As an ever-increasing number of men stop wearing ties, socks have become the new way in which men can inject a dash of color or personality into their outfit. Call it the David Boreanaz effect. Even so, most men's dress socks come in only a few patterns: dotted, striped, argyle, etc. The crazier the design, the more the quality of the wool being used suffers. Where are the flamboyant, intricately designed dress socks that modern men deserve? XOAB is a new company by programmer/designer duo Rick and Neil Levine that is trying to design a better sock by improving the process by which socks are actually designed. And it's a surprisingly complicated problem.
"Both of us really like to wear crazy socks," XOAB's Rick Levine tells Co.Design. So when the two brothers were looking for a project to work on together, socks seemed like a natural collaboration. Neil had a background in textile design, while Rick had expertise in manufacturing. Between the knowledge of both brothers, it seemed like a natural fit (no pun intended) to start making high-quality, intricately designed socks. "How hard can it be to make interesting men's socks?" they asked themselves.
As it turns out, plenty. There are many logistical issues and design trade-offs that make it expensive, difficult, and sometimes impossible for a sock designer to make his design into a reality.
When a sock maker comes up with a new sock design, the first step is to send it off to the mill and see if it's even possible to be made. Once at the mill, a commercial knitting machine is taken offline and an engineer is tasked with trying to figure out how to best translate the design into a pattern the knitting machine can understand. This process is done manually, stitch by stitch. Considering the fact that there can be 100,000 stitches in a sock, it's a time-consuming process that can take a couple days.
There are many compromises that end up being made during this translation process. Color is a big problem. A knitting mill might not have the exact color of yarn needed for the design, requiring an alternative hue to be used. Because of the expense of dying yarn, mills tend to control their own yarn inventory, and if a color outside of their palette is required, they will charge a premium to have it made. In addition, most knitting machines are only specced to use a maximum of six colors in a single row of stitches. If you use more than that, there's an increased risk of the machine jamming, just like pressing two keys on an old typewriter at the same time. This can result in dulling the spectrum of a sock's design, or even eliminating colors entirely.
Think of it like trying to manually re-create a photograph pixel by pixel, and you've got a good metaphor for the problem. Because of this, when a designer gets his prototype sock back from the mill, the finished result can be very different from what he imagined. And even if it is accurate, the more elaborate a sock's design, the more floating stitches are required to make that design a reality. This comes at the expense of a sock's stretchiness, especially when the yarn being used is made of high-quality natural fibers. "If you go into the process naively, you can get dress socks back and discover that they don't stretch," says Rick.
Which is exactly what happened. Although it was important to XOAB to source wool locally and only work with American mills instead of sending them off to Asia, the prototype sock they got back was uncomfortable and didn't fit well. There had to be a better way.
XOAB's solution was to come up with an algorithm that could tell Neil within seconds if his design could be knit, minimizing the floats to preserve stretchiness and optimizing the pattern to preserve the granularity of the design. The software also solves the color problem: although knitting machines can jam just like a typewriter if too many colors are close together, XOAB's software figures out how to put different color stitches as close together as possible. This increases the number of colors a XOAB sock can have in a row from six to thirteen.
"Before this software, I couldn't even do what I wanted on a sock," says Neil. "But now, I do a design in Photoshop, and feed it into our algorithm. In seconds, it'll either send me a pattern that is completely free of floats that can be knit by a machine, or show me the closest pattern a machine can knit based on that design, which I can then use to alter my pattern."
XOAB is trying to introduce other innovations as well. For example, socks are usually done in huge batches that prevent personalization, because there's no way to uniquely identify one pair of socks from another. By working closely with an Italian maker of knitting machines to integrate their program into the machine's controller, XOAB has figured out how to personalize individual socks mid-batch. Each XOAB sock has its own unique pattern of stitches—a textile barcode—that allows it to be uniquely identified. That means that not only can you specify parameters for how a certain sock should be knit—say, whether it should have arch support, or fit over-the-calf—but the sock can be identified later and sent off to you. It's your sock from the get-go.
"There's been tons of design innovation in socks over the last few years, particularly with athletic and technical socks, but nobody's been able to marry that innovation with fine designs and comfortable, natural fibers," says Rick. "That's the premise of XOAB: Take the state-of-the-art in socks and marry it with the kind of designs we could create if we could just get the mechanics out of the way."
XOAB socks can be pre-ordered now through Kickstarter starting at $25 a pair, and are slated to deliver before Christmas.