Custom Sock Manufacturing: Materials, Steps, & Cost
You wear them to dress up your outfit, keep your feet warm, avoid blisters, lounge around the house and often seem to lose one in the pair. Socks have been worn for thousands of years and have come a long way in terms of function. Now made in endless patterns, materials, shapes, and sizes, there’s a sock type for practically every situation and activity.
This classic wardrobe accessory is an easy and low-risk product that you can use to expand your current product line and upsell your customers. Or maybe you want to tap into the $45 billion-dollar sock industry by creating your own sock brand. Either way, this blog investigates what you need to know about sock manufacturing including:
- Common Sock Fibers + Benefits
- The Sock Manufacturing Process
- Sock Production Costs Basics
- Where to Manufacture Your Socks
Sock Fibers + Benefits
- Great for: Everyday Wear and Athletic Socks
- Benefits: Comfort, Breathability, Moisture Wicking
- Cost: $$
Cotton is the most common material that socks are made of. Cotton has a variety of benefits in that it is soft, breathable, and has natural moisture-wicking properties. However, 100% pure cotton socks do not exist anymore (despite what most brands lead you to believe on their websites). The fact is, socks are never made from 100% cotton for several key reasons. 100% cotton is inelastic, shrinks when washed, and is not always durable. Thus, common, “100% cotton,” socks typically range from 70% to 85% cotton content. The remaining material is a blend of other fiber types like spandex, polyester, acrylic, or nylon. This blend makes socks more elastic, wearable, and comfortable.
- Great for: Sensitive Skin, Everyday Wear, Athletic, and Formal Socks
- Benefits: Durable, Soft, Anti-odor, Moisture Wicking, Breathability
- Cost: $$$
Combed cotton is literally combed. This process removes impurities and makes the fabric softer and more durable. Since combed cotton is soft, it is ideal for those with sensitive skin. It also dries easily, is absorbent, and is naturally anti-odor. The only downside is that combed cotton is more expensive than conventional cotton.
- Great for: Dress Socks
- Benefits: Soft, High-End Glossy Appearance, Wrinkle Resistant, Breathable
- Cost: $$$
Mercerization involves the use of chemicals to alter the cell structure of cotton fiber to give mercerized cotton a greater affinity for dyes. This allows the dye to better penetrate the fibers, increasing the luster while also strengthening the thread. This makes mercerized cotton more expensive than conventional cotton, but about the same price as combed cotton. Mercerized cotton is often used for thin business or formal socks. They typically feature a smooth finish. However, mercerized cotton does not have great elasticity, and will typically shrink when washed.
- Great for: Outdoor Activities (like Hiking), Winter Sports (Skiing)
- Benefits: Exceptionally Warm, Durable, Moisture Wicking
- Cost: $$$
Merino wool comes from Merino sheep. It is super soft, itch-free, breathable, highly durable, and repels odor. It has great moisture-wicking ability and insulates heat exceptionally well. Merino wool is also very durable which is why these socks are popular in the outdoor community.
- Great for: Cheap Athletic Socks
- Benefits: Durable, Wrinkle Resistant, Color Retaining, Cheap
- Cost: $
Polyester is commonly used as a cheap alternative to natural fibers. This strong synthetic fiber is highly durable, wrinkle-resistant, and fades less than colored cotton. However, polyester socks do not breathe well or absorb moisture well. This can leave feet sweaty, soggy, and stinky. Despite their flaws, polyester socks are most commonly used in cheap athletic socks.
- Great for: Cheap house socks
- Benefits: Soft, Breathable, Cheap
- Cost: $
Rayon is a man-made, but not synthetic fiber made from wool pulp. It can mimic the texture of other fabrics like cotton, silk, and wool. It will not wick away moisture as well as cotton. Rayon is soft, smooth, breathable, making it comfortable and cooling to wear on hot days. However, it is significantly less durable than cotton. Rayon is often blended with natural materials when used in socks.
- Great for: Blending with Cotton to add Durability and Elasticity
- Benefits: Exceptionally durable
- Cost: $
Nylon, or Polyamide, was the first synthetic fiber in the world. Its most outstanding property is its exceptional durability. Nylon is said to be 10x more durable than cotton, and 20x times more durable than wool. It is also stronger than polyester. Nylon is water-resistant, which means it ranks very low in the moisture-wicking and breathability departments. This can result in sweaty and stinky feet. Nylon stockings were popular in the 80s and 90s, but nowadays, nylon is usually blended with natural fibers to add durability and elasticity.
- Great for: Blending with Cotton, Cheap Hiking, and Winter Sports Socks
- Benefits: Cheaper Alternative to Wool
- Cost: $
Acrylic is a synthetic fiber and is usually cheaper than natural fibers. The greatest advantages that acrylic material has are its softness, moisture-wicking, color retaining, and warmth. While it often feels like wool and has similar properties, it is not as warm and can feel itchy. Blending acrylic with natural fibers is a common way brands reduce their sock costs.
- Great for: Everyday Wear and Athletic Socks
- Benefits: Eco-Friendly, Soft, Moisture-wicking, Anti-Odor
- Cost: $$
Bamboo fiber is an exceptionally soft, eco-friendly fiber that is growing in popularity. It is 40% more absorbent than cotton, able to wick away moisture from the skin much faster and keep skin dry and comfortable. Bamboo material also offers antibacterial properties and is able to repel odors well. While they are not the most durable, bamboo socks are great to wear during hot summer months.
- Great for: Everyday Wear
- Benefits: Eco-Friendly, Durable, Stretchy, Skin-Sensitive
- Cost: $$$
Tencel is a branded Lyocell fiber, which is a cellulose fiber made from wood pulp of trees like eucalyptus, which is dissolved in a non-toxic solvent. It is a biodegradable fiber and its production process is eco-friendly. Lyocell material has a very smooth surface, making it softer than cotton. It is very breathable, lightweight, and comfortable against the skin. Its strong moisture-absorbent ability makes Tencel socks a perfect choice for sweating feet or sensitive skin. Tencel fibers are also elastic, durable, and wrinkle-resistant. The primary issue with Lyocell fabric is that it is more expensive than cotton, due to the technology used in the production process.
Sock Manufacturing Steps
Today, sock manufacturing is almost entirely automated, which makes sock production relatively quick compared to apparel production. Socks are made in essentially seven steps:
- Sock Design / Pattern Coding
- Yarn Sourcing
- Machine Knitting (automated)
- Machine Linking/Sewing (automated)
- Logo Embroidery
- Pairing & Labeling
Sock Design / Pattern Coding:
The first step in creating a sock is determining the function, design, and fit. A professional product designer can help you create the digital design files that you will need before you can find a factory. With your design files complete and your factory sourced, the first step at the factory is called pattern coding.
The knitting machines that will create your socks cannot read vector-based design files. Thus, a coder at the factory will convert your sock design into a “bitmap” file that the knitting machine can read. Essentially, each pixel in the bitmap represents a color and a stitch. The pixel size will determine the size of the needle needed for production.
As described above, the function of your sock will have a lot to do with the materials you will want your socks made out of. The way yarn is made is fascinating, but we will not go into that level of detail in this blog. Basically, raw materials are washed, spun, and colored at a yarn mill. The yarn is then wrapped into a large spool before it is shipped to your sock factory.
Back in the day, it was done by hand, but now sock manufacturing is entirely automated. A multitude of needles knit the yarn you selected into a series of interlocking loops. Computerized sock knitting machines work at high speeds and can easily be programmed to produce a wide variety of styles. Your socks come out of this stage looking like leg warmers or a compression sleeve. It isn’t until the next step that they are closed up. The first in-line quality inspection is performed here to avoid deformities in length, trimming, interlocking etc.
Linking / Sewing:
At this stage, the sock “tubes” created by the knitting machines are closed up. This step is typically done by machines. The great advantage of industrial knitting machines is that it minimizes the number of seams. The fewer seams a sock has, the more comfortable they are and eliminate rubbing from bulky seams.
The second round of inspection happens during sewing. After inspection, the manufacturer will turn the socks inside out for the final seam.
Depending on the sock design and material, human hands may be required to properly link the socks. Any time manual labor is required, the cost of your production will increase.
For those that would like to add an embroidered logo to their socks, this requires its own step in the production line. Logo embroidery patterns are stitched onto the sock with automated computer software. Keep in mind that this extra step in the process will increase your production cost.
Boarding is done by hand. It involves sliding the sock over a metal foot-shaped frame before adding heat and steam. This gives the socks the proper shape and smooth appearance.
Pairing & Labeling:
This is where the final inspection takes place to remove any defective socks from the bunch. The left and right socks are paired together and then passed on to be labeled and packaged.
Sock Production Costs
The production cost for any apparel item is always affected by order quantities and the types of materials you are using. Production cost is also affected by the complexity of your design. We have seen sock production costs range from as little as $0.20 per pair to more than $7.00 per pair.
The cheapest socks typically have low (or zero) cotton content. High-end Merino wool on the other hand is hard to find at less than $3.00 per pair even at order quantities above 2000 units.
To reduce your costs, consider the following:
- Use a pre-made sock pattern instead of developing your own
- Work with a sock pattern and a material type that does not require the linking process to be done by hand
- If you are adding embroidery, try to keep it small, simple, and one color
- Significant price breaks tend to start around order quantities of 2000 pairs +
Where to Manufacture Socks
Socks, like most clothing, are created at factories across the globe. However, one of the most prolific cities in the sock-manufacture business is the Datang district of Zhuji, China. The area makes so many socks that it is often referred to as Sock City. At one point, Datang accounted for nearly a third of the world’s sock production.
China makes some of the best socks in the world. China is still the first country that we recommend to our clients that want to manufacture socks because they still have some of the best pricing options with easy access to a wide variety of materials.
Sock Manufacturing is in Blacksmith’s DNA
Sock design, development, and manufacturing are in Blacksmith’s DNA. In fact, Blacksmith International was founded by the guys that went on to build Stance, the global sock brand valued at nearly $200 million dollars. This means Blacksmith has access to some of the best sock factories in the world where we can get you the highest quality socks at amazing prices.
Contact us today to get a free quote on creating your own line of custom socks.