The Smartwool Experiment

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

Episode 7: Go Hike

with 8 comments

Today’s installment of Readers Write In is a story from my co-worker Brad.  I tweeted before about how he hiked the Appalachian Trail wearing only one pair of socks everyday for 214 days (and over 2,000 miles). I asked Brad if he wouldn’t mind bringing in his socks to do a short interview and he agreed.

[ ?posts_id=1561922&dest=-1]

Brad and I discuss the holes in both his Bridgedale socks and the Smartwools he bought for his daughter.

Calling all Smartwool Sock Wearers
If you have a Smartwool success or failure story to share (pictures or videos are most welcome, but not necessary), leave a comment below or send me a note at and I’ll follow up with you so that we can feature it on the blog.

Written by Beck Tench

December 9, 2008 at 8:00 am

Stewart’s Socks After One Season

with 2 comments

Reader Stewart sends in a shot of his threadbare Smartwools.

Reader Stewart sends in a shot of his Smartwools, threadbare on the ball of his foot after one season (~3 months).

As I said last week over @sockexperiment, I’ve been having a lot of conversations about socks lately. As such, I’ve decided to start a new category on the blog called Readers Write In where I’ll share those stories and conversations.

Today’s story comes from Stewart, my co-worker’s Leiana’s fiance.  He’s experienced Smartwool wear on the ball of his foot, as seen in the picture above.  Stewart only wears these socks in the winter, so at this level of wear, they’ve been worn one season (or ~3 months).  Thank you Stewart and Leiana for taking such a great picture and sharing your experience.

Calling all Smartwool Sock Wearers
If you have a Smartwool success or failure story to share (pictures or videos are most welcome, but not necessary), leave a comment below or send me a note at and I’ll follow up with you so that we can feature it on the blog.

Written by Beck Tench

December 8, 2008 at 11:50 am

Posted in Readers Write In

Tagged with , , ,

Episode 6: My Assistant

with 2 comments

[ ?posts_id=1556343&dest=-1]

A short Sunday afternoon snippet of how my assistant, Juice, helps with the handwashing process of my Smartwools.

The Music Box Waltz of Flowers music in is CC Dan Oberbauer.  You can download it here.

Written by Beck Tench

December 7, 2008 at 1:39 pm

Posted in The Show

Tagged with , , , , , ,

November Shoe/Sock Data

with 7 comments

November Sock/Shoe Data

The above image links to a Many Eyes data visualization of what sock I wore on what day throughout the month of November (2008).

Each circle is a shoe, the size of the circle corresponds to the number of times I wore that shoe.  The pie slices represent socks (and they are colored accordingly).  The larger the pie slice, the more times I wore that shoe with that sock (e.g. I wore green socks with Fluevogs more than I wore them with Keens).  Click on the chart or right here to play with the data yourself.

Some of my observations:

  • I wore my four pairs of Smartwools 17 times in one month.
  • I wear my Keens (11) almost twice as much as a wear my Fluevogs (6).
  • I wear the brown and blue socks the most (5 ea.) and the green socks the least (3).
  • I am more likely to wear green socks with red Fluevogs and therefore question my fashion sense.
  • For the first couple weeks I was wearing in the pattern: blue, green, brown, black.
  • Of the two socks I wear the most so far, one is Machine Wash/Dry (blue) and one is Hand Wash/Dry (brown). What is more harmful to a sock: machine washing or machine drying? Does anyone know?

Please play around and share your own!  And here is the wash/dry chart for reference:

Here is the sock wash chart, for reference.

Here is the sock wash/dry chart.

Written by Beck Tench

December 3, 2008 at 9:30 am

Sock Tester Spotting: Gregor Sieböck

with 2 comments

Over at Patagonia’s blog The Cleanest Line, they’ve reported ultra-long distance walker Gregor Sieböck‘s experience with a Patagonia sock prototype. (Thanks to @dvdsweeney for the heads up.)

This is truly awesome that the socks have lasted so long, thus they are much better quality than the lightweight hiking socks I have been using so far, which always got at least one big (!!!) hole at the heel of the socks (roughly a square inch of size) after only 1000 kilometers of walking. the ultra lightweight hiking crew socks did not show any holes at all at the heel (actually they still hold very well here as you can see on the next photographs, all taken this morning after 1780 km). Only on top of the toes and on one sock I got two little holes by the ankle (they appeared already after 600 km but did not get bigger and only appeared on one sock).

Read the entire post here.

Gregor and I are different kinds of hardcore, but his mileage data make me wonder… would a pedometer be an interesting addition to the experiment?

In a related note, I’ll soon be interviewing a friend who walked 2,000 miles in the same pair of socks.  He still has the pair (they’re Bridgedale’s) and they will be making a cameo appearance.

Written by Beck Tench

December 2, 2008 at 10:34 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Tagged with , ,

Episode 5: My Reply™

with 2 comments

[ ?posts_id=1507867&dest=-1]

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

Posted in The Show

Tagged with , , ,

On Brand Loyalty

with 17 comments


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

Posted in Uncategorized

Tagged with , , ,