The Smartwool Experiment

Charting the wear and tear on four pairs of Smartwool socks.

Archive for November 2008

Episode 5: My Reply™

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My video response (above) is to the letter Smartwool wrote me last week (below).

The SmartWool Experiment is a very interesting project. It feels good to see this work reinforce what we’ve observed, and validates all we’ve done in recent years to produce both more comfortable and more durable SmartWool socks. We’re going to try and do a better job at REALLY answering the question, “How long should my SmartWool socks last?”

It’s important to note that SmartWool is more than a company that churns out socks. We’re a group of people passionate about the products we make. There isn’t a day that goes by when we’re not outdoors wearing (out) SmartWool in whatever conditions the mountains throw at us.

We’re real people. We don’t like seeing our socks wear out, especially our favorite ones. In the end, though, SmartWool socks are special because they feel good. That’s what makes them our favorites. We make the most comfortable socks on the market, but that extraordinary SmartWool comfort comes from working with a natural (renewable) fiber. Wool is not traditionally as durable as a completely synthetic (non-renewable) fiber like nylon, but who wants to wear an all synthetic sock?

SmartWool IS striving to make the most durable WOOL socks on the market.

You will find about 4 distinct types of SmartWool socks:

  • Lifestyle Socks – These socks are designed primarily to deliver SmartWool comfort in a fun, stylish, way. They are not intended for heavy active use. In your “Evidence” video, you show a lifestyle sock (10-823) that we knit in 2006. (It’s not PhD, we just started making those this year, more on that later). We would expect this sock to eventually wear in the forefoot and under the heel. The wear you show on the back of the sock above the heel is outside the normal wear patterns that we see. Choice of shoe may be the culprit. (More on that later too.)
  • Outdoor Socks – The classic hiking styles you show in the “Evidence” video are some of our most popular and have been in the line virtually unchanged since the mid 1990’s. . They are extremely comfortable, and will wear longer than most of our lifestyle socks, because they have more wool underfoot and have a fully reinforced sole. They do have a lifespan, however, and we consider them worn out when they appear threadbare. What you see at this point is the lattice of nylon, designed to reinforce the high wear areas of the sock. When nothing but nylon is left, the socks are no longer delivering the benefits of wool. The wear patterns on the ball of the feet are normal for a well traveled sock. The wear spot on the back of the sock above the heel is unusual.
  • Adrenaline Socks – These are the ones you’re putting to the test in the experiment. We introduced Adrenaline 2004. They were the result of our effort to improve fit and durability as compared to the classic hiking socks you show in the Evidence video. It will be interesting to see your results. We test them both in labs and in the field under heavy active use conditions, such as hiking, running and biking. Even with the improved results that we found with Adrenaline, we just could not leave well enough alone, because we found a new way of constructing socks that allowed us to put more wool in and dramatically increase the durability. This led to the development of our latest sock line, PhD.
  • PhD Socks, with WOW Technology™. – We just introduced these socks this year. Our R&D team set out to create a new standard in comfort and durability. What sets these socks apart from all the others is the use of WOW technology™ in the high wear zones. WOW Technology™ incorporates the use of a very densely spun yarn, allowing us to increase the volume of wool in the sock resulting in increased comfort and durability. We’ve had the Hosiery Technology Center do independent abrasion testing on these socks, and we feel confident that there is not a more durable wool sock on the market today.

Our R&D team keeps a number of things in mind as they improve existing socks or develop new ones. Each decision they make will have an impact on the balance between Comfort, Fit, Durability, and Style. Our number one consideration will always be to create the most comfortable sock possible. How then, do we ensure we’re making a more durable product?

Choosing the right fiber – Historically more nylon was the formula for more durable socks. We’ve found that replacing Nylon with WOW Technology™ results in a sock that’s even more durable, and more environmentally friendly.

Putting it to work in the right places – We’ve studied how feet work. Our R&D team puts more fiber, or more cushioning, in areas where we have seen higher wear.

Design for end use – We make socks that are meant for running shoes, cycling shoes, hiking boots, ski boots, snowboard boots, dress shoes. . . the list goes on. Each sock is designed to offer an appropriate level of performance (combination of comfort & durability) for each activity.

What does our customer have to do with durability?

Ultimately, we could never predict how long any sock will last, as there are so many people using our products in different ways, with different habits, with different feet, with different shoes, in different climates, with different washing machines. . . you get the picture.

Here’s a list of things we’ve found can impact how long it takes to wear out a SmartWool sock:

  • Wearing them outside without shoes – Not recommended (though we’ve been caught doing it ourselves occasionally)
  • Wearing multiple times without washing in dusty environments – the grit they pick up will wear the fibers faster
  • Long toenails – This one is a killer, keep them smooth and trimmed
  • Wearing socks with footwear they are not designed for – Look at the wear pattern above the back of the heel in the “Evidence” video. These socks were designed with a heel zone that is much more durable than the portion of the sock above it. We see this type of wear when people wear socks that don’t match up with the footwear profile. A classic example of this type of mismatch would be a Converse All Star high top where the tight fitting top of the shoe is higher than the heel reinforcement in the sock. A sock and a shoe are a system, they need to work together properly.
  • Bleaching – Don’t do it. They’ll never feel the same again.
  • How often is it worn? – We wear our favorites more often. That means we wear out our favorites more often. We guess you will too.
  • Does the shoe fit? – Loose shoes will create more friction as you move.
  • Body chemistry – pH varies from person to person and during exercise

Seeing the passion you’ve put into The SmartWool Experiment makes us feel good about making great socks. We love our socks, and we know you do too. We’ll always be working to make SmartWool better, we’re glad that we’re already addressing the durability concern you’ve raised, and we look forward to being a favorite in everyone’s drawer for years to come.


Written by Beck Tench

November 23, 2008 at 9:51 pm

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On Brand Loyalty

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Traffic to my personal website from the Smartwool domain.

A sock designer from Smartwool wrote me today and explained some of the reasons why my socks wore and what they’ve been doing to address the problem.  This post is mostly my initial response to that message.  I’ll be writing/taping a more detailed post this weekend that will include the email they sent in its entirety and any questions I still have. I hope that the folks who’ve been visiting from both Timberland and Smartwool chime in on the comments of that post and any other that they feel so compelled.

In 2001, a co-worker who I very much adored recommended Smartwool socks to me almost like it was a secret.  Even after wearing Smartwools nearly everyday in the years since, the memory of her sharing that secret with me is one of the first things I think about when I think about the brand.

I’ve only been at this experiment for a couple weeks and I’m already feeling quite conflicted because I’ve identified myself for a long time as the kind of person who loves Smartwool.  I’ve spent a lot of money on their merchandise over the past several years – a conservative guess would be $500-$600 (socks, scarves, sweaters, gifts) – and in justifying those purchases I’ve convinced myself that I’m worth it and so are my friends and family.

I know and appreciate the difference between a luxurious experience and an average one.
I am a generous person.
I support a company of folks like myself.
My money is going towards good.

Brand loyalty, in at least one sense, is knowing one’s self (or some glowy fantasy of who one might want to be) and accepting/honoring that.

Pitting myself against Smartwool to conduct this experiment is unexpectedly fraught.  I feel like I’m betraying good people.  That I’m not who I thought I was.  Like I’m ganging up on my own kind.

But I feel manipulated.  I’ve put my money and my recommendation behind a brand that has disappointed me.  I want them to redeem themselves or to be outed for not performing to (my) expectations (that quality/expensive socks should last longer than mine do).

Written by Beck Tench

November 20, 2008 at 10:46 pm

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Smartwool says that socks should last about a year.

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This is the email I wrote to Smartwool.

This is the email I wrote to Smartwool.

I wrote the following email (seen above) to Smartwool last night:

Smartwool, hi.

I am a long time customer and fan.  I have, however, been disillusioned with how long my Smartwools last before wearing in the heel/ball-of-foot region.  In the case that my expectations are set too high, I am asking you to help me understand how long I should expect these socks to last.

On your website you list the following four factors in wear and tear:

– How the product is worn
– How often it is worn
– Proper shoe fit
– Ensuring proper care instructions are followed

Could please elaborate on those factors in the following ways?

1) How should a Smartwool sock be worn?
2) How often do you recommend wearing Smartwool socks?
3) What are the indicators that proper shoe fit is the culprit of my socks’ wear and tear?
4) According to the packaging, I should machine wash warm, tumble dry low, no bleach.  Is this all I should consider in proper care?

I am asking these questions for my own edification and plan to share this email and whatever clarifications you provide with readers of my blog –

Thank you,
Beck Tench

And received the following response this morning from a customer service representative:

Hi Beck,

Thank you for your email.  The ideal wearing of a sock is with a shoe.  Walk on carpet with no shoe will wear the sock out faster than normal.  The shoe should fit to size.  You will start to see weird wearing (examples: on top of the sock, on the side of the foot area) if the shoe doesn’t fit properly.   I would recommend wearing the socks in a rotation with other socks.  If you rotate your socks weekly they should last about a year.  The washing directions you have are correct.  I would also recommend not washing your socks with a liquid fabric softer.

Thank you,

(Name of Customer Service Rep)

The big takeaways for me in this exchange are:

  • Don’t wear socks on carpet (not a problem, we have no carpet in the house).
  • Weird wearing (top of sock and side of foot) are indicators of poor shoe fit (this is not where my socks are wearing).
  • Smartwools should only last a year if worn weekly (see my question to you below).
  • Don’t use fabric softener (also not a problem).

So my question to readers is now this: How long do you expect your socks to last? Please indicate in the poll below.

Written by Beck Tench

November 17, 2008 at 5:56 pm

Episode 4: Evidence

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Beck raids her own sock drawer to show evidence of Smartwool wear and tear.

Written by Beck Tench

November 17, 2008 at 1:21 am

Posted in The Show, Uncategorized

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Episode 3: The Smartwool Song

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Beck sings an original song.

Written by Beck Tench

November 10, 2008 at 4:11 am

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The process I’ll use for handwashing Smartwool socks.

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Based on her advice, I have decided to use the following process for the handwashing of my brown (adrenaline outdoor) and gray (adrenaline hiking) socks.

handwash and air dry. i’m a knitter and i suspect that smartwool is a combo of superwash wool (wool chemically treated to resist felting) and nylon (and lycra).

still, i wouldn’t trust the superwash thing– all wool will felt over time with constant agitation and definitely will shrink with machine drying (ask me how i know…a certain superwash wool scarf shrunk over time).

what i’ve done with woolens is to wait until they all get dirty, fill a bowl or sink with luke warm water and no rinse detergent like soak or eucalan (not woolite), put the woolens in, squeeze gently to let water flow through, and after 15 minutes, take them out and put them in washer using spin cycle only. then i put them flat on a towel, roll up towel, stamp on the towel to soak up any remaining moisture, and then lay them flat on another (dry) towel and let airdry.

a bit laborious but my handknits have survived pretty well and those that i’ve machine washed and dried look worse.

Thank you sleepyneko!

Written by Beck Tench

November 3, 2008 at 11:55 pm

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Episode 2: Machine Wash Warm, Tumble Dry Low

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Since I have decided to clean and dry each sock differently, I wanted to check with the packaging to see if it offered any cleaning/drying tips.  It did.

Written by Beck Tench

November 2, 2008 at 9:16 pm

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