Which Came First, the Boot or the Sock? A History of Socks

Hiker seated on rock with one boot off, showing his hiking socks

Sort of a chicken or egg question we’re posing, right? But, let’s be transparent off the bat, we’re actually here to delve into the history of the sock. As much as we love the boots, shoes, sandals, and other footwear you can pair our socks with, that’s not our specialty.

We only make one thing — socks. And since ours are designed to last a lifetime, we’re jumping straight into the quirky history of what people have worn between foot and footwear over the last 5,000 years or so.

Early Days. Like Real Early.

Let’s walk that back a bit. If we were pursuing that big mystery of a question, perhaps the boot did come first.

When Otzi the iceman was discovered frozen in a glacier on the Austria-Italy border in 1991, scientists had a rare chance to examine what life was like over 5,000 years ago. That included the remnants of footwear, leading to the recreation of Otzi’s deer and bear skin boots, which were lined with grass.

A replica of Otzi's shoe, including the grass "socks"

The expert leading the study even took those boots out for a hike at 10,000 feet — the grass performed great, insulating and wicking away moisture. A potential sock precursor? Footwear and “sock” co-evolution? The jury is still out, but it’s certainly a start.

Next up is the first written reference to something like socks. Or at least a hint at why you’d want something extra between sandal and foot:

Around your feet, tie your sandals made from brutally hunted oxen skin and, under these, dress them in piloi,” went Greek poet Hesiod’s advice on daily living, circa 700 BC. The piloi, historians believe, were made from matted animal hair, and seem like they’d make for easier going in Greek sandal-wearing times.

Speaking of sandals, the Romans have been chronicled as wearing them throughout their intense conquests of Europe. By the second century AD, they had upped their game with “Udones”— a foot covering made with woolen yarn or cloth sewn together, designed to be pulled over feet.

The Roman push into cold environments, wearing just sandals, doesn’t make much sense until you add in the “Udones.” Perhaps these the first “socks”? The debate remains unclear. But the next time socks pop up in history was more definitive.

Socks in Tombs to Hose and Breeches

Knitted with an intensive and time-consuming single-needle process known as “nålbindning,” the closest thing to modern-day socks were found by archaeologists in Egyptian tombs dated between the 3rd and 6th centuries A.D.

An ancient pair of two-toed sock-like garments

These long-footed, skinny curiosities make a viewer wonder what sort of activity they were designed for. One thing is clear though. With two toes, they’re made for going under sandals. The Greek, Roman, and Egyptians did it, and we’d say, so can you.

In Europe, foot coverings that went halfway up the leg called hose became common by 1200. Initially made from individual pieces of fabric, and eventually knit for flexibility, these were combined with “breeches,” those puffy, pumpkin-shaped, short pants you might associate with The Princess Bride or other kitschy period movies.

History is relative, but we’d advise to stick with the socks and sandals route. Unless of course there’s a Ren Faire on your calendar.

Stockings: From the Royals to the People

It’s hard to position Otzi in a social hierarchy, but you probably didn’t have to be an ice age courtesan to score primitive grass-lined boots — just have your hunting and crafting skills up to par. But the actual foot-coverings that developed (at this point in history, we’re still wary of calling these things “socks” proper) remained special-purpose, like for the Roman army or for the Middle Age aristocracy.

That all changed in 1589, with William Lee's invention of the first knitting machine. Within a decade, Europeans beyond the wealthy got into mass-produced hosiery. From there, the length of “hose” seemed to shorten along with the whims of fashion.

By the 18th century, the trend was toward shorter trousers or breaches. That change applied to terminology, too: what was known as “hosiery” started to turn into “stockings.” And from stocking, to something sounding quite like socks: knitted lower leg coverings from the foot to just above the knee.

A pair of knee-high, very old white stockings

Even as this transition was taking place, the materials used in the garments reflected the wearer’s economic status. Machine-knit or hand-knit, socks were still very expensive, and nobles wore them in silk, while lower class folks wore them in wool.

Ironic to think that in a few more centuries, the benefits of wool — even more critical during a time when indoor heating was non-existent or sparse even in a castle, and farming, hunting, or trading was how the serfdom survived — would be enjoyed by all. 

Industrial Revolution, Spies, and Revolt

It’s worth a footnote to highlight the impact those initial machine-made stockings had on the world. When the stocking made from that first knitting machine arrived at the court of Queen Elizabeth I, she rejected the design — based, on some accounts, for a concern for the plight of poor English hand-knitters.

Socks, or at that point what was called stockings, might now seem commonplace. But the potential for mass-producing stockings was at the forefront of the Industrial Revolution, political upheaval, and social tumult.

Black and white photo of girls knitting socks in an old factory

Over the next 25 years, Lee’s knitting machine made its way to France and back, following the denial of the British aristocracy, the acceptance of the French, and then the assignation of French King Henry IV. By 1650, the British government was in full support of Lee’s knitting machine, only to have an industrial spy sneak knowledge of the machine back to France, who went all in on subsidizing the rival country’s stocking industry.

A century and a half later, the now-established machine-knit stocking industry collided with the French-British war of the early 1800’s. The resulting economic hardships on knitting frame workers lead to violent protests that lasted for months, with laws passed making it a capital crime for breaking the very frames that had built the business.

Plastics Make Their Debut

Wow, we wrote that. But it’s true — as we push forward through time to spandex and nylon’s invention in the late 1950’s, these materials made a major shift in how socks were manufactured and worn.

Old newspaper photo showing feet wearing bobby socks

You could trace many a bogus fashion trend to this era. What we also got was an effective fiber to help hold socks up and give them their shape. And while Merino Wool remains Darn Tough’s number one material, Spandex and Nylon help us produce the sock that stays put, no matter what.

Cue Darn Tough

Are we really writing ourselves into sock history? Well, we suppose it is our blog. By 1978, when Marc Cabot founded Cabot Hosiery Mills in Northfield Vermont, socks had become what we know as socks: covering your foot and landing somewhere below the knee.

Archival image of Marc Cabot and Ric Cabot working on a presentation

Marc’s son Ric Cabot joined the company just over ten years later. Cabot Hosiery was cranking along, until the US garment manufacturing market went overseas. Facing a decision to export their business, or remain rooted in Vermont, the Cabots made a bold move. Instead of outsourcing, they doubled down, investing in quality and local manufacturing.

Darn Tough was launched in 2004, founded on a “best ever” quality principle, made from Merino, and backed by an Unconditionally Guaranteed for Life warranty. Merino Wool's long and important history wasn’t well understood, yet, and garment manufacturing was in a tailspin.

Person tying shoelaces showing sock with Darn Tough name on it

Let’s be real, Darn Tough wasn’t a sure bet— but the pivot toward Merino’s natural moisture wicking, thermoregulating, durable performance over all else paid off.

The Future Lies Ahead

We’re happy to have played our role in this tale, and that you’ve stuck around till the end of the, ahem, yarn. So where do we go from here? In a time where socks seem to be everywhere, here at Darn Tough, we’re dedicated to one product only, and to constantly improving our contribution to this 5,000-year epic history of socks.

Dedicated also means that we’ve committed to staying put right here in Vermont. Constantly improving because that Lifetime Guarantee holds us to the highest quality standard, and provides us with ongoing feedback for making things more durable, better fitting, and functional. Socks have been around for a long time, and we’re here to make yours last another lifetime.

Person wearing darn tough socks with foxes on them, walking forward

Sock History Image Credits

"Replica of the Oetzi shoes" by Josef Chlachula is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

"BLW Pair of socks" by David Jackson is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 UK.

"Knitting stockings in a Southern hosiery mill, 1910" by Lewis Wickes Hine is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

"Stockings MET 69.108.347a-b CP1" by The Metropolitan Museum of Art is licensed under CC0 1.0 Public Domain.

"Legs and feet of five teenage girls wearing dog collar anklets on their socks" by Roger Higgins is licensed under CC0 1.0 Public Domain.