Sunday, 9 March 2014
The enduring usefulness of the sock (essay)
It’s really hard not to get emotional about the common or garden sock. Trying to find the partner of the striped socks I wore a couple of days ago and then consigned to the washing machine is becoming obsessive. I know I put them both in, but I only rescued one. Two days later, I’m none the wiser. The whereabouts of striped sock number 2 is a complete mystery.
But before even contemplating the unstoppable fate of that sock, my sock, I want to define the sock as such in the context of fashion, tradition and lifestyle, or a combination of all three.
According to Wikipedia, the sock can be defined as a “knitted or woven type of hosiery for enclosing the human feet”. Socks, which usually come in pairs, have many uses, apart from keeping the feet warm. For instance, they prevent or alleviate chafing between the foot and whatever footwear is being worn, thus promoting the comfort of the wearer; they protect that footwear from the effects of perspiration and dead skin lost from the foot; they are, or can be fashionable and, if a foot is injured, absorb any blood:, in very cold climates, socks can even help prevent frostbite.
In all languages influenced by Latin, the word sock probably stems from the word ‘soccus’, the name given to a kind of slip-on shoe worn by Roman comic actors. This soccus fitted loosely and could be taken off quickly.
Not that the Romans invented the sock all by themselves. The earliest recorded socks were made from animal skins gathered up and tied round the ankles. In the eighth century B.C., the Greeks (I won’t call them Ancient Greeks because they were not ancient at the time) wore socks they called ‘piloi’ made of matted animal hair – a bit like our homely felt slippers – to keep their feet warm. The Romans began by wrapping their feet in strips of leather or woven material, but by the 2nd century A.D. they had taken to wearing ‘udones’ sewn from woven fabric and pulled over the feet. The first knitted socks were discovered in Egyptians tombs dating back to the 3rd-6th centuries A.D..
By the fifth century A.D., holy people in Europe were wearing (unholy?) socks they called ‘puttees’ which symbolized purity. They were probably made of strips of cloth or leather and wrapped round the legs and feet. They were referred to as ‘leggings’. By 1000 A.D. socks had become a symbol of wealth among the nobility. In the middle ages, trouser legs got longer and more fitted. Hose was fitted cloth covering the leg. As breeches got shorter the hose started to get longer and by mid 12th century they had gained feet. About 1490 breeches and hose joined up to form tights made of colourful materials and often with each leg a different colour. The future of the sock was sealed for all time by the invention of the knitting machine in 1589 by an English clergyman named William Lee, who was tired of the woman he loved paying more attention to her sock-knitting than to him. Queen Elizabeth I apparently didn’t like the feel of those first machine knitted stockings (they were made of wool and itchy whereas she was used to fine silk), so she wouldn’t grant him a patent for his machine, but by the 1590s knitting machines were being used regularly and people everywhere started to wear knitted hose. During the 16th and 17th centuries Spain had a great influence on European fashion, since they profited from trading with the New World and could afford beautiful fabrics embroidered and embellished with jewels. A greater contrast to the 20th century cannot be imagined, when nylon for socks came into its own thanks to its strength and elasticity.
The desire to create the perfect sock has led to many styles being incorporated through the centuries. There are short socks ending at the ankle, and even shorter ones nobody is supposed to see. There are knee socks, over-knee socks and thigh-high socks – and that’s just a step down from the tights that were already popular in the Elizabethan era. There are also speciality socks designed to harmonize with various kinds of footwear. A toe sock wraps each toe up individually, just as a glove encases the fingers. Then there are socks with a separate bit for the big toe so that they can be worn with thong sandals – very popular in Japan to go with the national costume. There they are called ‘tabi’. Some pairs of socks have a left and a right one, but modern machine knitting has led to most socks being a long straight piece of knitting into which one pushes the foot. The sock bends automatically when it gets to the heel. This style is convenient as it fits many foot sizes.
Historically speaking, the sock has indeed had an illustrious career.
If you are in an English speaking country, you won’t encounter much of a problem tracking socks dwon. You will probably have to locate them all by yourself, however, as shop-assistants are now an endangered species, but what is it like in countries where the term ‘sock’ is not known?
For instance, in Finland you would have to ask for a ‘sukka’ whatever length you wanted, since it’s the same word for both sock and stocking. But if you aren’t acquainted with the local word for sock, just point to the ones you’re wearing. That should do the trick.
The current dilemma with the lost stripy sock reminds me that socks do have a life of their own. That’s why everywhere in the world you usually find them in a prophylactic pairwise clinch in the drawer dedicated to the conservation of socks. The problem is that a sock can become elusive if left to its own devices. I know of socks that have gone down the back of a drawer, sofa or other piece of furniture never to be seen again unless that hidey-hole is dismantled for any reason. Then you hear declarations of “There you are. I remember you. I looked for you for days before throwing your other half out.”
And who hasn’t succumbed to the temptation of throwing away an odd sock only to find the other one the day after the refuse has been collected? There is no reprieve for an odd sock. I don’t know of anyone who would wear two non-identical socks in order not to have to discard them. Odd socks just don’t get on.
Which brings me to the inevitable question of whether a pair of socks therefore also constitutes a kind of marriage. The similarity between a pair of matching socks and a devoted married couple is not to be sneezed at. For instance, they go everywhere together. They would never dream of forsaking one another – except that that does happen, just as socks get separated. Married couples have the edge though. Just because one half has absconded, the other one does not necessarily have to be written off.
Socks of different hues prefer to be segregated. A black sock does not wish to be confused with a navy blue sock. A navy blue sock wishes to be seen as sporting and casual and is disdainful of a black sock, associated as it so often is with death and mourning. A striped sock would not dream of turning out for a funeral and looks down upon socks that are lacking in verve or invention.
Socks can be anachronistic. An elderly lady sporting socks strewn with comic figures would invite ridicule; a businessman would not dream of turning up to a meeting is such loud hose. In these days of video conferences it is of utmost importance for businessmen who wish to be taken seriously not to remove their shoes and put their feet up on their desk unless absolutely sure than their socks are of a decent hue and do not have holes in them or stink. There’s something shocking about stinky socks and I do not wish to enlarge on that particular aspect.
And before I forget, speaking of holes, every sock has one, of course, otherwise you would not be able to get into it, but that is strictly the upper limit for social acceptance. Excusing holes that serve no useful purpose by dedicating them to one, such as letting the air in, is in my view unacceptable.
Now let’s turn to the literary significance of socks. You come across them a lot in children’s books, which leads one to believe that they have something magical about them. But sadly, although all the heroes who ever lived in fact or fantasy wore them, socks are seldom more than mentioned in world literature and if at all, then only in passing. There is no record of socks being blessed or preserved as relics after the wearer, often a personality of stupendous historical importance, has passed on.
But I have come across a ‘sock summit’. It was in Portland, Oregon in 2009, and is connected with the endeavours of the local sock museum (at sockmuseumdotcom) to keep socks on the map. The sock museum is appealing to the general public for sock knitters to work up the old patterns. There is even a sock history expert to put you in the picture, and because most of us can’t get there, it’s all online and even has a database of historically important socks. As they say, socks are practically unlimited when it comes to personal interpretation, so they can’t imagine that there’s a knitter that can’t find their own personal sock nirvana. They advise sock devotees to “knit ‘em toe up, or top down. Knit ‘em on dpn’s , two circulars, or magic loop. Choose your heel, your toe… how long do you like them? Knee socks, ankle socks, pedicure socks, double knit socks, socks with colourwork, socks with texture.” Amazing, the possibilities! And don’t forget, we are still talking about the humble sock. On the page about historical socks, you can knit some for yourself if you connect to the knitting patterns. What could one ask for more?
The only thing missing now is that second stripy sock of mine. No clues yet, but I haven’t lost hope.