A guide to sustainable socks

Ah socks, those humble items of clothing that sit unassumingly in everyone’s underwear drawer, only drawing attention when one suspiciously goes missing midway through the wash. I find that socks can be one of the more stressful items of clothing in one’s wardrobe; whether it’s facing a constant battle against odd socks, finding yet another hole in a pair you seemingly only bought the other week or realising you’ve running low on stock *again* and need to add a pack to your Christmas list. This then inevitably ends up with every relative under the sun buying you a five pack that year – my boyfriend’s sock drawer is testament to this fact.

In this post we’ll deal with what to look for when you’re in the market for new socks, then in part two we’ll take a look at how to make your sock drawer a thing of beauty!

A guide to sustainable sock buying

When in the market for a new pair of socks to keep those toes toasty, there are a number of things to consider if you’re looking to be more sustainable and eco-friendly in that area of your life:

Do you really need any more socks?

A survey for BlackSocks.com suggests that Europeans own between 17-24 pairs of socks each on average, although judging by a bit of Googling for “how many socks do you own” that number could vary from the mean significantly. A quick count of my own drawers show that I currently have 18 pairs (not including the ones I’m wearing plus a couple of pairs in the wash) and my boyfriend has a whopping 41 pairs (I did say earlier that he received a lot of socks last Christmas!).

The right number of socks for you will completely depend on your lifestyle and circumstances. If you wear socks everyday or only do washing once a week, you’re going to need more than those who don’t always wear socks or have the washing machine on a near-constant cycle. Assess your situation and before buying any new pairs, work out whether you have enough socks to take you from one washing load to the next without running short (with a couple of back ups in case you have a habit of stepping in large puddles when it’s raining!).

Can you repair the ones you already have?

Our world nowadays is one of convenience, where new clothes can be purchased for pennies and delivered to us the next day, so it can be tempting when your big toe starts peeping out of the top of your socks to chuck them in the bin and buy a new pair. However, getting out a needle and thread and spending ten minutes on some handiwork not only benefits the environment with a lesser demand for resources, but can also save you money in the long run with fewer socks needing to be bought.

We’ve gotten out of the habit of mending our clothes (I certainly wasn’t taught to mend and darn at school) so if the thought of darning your socks brings you out in a cold sweat, help is at hand! The internet is a wonderful thing and there are numerous tutorials and videos that can teach you the ways of sock darning, for example this video here by Professor Pincushion:

You’ll need a couple of tools to darn your socks:

  • A needle – any hand sewing needle with a large enough eye for your thread will suffice, but the longer the better.
  • Some thread – my research indicates that a slightly thicker thread than your standard machine polyester thread is preferable, e.g. embroidery cotton. You can either match the colour to your sock or make a statement out of a contrasting colour.
  • Something to stuff into your sock while darning – traditionally this would have been a wooden darning egg or mushroom (which you can still buy today) but anything firm and round will suffice, such as a tennis ball or a robust spherical piece of fruit! (warning – your sock may smell distinctly orange-y afterwards)

A few too many pairs of my socks are looking a bit worse for wear, so I invested in a wooden darning mushroom and some darning thread and had a go at darning my own socks. As a disclaimer, I do sew my own clothes so I know my way round a needle and thread, but when it comes to darning I am a newbie! The hole pictured below took me about 15 minutes to mend, and after a stressful day at work it was a relaxing and mindful thing to do to wind down into the evening.

The mending is quite visible due to the difference in colour between the thread and the pale mesh of the sock (plus I think I should have done more of a weave effect when coming back on the second pass) but the mended area feels a lot thicker and stronger than before. Here’s hoping I get a few more months’ wear out of these!

If you still need some new pairs, can you make a sustainable purchase?

When deciding to buy a new set of socks, there are a couple of things to take into consideration if you want to make a more sustainable purchase. Firstly, the materials that the sock is made of – ideally you want to aim for something with a higher percentage of natural fibres (e.g. cotton, bamboo or wool) rather than a synthetic (e.g. polyamide, polyester etc.). Not only are natural fibres generally less polluting on the environment, they are also a lot more breathable than their plastic-based counterparts, leaving you with far less sweaty feet!

There are quite a few retailers out there now which sell eco-friendly socks; I won’t list them all as there are several good articles on where to buy sustainable socks, including a recent post from Moral Fibres. Personally I’ve bought bamboo socks as a gift from thought in the past which are really well made and durable, as well as coming in a variety of fun patterns, however these sustainable socks can be very expensive and are not for all budgets. A cheaper alternative would be to look for a high street store or supermarket with a good track record for sustainability (check out a store’s website to see if they have a decent sustainability policy) and go for their range of higher percentage natural fibre based or organic socks.

It’s also worth considering the packaging that the socks come in – try to go for those with either recyclable or reusable packaging over those that come in a plastic pouch. The box that the aforementioned socks from thought came in is now enjoying a second life as storage for computer cables!

Box which socks came in now containing computer cables
What should you do with the old pairs?

Sometimes despite all your best darning efforts, a sock will simply become a lost cause and can no longer be used as a sock. But rather than throwing them into the bin, which will lead to them sitting in landfill for years to come, there are a few different options in order to give your socks a second life:

  • Use your old socks as cloth dusters – the fabric most socks are made of lends itself well to being used as a duster for furniture, computer screens etc.
  • Crack out the googly eyes and make sock puppets! (note that you do not need to have children in order to partake in this fun activity)

If you’re all set for dusting cloths and sock puppets creep you out, take your old socks to the nearest textile recycling bank. These bins are scattered all over the place in the UK, and recyclenow has a great tool on their website to let you know where your nearest recycling point is. Much of what is put in textile bins, where not fit for use in its current form, is repurposed into other products depending on the fibre content such as house insulation panels and carpet underlay.

Now that we’re all set for socks, it’s time to organise! Next week we’ll be looking at how to make your sock drawer a thing of beauty, so come back soon for part two of this sock mini-series.

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