

Socks on demand

So, the history of socks looks set to continue for a long time to come. Here at The Sock Butler, we offer a range of subscriptions that sees customers receive a new pair of men’s socks every month from renowned brands like Pringle, Glenmuir, SockShop, WildFeet and Jeff Banks. Just let us know how many pairs you want to receive every month and your preferred category of socks and we will deliver comfortable, top-quality socks, directly to your door.

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