The earliest known surviving pair of socks Created by naalbinding. Dating from 300-500, these were excavated from Oxyrhynchus on the Nile and Egypt. The split toes were designed for use with sandals. On display with the Victoria & Albert Museum, reference 2085&A-1900.
Up until the Middle Ages: Socks as a status symbol
Before the Industrial Revolution, socks and stockings were knitted. The first knitted socks, from around 1500 BC, were found in Jutland, now part of Denmark. The first stockings were found in Egyptian graves in Antinoe, from circa 500 AD. For a long time, stockings were a privilege of the rich, as the manufacturing was a guild secret. In the Middle Ages, the pants and stocking together formed one piece of clothing. Later, the stockings on the pants were changed more frequently, since they became dirty much more quickly. Eventually, stockings became fully independent articles of clothing.
The beginning of the Modern Age: The spread of socks
The English reverend William Lee (born in 1550 in Nottingham) invented the knitting loom in 1589, making knit fabrics far easier to produce. Queen Elizabeth I received a pair of black stockings from Lee, but declined to grant a patent for his invention, horrified by the socks’ crude form and afraid it would take away jobs from her people. But France’s King Henri IV offered Lee financial support, so the inventor moved to Rouen and built a stocking factory. Before long the Huguenots spread the knitting loom throughout Europe. After the Industrial Revolution the socks, mostly still made of wool, became easier and cheaper to produce, spreading their appeal across European society.
The Industrial Age: Socks become mass produced
Reverend William Lee’s original invention developed further. In the beginning of the 19th century, the first circular knitting frames were developed, which allowed a mostly mechanized process. As a consequence, many home workers lost their jobs and many manufacturers sacked sock makers. Eventually, as cheaper materials were used and factory production advanced, socks became mass-market goods.