Nike Unveils Its Big New Paradigm: Shoes Knit Like Socks

The new Flyknit shoe was the product of four years of R&D, which yielded new machines for a fabrication technique that never existed before.

When most of us think about what we want in a shoe, a sock probably isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. Sure it has comfort, but what about stability? And how about some support?

Nike is filling in those blanks with its newest line, Nike Flyknit, which will make its big splash in the Olympics. Four years in the making, Flyknit is the product of an entirely new shoe-making process that can produce a single, lightweight knit upper (tongue included). The resulting intricate patchwork of yarn, cables, and fabric boasts a heretofore unseen look and feel.

Flyknit was powered by athletes’ input, says Tony Bignell, director of footwear innovation at Nike’s Innovation Kitchen. And what they wanted, head-scratchingly enough, was a sock. "A sock fits great, feels snug, goes unnoticed, and you get no irritation," Bignell explains."So the idea was, how do you engineer a sock into a high-performance shoe?"

A simple enough conceit, but one that proved harder to execute. "We had no interest in just creating a shoe that looked knit," says Ben Shaffer, studio director for Nike Innovation Kitchen. "This is where we found our first biggest challenge: There was no technology in the world available to do this for footwear." The intricacies of the work—building static structures and support into a dynamic knit—demanded entirely new machinery and software, Shaffer tells Co.Design. "We were challenging a fundamental way of making shoes."

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Nike gathered a team of programmers, engineers, and designers to build technologies capable of micro-level manipulation. With machines in place, designers could engineer exactly where they wanted to add structure and flexibility to the knit upper. The next step was figuring out what yarns and fabric variations to use, requiring what seemed like an "endless" amount of prototypes, Shaffer says. The team settled on a feather-light, high-quality polyester yarn of varying elasticity, durability, thickness and strength (and all softer than anything you’ll find at the bottom of your sock drawer). To provide structure, Nike Flywire supportive cables are weft into the knit. The cables loosen and contract with your foot, offering the comfort and ease athletes were looking for. A Lunarlon cushion sole completes the shoe.

Shaffer and co. have come a long way from the original prototype—a tube sock stitched to a sole. "In one layer, you have only the essentials built into a fabric," Shaffer tells Co.Design. That one layer has some spillover benefits: Since the upper doesn’t require the usual cutting, stitching, and gluing of shoes past, it reduces waste. The Flyknit is also 19% lighter than the traditionally crafted Nike Zoom Streak 3 (worn by the gold, silver, and bronze winners at the 2011 World Championship’s men’s marathon).

The warp and weft of the shoe’s texturized knit also opens up the possibility for some interesting color combinations. "You have to almost think three dimensionally about the colors," says Mark Parker, Nike Inc. CEO and designer.

The Flyknit Racer will be worn at the Olympics by marathon racers from the United States, Kenya, Russia, and the U.K. Nike is also releasing a limited edition run of the line called HTM Flyknit, a collaboration between influential stylist Hiroshi Fujiwara, Nike Vice President of Creative Design Tinker Hatfield, and Nike CEO Parker that provides a streetwear-friendly application of the technology. The three-shoe line will be sold for a few weeks in New York City, Tokyo, and London.

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  • Ryan

    this shoe can't use for running, it's risk when you run and trun or stop, the materials(yarn) soft and elastic your foot may move out the sole, that mean nothing to hold your can walk .....not for sport... 

  • Mac

    Do you really think that Nike, with all their experience in designing running shoes, would put four year's development into a shoe that was inherently unstable, then launch it with millions of dollars worth of PR?

  • guest

    I told Nike years ago that all their shoes sucked. Air filled heels, 4 inch heels. They know nothing about sports performance and need of the body. 

    FInally the are late to the party and want to get into the flat shoe market. I told you so NIke, over 10 years ago when you were trying to injure my ankle. 


  • Not impressed

    As a runner, It looks cool and all, BUT it does not look like it will hold up with low mileage let alone what my teammates and myself run. Coming from someone who runs all there miles in Nike Streak XCs.. Plus the heel lift looks like it completely throws the balance of getting a fore-foot strike completely out of the window and says "hey look you can wear a sock that screws up your form" 2/10. Maybe a walking shoe. Probably not.

  • Lopezv23

    So you run 3 mile races? Please realize that these shoes were developed for marathon runners, a roughly 26.2 mile run. I think this shoe could hold up in the, say 2-3, 5-k runs you participate in per year.


  • Susandkline

    I think this is really innovative and we know how runners are so interested in really lightweight footwear.  Can't wait to see how the Olympic runners like them.  I am sure we will be seeing them on non-runners feet if they are met with approval by the Olympic runners.

    Congratulations on what looks like a winner!

  • Adelas

    I can't imagine using a shoe like this... in the rain, like this.

    Maybe it's what athletes want, but the rest of us use shoes to protect our feet.

  • Righthand3

    What on earth will be next..?

    Nike tights for wemon..

    Nike fish-net stockings...
    and Suspension belt...?
    or maybe a possible adventure with that which allure the opposite sex..

    A Nike G-string...

    Or since where on the subject.. how about a Nike strap on belt..?

  • Righthand3

    Nike evolution of the 1 footed hopper!

    Making light of the topic!

    " It has been discussed for some time...
    how you may place a pair of socks into your washing machine or tumble dryer and be left with once less?
    surely this not good for us.. unless we intend to hop around on one foot..?

    maybe that is right? "

  • Ben Martin

    In paragraph four, are you certain "conceit" is the proper word?  Don't you mean "concept"?

  • Nikola S.

    No dude. Conceit is right. The conceit is a 'fanciful notion', like turning a sock into a shoe.

  • Josh Young

    Seriously? I have a pair of Reebok Zag premiers that are exactly this... Way to think outside the box.

  • Knitwear Designer

    While the actual technology may be knit, the video shows the threads being woven, and that would certainly affect the structure of the shoe fabric. I applaud the designers' innovation, but not the marketing of a well known medium like knitting as weaving. It shows a real ignorance of the craft and lack of respect for the concept they are trying to convey.

  • zatoil

    Whoever is running in the video has terrible form... You NEVER land on the full sole of your foot; that's a recipe for injury if I ever saw one.

  • Thomas Belcher

    You literally could not be more wrong, but it is forgivable if you haven't kept up with this "new" trend in minimalist running.  It's all about the mid-sole strike.  That keeps you injury free.