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More About Top Quality Socks Than You Ever Thought Possible!
Updated January 2018 

Plus: Caveat Emptor: The Latest Quality Scams

  by Alexander S. Kabbaz
Fine Bespoke Clothier & Haberdasher
 
     

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Sock Style is Personal!

The Socks You Wear Are Your Personal Preference

But ... Get Educated!


One of Italy's finest sock artisans jokingly calls me "Mr. U.S. Sock President". That's when he's not calling me Mr. Pain-in-the-Derriere for demanding yet another quality improvement. As a retailer of the world's finest socks for many decades, I am bombarded with questions about fit, fiber, style, color, length ... the gamut is endless.




... whoever makes ***** 's socks makes them too freaking short!




One client, an ardent fan of 100% pure natural fiber over-the-calf socks who knew I was updating this article opined, "You might also mention that most makers who do pure 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 ...

 
     
The Latest Quality Scam ... Proper Fit  ...  Correct Selection  ...  Best Design  ...  Appropriate Style ...  Best Quality Makers
   

 

"Perhaps most make them too freaking short", I thought. "But not all."

I know of at least a couple of artisans whose socks are just the right length. I've gone back through years of emails and compiled client questions, complaints, and wish lists. As a quick aside, this article is based around the better makers' always-available offerings, not the one-time seasonal designs. Although we actually do wear-test every new sock design before offering it to our clients, the purpose here is to better acquaint you with the characteristics of socks which are always available. 

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

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  Bresciani Pure Merino Thigh-Highs

Pure Merino Wool Thigh-Highs
Certainly Not Too Freakin' Short!



What are we all seeking in the best quality socks? Years of research and responding to clients inquiries place these three 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
  • Sock Size: The sock needs be sized properly for the foot and the calf
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

     

 
But First ... Caveat Emptor: The Latest Sock Quality Scams
 
  "Pima" Cotton Socks  
     

We're all familiar with the type of cotton called "Pima" or "Supima". The best qualities are grown in Pima County, Arizona. A not-too-distant variety emanates from Peru. Why is it so well known? Pima is prized above most others except the venerable Sea Island for it's softness and luster. Untreated cotton of all grades is naturally soft. Less scrupulous cotton yarn spinners have "reinvented" soft cotton in a misleading manner. They use cheaper cotton fibers (genuine Pima is expensive) and omit the most important processes which guarantee longevity and integrity. The first eliminated process is 'gassing'. The cotton yarn is passed through a small flame which burns off the "random fuzzies" that create pilling. The next bypassed step is 'mercerization', the process which strengthens and improves the luster of the cotton yarn. A high-quality, long staple cotton yarn will still be soft after mercerization whereas cheap cotton will not. 

The upshot? Use a cheap cotton, eliminate many of the processing costs while leaving the cotton soft, and call it Pima. It will feel wonderful when new. Then it will pill and degrade much more quickly than it should.

  "Organic" Cotton  
     
No long explanation required here. Genuine organic cotton is grown in many places and always sold at a premium. Genuine organic dyes? Not so much. The number of colors available in colorfast organic dyes is limited to a few shades of "Natural" and one or two other colors. Thus, although the cotton used in the making of an "organic" garment might have been organically grown, just about the only organic property in the finished item is its heritage.
     

     


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 a cone with the point at the bottom. 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 cone with the wider part at the bottom which serves to push upward on the elastic band.


Note that the white lines both from the front as well as the side create a 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.

 Properly Fitting Socks



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" 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 a reasonable distance of that point. This avoids the sock elastic falling on the detrimental "lower cone" - or "push-downward" section of the leg.


Finally, 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.

 Properly Fitting Socks
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 "point-down cone" approaches the center of the calf, it begins to flatten into a straight cylinder before entering the opposite 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 and the talent of the knitter. This is not to say that there are not yarn differences for there certainly are. The best Italian makers eschew commercially available yarns in favor of having their own proprietary fiber blends spun for them.

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Kabbaz-Kelly by Bresciani 100% Merino

100% Merino Dress Socks - Our Most Popular Socks

Made with Natural Fiber for the Highest Tactile Enjoyment

Among the makers I studied for this article, the natural fiber percentage ranged from 75% to 100% with this caveat: Socks advertised as 100% natural fiber do use a very small percentage of intimately blended nylon or spandex (2%-3%) in the top cuff & heel. This gives the sock much greater ability to stay up and adds significantly to the durability. When considering the amount of yarn in the entire sock, this nylon or spandex amounts to less than 1% of the total.


 
     


Size

   


OSFM

Are the socks the correct size? Probably the most frequent question we get ... and the most complex to answer. Let's start with the so-called "One Size Fits All" socks. How can I say this nicely? "There ain't no such thing!" is about the best I can do. Firstly, we never say all, we say "One Size Fits Most" (OSFM). Given that the median shoe size (9.5-10 for men and 8-9 for women) encompasses about 80% of the population, "Most" is correct. Both Bresciani 1970 and Marcoliani-Milano, our favored top-quality makers, offer OSFM socks. Marcoliani specializes in them to the detriment of those whose feet don't fall within the OSFM range. For this reason, we have considerably increased the number of sized socks we offer to include Small and Extra Large on many designs. The OSFM socks are knitted in such a manner that they have a great deal of "stretch ability". This is accomplished both by the manner of knitting as well as the use of nylon and/or spandex. Although these socks are tagged with suggested size ranges above and below the median, we test every style and will often suggest a slightly different range - sometimes greater and sometimes smaller. Generally, extrafine merino has greater stretch ability than cotton. Most of these of socks are made with from 20-25% nylon and the remainder natural fiber. Bresciani, through the use of a proprietary machine which twists the yarns in a special manner, is able to make beautiful OSFM cotton socks using only 10% nylon. For 60%-65% of wearers, OSFM socks will fill the bill quite nicely.

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Merino Pinstripe Dress Socks
 

Merino Sized Dress Socks

A Beautiful Dress Pinstripe by Bresciani

SIZED

Sized socks are necessary for those outside the OSFM ranges and preferred by many who would fit in OSFM. Pure natural fiber socks, though available in the One Size genre, are often sized. Sizing is done in two scales: A Number Scale from 10 to 12.5/13 or a Letter Scale from Small to X-Large. Both mean virtually the same thing. No two makers, nor any two sock styles, use the same parameters for their sizing. Why? Many factors influence the wearable size including fiber type, knitting style, stretch ability of the yarns, and thickness of the yarns.

Bear the following in mind: Almost any size sock will fit a larger foot. In other words, a size Small sock will stretch sufficiently to fit the foot of one whose correct size would be a Large. That doesn't mean it is correct. Although the smaller sock can be stretched onto the larger foot, the stress being applied to the yarns will significantly reduce the longevity of the socks. The converse is not necessarily true. When one with a smaller foot wears a sock which is too large, the sock will bunch up under the foot and be painful to wear. For men's shoe sizes 7.5-8.5, the general size to wear is Small or 10.5. 9-10.5 shoe wearers will be most comfortable in Medium and Large socks are appropriate for shoe sizes 11-12. X-large socks are for shoe sizes 12.5-14. As a general rule, women's sizing is 1 to 1.5 sizes smaller. In other words, women's shoe sizes 6-7.5 would wear socks size Small and so forth. For complete information look at our Sock Size Chart.

Our best advice is always this: Select the size which is closest to the general rules I have described here. Order just one pair to try or, if you are on the cusp between two sizes, get one of each. Wear them for a day, launder them at least once, and wear them again. By the end of the second wearing you should be reasonably certain which you prefer.

Why is there no absolute, hard-and-fast rule? There are many reasons.

  • Feet are quite unique; every foot is shaped differently
  • Consider width: some of the sock's stretch ability will be taken up by the width. Thus a wider but smaller foot may need to go up one size
  • Fiber types (merino, cotton, cashmere, silk, linen) all stretch differently. For example, wearers of medium socks may need to wear large in a less stretchy fiber.
  • Sock thickness (consider Cashmere vs. Silk, for example) may affect the way they fit in a shoe and necessitate a tighter or looser fitting size

In short - and not to be repetitive but to emphasize - if you are venturing into sized socks for the first time, try a pair or two and, for certain, launder them before you make your final decision.



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.

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Sophisticated Brilliance - Make a Statement!

Bresciani's Statement-Making Sophisticaed Brilliance

By far, the overwhelming rib preference for "business" socks is the 6x3 or 5x3 ribbed construction in the picture above. Flat knit socks, once the "one-and-only", remain in the mix, usually in the purer cottons such as Bresciani's 100% Sea Island plain colors or their Pure Silk socks with the tonal side panel shown to the right.

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Bresciani's 100% Pure Silk Socks

Bresciani's spectacular 100% Pure Silk

In the arena of casual socks, the spectrum is endless from stripes to argyles to simply wild designs such as chili peppers and gamblers' icons.



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 the herringbone, pin dot, and houndstooth. All are made both in extrafine merino as well as cotton. In recent years, the larger 'fun' dot socks have also gained widespread acceptance.

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Iconic Cities

Iconic Cities - Perfect for the World Traveler

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.

 

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  Bresciani's Cotton Houndstooth - A Perennial Favorite

Bresciani's Cotton Houndstooth - A Perennial Favorite
 

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 "singeing" (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. Winter sees thick cashmere as the main luxury sock leader with the popular cashmere & silk blend prevailing for dress wear. If expense is not a concern, Bresciani's 100% cashmere dress socks are the finest by far.

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Raw Egyptian Cotton

Raw Egyptian Cotton Waiting To Become Socks



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 thick cashmere generally will not fit comfortably into a properly sized dress shoe. It is followed by the cashmere silk blend or the 100% cashmere dress socks which do 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 virtually no 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 (5x2, 6x2, 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 or linen, as a component of a natural fiber blend, come out the clear winners. 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 our 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.

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Bresciani's Cashmere & Silk Thigh High Socks

Bresciani's Cashmere & Silk Thigh-Highs


     

I am often asked about my personal preferences. In my opinion, Bresciani, due to their years of experience and use of natural fibers is the finest sock artisan. Marcoliani's one-size socks are generally excellent although Bresciani's special 90% Cotton/10% Nylon "Unica" line are equally good. Bresciani does not make one-size merino with the exception of our own brand of 100% merino dress socks which they make only for us. In the arenas of sized socks and of 100% or high-count (90%) natural fiber socks, Bresciani has no equal. This is not to say that there aren't other sock makers who offer good products. However, I judge not only preference and quality, but consistency over the years. When it comes to consistent top quality, Bresciani and Marcoliani have no equal.

As always, I am more than happy to answer any questions not answered by this article. Just contact me any time and I'll get right back to you.

Thank you for taking the time to read.