Well, I couldn’t run a website selling socks, without having a blog post about the origin of socks now, could I? I honestly didn’t think it was going to be a very long blog post, but who knew there was so much to say about socks? Certainly not me. The great thing about my job is that I learn new things every day, whether it is a business related lesson or just some interesting things about socks. So, here you have my blog about socks!
The Sock Origin Story
So, who wore the first socks? Believe it or not, socks have been around for quite a long time and are probably one of the oldest items of clothing that is still in use today! Experts believe that cavemen wore socks by wrapping animal skin around their feet, whilst tying them at the ankles. Sometimes, animal fur was used for extra warmth. It’s a shame that we don’t have any socks left over from that time now, but some socks have been discovered that are still pretty old!
One of the oldest pairs (pictured below) was thought to be 1,600 years old and was discovered at the end of the 19th Century. They were found at a burial ground in ancient Oxyrhynchus in central Egypt, which was a Greek colony that had been established on the River Nile. The socks were made from red wool and had split toes so they could be worn with (three guesses?) yep….. sandals!
Ancient socks everywhere!
Another ancient pair of socks, thought to be 1,700 years old, was the sock shown below. This was also found in Egypt and fished out of a landfill during the excavation of the Egyptian city of Antinoopolis in 1913/14. It is the left foot of a child’s sock and whilst it’s fascinating to think that this has survived since the 3rd or 4th Century, you have to admire the workmanship of the time! With new advances in technology, further study has shown that the sock contained 7 hues of wool yarn which had been woven together in a perfect stripy pattern. Only three natural, plant-based dyes were used to create the different color combinations featured on the sock.
The first woollen socks were discovered at Vindolanda, a Roman auxiliary fort just south of Hadrian's Wall in northern England, in Northumbria, which was under Roman occupation from about 85 AD to 370 AD. The below sock is a child’s woollen sock with an upper and a sole tacked together which made a fitted sock called an “udones” and these are the first socks that most closely resemble what we wear today. They also unearthed Roman writing tablets on the site, with someone letting one of the soldiers know that they were sending them shoes, underpants and yes, you guessed it, socks! It’s nice to know that “Mum…. don’t forget to send me some socks, please” was even an important request that long ago!
The Sock through Modern Times
The modern English word sock comes from the Old English word “Socc” which means “light slipper”. The word has Roman origins and comes from the latin work “Soccus” - a light low heeled shoe, worn by Roman comic actors. During the course of the Middle Ages trouser lengths were extended, which meant that the socks started to become a tighter, brightly coloured cloth which covered the lower part of the leg. Obviously, elastic hadn’t been invented, so socks were unable to stay up on their own like they do today. So, the solution was to place a garter over the top of the stocking which would stop them from falling down. By the year 1000 socks became a symbol of wealth among the nobility.
As time moved along through the Medieval and Tudor periods, socks changed along with the changing fashions. Breeches, short pants worn just below the knee, were a popular item of clothing and as they became shorter, socks began to get longer and more expensive and eventually extended from the foot to the waist in an all-in-one garment, closely related to today’s tights.
Whilst here in the UK the working class were perfectly capable of making their own socks and stockings, it was the legwear of the upper class that had the more flattering cuts, whilst being made out of a fine woven cloth. By the time the 15th Century arrived, it was the men of France and Italy pioneering their fine, hand-knitted, silk stockings. Men were finding that the stretchy fabric not only gave increased ease of movement, but it also showed off their shapely legs! Soon British Aristocrats were following suit and knitted silk stockings became the height of popularity among the fashionable elite.
Even the sock police were out and about in the 16th Century!
By the time we got to the 16th Century, there were strict laws governing the wearing of clothes, including hosiery. These were called Sumptuary Laws and in a nutshell they were there to regulate and reinforce social hierarchies, meaning they could easily identify your social place in society and use it for social discrimination. Not a very nice concept, especially by today’s standards! In London, they even had “sock police” who were positioned at the gates of the city twice a day and were there purely to make sure that people were wearing the right socks for their class! Luckily, by the 17th Century, King James I decided to scrap most of these laws in the UK, since he felt they were “out of tune” with the need for freedom for his people. Phew!
It was also towards the end of the 17th Century that cotton became a popular choice for many types of clothing, including socks. As trousers started to get longer, socks began to get shorter and the word “socks” was used more and more to replace what were once formerly known as stockings.
The sock game changer of the 1930s
As we hit modern times and the late 1930s nylon was invented and this became a game changer, opening the door for synthetic fibre inventions that revolutionized the global textile industry! Introducing nylon into the hosiery sector created a fashion frenzy never seen for any other manufactured fiber. The momentum of this introduction made nylon the leading synthetic fiber until 1969 when polyester consumption overtook nylon.The blend of cotton with nylon, polyester and also elastane is still used today and is what you will find the vast majority of socks to be composed of.
The evolution of the sock has been pretty amazing. Whether made from strips of leather and fabrics to spun wool and silk, then leading up to the invention of nylon, they really can be made out of many materials, showing off their flexibility.
Today, there are so many different socks out there for all types of activities, needs and desires. Whether that is a sock designed for sports, thermal socks to keep you warm in colder conditions, medical aids such as as compression stockings which prevent clots and DVT or just socks to make you smile.
So, there we have it. Quite a detailed look at socks over the ages and a bit more insight into where they came from and how they have advanced over time. Quite handy, if you ever need to write an essay on socks. 😉