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Whats In A Yarn

 The Genus Gossypium plant, or cotton plant to you and I




I’m a snob. There, I said it. I only have eyes for natural fibres. Being of a certain vintage, synthetic fabrics are inextricably linked to memories of nasty, scratchy, polyester PE kits. The only consideration in choosing these vile uniforms was, “will it stay white for the duration of its itch inducing life?” I have since forgiven mother but my relationship with petroleum-derived textiles has never recovered.


Sock technology is however proving to act as an unwitting therapist for my relationship with synthetic fibres. It took me years to accept having nylon in my socks- no matter how miniscule the percentage. I am now appreciative that it’s there to help keep the sock’s shape, to the point that I have been known to salivate upon reading the word “Lycra” in a contents description. How things change.


Being a snob, naturally I’d have to have an opinion on which natural fibre was the best. Over the years, I would root out articles in gentlemen’s magazines and cotton versus wool articles held a certain fascination. Reading that hygienically, wool is a superior textile to cotton was an eye-opener. Wool wicks moisture away from the skin on to the absorbent leather lining of a shoe whilst cotton merely soaks up moisture, keeping the perspiration in constant contact with the foot. Fertile ground for fungus spores. “How could I be so wrong about cotton?” I recall thinking, while having an existential crisis on the Jubilee line. It also made me question my then penchant for hi-tech, sci-fi looking trainers (my one concession to plastic).


There are obviously pro and cons with any fabric: durability, cost and of course function; this has invariably led to mixing.  Research has produced a bewildering amount of blends, especially in Japan, where textile technology has made synthetics behave in ways that belie their unnatural origins. But, no matter how ingenious the designs are or wonderful the colour combinations are or indeed striking the patterns, I can’t bring myself to buy a sock with acrylic in it.


Where do I draw the line? Below are the yarns I deem fit to keep my tootsies warm.





As alluded to before, is used as a malleable endoskeleton for natural fibres. It will recoil in the wash, returning the socks to more or less their original shape and lends tensile strength to thicker, shorter fibres. The inclusion of nylon in yarns now means that at stress contact points, balding occurs rather than the traditional hole. The balding takes the shape of a nylon web and makes darning a much easier prospect. This is manna from heaven for me. I have been known to sit on a beach industriously darning my favourite socks while on holiday with the family. To me, there’s nothing more relaxing. Darning to me is also a matter of multi-tasking and therefore how I justify ‘watching’ X-Factor.






Rather than explain its ubiquity, I will proffer the two subsets that matter to aficionados: mercerised cotton and ELS cotton.


Mercerised Ribbed Cotton Socks in Cumin by Pantherella


Mercerised cotton is an I’ve-heard-about-it-but-I-can’t-quite-put-my-finger-on-it term.  That’s because we all have it in our house in our sewing kit. Most cotton thread will be advertised as being mercerised as it is stronger than ordinary cotton. Also, if you possess a t-shirt that didn’t take on a soft nap after its first wash but kept its sheen of newness, it would be made of mercerised cotton if it’s 100% cotton.


Solespun PAUL SMITH  'Artist Stripe' Socks
Mercerised Cotton 'Artist Stripe'  Socks by Paul Smith


Named after its inventor John Mercer, in Lancashire in 1844, rather than the oft-assumed treatment of cotton fibres in a process involving mercury. The process of mercerisation made the cotton fibres stronger and easier to dye. The process lead to shrinkage however and an innovation to prevent this led to the desirable side effect of imbuing lustre to the fabric. These properties allow for finer gauge yarns that hold their colour. Socks made of mercerised cotton are often mistaken for silk due to their sheen and lighter weight.



Solespun Sunspel Men's Classic Cotton T-Shirt in Charcoal

ELS Cotton T-Shirt by Sunspel


Pima, Sea Island and some Egyptian cottons are variations of extra-long staple (ELS) cotton; extra-long being fibres that are longer than 34mm, with staple referring to fibre length.  Naturally, long length fibres convey strength but the unique properties of this particular strain of cotton adds lustre to its textiles.  ELS cotton has been traced to the Andes as far back as 4,200 BC. Pima cotton derives its name from the Pima Indians of Arizona who were instrumental in cultivating it in the early 1900 and is mostly grown in California nowadays but still has a foothold in its motherland.



 Sea Island Cotton Socks By Pantherella


Sea Island cotton is so named because it gained popularity from plantations based on islands off the coast of South Carolina and Georgia but its ancestry belongs to the islands of the West Indies. Not all Egyptian cotton can be classified as ELS but the strain that has the extra-long staples has been developed through breeding with Sea Island.





Solespun q36.5 silk/merino

Silk woven with Merino wool to increase thermo properties and strength while reducing weight in Q36.5 cycling socks


Talking about lustre, strength and fibre length segues seamlessly into silk. A brief synopsis, for those living underneath a rock, silk is derived from the cocoon of the silk worm, which is a caterpillar that munches on the leaves of the mulberry tree. What you may not know is that silk fibres are triangular and can therefore act as a prism and refract light. This is how it produces its signature shimmering effect. From the knowledge that I have so generously imparted upon you above, if I told you that a silk fibre can be anywhere from 300 to 900 metres long, you can conclude where silk get its strength from. Unfortunately, the only anecdote I can spin about silk socks, is about looking at the price and putting them back on the shelf and making a note of what to ask Santa for. Needless to say, naughtiness has thus far produced nought on the Santa front.




Centuries of breeding on the Iberian peninsula have led to the strains of Merino sheep that we know today.  The typical staple is 65-100mm long but the fineness if the fibres is what gives merino its desirable qualities. Fibre thickness ranges from 11.5-24.5 microns and is classed in 6 increments as follows: Strong (23-24.5µm), Medium (19.6-22.9µm), Fine (18.6-19.5µm), Superfine (15-18.5 µm) and Ultrafine (11.5-15 µm). The fineness of the fibres allows yarns to trap air and insulate the body against cold. The fibres are also water absorbent and coupled with its breathable qualities, keeps the skin free of moisture. Both these properties means Merino wool can keep the body warm in cold weather and cool in hot weather. 


Solespun PANTHERELLA Laburnum Ribbed Merino Wool-Blend Socks in Mid Grey

Merino Wool Ribbed Socks by Pantherella


A tailor friend of mine exploits these natural properties in an eye-opening way. He revealed to me that he never dry-cleans his wool garments unless there is a major spillage. He explained that wool has evolved over millennia to keep its wearer warm and dry and crucially, is self-cleaning. He airs out his garments regularly to get rid of any whiffs and will just spot clean his jacket collars when needed. His anecdote piqued my curiosity and I put his theory to the test. Lo and behold, wool socks don’t get smelly like cotton. I have now suppressed my instinct to wash my wool socks after a single wear. Now, I just hang them over my bedhead, give them a good shake and they’re good to go. This practice has thankfully increased the life span of my wool socks. How’s that for a top tip? 





This, the most luxurious of wools is derived from the fine undercoat fibres of the cashmere goat. It is indigenous to the Himalayan regions of Kashmir, Nepal and Mongolia. The fibres of pure cashmere must not exceed 19 microns, with the most luxurious having a 14µm diameter with 65mm staple. To be labeled as “pure cashmere” the hair content, as opposed to the undercoat, must not exceed 3% and even then the fibres must not exceed 30 µm. Traditionally, the fibres are harvested by hand by combing the coat on the animal’s neck and underbelly when they are moulting in preparation for summer temperatures.

Solespun-Johnstons mens cashmere

Luxury Cashmere Socks By Scottish brand Johnston of elgin


Cashmere is cited to be anywhere from three and a half times to eight times more insulating than sheep’s wool. Poring over the evidence, with its fibre width relative to merino and a more than passing knowledge of physics, I can’t fathom why it is so much warmer than wool. Let’s just put it down to the magic of cashmere. 





PAUL SMITH  Petrol Glittered Socks

Petrol  Ribbed Socks with Lurex Sparkle Flecks by Paul Smith


My inclusion of the P-word is a concession to the fact that life would be a whole lot poorer without the presence of Lurex as a material of choice to the sock makers of the world. Who doesn’t need a bit of sparkle in their life?




That’s my far from exhaustive list of yarns. However, with all my extolling of wool as the optimum fibre - weighing up both price and function - cotton socks are still the majority occupant of my sock drawer. Durability coupled with price, means that cotton is the more commercially viable option and therefore there is so much more choice of cotton socks and increasingly, natural/unnatural blends. There are many more articles to be had contemplating blends. One could then explore angora, mohair, a gamut of natural fibres like bamboo and Lyocell and a myriad of synthetic fibres. Admittedly, my snobbishness may be blinkering me to a whole world of new sensations and comfort but technology has not yet usurped tradition in this household. And, before you say it, I’ll see your Luddite and trump with emotion.