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Marcoliani Top Quality Socks
Marcoliani Magica in Black

As a retailer of many of the world's best socks for decades, I am bombarded with questions about fit, fiber, style, color, length ... the gamut is endless. If I had a buck for every e-mail I've answered or online men's forum inquiry I've handled, I would be retired.

One client, an ardent fan of 100% Pure natural fiber over-the-calf socks who knew I was researching this article recently emoted thus: "You might also mention that most makers who do 100% natural fiber socks do so poorly -- for example, whoever makes ***** 's socks makes them too freaking short!"

"Perhaps most", I thought. "But not all." Read on ...


What Happened To Pantherella? SOCKS HOME PAGE Sock Quality Comparison Study (Technical)
     
More Than You Ever Wanted To Know About Top Quality Socks
  by  Alexander S. Kabbaz
Fine Custom Clothier & Haberdasher
 
Proper Fit  ...  Correct Selection  ...  Best Design  ...  Appropriate Style ...  Best Quality Maker
   

Marcoliani Top Quality Italian Socks

"Perhaps most", I thought. "But not all."

I know of at least a couple whose socks are not too freaking short. And that's when I decided to compile the questions, write this article, and do a Sock Characteristics Study of two of the better makers' always-available stock offerings.

Additionally, with recent changes in the "old guard" and at least one challenger having "outdone the master", I thought it wise to make certain our CustomShirt1.com repertoire was keeping up with the times.

What I learned was, frankly, rather surprising and resulted in some major supplier changes around here. But that's a story for another time and place.

The Characteristics Study is quite detailed ... but an important reference if you are interested in attaining an ideal solution to your variety of needs such as Dress, Casual, Winter and Summer.

What are we all seeking in the best quality socks? Years of research and responding to clients inquiries place these two parameters at the top:
  • Correct Construction and Length: A sock's ability to stay up
  • Tactile Enjoyment: The way the socks feel to the skin
The remaining characteristics of major importance, in no particular order, are:
  • Appearance: Color and rib style - or the lack thereof
  • Design: If other than a plain color sock, talent of the designer
  • Fiber: Merino, cotton, cashmere, silk, nylon and other synthetics
  • Cushioning: How much foot shock does the sock absorb
  • Temperature: Winter warmth and Summer coolness
  • Moisture: wicking and drying abilities
  • Longevity: Cost per wearing with proper care
  • Source: Availability of a consistent, on demand supply

Correct Construction and Length    

A sock's ability to stay up is primarily determined by two factors, the sock's length and its elastic strength.

Take it as a given that an Over-the-Calf or Knee-High sock will stay up better than a Mid-Calf or Ankle sock.

Why? Simple physics. Picture if you will the human calf in geometric terms. Quite simply, it is an upside-down cone. Wider at the top than at the bottom, it will tend to push downward on the elastic band otherwise known as the Top Cuff of your sock. The reverse is the case above the calf. From the top of the calf to just below the knee, the human leg is a rightside-up cone which simply pushes upward on the elastic band.

Sock Quality CharacteristicsNote that the white lines both from the front as well as the side create an upside-down cone shape. You may find it easier to observe in the isolated diagram below the photo. With the top being of greater diameter than the bottom, the natural action is to push downward on the top of a sock.
The magenta lines, primarily from the side view, show that the opposite is true above the calf muscle. There, the sock elastic tends to push upward.

Men's Over-the-Calf
or Women's Knee-High

With the average distance from a man's heel to just-below-the-knee being 19'5" and a woman's at 17", it is critical to make men's over-the-calf or women's knee-high socks whose top band falls within an inch-or-so of that point. This avoids the sock elastic falling on the detrimental "cone" section of the leg.

Top Quality Sock CharacteristicsFinally, in the green area, there is no push in either direction and a quality sock, if sufficiently long to reach this "straight" area, should be able to stay up reasonably well.

Men's Mid-Calf or Women's Ankle Socks

Even though physics dictate that this length of sock is more prone to falling, the problem needs be mitigated as much as possible. More technically, as the "upside-down cone" approaches the center of the calf, it begins to flatten into a straight cylinder before entering the rightside-up cone phase at the top of the calf. It is therefore important for those whose preference goes toward mid-calf or ankle socks to find the longest ones available. These will reach the flatter part of the cone and tend to stay up better.


Tactile Enjoyment    

The way the socks feel to the skin is determined by the percentage and quality of the natural fibers used in knitting the sock. This is because the soft feel of a sock is imparted by the characteristics of the natural fiber.

Face it: Nylon just isn't the nicest feeling fiber known to man! It is used solely for strength and the ease of  imparting elasticity. Though similar qualities can be spun into natural fibers, doing so is expensive, not as effective, and makes the size of the sock more critical. Therefore, all but the best of the artisanal makers tend to shy away from producing socks entirely from natural fibers.

Today, with most of the better makers using similar qualities of extrafine merino, cotton lisle or pima lisle, cashmere and silk, a major difference in the better natural-fiber socks lies strictly in the percentage of natural fiber used. This is not to say that there are not yarn differences for there certainly are. The best Italian makers shy away from commercially available yarns in favor of having their own proprietary fibre blends spun for them

Marcoliani Over-the-Calf Cotton Egadi Stripe

Between the two makers I used for this study, the natural fiber percentage ranged from 65% to 100% with this caveat: those knitting 100% natural fiber use a small bit of nylon in the critical areas of toe & heel, and a touch of spandex in the top cuff.

     
Appearance    

Color and rib style - or the lack thereof - are critical components of a sock's appearance and should be considered carefully.

The four most frequently worn men's "business" colors are Black, Navy, Charcoal and, to a lesser extent, Brown. For women, Black, Charcoal and Brown reign. Navy at the office is unpopular among the distaff.

Once outside the realm of these four basic business shades, the second tier of plain colors includes Flannel Grey, brighter Dark or Mid Blues, Natural, Ivory/Cream(Summer and Resort), Dark Green or Olive, Light Pink, Light Yellow, and a Wine color such as a Claret, Burgundy, or Bordeaux. The more adventurous spectrum contains brighter renditions such as Orange, various Reds or lighter wine colors, Brighter Dark Green, and Helio.

Marcoliani Top Quality Merino Dress Socks

By far, the overwhelming rib preference for "business" socks is the 6x3 or 5x3 construction. The 6x3, with is slightly broader wide rib than the 5x3, is a bit more comfortable. In recent years the wider and flatter 11,12,13 x 1, 2, 3 construction has seen ever-increasing popularity. Flat knit socks, once the "one-and-only", remain in the mix, usually in the purer cottons.

Marcoliani Top Quality Merino Dress Socks
Left: Wide 12/13 x 1 Rib        Right: 6x3 Rib

In the arena of casual socks, the spectrum is endless from stripes to argyles to simply wild designs.


Design    

If other than a plain color sock, talent of the designer is key.

In conservative business wear, designs range from small ... to smaller. Predominating here are merino herringbones, cotton & merino pin dots and cotton & merino birdseye.

Marcoliani Top Quality Dress Socks
The Most Popular Design: Herringbone Stripes

As for design talent, without question the driving force is Italy. Although I have seen nice design work from other areas, Italian sock designers abilities at coloration, color combination, and design structure far outstrip their competitors.

 

Marcoliani Top Quality Dress Socks
Followed by Pin Dot (right) and BirdsEye (left)
When it comes to quality in the design arena, much is determined by the precision of the knitting machinery. Our normal case studies use pin dot socks and herringbones, the former for its precision and the latter for regularity.
Natural Fiber    

In order of popularity, the best sock artisans use extrafine merino, pima & cotton lisle, cashmere, silk, nylon and other synthetics. Cotton lisle, for those unfamiliar with the term, is top quality long staple cotton which has gone through special processes. The first is mercerization - sometimes double mercerization - with which we are all familiar. The second process is called "singing" (from ' to singe' - we do not croon at the cotton). In this process, the cotton is quickly passed through a small gas flame to burn off the excess fibers and create a smoother surface which yields a more sensuous feel.

In the fiber department, personal preference is the arbiter. We know that merino is the dress sock leader for a number of reasons detailed below. Cotton dress socks are second on a year-round basis and the leader in Summer months. Merino and cotton are about equal in the casual sock segment. Cashmere was the main luxury sock leader until Marcoliani introduced their now overwhelmingly popular cashmere & silk blend. This sock has now grown equal in popularity to the cashmere. On a personal level, this is my favorite Winter sock and one of the finest we have ever offered.

Marcoliani Top Quality Dress Socks
Raw Long Staple Egyptian Cotton - The Ideal Coolness Fiber

Cushioning    

How much foot shock does the sock absorb?

Without question cashmere, which is almost always woven as a thick sock, leads in this area. The only downside is that cashmere generally will not fit comfortably into a properly sized dress shoe. It is followed by the cashmere silk blend which does fit a dress shoe and immediately thereafter by extrafine merino. Cottons have virtually no cushioning ability, especially when moist, as they tend to flatten completely. Silk follows even lower on the scale.


Temperature    

Winter warmth and Summer coolness are important considerations. Leaving aside the esoteric cashmere due to the logistic difficulty of fit, the warmest dress sock is the cashmere & silk blend. This is followed by extrafine merino, the most popular choice. Cotton and silk sock knits have no virtually warming properties whatsoever. Some wonder why silk, often valued for its heat-retention abilities, has no such value in dress socks. Silk dress socks are almost as thin as pantyhose. Therefore, the natural heat retention properties don't have sufficient mass to have any effect.

When Summer coolness is the issue, cotton is in the lead except for those who tend to perspire a great deal. For them, merino is a better choice (see "Moisture" below). The narrower ribbed cottons (5x3 or 6x3) offer better cooling characteristics than the wide ribbed versions as the raised gap of the x3 allows for a greater (small) bit of ventilation than the large gaps of the wider ribs.


Moisture    

Moisture: wicking and drying abilities become important as the day passes. Here simplicity reigns. Cotton does not wick. It simply gets wet and stays wet, flattening, feeling 'slimy', and bunching up in the process. The other end of the natural fiber spectrum is merino. Not only can merino absorb as much as 30% of its weight in moisture, but it then carries that wetness away from the moisture generator - in this case the foot - and dries rapidly. For those who experience perspiration of the foot, there is really no choice but merino.


Longevity    

The cost per wearing with proper care is a factor important to some. In the arena of the finest socks, however, the characteristics of "fineness" are often diametrically opposed to those of "durability".

Insofar as longevity, the inherent strength of silk as a component of a natural fiber blend, comes out the clear winner. Merino and cotton are roughly equal in terms of susceptibility to traumatic damage such as rips or tears. Cotton, however, when pressured by the weight of the human body for long periods of time, tends to lose its naturally soft attributes and become harder and stiffer much more rapidly than merino. In all the testing I have performed, the most durable dress sock I have encountered is the cashmere & silk blend. Though this would seem uncharacteristic due to the fragility of cashmere, there is some je no sais quoi about the combination which brings it to the fore on the durability front.


Source    

Availability of a consistent, on demand supply is critical.

Though this may sound like a strange "attribute" for socks, we have experienced over the years some extreme variations in sock quality, composition, and sizing. If the sock maker has not the ability to remain consistent year-after-year, whatever degree of research you have invested in selecting your socks will have been wasted. Although as a responsible retailer my due diligence needs be much greater than that of a consumer, our rule-of-thumb is to test new items for at least a year. For those items we consider our classic staples, testing is not only done for longer, it is done on an ongoing basis by sampling from each subsequent batch. As a matter of fact, it was the recent discovery of certain inconsistencies from an "old line" maker that led to this study.

Bresciani Cotton & Silk Faux Fishnet Knee-Highs

     
Thank you for taking the time to read. More specific information, especially in the two critical areas of "Stay-Up" and Tactile Enjoyment are contained in the Sock Characteristics Study linked here. Specific measurements of the length of the most popular socks and a detailed listing of the fiber contents of each sock are detailed. In addition, the conclusions of the study are somewhat surprising given history and reputation.
  Copyright © 2008-2010 Alexander S. Kabbaz
All Rights Reserved
 
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