Thursday, February 14, 2008

Mountains of Socks

In many ways, we are living in the Golden Age of socks. While some of the classic sock patterns (like clocks, where a pattern forming a single stripe down the side of the sock all the way from the toe to the top of the sock) are difficult to find, the availability of high-quality, interesting socks is greater now than it has been at any point in my life. Maybe things were different in the '30s and '40s, I don't know. But I do know that ankle-length wool-blend solid color Gold Toe socks were about the best that one could find when I was growing up and that so much more is now easily obtainable.

So what makes a good sock? To me, there are four aspects. First, it must fit. The heel of the sock must actually hit the heel of the foot wearing it, or the sock will rub against the shoe and against the foot and be uncomfortable and short-lived. In addition, the sock must not be baggy around the ball of the foot, or the excess fabric will ball up and feel like a stone in your shoe. And the elasticized ribbing at the top of the sock must not be too constricting. Second, it must be comfortable. Obviously, a sock must fit to be comfortable; but good fit is not enough to ensure comfort. It should not be scratchy against the leg, and it should not be overly hot. In addition, any seams on the sock should not irritate the foot. Third, it should not sag or droop. There are few things more annoying than feeling your socks pool around your ankles. As a practical matter, this means that the socks must either be over-the-calf (ie, long enough to go over the bulge of the calf, making the calf an obstacle to the ravages of gravity), or they must be worn with sock garters. Apparently, the British mostly choose to wear mid-calf socks with sock garters. I wouldn't even know where to find sock garters, and I would not be comfortable wearing them; consequently, I opt for over-the-calf socks. Fourth, it must be visually interesting. This does not necessarily preclude a solid-color sock, but it must stand out somehow, through the vibrancy of its color or the way a combination of fiber types causes it to shine or something else.

There are many different makers of fine socks, and each of the makers has several different lines of varying qualities and fibers. I can't claim to have tried all or anywhere close to all of the makers, much less all of their lines. But here's what I do know:
  • Pantherella is the most widely known of the luxury sock makers, and the value of the Pantherella brand is by far the greatest. If I were starting out in the sock business with nothing except the Pantherella brand, I could be rich in a few years. Pantherella makes everything and is distributed everywhere. For many years, its socks have been the mainstays in both my work and leisure wardrobe because they stay up reasonably well, they fit reasonably well, and they are reasonably long-lived. The best socks I own -- the over-the-calf Sea Island cotton lisles -- are Pantherellas. Despite all of this, though, I think that Pantherella is a bit lacking. First, they use too much nylon in most of their socks. The nylon improves durability, of course, but it does so at the expense of comfort. This is most apparent in their merino socks, which are scratchy. In addition, most Pantherella are about two inches too short -- ideally, over-the-calf socks should go up to the base of the knee. Pantherella socks, for the most part, barely clear my calf and are consequently prone to sag somewhat during the course of the day. While the colors offered in the Sea Island lisle are excellent, they're solid colors; and Pantherella really struggles with bringing that same color vibrancy to their patterned socks. Pantherella makes a good sock, but there are better options out there. Here are some claimants in alphabetical order:
  • Bresciani -- Most independent men's stores that I have shopped in carry Pantherella for most of their basics and some other maker for their most interesting socks. Bresciani is often that second maker. This is a little bit mystifying to me, since I'm told that Bresciani does not maintain stock of anything, which makes wait times for fill-ins too long to be practicable. In any event, I have never liked Bresciani socks much, mostly because they shrink a lot in the wash and end up too short. In addition, the designs that I've seen, while more interesting than most of what Pantherella puts out, still aren't very interesting.
  • Facenti -- I am told that Facenti does most of its business as a private-label maker for some of the big-name Italian tailoring brands (Kiton, Zegna, and others). They also make socks under their own labels (Facenti and another one that I can't remember), though, of varying quality. I have four pairs of socks from Facenti. One is a beautiful pair of 100% cotton pique socks in navy with green stripes, and these socks are miraculous. Despite being 100% cotton, they hold their shape excellently, stay up, and don't shrink. I was convinced that they would degrade with washing, but they haven't yet. The other three pairs are blends of cotton and nylon (80%-20%, I think), and they are less excellent. They are visually interesting (intricate, multi-width stripes in all cases), they stay up, and they fit. However, less care is given to the toe seam then with the other pair. It's bulky, and the ends of it can get a little uncomfortable with a little wear. Nevertheless, I am eagerly awaiting the day when these socks are widely distributed in the United States. The socks pictured above are made by Facenti, and I think you will agree that they are beautiful.
  • Falke -- Surprisingly enough, Falke is a German brand. They don't have a lot of distribution in the United States, and what distribution they have is outrageously expensive -- up to 50% more than their most expensive competitors. They also apparently only make sized socks -- real sizes, not the Regular and Large that most manufacturers offer. The socks appear to be very well made; the toe seam, for example, is as flat as I have ever seen (although the ends of the linking thread are a bit longer than they should be). They are either all or almost all natural fibers, and yet they appear to hold their shapes very well. My complaint with Falke is three-fold. First, they make boring socks. Perhaps some of their socks somewhere are something other than solid, but I have not seen them. Second, they don't do color very well. With the exception of their scarlet cashmere socks, which are excellent, all of their non-dark colors are washed-out and ugly. It's true that their wool-silk socks are beautiful in dark colors, but I don't just want a sock wardrobe of charcoal and dark brown. Third and most seriously, they don't fit well: they're baggy around the forefoot. I don't think that I'll be buying more of these.
  • Marcoliani is an Italian manufacturer that has recently expanded its presence in the United States. They make just about every kind of socks imagineable -- solids, stripes, dots, herringbones, bird's eyes, everything. The socks fit better than Pantherella, mostly because they are longer. They also feel better than Pantherella, mostly because they have more natural fiber content. The merino socks, for example, are something of a revelation. I had believed that merino socks would always be scratchy. Marcoliani merino socks are not scratchy. Marcoliani's designs are consistently interesting, and their color palette is excellent. I have two complaints. First, they don't seem to understand how to do red -- all of their reds are either have too much orange or too much burgundy. Second, they really need to do a better job on the toe seam. It doesn't really bother me while I'm wearing the sock, but it sure bothers me when I am examining it. It's much too bulky for my taste.
  • VK Nagrani (Ovadafut) -- These socks have become very popular in recent years, and I can understand why. They certainly are interesting, coming in a wide variety of colors and designs. I don't think that the quality is really there, though. They're too thick, and they only come in mid-calf length. Furthermore, the elastic rib at the top is too constricting and makes the sock uncomfortable to wear for an entire day. And the toe seam problem for them is significantly worse than it is for Marcoliani. These are not inexpensive socks, and they should be better for the price.

1 comment:

Stephen said...

Excellent blog - socks are very much on my mind, since I recently added another 18 pairs of Tabio socks to my collection of 40+. Their knee length men's socks (I am 6ft 1")in merino wool and 100% cotton are both excellent, with classically Japanese subtle colour and weave. They retail in London for about $29 a pair. Unlike many other socks, they retain their shape and appearance after repeated (hand) washing. With regard to your critique of Pantherella socks, I have no complaints with the full length 100% silk black dress socks I bought at Harrods 3 years ago for £30 ($59), although the slightly cheaper ones (£25) available through their website look suspiciously short to me.