Sock Design: It’s More Interesting Than You Think

Socks have come along way from their utilitarian purpose of acting as an added layer of foot protection to a means of boosting the comfort factor and fit of boots and shoes.

Over the years, as socks became more specialized (and sport-specific), designers rarely strayed far from basic color configurations. Today, they’ve not only upped the ante with flashy, eye-popping colors but added design elements that have increasingly merged lifestyle and sports pursuits with a greater fashion aesthetic.

Here are 6 sock brands and how they’re changing up the sock:

KeenThe iconic protective rubber bumper toe on their shoes, mules, boots and sandals made this footwear brand hugely popular (a style many tried unsuccessfully to knockoff). Their sock design has been equally radical—nothing short of a revolution in fit and comfort.

Keen’s Merino wool right and left foot-specific socks are designed to be seamless, bunch-free, and anatomically cradling with added support in key spots. They’re available in four different weight options—Hyperlite, Lite, Ultralite and Mid-weight—in lifestyle and performance styles for casual and endurance sports wear.

So does a dedicated left and right foot sock really make a difference? Unequivocally: yes. They’re unparalleled for comfort and fit. They don’t slip, irritate, bunch and are perfectly padded (no sock crowded footwear feel). With their innovative design and colors, it’s easy to see why no one has successfully imitated this brand’s sock line.

Darn Tough VermontThey’re known for their incredibly durable hiking/backpacking socks, as well as a full line of running, biking, gym, work, snowsports, kids, and hunting socks. The company recently introduced a skiing-specific line called Vertical, available in ultra-light or cushioned (padded) models. They feature bright colors, and bold and vibrant patterns. They’re also naturally antimicrobial and are designed to accommodate snowsport footwear or boots. And like all of Darn Tough’s socks, they’re made from fine-gauge Merino wool and a True-Seamless™ knitting technology that produces a virtually undetectable toe seam and bulk-free warmth.

A couple of key things give this brand distinction: They knit their socks with the highest density in the industry—1,441 stitches per square inch—which translates to a smooth, no slip, no bunch (no blisters) fit. Even better, they’re unconditionally guaranteed for life, meaning if you’re unhappy with these socks even 10 years out, they’ll replace them free of charge.

SmartWoolThis brand has come along way from the socks they introduced in the 90s. For one thing, they last a lot longer. Early versions wore out in the toes and heels after a dozen or so washes. Today, they’re made with a combination of Merino Wool and varying blends of nylon and elastane to improve stretch and recovery. They also feature bi-elastic construction which improves fit and flexibility. SmartWool’s socks come in a wide selection of proprietary reinforcement designs. For example, a particular model might feature a higher density of wool in high wear/high impact areas to increase durability and comfort. The newest SmartWool models include mesh-ventilation zones, as well as ankle bands, upper instep bands, lower instep bands, or over the arch bands—all designed to integrate with the foot for a better fit and feel.

Their PhD Outdoor sock collection includes five levels of cushioning, four sock heights and lots of great colors and patterns.

InjinjiThese socks are made with individual anatomic toe sleeves designed with a thin anti-blister, skin-against-skin membrane between toes. You’ll either love or hate the idea of having each little piggy swaddled. But if you’re prone to toenail problems or blisters, give them a try, and you’ll never go back to “full paw” socks. Injinji also now offers a knee-high boot sock and a hiking crew that are nothing short of awesome. Knitted with a Nuwool blend of merino wool, nylon and spandex, and extra cushioning that pairs well with hiking boots, they’re both a terrific addition to their usual running and biking sock collection.

WigwamThis brand is well known for innovative knit blends and its proprietary moisture management (Ultimax™) system, which promise a precise fit and blister- and odor-free comfort. Their merino wool and Dri-release Tencel Ultimax fiber blend is nothing short of amazing. Strategic construction includes breathable mesh shin and arch panels, cushioned soles and seamless toe closures. Look for this new technology in many of their performance socks, including the Ironman® Tracer Pro Low Cut and the Women’s Tech Pro Crew.

SigvarisGraduated compression socks are no longer exclusively for people with health issues; endurance sports enthusiasts—from competitive runners and cyclists to long-haul backpackers and hikers—swear it makes a big difference in how their feet and legs feel after long runs, rides and trail outings. There is still some debate about their actual performance effect, but many wearers swear by such benefits as increased circulation from improved blood flow, fewer pulled muscles and less exercise-induced muscle soreness and lactic acid buildup in the legs, fewer shin splints, calf cramps and faster recovery. Sigvaris recently introduced a new line of outdoor socks featuring itch-free Merino wool, padded soles, mesh flexzones for breathability and 20-30mmHg of compression. If you’re hiking in cool weather, you’ll find them indispensable and the compression very good at keeping muscles humming along happily, mile after mile.

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Jo Ostgarden

Jo Ostgarden is a freelance journalist who has traveled around the world by plane, train, thumb, bicycle and automobile. She bicycled across Canada, the Pacific Coast Highway from Oregon to British Columbia and throughout 14 countries abroad. Additionally, she's an enthusiastic longtime backpacker who calls the Grand Canyon her own personal energy spot. She's also expert on travel in the Pacific Northwest, Hawaii and Ireland. She edited and re-wrote the final edition of Best Places Northwest Travel Guide, and has written about travel, health, nutrition and endurance sports gear for dozens of magazines and newspapers, including Bicycling Magazine.

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