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More Joy of Sox

Warm Thoughts in a Cold Season

By Tamia Nelson So Many Socks!

February 25, 2014

I better come clean now. When I wrote the Christmas Eve column that bore the teasing title "The Joy of Sox," I intended it as a sort of jeu d'esprit, a lighthearted approach to a subject that, though undeniably important to anyone who does much traveling on shanks' pony, was still somewhat peripheral, at least in the larger scheme of things. After all, socks aren't often the cause of wars — or even the subject of academic conferences, for that matter. And (to my knowledge, at any rate) no politician or preacher has ever fulminated about the evils of socks. Nor are socks' virtues often celebrated. There are no monuments to socks, and no national holidays have been declared in their name.

It would seem that I underestimated socks' appeal, however. I didn't expect my column to attract much attention, let alone generate a steady stream of letters, but I was quickly proven wrong on both counts. Scarcely had I thrown back the covers on Christmas morning and padded over to the mantel — in my bare feet, I'm afraid — than I found my stocking stuffed full of reader mail, all of it about socks. More mail soon followed. So it now seems only right and proper to craft a second piece around this extraordinary correspondence. And with the gracious permission of the writers whose letters I've excerpted below, I've done just that.

To begin with, a number of readers joined me in lamenting the fact that …

Socks Just Aren't What They Used to Be, …

And that good socks now cost big bucks. Take this note from Wolfie, for instance:

Read every word of your good article on sox. Very useful, because I have discovered that the cheapies I buy are no longer sculpted to the foot, and you have to pay real money to get a sock that has a real heel and smooth toes. I have so many mediocre ones that I haven't resorted to paying USD16 for a pair yet, but I have become very aware of the difference.

One thing which I find interesting but have never heard anywhere else is that my rather misshapen toenails are the result, my foot doctor says, of years of jogging. Have you ever heard that other old joggers have less than perfect toenails?

It probably goes without saying that I share Wolfie's unhappiness with the current state of the mart, though I've found that even when you shell out the money for "quality" socks, you don't always get what you pay for. In fact, I've paid extortionate prices for socks that almost immediately let me down, notwithstanding the maker's impressive‑looking royal warrant. On the other hand (other foot?), my favorite socks were quite reasonably priced. As to the problem of misshapen nails, it's a common one. And it's not limited to joggers. Anybody who's had to hump heavy loads long distances — end‑to‑end hikers, canoeists with a fondness for unimproved portages and remote waterways, former Marines — will likely see the effects of such abuse on his (or her) toenails, as will women whose work (or vanity) requires them to wear high heels. Ill‑fitting boots compound the problem, as do steamy weather and constant wetting, conditions that are sure to attract a plethora of panhandling fungi who're more than happy to set up housekeeping in your nails. And once they settle in, they'll likely be your companions for life. As Hilaire Belloc once wrote, albeit in a somewhat different context, "there is no cure for this disease." No easy one, anyway.

On a more cheerful note, I've mentioned my favorite socks several times now, both in my earlier column and in this one, but I've never disclosed the brand or maker. Wilma wonders if it isn't …

Time for Me to Drop the Other Sock

Good article on socks. Good ones do make life so much more comfortable.

Like you, I have found many of my favorite clothing and footwear designs being discontinued, and replaced by inferior ones. Now I buy extra items when I find a new good source (especially jeans, which seem to change proportions every few months or suddenly switch to hideous fashion colors). For socks, I often end up buying men's, which are more likely to be designed for function instead of cuteness.

You didn't mention the brand or manufacturer of your favorite wool/nylon socks, labeled "F" [in the photo that accompanied your article], but if they only recently disappeared from catalogs, perhaps you could track down some remainders on eBay? Or did you mean that the same brand has just been cheapened? I'd be interested in knowing the brand and model, if you find a new source of the original ones.

Ah, yes. The marketing ploy now known as "planned obsolescence" has a lot to answer for. Bicycle manufacturers apparently got the idea first, way back in the late 19th century, but it was the auto industry that really made it pay, even if Henry Ford took some persuading. Today it's nearly universal, and I no longer expect that my favorite things will stay on the shelves (or in the catalogs) for much more than a season. As for wearing men's socks, why not? I do. In fact, I wear men's shoes, too. Wear what you find comfortable — that's my motto.

Back to the question of identity now. Here's the picture Wilma refers to in her e‑mail:

Socks Revisited

And here's the rundown by maker: pair A is by Fila, B is from SmartWool, C bears the Columbia name, D through F sport the Wigwam label, G is another Columbia offering, H and I are yet more products of the Wigwam looms, and J is from L.L. Bean, though I suspect it may also be a rebranded Wigwam ragg sock. I didn't identify brands in my original piece because readers who stumbled across the article in future years would be unlikely to find any of the socks I'd illustrated. (Planned obsolescence, again.) Instead, I played it safe, confining myself to generalities.

Moreover, in an age of endless corporate mergers, restructurings, and reshuffles, brand is now a pretty uncertain guarantee of quality. A case in point: My old favorites (F in the photo) are still going strong, despite the fact that some pairs are in their second decade. But recently purchased pairs of what was ostensibly the same sock have given up the ghost within a year — and shrunk till they were uncomfortable long before then. Go figure.

The bottom line? Where socks are concerned, whatever the name on the label, you pays your money and you takes your choice, then you crosses your fingers (and your toes) and hopes for the best. It boils down to one question: Are you feeling lucky today?

Speaking of paying your money, here's one reader's advice that just might help you …

Buy Better Socks for Less

Thomas Heath knows a bargain when he sees one, and he also knows how to make the most of serendipitous encounters. Read on:

If you're really having trouble finding the socks marked G [in the photo reproduced above], try Costco. On my own "I'm finally going to improve my footwear" quest a few years ago, I bought one or two premium pairs in the mountaineering store brand for 10 to 12 dollars each, and they looked and sounded just like these. A month later I was walking down the aisle in Costco and glanced up to see what looked like the same sock for about 10 dollars for a pack of four or six. I swear it's the same damn sock. I wear them every day. Have a look at where I was wearing them last week. The only things that weren't cold were my feet!

One thing to keep in mind with Costco is that they buy by the bargeload and then run out. The next load might be slightly different, but then they seem to get the original back again later.

This is where Thomas put his bargain socks to the test, by the way — on the Côte‑Nord‑du-Golfe‑du‑Saint‑Laurent, a pretty chilly place in midwinter:

A Chilly Scene

To summarize: Good socks are where you find them. And the fact that they bear a bargain price tag is no reason to spurn a promising pair. The reverse is also true, of course. I've already noted my disappointment with a very pricey pair of socks that bore a label boasting of its royal connections. They wore down at heel in no time at all. So a fig for Honi soit qui mal y pense. In this instance, sic transit gloria mundi seems an apter motto.

Now it's confession time. I've a great fondness for sheep, or at least for the wool their fleece provides. This has nothing to do with a nostalgic longing for a pastoral paradise lost, however. Nor does it reflect any Green leanings on my part. In fact, as the estimable George Monbiot has pointed out, wool carries a very high environmental cost. But there's no denying that it also makes great socks. That said, synthetic fibers have their place, as Greg reminds me in a letter drawing my attention to the many virtues of …

Polypropylene Liner Socks

I think I have had or tried all the types of socks you featured and then some, and I cannot argue or dispute anything you say. In fact I agree with it all and have had similar experiences with my socks.

One thing surprised me, though. There was no mention of polypropylene liner socks. I have found them to be ideal under any of the other types of socks listed, especially on long, cold days in the outdoors. They manage moisture generated by the body (perspiration) fantastically. Great to sleep in, too. I used to find them in white only, but in recent years have found them in black, as well.

Do you have an issue with these, or are you unaware of them? If it's the latter, try them. You will like them!

One word of caution: Make sure you do not get the 100-percent cotton liner socks (often called sani-hose or sanitary socks) sold in sporting goods stores for wearing under baseball stirrup socks.

Greg was right to call me out on this one. I can offer no excuse for slighting polypro liner socks in my original article. Farwell has a drawerful. And though I've found all liner socks to be something of a nuisance in the past — very much a minority view, I'd guess, but I tired of retrieving balled‑up liners from the toes of my boots after a hard day's slog — I do own several pairs myself. None are polypro, however. They're all (pace, George) wool. You can see them in this photo:

Liner Socks

Anyway, Greg's letter prompted me to dig them out and try them on. And I found that they made great socks to wear around a cold house. I wore them when next I went plodding through the drifts, too, and sure enough, they kept my feet warm and dry in sub‑zero (Fahrenheit) temperatures. They still slipped down and balled up in the toes of my boots, though. But maybe polypro would do better. As for cotton… I can only echo Greg's cautionary words: No way! Not in winter, and not in a boat. Or on a bike, for that matter.

Liner socks were on others' minds as well. Self‑styled Meanderthal Barney Ward weighed in on the subject, directing my attention to the …

Liner Socks in the Ladies' Aisle

Proving that, if women can wear men's socks without the need for blushes, the reverse is also true. And Barney knows a thing or two about walking, having come of age carrying a heavy pack in a hot and hostile clime. Here's his take on the question:

To combat sweaty feet I have for years been wearing a thin, women's anklet‑type of stocking against my skin when hiking. It seems to keep the skin from having to put up with any sliding friction while keeping my feet less wet. I get mine at Walmart in the women's hosiery section.

Barney was so taken with the subject that he wrote it up for his blog, Old Fat Man Adventures, and I recommend his article to all sore‑footed ramblers. There's no doubt about it. I need to reconsider my aversion to liner socks. And I will.

Now, having dismissed socks' gender stereotyping, it's time to turn to the matter of handedness — or rather, footedness. You've probably noticed that your feet aren't identical. You have a right foot and a left. To be sure, a few of us may stumble around as if we were possessed of two left feet, but close inspection will invariably show that this just isn't the case. Yet socks don't take the left‑foot–right‑foot distinction into account. At least most don't. But …

There are Exceptions

And Fred Feingold makes the case for a benign form of separate‑but‑equal discrimination:

It's nice to be vindicated on my 24/7/365 ragg wool sock use. The best available ones I have found that are still on the market are El-Pine by Wigwam.

Are you going to review right/left socks? I recently found right/left wool socks made by Keen. I have very long big toes and these right/left socks are great. I sometimes wear them doubled or under my ragg wool ones. Without them my little toes end up squeezed by bunched-up extra material.

I have to admit that this came as a complete surprise to me. I'd never considered the question of footedness in socks. But it makes sense. After all, shoes weren't modeled on distinctive left and right lasts until the 19th century — undifferentiated pairs were subsequently known as "straights," apparently — but who'd want to go back? Not I. Still, where socks are concerned, I'll probably … er  … stick to my last. I have enough trouble sorting the laundry as it is. On a more serious note, however, socks that take footedness into account should be just the thing for paddlers with "troublesome" toes. As Fred can attest.

OK. It's clear that paddlers are passionate about socks. But it's not just paddlers. Consider this letter from Q. Ajaqer (no, I didn't get it at first, either, but now that you've had a hint, you'll work it out quickly, I'm sure) on …

Neruda's Ode to My Socks

I can attest, with my eightieth birthday coming up in January, to the tribulations of donning socks, standing on one leg and sliding legs into trousers, and tying shoelaces, which at times leaves me breathless. As my 98-year-old mother used to say, "Wait until you are 92, then tell what it is like getting old." That was after she switched her birthday candles from 92 to 29!

I join Farwell on knee socks, I have three pairs of Swiss knitted longies from Sierra Traders. When worn under (at the knee) a pair of workout capris purloined from my wife's drawer, they make for warm pedaling in winter.

And have you read Pablo Neruda's "Ode to My Socks"?

I hadn't, as it happens. And my command of Spanish is far too uncertain to tackle Neruda in the original. But here's the concluding stanza from Robert Bly's translation:

The moral of my ode is this:
beauty is twice beauty
and what is good is doubly good
when it is a matter of two socks
made of wool in winter.

Clearly, Neruda was a lover of wool. And equally clearly, he was sensitive to socks' enduring appeal. As are all backcountry ramblers, I'd imagine.


Putting My Best Foot Forward


There's no predicting what will catch readers' eyes. When I wrote a whimsical holiday piece on the "Joy of Sox" I didn't expect it to elicit much comment. But I was wrong, and I soon found my Christmas stocking full of reader mail. I should have seen this coming, of course. If you often ride on shanks' pony — and what paddler doesn't? — socks are serious business. And now, thanks to many readers (not to mention Pablo Neruda), I've been brought round to seeing the matter in its proper light. Better late than never, eh?



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