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Socks:  Separating the Feet from the Chafe
2 MARCH 2006

Strapping young blonde man leans against short wall, his stripedsocks exposed to the world.As far as impact on our quality of life goes, we admit that socks are not quite top ten material. Sure, they are handy and, heck, some might even call 'em dandy, but the sock is no vaccine, automobile or indoor plumbing. In fact, most would say that socks are more on par with sliced bread for making our lives just a little bit more bearable.

Socks have come a long way, baby. From protecting ancient Egyptians from all that pesky sand to keeping Prince William in high fashion... Photo: Prince of Wales

After all, the average foot has 250,000 sweat glands and those sweat glands produce approximately a half a pint of sweat per day. That's 250 mililiters of putrid sweat we'd be standing in if it weren't for socks that wick away moisture. Not to mention that smell!

A group of students at the University of Missouri - Columbia got to wondering about exactly how socks work. Socks have been around since the pyramids were being built so they must be doing something right. But what?

Foot Notes
The first socks appeared approximately 3000 years ago in Egypt. Ancient Egyptians were thought to wear socks to keep sand from getting lodged in-between their toes. Later, the ancient Greeks improved upon Egyptian construction by using animal skins. By the11th century, hand-knitted silk hose were on the scene in Spain, the beginning of a trend that would later spread to France and throughout the rest of Europe. chaucer quoteThough they had long been primarily a men's fashion, by the time Geoffrey Chaucer immortalized socks in his Canterbury Tales in the 1400s, both men and women were known to wear them. During Elizabethan times, style shifted from favoring full-legged socks (what we and Chaucer call hose) to socks that ended at the knee, called nethersocks. Then, in 1875, socks as we know them, tube socks, were invented and socks have looked the same ever since.

The only substantial improvement to socks came with the introduction of nylon in 1939. Nylon blends two or more yarns together, creating a super strong material. (Though the occasional toe is known to still slip through...)

Sock It To Me
Biological engineering students at the University of Missouri-Columbia think like Why Filers. They decided to find out what constitutes a good sock versus a bad one. Beyond simple curiosity, they posit that knowing which socks are best could be meaningful information for diabetics with serious circulation problems and people who wear prosthetic devices.

To test the socks, the students developed a device to test 10 brands of athletic socks. The device holds a sock against a platform at a set pressure and calculates the point at which the material slips against the platform. To imitate sweat, the experiments were conducted in a high humidity chamber.

The amount of pressure asserted on the sock at the point where the material slips is thought to be the point when blisters form. The students found that 100 percent cotton socks were usually the worst, especially when a "person" started to "sweat."

Row of uniformed nurses knit many pairs of white socks
During times of war, knitted socks from lovely nurses were just the thing to keep soliders happy. Or at least warm. Photo: State Library of Victoria

The team also found that higher priced socks did not test any better than the inexpensive socks. (Poor grad students everywhere are thrilled!)

The team ultimately found that the material that the sock is made of is the key. Nylon appears to be superior to cotton when it comes to performance under this kind of pressure.

-- Megan Anderson

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