Socks aren’t an article of clothing that I would most associate with nylon. Sportswear, yes, but socks?   However, sometime ago, I saw a link to a No Nylon Sock KAL Project (a KAL, or Knit-a-Long, run by Joeli Creates) promoted in a Woolsack newsletter. I wasn’t in a position to join in with the project at the time, and it is now over, but I made a mental note about why the project was set up. It seems the project involved trialling how well different fibres used in a handknit sock stand up to wear and tear, compared to a yarn that includes nylon. The project was a response to research into synthetic fibres and other plastics in our oceans, and the problems they are causing. See this article in The Guardian about synthetic fibres and microbeads in the food chain.

Now, I’ve come back round to thinking about sock knitting as I’m planning ahead what I might like to knit over the autumn and winter. I’d also bought a discounted Rowan book of mainly sock patterns bought at the haberdashery closing down sale that I mentioned in Ode to the haberdashery department, so my thoughts turned to…. socks.

I like the look of the Fine Art Sock yarn in the Rowan book but noticed that it contains 25% polyamide. Despite how pleasing it is in the eye,  I couldn’t help but think of the tiny little nylon fibres escaping from the washing machine or down the plug hole, and from my house,  swirling down the River Severn,  past the trendy bars along Bristol waterfront,  into the Severn Estuary,  then the Atlantic ocean. How long before they wash up on a palm-fringed Caribbean shore,  or get sucked up by a turtle? That’s about 25g per pair of socks on a long journey, wash by wash.

‘Perhaps I’m being too purist?’ I thought. Some may think I’ve lost my marbles. After all, a little nylon from the socks emerging from the needles of knitters around the country,  or even the world, must be infinitesimally small compared to all the synthetic fibres wearing off the clothes people wear. Where do you draw the line between significant and not significant?

We’ve managed,  though,  without nylon in our socks for centuries.  Having parked that thought in my mind, intending to return to it, I rummaged in the yarn stash, pulled out some 4ply yarn and colour matched it with some, as yet, unspun wool tops waiting to be spun into, potentially, 4ply sock yarn? I know that there are several techniques that make handknit socks more durable, or more easily mended. I returned to the idea of exploring these, so I’ve researched a little online and present here a list of No Nylon Sock Knitting tricks:

  • Knit with a tighter ply yarn or spin yarn for sock knitting with more plies (3 ply rather than 2ply)
  • Knit tighter than the regular tension
  • Knit the heel with a stitch pattern that pads and elasticises the heel. Try a slip stitch heel
  • Use a sock pattern where the sole of the sock is knitted separately to the rest of the foot – a moccasin sock
  • Use a yarn with some mohair or silk for strength and durability to take the place of nylon
  • Darn the heel and toe when new to reinforce from the start
  • Avoid merino wool – it’s a soft, not very durable wool

And, a Low Nylon option:

  • Knit with a regular yarn but knit in nylon thread just to reinforce the heel and the toes

I have previously knit a pair of moccasin socks from Elizabeth Zimmermann’s Knitter’s Almanac. The upper part of the foot is knitted, then stitches picked up, and the sole of the foot knitted in. The sole of the foot can then be unravelled and re-knitted when holes appear. I knitted these for Mr L, who unfortunately put them in the washing machine on a non-wool cycle which shrunk and felted them. To a size that fit me perfectly. Who shot himself in the foot then? I have an unexpected pair of socks, but I can’t test the unravelling of the sole now that they have felted. I need to knit another pair. Elizabeth Zimmermann did recommend knitting in nylon at the heel and toe, which I did, but I want to also test a slip stitch heel and maybe a moss stitch toe for durability?

How much do mohair or silk fibres take the place of nylon in adding strength to the yarn? Does anyone know?Whilst thinking about writing this post, I came across a thought-provoking video called Forget Shorter Showers. A somewhat apocalyptic view of the destruction being wrought upon the earth. The author, Derrick Jenson argues that retreating into our own personal little acts of eco-consiousness (that would probably include me avoiding nylon in socks) will not do much to save the earth, so for instance, forget taking shorter showers.

We need to tackle the big polluters  – the industrial giants and agri-industry. I agree, but there’s a sneaky little feeling that it misses a point. After all, who are the people who are most likely to petition against the big polluters or for changing national and inter-national laws? Those very people who try to recycle more, save water and eschew plastic. The ban on free plastic bags in shops probably started with a few people who started taking their own bags whilst shopping, made a bit of a noise about it, and it grew from there. So, these things are rarely straight forward, and from little acorns bigger things do grow.

What if a few sock knitters returned to the old fashioned socks knitting ways,  then in response to their desperate search for no-nylon sock yarn (with tighter twist and/or with natural strengthening fibres), more yarn producers obliged? Such yarn is hard to get hold of in the UK,  for instance. Patterns for tighter knit socks and slip stitch heels might become more common. You never know, you might even find socks  like that to buy (yes, even cotton – knit socks usually include nylon – I just checked). It’s just a thought….