Spinning For Socks: Why?

Socks are a great way to use your handspun yarn, and a great way to push your boundaries in spinning and acquire new skills. A pair of socks isn’t a huge and unwieldy project, and the commitment to knit them isn’t tremendous — but they’re varied and versatile. There is no one canonical way to make socks happen, no single set of attributes that make for the ideal pair. As a wearer of socks, you probably have several types — and if you’re a knitter of socks, “several types” may be an understatement. Those things said, though, we can make a few generalizations about socks.

1. Socks must stretch sufficiently to allow them to be pulled on over wider parts, and then once in place, settle down and fit snugly without leaving excess fabric to bunch up and get uncomfortable.

2. Socks are a structured, fitted garment; they need to retain that structure in order to work well as socks.

3. Socks are ideally not itchy and scratchy. Nobody likes to have irritated feet.

4. Socks need to be able to breathe; hosiery which doesn’t allow for air movement can compound, or even cause, all sorts of discomforts and woes.

5. Socks are commonly worn with shoes. In fact, it could be said that socks function as an important buffer between foot and shoe, protecting both from interacting in such a way as to potentially damage each other (say, by keeping shoes from chafing or blistering your feet, and keeping skin oils and so on from piling up in your shoes). As such, socks are subject to wear and tear often not encountered by other fitted garments.

So, then, we need sock fabric to be stretchy, but still bounce back; stable enough to hold its structure; not itch or irritate, and allow air and moisture to pass through; and we need the fabric to be able to take a beating from friction.

To address the first elements — stretchy and bounces back — we choose a knitted fabric, or sometimes a crocheted fabric, over a woven one. Knits are, by and large, the stretchiest fabrics. Knitting or crochet allows us to address structure by using numerous different sock designs, shaping that fabric as we create it, incorporating the structural elements into it from the ground up, rather than by cutting and seaming as we might with other fitted garments. Doing this creates a finished product which doesn’t have the same weaknesses as a garment whose structure and fit come from cutting fabric and seaming it up, and this helps with our final point about taking a beating.

In between those things, we have a lot of room to play with materials in order to address points 3 and 4 — not being scratchy, and being breathable and comfy. If we’re looking at commercial sock materials from the mill, we now have an incredible range of options, sock yarns of every imaginable variety, yarns that aren’t billed as being for socks but make great socks anyway, luxury fibers, rugged fibers, blends, you name it. The modern day is a sock yarn buyer’s paradise. So why, then, would we want to bother spinning our own sock yarn? Especially, some might say, when we know that these are going to be garments that will be subject to lots of wear and tear. Why not just buy sock yarn and be done with it? Why invest the time?

Well, here’s the thing. When it comes to producing yarn, absolutely nothing is faster than the mill. But that doesn’t mean what the mill produces is actually better — it’s just faster to produce, viable to sell in large quantity, and thus readily available and easy to replace, and as a final result, cheaper. It definitely saves you time to simply buy sock yarn.

Of course… it would save you even more time to simply buy socks. And you know, that might be good enough — in the same way it might be good enough to buy a ready-made birthday cake already decorated, or a shirt that fits great except for the sleeves being too long (but you just roll ’em up so it’s not a big deal). Truly, it is good enough, which is why most people do, in fact, wear machine-knit, mass-produced socks.

This is where my mother would point out that her father never did; he would only wear the socks my grandmother knit for him. Mere storebought socks, he insisted, were a clearly inferior product. Mass-produced socks wouldn’t fit just right, wouldn’t wear well, suffered premature structural failure due to cost-cutting measures like seaming up toes instead of grafting, and weren’t even really worth repairing given the quality of materials, the likelihood of repeated failure, and the frequency with which repairs would be required.

You have to understand that my grandfather, a Cold War era nuclear physicist, was the kind of guy who took a methodical and scientific approach to everything in his life — I have no doubt that he performed extensive and rigorous testing in order to reach these conclusions, likely even documenting his process and presenting his evidence to my grandmother when determining he’d only wear handknit socks. This was a man who explained his beliefs about table manners to me with a discourse on the economy of motion as applied to eating. If you knew Clark, you knew that if he made an assertion, you could take it to the bank.

But I digress! I’ll take it as a given that those of us reading (or writing) this piece will accept handknit socks as high-quality and worth making and wearing. By extension, then, it is reasonable to propose that handknit socks should be made with the absolute finest of materials — at which point we must question whether mass-produced yarn is, in fact, the very best thing available for socks. My grandfather would tell me that I need to draft, then conduct, an experiment using good scientific method, then make my findings available for peer review, in order to determine this for sure, but I’m going to make simple assertions based on my own body of anecdotal evidence instead.

I said earlier that you can’t beat the mill for speed and volume. And that’s true; you can’t. However, you can beat it for quality, and here are a few reasons why.

Durability isn’t a mass-producer’s first priority. Hey, everybody knows this. If you’re in the business of selling something you manufacture, you want to be sure you’ll be able to keep selling it. If you were producing something which never wears out, then once everyone has bought it, your sales dry up; you need people to keep buying it, which means it needs to wear out.

Unparalleled excellence isn’t a mass-producers most essential goal either. A mass producer does need to have a product of sufficient quality to make you want to buy it, and it needs to cost less to buy it than it would cost you to make it. But that’s as good as the product needs to be. It is prohibitively costly to routinely exceed your needed quality guidelines as a mass producer.

Given sufficient market saturation, mass-produced goods own the market entirely and hand-produced goods don’t compete. Mass-produced goods are faster, cheaper, easier to come by, and good enough. Since you can get replacements easily and cheaply, you don’t care if it doesn’t last forever. In a very practical sense, it really doesn’t matter.

Large scale production finds savings in economies of scale. But what does this mean for yarn? Well, for example, getting more yardage from less weight of fiber means you make more money from the same raw materials. However, getting more yardage from less weight of fiber doesn’t necessarily mean a superior yarn for all purposes. Using less twist means the equipment spends less time producing the yarn (and lower-twist yarns tend to contain less fiber as well, actually) — again, this doesn’t necessarily mean a superior yarn.

Actually, for sock applications, it pretty uniformly means an inferior yarn. Less fiber in the yarn, and less twist, both mean a yarn that is more prone to wear, by pilling or shedding fiber and becoming threadbare. Such yarns will often tend to be less resilient as well, and prone to losing any elastic qualities more quickly. For lots of purposes, this really doesn’t matter, but I maintain that for socks, it does. If I’m going to handknit socks, I want them to last longer than storebought socks, and be worth repairing, and for it to be possible to repair them.

Now, mind you, there are mill-produced sock yarns out there which posess superior wear properties; but unfortunately many don’t. As a sock knitter, you may have experienced this, where some socks lasted really well and others were thrashed the first time you washed them. When you’re buying yarn, you’re at the mercy of the market choosing your materials; but when you spin your own, you are in complete control of these quality elements. What’s more, learning to spin your own sock yarn, and becoming familiar with how it feels and behaves, enables you to very quickly assess mass-produced offerings and predict how they’ll wear — a benefit to you even if you don’t always spin your own sock yarn.

Speaking of being at the mercy of the market, how many mass-produced sock yarns can you name that are made from blends of merino, silk, and angora? What if you wanted some? Supposing you found it, do you like the colours, and is it the right gauge for the socks you want to make? No? Well… why settle? As a handspinner, you could have exactly the yarn you want, produced on a one-off basis for just this exact pair of socks you have in mind — and you can rest assured it’s produced to the specifications you want. And you can have it in the quantity that you want.

Coming from the flip side of things, what if you have just a few ounces of a fiber you really like, but you aren’t sure what to do with it? Well, socks are a great and flexible project that doesn’t use a ton of yarn (and therefore doesn’t use a ton of fiber either). Consider spinning sock yarn. Even if, in the final analysis, you decide you don’t want socks from that fiber, then there are a number of other things you might do with sock yarn — and people who’d probably love to swap you something else for it (the yarn world isn’t exactly devoid of sock knitters, after all).

So now we’ve covered “why spin sock yarn!” Tune back in soon for more in our series about spinning sock yarn. Next up: colour!