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The Joy of Socks

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A hole in a pair of socks

It is a mistake to assume that the life of a sock begins when the first toe is gently inserted. This is merely the start of the sock's symbiotic relationship with its first, and, hopefully, only, human partner. The sock's long and convoluted journey through life begins well before that seminal moment, often in a land far, far away.


Socks are not self-perpetuating but are born of human endeavour which begs the question of who came first, mankind or socks. For most socks, conception is a messy and untraceable minor event in a less than majestic factory somewhere in the Far East. For a lucky few, however, one imagines a more thoughtful, a more spiritual beginning on the drawing board of a gifted sock designer, whose finely honed skills combine with years of training and inspiration to result in a pattern, a design, that is an original contribution to the rich tapestry, the art, of sock design. Combine this with the experience and expertise of the textile manufacturer, who has to select just the right materials (more often than not, cotton or wool), and one can see how creating a sock is not at all a simple thing*, nor indeed is the sock manufacturing process. Countless years of developing the exceedingly complicated sock knitting machinery, and the complex computer programmes that control it, represent something of an acme in human civilisation and endeavour. You may wish to glimpse the process further, at one very small factory.

The humble, the seemingly prosaic, sock is a complicated entity.

That First Coupling

A multi-coloured, bright pair of socks.

Look in your sock drawer and count the socks, then the linen basket (this does not apply to students) then the washing machine, the washing line, the tumble dryer, the back of the sofa, the floors (this applies particularly to students), under the bath, down the back of the sofa, etc. Multiply that total number by the world human population, and you may have some idea of the number of socks in existence. Given that most socks mate for life, you may be entitled to wonder how it is that a sock can begin to find its sole mate in all this confusion. It cannot. Such a task is beyond the wit of most socks. It must be performed for them. That first choice of partner is an arranged pairing. Partly by human intervention, or by that of the machines that humans control, and partly by chance, in the factory of their birth, a life partner is selected for each. Given this random coming together, is it any wonder that so many of these pairings end, as we shall see, in separation, their life travails to be endured alone?

The exceptions are the aristocrats of the World of Socks, those socks designed and designated from the start to be either right or left aligned. Some may perhaps have a more or less discreet logo or comical cartoon embroidered at ankle height. These special socks must be always paired with a specific partner, and will leave their factory womb forever united as they venture into the great outside world for their travels.

Socks - a Voyage of Discovery

Most socks are born in the Orient. Some will be fortunate and spend their entire lives in these lands of Eastern Promise. Others will, however, be obliged to travel. They are fastened to their partner, packed, taken from factory to warehouse, from warehouse to docks, from the docks by sea in the dark bowels of a container to other warehouses far away. From there they will find their way to a shop there to be displayed, exposed, usually naked save for a label, to the scrutiny of passing humans (mostly).

The Consummation aka Putting One's Foot in It

Socks are born with one purpose only: to clothe, warm, protect and coddle the foot of a human. Thus it is that, so soon after purchase, the act is performed, the toe intrudes, the foot is inserted, that previously unpenetrated, that virgin space, is filled. Hopefully, the act is performed with care, gentleness and more than a glance to the future, for these feet and these socks have a lifetime to spend together. The correct method is for the wearer to place their thumbs in the calf hem, and then concertina the sock. The big toe is inserted and the sock carefully unrolled up the length of the firm, pointed foot, ensuring a good grip at the calf. It is pleasant, as with many other aspects of dressing and undressing, for the wearer to have this done for them by a partner. Nevertheless, it is always the wearer who must take responsibility and ensure a correct fitting. A rough, thoughtless thrust may rupture the seams and tear the sock.

Care will be needed if the wearer tries this operation while standing erect, especially should other socks be precariously balanced nearby. To knock one's socks off is not always advisable for the elderly or infirm who may lose the ability to pick up socks on demand.

Socks and the Single Girl

Odd socks.

It may appear that the male human enjoys more socks than his female counterpart, the latter being prone to encase her entire lower limbs in man-made fibre during daylight hours. Nevertheless, many women love nothing more, when alone in bed on a winter's night, than to snuggle up with their nice warm socks. Apparently the comfort thus provided can result in sleep.

Socks discrimination may well be an uncomfortable fact of life, but it cannot be denied that female humans tend to wear lighter, brighter socks than the males, who tend to look to the dark and dull end of the colour spectrum. Quite how this speaks to the human condition and to gender differences is unclear, but it is nevertheless pleasing to suppose that the differing approach to socks betrays a difference in their approach to life.

The Appeal of Socks

Socks appeal to a variety of human subspecies, among whom are the cyclists and ramblers. Some of these wear their socks outside their trouser leg, and may be described as over-socksed, revelling in the apparent1 display of socks. Others seem to prefer a more modest approach and keep their socks covered. They may be termed under-socksed. It must be a matter of conjecture as to what terms of co-existence may be negotiated in the private intercourse between humans with opposing predilections.

A sub-subspecies of human use clips and other forms of bondage to keep their socks hidden.

More common than you may suppose are those who treat each ankle differently, perhaps because they are truly bisocksual, or maybe they are simply revelling in discomfiting the observer with an assumed eccentricity, or perhaps displaying an absent-minded approach to their appearance.

Although many humans care little for socks, there are some who take more interest, and will use socks as a sort of signal, a semaphore. The conservatively and soberly dressed banker may allow the occasional flash of a gaily clad ankle to indicate to the more observant that there are more aspects to his personality than there seems at first sight. The studiously scruffy rock star on medication may betray a sober and conservative heart with a dull sock choice. Socks, drugs and rock 'n' roll may not be as exciting a combination as it first appears.

A Rich Variety of Socks

There are many types and species of sock, far too numerous to enumerate here. Some better known categories include:

Group Socks

Many teams that play together, footballers for example, wear and share the same socks.

Tan Trick Socks

There is a peculiar light brown sock that never fully unfurls, causing the wearer repeated tripping, as if stung.

Royal Socks

Aristocratic, or Royal socks, look down on others.

Wrinkled (Kinky) Socks

A wrinkled, or a gnarled, sock may be considered more comfortable by some, and is especially favoured in Greece, apparently. A common form of wrinkled socks are those with rubber pimples on their grippy bottom.

Safe Socks

In terms of sartorial elegance, plain or dull socks, single colour socks, are considered acceptable by sock aficionados everywhere. While not implying the least criticism of the lifestyles of conservative socks, it should be pointed out that the more flamboyant socks, the patterned or boldly coloured socks, socks with flair and inventiveness, do seem to have a closer, longer term relationship with their human partner. It could be argued that a happy sock's life is enhanced if it is plucked more often from a sock drawer full of its safer cousins.

Al, Lee and Their Socks

Some humans seem to be forever remembered by their socks. Al, the painter of wall murals, was always known for his hosiery. Al's fresco socks remain the stuff of legend. Lee was one of those French speaking residents of North Belgium who indicated their quiet resentment of their dominant Flemish compatriots with patriotic monograms at their ankles. Lee's B-N socks provoked many a smirk in Antwerp café society.

The Cruel Tossing Aside

Just as the sock learns contentment with its lot, just as it has recovered from the shock of discovering that a human foot is not a thing of beauty at all, but may well be bony, inflicted with fungal infections, cracked, verrucad, blistered, corned, bunioned, and oft times, it must be said, smelly; just as it has reconciled and accepted its role as a comforter, as a cushion or as no more than a decorative accessory; just as it has learned that it is to be at least half-encased in a shoe, unable to breathe, for much of its worn time; just as it has absorbed its fair share of odiferous sweat, the sock is torn from the foot and cast aside. It is only the most elegant owner that peels and rolls the sock down a pointed foot in the proper mannered and thoughtful way. With luck - a great deal of luck - the discarded sock may find itself close by its mate, similarly crumpled and used. If not, it must face the heartless torment of the next few days alone.

Rough Treatment

The sock now embarks on a routine cycle of abuse that it will endure countless more times before it gives up its life. It is stored in a bin or basket for some days, surrounded by other items of its owner's clothing in various states of decrepitude, with scarcely a glimpse of light. Rescued from that glory hole, it is then thrown into a rotating drum of hot soapy water and pulverised for the best part of an hour before being spun so hard and so fast as to be beyond endurance. Then it may, if lucky, be suspended upside down and subjected to the vagaries of the weather. The less fortunate sock will suffer, instead, more tumbling, but this time with a scorching blast of hot air to roast its toes.

Reunion and Peace

After a period of recuperation, perhaps in the company of other beaten and bedraggled socks, the sock will find itself being rummaged and examined by its owner or the owner's spouse, parent, child, servant or slave. It is here that breeding shows, for the designed sock, the sock marked out for life as left or right orientated, the boldly patterned sock, will come into its own. It will be paired immediately with its solemate, assuming the two made it together through the rough and tumble. Spare a thought though for that drone of the sock world, the penny plain black cotton sock. There are humans who buy several pairs at a time of these workaday socks with the deliberate intention of ignoring the pairings, and simply wearing any random two from the dozen or two originally purchased. The chances of a reunion are thus much reduced and the poor sock may find itself paired with a variety of distant cousins for the next cycles of life as a sock. If the population in the drawer is large there is a sad possibility that the sock will endure a life as a serial monogamist, ever in search of its first solemate.

Life as a Single Sock

In less organised households, it may be that even the attempt at pairing is not made until the day of wearing. This bodes poorly for the sock, for the chances of a solitary life in a hidden corner are greatly increased. Not all socks are as resilient as others, and many find such an existence hard to bear. A few lucky ones may, of course, revel in the single life, and welcome the release from constant wearing.

The Mystery of Socks

Sceptics may mock, but it is an undeniable fact that more socks enter the laundry room than ever leave it. Whether they are somehow transmogrified in the warm and humid atmosphere, or there is some sort of sock eradication programme at work, is not clear. It may even be that the socks plan escape, Colditz style. If that is so, some are evidently successful and possibly in league with members of a similar disappearance-prone species, the biro. Others seem to take a wrong turning, and end up tucked in a distant corner of a little-used quilt cover or pillowcase. It has even been suggested that they are in fact the larval form of other multiplying tribes, such as wire coat hangers. These and other theories are explored in an Entry entitled Preventing Sock Loss, and Researchers trying to track down particular socks may need to refer to The Bureau of Missing Socks.

There is much to learn about socks, and much we will never know.

The Death Throw

Sadly, not even the culmination of centuries of mankind's sock technology has produced the sock that cannot or will not wear out. The day will come when the first hole appears. Perhaps on the ball of the sole, perhaps up at a toe, maybe down at the heel. The cruellest, most heartless human will immediately discard a holey sock. Others, perhaps kinder, perhaps poorer, will try for a few more wearings. Some, perhaps aided by a miserly Granny, may maintain the craft of darning and prolong a sock's life that way. The end, however, is now inevitable. One day, the human, with scarcely more than a glance, removes the sock and throws it, this time to the waste (and not the laundry) basket. At this point, it is best to draw a veil over proceedings. Recycling and biological degradation may well be good in terms of the survival of the planet, but it is often ugly to observe.

1The word 'apparent' is used advisedly. It has been known for male humans, in particular, to be confused by the open display of socks by a female into assuming that she has an open attitude to socks generally, and that such signals are intended for him. This is not often the case. Both the etiquette of socks display and the behaviour of females are more complicated than that.

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