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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.

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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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