While most folks may not think twice about the materials used to make the socks they are wearing, the type of fabric directly impacts many aspects of the sock, including its durability, comfort, and breathability.
We’ll review many of the most common materials companies use to make their socks.
|Material||Sustainability||Natural/Synthetic||Price||Types of socks|
|Cotton||Eco-friendly||Natural||$-$$||Casual, Dress, Hiking, Athletic|
|Merino Wool||Eco-friendly||Natural||$$-$$$||Casual, Dress, Hiking, Athletic|
|Bamboo||Not eco-friendly||Synthetic||$-$$||Casual, Dress|
|Modal||Not eco-friendly||Synthetic||$$||Casual, Dress|
|Proprietary Blends||Not eco-friendly||Synthetic||$$-$$$$||N/A|
This naturally breathable fabric is the most popular material used to make socks. Within cotton, you will find many different types, including the following:
- Pima Cotton
- Egyptian Cotton
- Supima Cotton
- Sea Island Cotton
While each type of cotton is slightly different from one another, they all share similar properties. When shopping for socks, pima or Supima cotton is often the best choice as the fibers are longer and stronger than other types of cotton, which will result in a more durable sock.
What leads many people to seek out cotton socks is that they are naturally breathable and absorbent. For warm weather, the increase in airflow will reduce foul odors and keep your feet cool. Cotton also provides some cushioning to the footbed.
Where cotton has some downsides, it is not the most durable of fabrics. It is prone to shrinkage, stretching, and developing holes over time. For winter wear, cotton does a poor job of keeping your feet warm.
Sourced from the Merino sheep, merino wool is found in many socks, including casual, dress, hiking, and even athletic socks. Naturally moisture-wicking, odor-resistant, and breathable, merino wool is a versatile, eco-friendly, and sustainable material.
Merino wool’s superior ability to wick moisture away from your feet makes it ideal for long hikes and for keeping your feet dry and comfortable. Wool is also able to insulate in both warm and cold temperatures, which means it’s an excellent choice for both winter and summer.
The downside to this material is its price. Merino wool is one of the most expensive fabrics used to make socks, as sourcing the material is labor-intensive and expensive. Additionally, Merino wool is known to be not as durable as other types of wool and may pill more easily after washing.
While merino wool can be washed, it is best to treat it gently and lay it flat to dry.
Silk is a luxurious material often used to make high-end dress socks. It is known for its gentle, lightweight feel and smooth texture.
While silk may be associated with a sticky or tacky feeling, especially when combined with polyester, it is a great material for socks because of its breathability and hygroscopic absorption. This means that silk socks are able to absorb and regulate moisture, keeping your feet dry and comfortable.
Silk is also naturally hypoallergenic and antimicrobial, making it a great choice for sensitive skin.
There are quite a few drawbacks to silk: price, authenticity, and care. Authentic silk fabric is expensive, and if you don’t buy from a reputable source, you may get a polyester blend that looks like silk. These socks are often marketed as ‘satin’ socks.
Silk requires a gentle hand when washing (best with a hand-wash cycle) and must be line dried, as tumble drying can cause damage.
Like merino wool, cashmere is another luxurious material sourced from an animal’s coat – but in this case, the cashmere goat. Cashmere is known for its luxurious feel, softness, and warmth, which is why it is often used to make high-end dress socks.
Cashmere is naturally breathable and insulative, allowing it to keep your feet warm without being overly hot. It is also one of the strongest natural fibers available and is the strongest when it is harvested from the undercoat of the goat.
The biggest downside to cashmere is the price. A single pair of cashmere socks retail for at least $50, while a cheaper cashmere blend may still cost around $15.
When caring for cashmere socks, it is best to hand wash them and lay them flat to dry.
Relatively niche when it comes to sock material, Alpaca is slowly gaining traction as people learn about the wonderful benefits of this sustainable material.
Alpaca is a wool-like material that is very lightweight and luxuriously soft. As the name suggests, alpaca wool is sourced from the Alpaca, an animal native to South America.
When you wear this fabric as a sock, you can benefit from its naturally hypoallergenic and antimicrobial properties. Alpaca wool also offers superior insulation and heat-regulating properties, keeping your feet warm in winter and cool in summer.
Despite not being the most popular fiber for socks, its versatility allows it to be used in everything from dress to athletic socks.
Angora is a natural fiber that is sourced from Angora rabbits. We think it is a good substitute for silk as it is extremely soft to the touch and has a light, lustrous sheen. It is also renowned for its warmth and insulation properties, making it an excellent choice for winter socks.
Animal rights activists often protest against the use of angora in clothing due to cruel harvesting methods (source). While it should be sheered from the rabbits humanely, the fact of the matter is that the majority of angora products come from rabbits that have been subject to cruelty.
For those looking to avoid the ethical dilemmas associated with angora, there are some synthetic alternatives that offer similar properties.
Finally, angora is not as durable as other types of wool and should be handled with care. It should be washed by hand in cold water and laid flat to dry for the best results.
Nylon is a synthetic fabric best known for its durability, strength, and slightly stretchy body. Because of this combination of properties, nylon is often used to make performance socks for athletic activities.
Although nylon does not provide the same level of insulation as wool, it is moisture-wicking and will reduce blisters from forming on the feet. It is also highly abrasion resistant and can withstand regular wear and tear. Generally, nylon is best reserved for temporary wear (i.e., gym) rather than from morning till night.
Given the low-cost nature of nylon, it may be added to budget brands of socks to keep the costs down.
Like nylon, polyester is a synthetic fabric rarely found on its own but often used to structure the sock. This fabric is moisture-wicking and durable, making it an excellent choice for performance socks.
What sets polyester apart from cotton is that it is resistant to fading and holds its color much better.
In addition, when caring for this fabric, you don’t need to worry about the washing instructions – it can go into the washing machine and be tumble-dried without any worry.
Lycra, Elastane, or Spandex
Nearly all socks contain some form of Lycra, elastane, or Spandex for stretch and shape. In addition, Spandex blends are typically added to socks for increased durability and a snug fit.
Though Spandex is nearly a requirement for performance socks, you may want to avoid socks that only contain Spandex as they may make your feet feel itchy or constricted. Instead, look for socks with a blend of natural and synthetic materials.
With time Spandex can stretch out, making the sock loose on the leg and uncomfortable.
This is a relatively new fabric that has been scrutinized for its sustainability. Bamboo fabric is a type of rayon produced from the pulp of bamboo grass and undergoes a chemical treatment that effectively strips away the cellulose and leaves the soft fibers that make up the fabric.
Where it gets muddy is whether the company adopts an ‘open-loop’ or ‘closed-loop’ manufacturing process. Open Loop is the more sustainable process that reuses both the water and solvents used in the processing. Closed loop systems, on the other hand, fail to reuse the water and solvents, resulting in a chemical run-off that is bad for the environment.
Aside from manufacturing, bamboo socks often feel much softer than cotton and are highly durable.
This synthetic fiber is made from beech tree pulp and is known for its soft yet sturdy feel. It is a great choice for warm weather as it is highly breathable and helps keep your feet cool.
Modal is also oftentimes blended with other fabrics to give the sock more durability. If blended with cotton, modal will help the sock keep its shape for longer periods.
Caring for modal socks is pretty straightforward – they can be machine-washed and tumble-dried.
Polypropylene is a thermoplastic polymer often used as a base for socks, helping them keep their shape and allow for a better fit.
This fiber is known for its moisture-wicking ability, making it an excellent choice for athletes and hikers. The fabric also helps keep the footbed dry and cool, while the all-synthetic nature of the material keeps the sock lightweight.
Where polypropylene is lacking is in its comfort. Because it is synthetic, it can be itchy and may require a liner to reduce the discomfort from the material. The fabric doesn’t have much ‘give’ to it like a natural fiber.
Proprietary Blends (Tencel Lyocell, Coolmax, etc.)
Larger companies may develop a unique type of fabric to gain a competitive advantage in their respective market.
Tencel Lyocell, for instance, is a fabric that combines natural Tencel and bamboo fibers. This blend works to provide better breathability and a more comfortable fit.
Similarly, Coolmax is a fabric blend of polyester and lycra. It is known for its soft feel and moisture-wicking ability.
If shopping for proprietary blends, read through the sock’s material list and any provided information regarding the features of the fabric.