It's interesting to talk about socks, I think, if not just a little odd. Knitters and crocheters love sock gossip, sock stories, sock problems. They admire each other's socks and sock yarns, they espouse their own sock-making methods, decry those of others, and make claims about new and trendy ways to reinvent the wheel. They share rumor about strange new materials used for making a better mouse trap. Is it grandstanding or just a bit of latent fetishism? So what's the allure? We are all intrigued by socks, all of us, men and women alike. It's a fascination. I remember way back when long before my subscription to Men's Health ran out (some time in the mid 1990's), an article from that magazine about where guys should buy clothes (because we are by nature inept in such matters). The author had a minimalist approach -- buy a couple pairs of dress trousers, a few good quality dress shirts, a decent blazer. Not particularly bad advice, I'd say. Then, there was that part of the wardrobe that the author considered more "disposable". He recommended shopping for trousers and such at a high-end men's shop, but the disposables, socks and the like, according to him, should come from a box store like Target or Walmart, where packs of multiples are available at low cost. The reasoning? Socks wear out fast, in about 6 months, so why buy designer socks for 12 bucks a pair if you're going to pitch them out in 24 weeks anyway? Throw a 3-pack of 6-scheckel el cheapos into the cart along with the TV dinners and the cat litter. Fine. I suppose that's all pretty logical. After all, socks are really underwear of sorts, for the most part hidden from view. They're not like ties, or belts -- which all have a distinct purpose, of course. Without a proper necktie pointing the way, a man wouldn't have a clue where to locate his fly. A belt? A lady's handknit kimono needs an alternative closure just as dignified as her classy jeweled shawl stick! Socks: they're fabric padding that fits in between our feet and our shoes to make wearing footwear a bit more bearable. Both those frozen glacier people who pop out from the ice and into the news after having slipped, fallen, and snapped their necks while chasing down a mammoth a couple thousand years ago, as well as a few poor sots who had managed to fall into marshes some time back in the first century, drowned in the sludge to be preserved along with their clothing by earth gases and discovered centuries later by Northern Europeans digging giant cubes of peat from the ground have much to tell us about ancient sock wearing habits. One of the first sock concepts was simple: straw stuffed into footwear. As knitting developed, straw became less popular in favor of a cozier (and less itchy) fiber fabric. Socks are really old technology it seems -- and here we moderns thought we were the clever ones with all our magical looping and toe-upping Turkish two-timing on-casting. And so we realize, maybe even reluctantly, that making underwear for our feet is a practical activity that humans have been up to since clothing became required: back when eating apples was legalized (at least marginally), snakes lost their legs along with their reputations, and a naked woman was framed for misleading a silly guy lacking a rib with tales of opened eyes and eternal wisdom. Although socks are just as old, the knitted fig leaf never quite caught on. Throughout history, we have engaged in knitting various intriguing and sometimes questionable unmentionables -- whose patterns are still around and which surface now and then in conversation or as knitting novelties. However, I have yet to hear anyone seriously state she was going home to block a brand new pair of boxer briefs she made for her boyfriend, or someone looking for snaps for the rear hatch of her husband's Lacey Lamb union suit she had just bound off the size 00's. On the other hand, mention a pair of toe-up's made from recycled shrimp carcasses, and you'll have the room captivated. "DPN's or 2 on 2?" "Oooh, Magic Loop? How'd that work for ya?" "Can you actually feel the shells?"
So why do we do it, make socks? That article from the 1990's suggested it's cheaper just to buy them, wear them until our pigs pop out the fronts or until the back of the foot disintrigrates. Why spend about 15 clams on supplies, take a week of our time with thin-gauged yarn to sit with pointy toothpicks or toothpicks connected by a cable to create stylish knitted (or crocheted) tubes for the ends of our legs? First off, it's the appeal of puzzle construction. Who doesn't like a good jigsaw puzzle, a spacial riddle that captures our attention and keeps it? How can a tube mitre itself in such a way to turn 90 degrees? How do you do that? And a toe? How does a tube taper like that to a blunt point without a cast-off? Then there's the appeal of the creation itself. There are socks and then there are Art Socks. Some socks are meant to be worn -- like the ones the guy from Men's Health described -- the one's he thought should just come from anywhere. And then there are socks that are meant to be seen: the lace socks, socks with cables, socks with intricate colorwork, socks with amazing stitch patterns, socks in intriquing materials and fabulous colorways, the socks "too pretty to wear", the socks with "lace too intricate to hide in a shoe." The brain teaser socks that are worthy only to recline on the mantle upon a velvet platform domed by a glass bell like grandfather's antique pocket watch. Sock folks produce their share of these Art things, yes. But the majority of the sock children one sires are practical, everyday affairs. They're the one's whose betters are said to come in multi-packs. Why do we make them? I'll tell you this: it's not because sock yarn is overabundant, and it's not entirely because there's sock yarn made of seafood waste, plant pulp, adobe, or bat dung. It's the process and rhythmn of the knitting that keeps us motivated. There's something about knitting a sock that's different from knitting anything else. I'm talking about knitting a plain old stockinette sock here, not a super-charged intarsia cabled zippity-wizbang runway model stocking. A plain old single-colored sock destined for a plain old comfortable pair of loafers worn with jeans or a slouchy pair of corduroys on a Sunday afternoon. Miles and miles of garter sitch worked flat can seem boring, but for some reason knitting in the round -- I mean literally making Knits in the round -- is so mezmerizing and calming, the time flies between the cuff and the heel, if time even continues for that distance. While knitting in silence, free from distraction, the knitter becomes intoxicated by the rocking motion of the repeated stitches, the quiet "sh-sh-sh" of looping loops becomes a mantra. It's meditative, this sort of knitting, interrupted only by the heel turn, at which point the mind is held captive by the sheer magic of the construction, the knitting of a flap, the short row turn, the picking up new stitches, the working of the gussets -- the wizardry how the stitch-count increases and then mystically returns to the same number as the leg, all very smoothly. Sock shaping is simple and fluid. The basic concept can be committed to memory and repeated over and again. Most of us harbor a specific and unique sock pattern in our heads. One we learned from a book, one we learned from someone else, one we combined from patterns suggested by others with patterns we've read. Sock knitting -- plain old sock making -- is like making a gumbo. We just make it. Period. There are plenty of recipes around in books and that, but when it comes to making a roux, we do it the way we do it. And it works. Sock knitting is about entering a meditative zone, creating something utterly usable and beautiful in relatively little time -- something that's ready to wear moments after the final thread is hidden. Despite the advice rendered by some detatched fashionista, a hand-made pair of socks lasts for years before -- are you ready for this concept -- mending is required. Those box store sox I mentioned earlier only cost a few cents a pair, but can you ever really repair them? Not really, not when the mended portion is nicer than what remains of the old sock. It's really not worth saving them if they're worn. Hand-made socks? Mend them, wear them a few more years, then mend them again. They last and last. Who made the Target specials? Some machine in a country unknown: clone socks made by the hundreds of dozens and shipped out around the world. And that raises perhaps the most appealing aspect of sock making. Our interest in being asked, "Who made those socks you're wearing?" They were hand-made for my own feet by a friend of mine, by my husband, by my partner, by my wife or my girlfriend. They are my socks because someone I know made them. They fit my feet because they were made to, and when they fray, they will be fixed like new and I will wear them still. Knitters and wearers of hand-knit socks know that it's all about the soul. Things made by human hands for humans to use are special -- and these days, quite rare. They have personality and are unique, and besides that, they tend to outlast their mass-produced counterparts. Socks fall into their own category: partially visible partially intimate, and as a result, they double both as undergarment and accessory. There's an allure to creating something that will be hidden, yet is still privately beautiful. Hand-made socks might seem archaic, but to those who wear them, they are a timeless piece of humanness, an ancient invention that re-invents itself daily. We have been continually fascinated with them ever since that infernal proto-bison labored into view of our tribal hunting party and made us slip into the lake as the temperatures dropped. Our ancestor wore them that night when a flair of methane bubbled up through the murky swamp, flashed momentarily ablaze, causing him to mistake the witch-light for a lonely dwelling to take refuge from the darkness. Being able to say "I made them" or "she made them for me" establishes a link between them to us and between us to each other. Socks combine the public and the private, the seen and the hidden: naughty piety and pious naughtiness. And nothing's more human than that.