A Brief History of Socks

Greek foot wrapsPaul Krugman wrote a very brief post about Knitting History, apparently just so he could deliver this groaner, “I know I’m just knit-picking.” I’m not sure I can ever forgive that. But the object of the post was a fabulous article by Paul Spinrad, The Surprisingly Tumultuous History of Socks. I find this kind of stuff fascinating. How did people start wearing shoes? When did they come up with the idea of socks? Sadly, Spinrad doesn’t answer those questions. But I’ll come back to him in a moment.

Shoes themselves are quite a recent invention. The first shoes were actually sandals. The earliest evidence takes them back to about 10,000 years ago. Curiously, this coincides with the Neolithic Revolution — the time when humans settled down and started to farm. That’s not surprising. That probably gave them time to think about things like, “If I covered my feet with leather, it wouldn’t hurt as much to walk on gravel.” Socks came much later. They appear to have been added to give extra warmth — just like today.

The Greeks were using socks made out of animal hair in the 8th century BCE. But they weren’t tubes that people put their feet into. They were just lengths of cloth that were wrapped around the feet and the legs. You can see this in the image above. It’s actually fetching. But I find the five to ten seconds it takes me to put on socks each day onerous. Wrapping my feet sounds like far too much work. Then again, I might not care if I had to actually, you know, go outside every day.

The Knitting Girl - William-Adolphe Bouguereau - 1869It was the Romans who changed the art of foot warmth forever. Fascistic though they may have been, they were good at simplifying things. So in the second century, when the Christians were fighting over what their church would be, the Romans invented the sock as a specific foot covering. But since they didn’t stretch, they had to be specifically fitted to people’s feet. And they stayed that way until knitting was invented.

Knitting came along around the middle of the 3rd century by someone in the Middle East. Whereas weaving uses parallel strands of thread, knitting uses a single thread. Thus, it stretches. Let me just stop for a moment and mention that I find this stuff constantly fascinating. Another example is the invention of pottery. It’s this stuff that we take for granted but which was revolutionary. To me, knitting seems more obvious than weaving, but that’s just because I’ve been watching people knit my whole life.

And then in the 16th century, it becomes automated and it’s all down hill. The rest of Spinrad’s article consists of anecdotes. There is one about William Lee, the inventor of the stocking frame knitting machine. He may have built it because the knitting woman who lived next door to him wasn’t interested in his romantic advances. Spite is a powerful motivator! There is also the story of Thomas Chatterton, a poet who forged some ancient poems but was caught because of some sock related anachronism. He killed himself as a result.

Socks are lovely. It is still chilly in my room, but it should be very hot today. So I’m wearing shorts. My legs are cold, but my feet and ankles are toasting. The power of socks!

2 thoughts on “A Brief History of Socks

  1. Socks. I’ve changed my opinion on them over the years. I used to definitely prefer the longest socks possible for warmth and covering my scrawny weird shins. But the long ones lose their elasticity faster and you end up pulling up your socks all the time. Plus I never wear shorts anymore, no need to cover the shins.

    Now I’m strictly a crew-length man. The shorter ones are useless (unless you don’t wear shoes.)

    There are definite different schools of thought on how often one should buy socks. I hate purchasing any new clothing (it’s all, more-or-less, made by slaves, so I like second-hand, but that’s a no-no for socks), thus I tend to let them wear out a bit. My rule is no holes that easily let a toe stick out.

    I wonder how differently people used to walk? You have a definitely different gait with no shoes, or with sandals, boots, hard-soled shoes, whatever. It’s very pronounced. Socks and shoes with flexible rubber soles are quite recent.

    These little things make very important changes. Cotton was so in demand, bankrolling US slavery and the colonial exploitation of Egypt (yeah, Egypt was used for cotton farms) partially because wool underwear/pajamas were damn itchy. (But wool socks are great and warm to sleep in.)

    • I’m with you: until there are holes, they are good enough. And when there is a toe hole, I will often just use the other foot. But then the heal wears out. I am badly in need of some socks, not that I think of it.

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