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Product Knowledge
August/September 2010

If the sock fits

Socks to compliment shoes

A retailer will spend a lot of time helping customers find the right sport shoe or hiking boot. But, how much advice is given when selling a pair of technical socks to complement the shoes? Experts told NELLE DU TOIT that in order to keep feet comfortable and healthy whilst active, just as much importance should be attached to the purchase of a good pair of technical socks

Customers will spend a lot of time and money selecting the right performance shoe — not realising that wearing the wrong socks can eliminate many of the benefits of even the most expensive pair of athletic shoes.

Over the years much emphasis has been placed on moisture wicking technology, breathability and insulating qualities in technical sportswear — qualities that are just as important in technical socks. When one considers that a foot can sweat up to a litre and a half a day (that's up to 3 litres from a pair), buying technical socks should be one of the highest priorities for an athlete or outdoor enthusiast.

Just as an athlete has a pair of shoes for each activity, manufacturers make technical socks that are geared to handle the conditions feet endure during a specific activity as well. The footstrike of a runner, for example, is different to that of a squash player and therefore different technologies are used to make socks for different sports activities.

“Wearing sport specific socks will increase comfort levels and most are designed around specific activities,” says Barbara Cole, apparel manager for New Balance SA.

“You could probably find socks that are designed for just about any activity — with good reason, as the demands that are placed on your feet are different for most activities.”

Another advantage of a technical sock is the improved fit. A normal tube or 100% cotton sock doesn't offer a snug fit. Poorly fitted socks create gaps between the foot and the shoe, which causes irritation and discomfort. A well fitted sock moulds to your foot and eliminates chafing.

“Sock development is aimed at providing the perfect interface between the shoe and foot, ensuring that the foot doesn’t move excessively inside the shoe,” explains Ashleigh Bird, brand manager for Falke.

Eliminating movement within the shoe thus creates less friction when doing sport. “Some technical socks also have arch support that stops the sock’s movement in the shoe and so helps to prevent blisters,” remarks Jack Khoza of Hi-tec.

Moisture, such as perspiration, makes fabric stick to the skin. Add friction to the already wet fabric of the sock — caused by doing almost any sport — and you have a sure-fire recipe for blisters, no matter how well that expensive pair of performance shoes fit. Technical fibres are designed to pull moisture away from the bottom of the sock and redistribute it to the rest of the sock, allowing sweat to dry faster and your feet to stay drier. Dry feet mean fewer blisters.

As comfort levels increase, athletes can spend more time participating in an activity as blisters do not occur, feet stay at correct temperatures and anti-bacterial qualities, which many technical socks incorporate, prevents bacterial build-up on your feet (the bacteria causes nasty smells due to fungus growth).

Sock types

Just like most other sports gear, socks come in different categories.

  • A crew sock is what is normally referred to as a general all-round sock. Not necessarily designed with a specific sport in mind, it offers general comfort, is usually manufactured with some degree of thickness and is usually ribbed around the ankles.

  • High performance socks provide more control of the foot in the same way that high performance shoes mimic the foot's natural foot strike to eliminate strain on the feet. “High performance socks are often very thin at the base to allow maximum breathability and may have breathing holes (like the holes seen in shoes) in the material,” says Shane Majoor of Millenium Socks, a Cape Town manufacturer for several sock brands.

  • Toe socks are ideal for runners and walkers as it fits the foot's natural shape, eliminating extra material around the toes that tends to bunch up and cause irritation. They can also be used for walking, trekking, hiking, camping and even rock-climbing.

  • A compression sock is one of the most effective ways to improve circulation and prevent swollen or tired legs. When worn during training the socks can help athletes improve performance as it supports muscle tissue as well as improve lower leg circulation. They are therefore becoming increasingly popular amongst athletes who wear them after sport to aid faster muscle recovery.

  • Technical socks are designed with a specific sport in mind, with cushioning strategically placed to protect your feet in critical high strain areas, adds Bird. “Falke makes socks specifically designed for the left and right foot, designed to follow the natural contours of your feet, with specific pronation or neutral support and cushioning to reduce stress and strain.”

  • Outdoor socks will differ based on the amount of cushioning they provide, how warm the sock is and how well it will manage perspiration.
  • Shoe Specific

    What is important to consider is that the type of sock needs to fit the shoe. Wearing socks with moisture management technology, for instance, with shoes that do not offer that technology, traps moisture within the shoe and make them heavier.

    As technical socks become more advanced and sports specific, certain socks work together with sports specific shoes to ensure that feet stay comfortable.

    Socks will differ with regards to ankle height and ventilation to compliment the sport specific shoes — for example the difference between light hiker shoes and hiking boots. “Technical socks are both sport and weather dependent, but the focus should be on the type of activity, which is very often linked to weather conditions,” says Ryan O’Mahoney of First Ascent.

    Fibre used

    Socks are manufactured to stretch up to double their original size and a good technical sock will contract back to its original form and maintain its structure after many stretches. “To ensure that this quality is maintained, the fibre structure needs to be in perfect sync to ensure the material keeps performing the way it is intended,” says Majoor.

    It is interesting to note that temperature control can also be enhanced with the fibre make-up. “The way that yarn is made up is important as longer fibres can help alleviate heat build-up,” remarks George Papageorgio of Pabica Sports, distributor of 1000 Mile socks.

    The original, or basic, sock used to be 100% cotton. Cotton, however, does not maintain its shape and tends to stretch out to the extent that socks no longer fit snugly around the foot. Natural fibres (such as cotton and wool) do not respond well to dyes, and colours do not always come out as intended. Cotton is naturally absorbent and does not wick moisture away from the foot.

    “Man-made fibres like lycra, cotton-strung polyester and nylon can provide almost the same comfort as cotton, has the added benefit of wicking moisture away from the foot (through its fibre structure) and maintains the materials' original form for longer,” explains Majoor.

    Depending on the elasticity, cushioning, moisture wicking properties and technology in the sock, manufacturers sometimes use a blend of natural and synthetic fabric for their technical socks.

    The Activa Woodsilk Unisex sock, for instance, is made of a blend of synthetic fibres (Tactel nylon and Lycra Soft) covered with a natural fibre derived from the bark of a woodsilk tree (rayon). “This combination provides a soft to touch garment which fibres provides graduated compression whilst maintaining comfort, elasticity, stretch and strength. The fine ribbed sock with a wide roomy toe sac and deep heel sac allows for easy application. These socks have the added benefit of relieving tired, aching and swollen legs whilst remaining comfortable — protecting the wearer from Deep Vein Thrombosis (the formation of a blood clot within a deep vein),” remarks Ron Bogatie of LP Imports.

    Graduated compression socks are designed to provide more pressure on the ankle, tapering to a lesser pressure at the calf. This form of compression helps to prevent pooling of blood in the lower leg which is a major contributor to the formation of DVT’s.

    Natural fibres

    With the growing interest in renewable resources, natural fibres such as wool, bamboo and mohair are becoming more common in socks.

    “Natural fibres really are better for our feet, skin and the environment. I think consumers should start to take note of this sooner rather than later,” says Karen Hobson of Cape Mohair. “Mohair is farmed in SA, the socks are all manufactured in SA only (not Made in China) — and wearing mohair thus supports local jobs.”

    Mohair is a natural fibre with a hollow core that has excellent cushioning and warmth properties. It is also odour free and its natural properties prevent bacterial build-up within the fibre.

    “The big difference between mohair and many synthetic fibres, is that synthetic fibres wick moisture away by running it along the surface of the fibre. Mohair actually absorbs the moisture into the fibre, and then expels it outwards, away from the skin,” remarks Hobson.

    Some manufacturers say that the natural blends are more comfortable than the 100% natural fibre socks and do not shrink as much or take as long to dry as, for instance, as 100% wool. Wool is a natural cooling and warming moisture wicking agent and is also a natural anti-bactrobial (which means that bacteria do not grow on the fibres).

    Wool is ideal for hiking socks as it provides extra cushioning for heavy duty shoes, such as hiking boots, whilst wicking moisture away from the foot. Together with the shoe it provides insulation and breathability. Wool socks can, however, be too padded and thick for runners or road cyclists who need a lighter sock with a more controlled fit.

    Bamboo guards skin against unwanted moisture and breathes well, reducing bacteria and therefore odour. Bamboo is pressed together to a pulp and then spun to create a silky fibre that is easy to care for and machine washable.

    Although cotton is also a natural fabric, it absorbs moisture and dries very slowly, especially during activities where heavy boots or shoes are worn and perspiration does not get a chance to escape. If it stays in the boot, it becomes heavier on the feet. On top of that, cotton provides no insulation or warmth in cold conditions.

    Brand technologies

    Manufacturers have also developed several brand-specific moisture management technologies for their performance sock ranges. “Falke has developed the Drynamix Moisture Management System, which combines a number of fabrics like cotton, polyamide, polyester and elastane with the Drynamix yarn. This ensures that feet stay dry as moisture is wicked away through the sock, while also keeping them cool and fresh,” explains Bird.

    CoolMax (used in New Balance socks) is an international performance fabric that includes a fibre-based moisture management system incorporated into many different types of technical socks.

    Manufacturers also use different anti-bacterial technologies in their socks. Whether it is a chemical wash, an anti-bacterial fibre knitted into the sock, or a sock made up of anti-bactrobial material, these features can enhance long-term health and prevention of fungus growth like athletes foot.

    “The Falke Silver range combines Drynamix yarn with silver fibres, providing a complete anti-bacterial and fungal solution, which helps to eliminate feet odour and bacteria,” says Bird. The silver yarn is knitted into the fabric of the sock.

    Other manufacturers make use of fabric treatments to ensure their socks remain odour, bacteria and fungus free.

    “New Balance uses technologies like Ultra-Fresh (anti-microbial protection) in our international range,” says Cole.

    Hi-Tec remarked that they make use of Vapour Cool technologies that are blended with cotton fibres. Vapour cool is an international technology which quickly wicks moisture and vapour away from the skin allowing it to evaporate more easily.

    Educating consumers

    More often than not, personal preference is the determining factor as to why an athlete would buy thick, thin, heel- and ball-padded, compression socks or socks with breathing holes.

    It is up to the supplier or retailer to educate customers on what benefits are offered by different socks as customers often buy socks on impulse, without being aware of what is required for a specific activity. Point-of-sale displays and hangtags are therefore critical to educating customers on the sport-specific benefits and technical processes.

    There is a lot of information on the packaging of the sock that aims to educate the consumer, explains Khoza. Some manufaturers also spend a lot of time on in-store training to ensure that store staff have all the necessary product knowledge to correctly advise customers as well as point-of-sale signage.

    Advising customers on the care of socks could also enhance consumers’ trust in the manufacturer or retailer's products.

    “To ensure the life of our products one should hand wash at a cool temperature, wash inside out and never iron the socks,” says Bogatie of the Activa range.

    “Never use fabric softener on yarn as it will inhibit its function,” advises Bird.

    “A tumble dryer changes the elastomeric technical yarns because of the heat that the dryer generates,” warns Khoza. “The more our socks are washed the more the stretching ability of the sock deteriorates.”

    Whether it is for running, cycling, squash, hiking, mountaineering or aerobics sport specific socks are designed to provide the greatest level of comfort for the athlete it possibly can. Technologies available to sock manufacturers are those of moisture wicking, breathability and anti-bacterial agents, compression technology and elastic and comfortable materials.

    They are normally achieved by combining different fibre structures to create the best possible yarn for the material of the sock. Much more goes into the design and manufacture of a technical sock and it is for this reason it can provide the athlete with the best support. It is for this reason that one can argue that even the socks an athlete wears can be performance enhancing.

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