Thursday, January 7, 2010

Woolen Socks and Tights: Winter Cycling Delights

Over the holidays I was gifted some wool socks and tights, and I thought it might be useful to review them. Wool is of course an essential part of winter cycling apparel, but there is something so nice about fluffy socks even beyond their practical applications. At least for me, wool socks might just be the "comfort food" of clothing.

So here is what I got:
. merino tights in black from J. Crew,
. cashmere blend leggings in charcoal from Victoria's Secret,
. cashmere blend over-the-knee socks in olive from Sock Dreams,
. merino over-the-knee socks in charcoal from American Essentials,
. merino mid-calf socks in black and white from J. Crew.

In terms of warmth, all of these have stood the test of winter temperatures so far. Keep in mind though, that the colder it is and the less active your feet are, the more layers you need to wear. We were doing a photo-shoot in the snow a couple of days ago, and after 1 hour my feet began to freeze in my boots even though I was wearing both a pair of wool tights and a pair of wool socks over them. For cycling, I have found just one layer plus boots to be sufficient so far, but your experience may vary.

While all the tights and socks I got did a good job at retaining warmth, they varied dramatically in sizing and quality. In terms of sizing, be aware that the Victoria's Secret cashmere blend leggings run a bit large, while the J. Crew wool tights run very small. I have long legs, so I typically wear M/L tights. These J. Crew tights were a "Large" and they are too small on me. I can wear them, but the fit is off and the wool is a bit overstretched in the leg area. If their largest size is too small on me, who the heck were these designed for?.. The Victoria's Secret leggings I got in size S, but these things are huge and XS would have been a better fit. All the other socks were true to size. I should add that both the Sock Dreams and the American Essentials over-the knee socks stay up pretty well, compared to others I have worn.

In terms of quality, I am dismayed to report that the J. Crew tights and socks underperformed all the others. The tights tore at the back seam while I was pulling them on for the first time. I examined the tear and it appears to be a result of faulty stitching. Easy enough to sew up, but does not inspire confidence in their quality. As for the J. Crew socks, they pilled and "fuzzed up" horribly after the very first time I wore them, which was disappointing. The other socks have held up fine so far. I wonder whether the "fuzzing" has to do with the quality of wool, the type of wool, the processing, or some other factor?

Wool tights, socks, leggings and legwarmers are absolutely great in the winter and can be worn in different combinations to keep you warm during different degrees of cold. All the items reviewd here are extremely affordable, and I would recommend them all except for J. Crew. Sock Dreams in particular seems to be a good source as they sell socks in different lengths, as well as leggings and legwarmers, at reasonable prices. If you have a favourite wool sock supplier, please do chime in. We could all use more "comfort food" for the feet!

43 comments:

  1. Thank you - I've been meaning to ask you where you had purchased the wool tights you mentioned in a previous post. Must have read my mind.

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  2. I didnt know all these brands do wool socks. Im a huge fan of Smartwool +icebreaker socks, they do pretty durable stuff, super comfy and yet fashionable
    cheers.

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  3. "who the heck were these designed for?"

    Back in day, when I was married and shit, my wife had trouble buying nice clothes off the rack. For one piece bathing suits she had to resort to the children's dept.

    She was a size 4 and the mass marketers catered to the 8-12 crowd (so my plus size friends had similar problems).

    Since those days we have invented the swelling girth AND the anorexic teen fashion hound; and the mass marketers now cater to those markets. Normal is becoming harder to find as over large and bone thin run rampant. 2s are common and even 0s aren't that hard to find.

    "I wonder whether the "fuzzing" has to do with the quality of wool, the type of wool, the processing, or some other factor?"

    One word - China. This isn't at all to say that you should avoid the Chinese stuff; my Terramar Woolskins long sleeves are on my highly recommended list and are Chinese, but the odds are that they are made from Australian wool. The Chinese have started their own herds of Merino sheep and yes, they do not take the same care in processing either the wool or the garment. Merino is HIGHLY sensitive to processing. There is nothing rare or exotic about Merino itself these days, the higher cost is mostly due to the extra processing care needed to get what you get Merino for in the first place; nuttin' but fine fibers.

    For socks I can highly recommend SmartWool. X-Country ski socks for general use, mountaineering socks over them when things get to being brutal. These are "performance oriented" socks made in the USA, so they aren't cheap, but they are worth the price. You can get them directly from SmartWool or from REI - Protip: check Sierra Trading Post for closeouts.

    Of course as an outer sock there's nuttin' wrong with the ubiquitous Woolrich hunter's sock.

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  4. Emma - Glad it was helpful. I confess that I am a bit psychic.

    I love Smartwool, Ibex, Icebreaker and the other fine performance-oriented wool clothing manufacturers. Problem is that when it comes to socks, I need lots of them - can't wear the same ones every day. And while I can afford a few, I can't afford "lots" of socks from these manufacturers. The over-the-knee length that I like and the tights are especially expensive and not as easy to find from discount resellers. I am always on the lookout though.

    As for sizing issues, I definitely relate. I used to be a size "zero" for most of my 20s... and I still needed size "Large" tights and stockings. Don't get me started on swimsuits, which make me cry no matter what size I am. Interestingly, in France I find that a lot more off-the-rack clothing fits my proportions than in the US or elsewhere in Europe. I am 0% French, so go figure.

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  5. " . . .while I can afford a few, I can't afford "lots" of socks from these manufacturers. "

    That is a problem. If it weren't for price you'd never get me out of ski socks. "Manual machine" (plastic coffee can) washing a single pair only takes about 5 minutes, but I understand that an extra 5 minutes on a daily basis can be hard to come by for some.

    The French have a peculiar notion. Rather than taking the sensible step of modifying people to fit fashionable clothes, they make fashionable clothes to fit people. What's widdat?

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  6. Oh I have 5 minutes to wash them. But how can I be seen in society wearing the same socks and tights every day of the week! What will people say? Sorry, but I can't be responsible for a scandal.

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  7. I don't drink, smoke or do drugs. I do Smartwool socks! And even they are in moderation, despite my addiction.

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  8. Smart wool socks, hand washed and air dried to maintain their lives. I budget to buy a pair of socks every couple of months, I also know how to darn socks. I wear wool socks all year round. I have the heaviest boot socks for work and lighter weight ones for dress wear. I also wear silk liners under the dress socks and under the boot socks if the weather is very cold.

    Aaron

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  9. I don't drink, don't smoke, don't do drugs, don't watch TV, don't drive, don't covet shoes or jewelry... but I more than make up for that by needing expensive art supplies, photo equipment (anyone selling an inexpensive Rollei TLR in woking condition please pretty-please?), and indulging in 2 expensive hobbies - fountain pens and now bicycles! So please pleaaase don't lure me into the clutches of your sockworld!!...

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  10. "how can I be seen in society wearing the same socks and tights every day of the week!"

    Ahhhhhhhhhh! Women.

    "Rollei TLR . . . in woking condition"

    For stir fry or steaming? Timing is everything. I think there might still be one full of dust bunnies lying around in the bottom of a drawer somewhere (my late ex-step-father had several), but the last daily worker went into new hands a few years ago. Best damned camera in the world for taking candid shots where people think cameras steal souls.

    I'll have a look around.

    Don't get me started on Grandma having something of fit one day and deciding that she had to get rid of everything Hasselblad RIGHT NOW and without telling anybody in the family what she was up to.

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  11. Oh come on. Changing our socks is part of our mysterious feminine charm.

    You taunt me with a potential Rollei! Dare I hope? It would be for making tasty silver gelatins.

    The price on Rollei has really gone up and I fear I will have to content myself with a Seagull for the time being, unless a miracle happens.

    Your Grandma broke my heart. Could she not have spared a mint little CM 501 for me?

    (Oh and just in case: I am also seeking a self-timer that can be used with a Hasselblad CM500, CF lens. In case you happen to have one propping up a broken couch or something!)

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  12. I often wear skiing socks when it's really cold. They have additional warm parts around the toes and heels. Very comfy!

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  13. This info is exactly what I need! I've got to come back and read when I'm not rushing out the door to work, so I can take notes :)

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  14. Chiming in on the SmartWool camp... have 2 pairs and I love them. Cold wash, gentile, and air dry.

    No, but I do have a K-1000; the same camera I learned on back in 1990. All of my other film cameras are kaput; I could never afford to move into medium format though my desire often pulled me there.

    ..And don't get me started about art-supplies; lord, I think the term "starving artist" comes from the artist spending their food money on supplies because they can be so expensive! ;)

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  15. Victoria's Secret? I never thought of that as a bike wear store. I'm going to order the catalog and look for the racing bibs.

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  16. "The price on Rollei has really gone up . . ."

    Well I guess so. You probably don't want to hear about back in the day when the Salvation Army started refusing them because they already had a bin full they couldn't get rid of; so I won't bring it up.

    "In case you happen to have one propping up a broken couch or something!"

    Nah! Grandma was the family Hasselblad freak, and when she cleaned house, she cleaned house. Sold the whole lot, in a fitted flight case, for no more than she had already been offered for a single lens. As I personally had no use for that particular specialty lens I could have bought the outfit from her for effectively nothing.

    We never did get a clear explanation about what she was thinking at the time.

    Thus I am left propping up the Louis XV with the family Dead Sea Scrolls. I really should scan them, put them in the recycling bin and take a trip to Ikea one of these days.

    And we seem to have reached a consensus on the wonderfulness of SmartWool ski socks.

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  17. Hmm, I never thought of wearing my ski socks to ride in-
    I should dig them out- I keep planning to go through all that stuff to see if my Bern helmet liner is up there too, but it's a daunting task to dig it all out of the attic.
    The Scientist is going to Switzerland next week for a conference, and was hoping to ski a day or so, maybe we'll do it this weekend so that he can take the appropriate gear.

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  18. i have several pairs of wool tights from here: www.warmlegwear.com & i definitely recommend them. i find they run pretty true to size...

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  19. I recommend Woolpower socks. They are absolutely wonderful and the company can certify (unlike Smartwool and Ibex) that their wool is humanely obtained.

    Here is a link to their site, which is excellent (and beautifully designed, I think)

    http://www.woolpower.se/en/default.asp

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  20. I'm wearing snowboarding (i've never skied so I refuse to call them that) socks right now! They're funny because they're reinforced where the binding hit and don't fit very well in my shoes, but they sure are warm! I'd love some wool socks/leggings though; I'll have to look into Sock Dreams...

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  21. I love the Biella socks - Sock Dreams sells those as well. I have several pairs of their cashmere blend argyles, and while I have to use sock garters to really keep them up well, they are super comfy and warm.

    I'm lucky, as my wife works at Sock Dreams, so we can indulge a bit on the sock front without it getting too terribly expensive :)

    I seem to remember that they either are getting in or have already gotten in some selection of all-wool socks as well, I'll have to check up on that again. They have some nice arm warmers and fingerless gloves too, if you need extra layers on your arms.

    Also, for the rest of the year (as they're not thick or particularly warm), try Cronert over the knee argyles. Great socks.

    I agree, the level of activity and the type of shoe you're wearing make a big difference in what type of socks you need. If you're doing a lot of standing around, or even walking as opposed to cycling, you want more layers, especially if you have thin-soled shoes.

    Good luck finding the camera equipment! :)

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  22. Jefe - I think there must be a lot of men cyclists out there with the same idea. I read somewhere that over 50% of Victoria Secret's catalogue recipients are male.

    Anna - After the J. Crew socks pilled and grew indecent, they are now Housecleaning Socks.

    portlandize - Your wife works for Sock Dreams! Talk about nice work if you can get it : )

    Thanks to all who mentioned their favourite brands and provided links. They will be investigated thoroughly.

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  23. "I recommend Woolpower socks. They are absolutely wonderful . . ."

    . . .and available in a color that matches the Sam Hillborne. Gross!

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  24. check out Jonesware:
    www.jonesware.com
    Their stuff is made in Petersham, MA
    Our tandem team uses their tights every Winter.

    -Terry

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  25. oh that's a bummer about the j. crew stuff. i also have a pair of their merino tights and i've liked them so far (though i wish they had a bit more stretch). pilling is the result of lower-quality wool which is stitched more loosely (most kinds are these days). i love wigwam socks under my boots in the winter--they are sometimes the only things that keep my feet from getting frostbite!

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  26. I adore merino and wear it most of the year. Fab for cycling in warm weather as it wicks so well. Having said that, there's merino and merino. Icebreaker and any of the upmarket sports brands seem to be worth the money. I was so annoyed when Icebreaker changed its manufacture from NZ to China as I was worried about the quality of finish, but my Icebreaker gear has been fab. On the other hand I've bought other merino stuff from non-sports manufacturers, and it has 'pilled' almost straight away. It really is worth adding good quality knitwear to your obsessions. (I'm with you on the fountain pens by the way... have always loved them and saving up for a quality new one.)

    Filigree, if most of your tights are black, it doesn't matter if you wash them and dry them overnight and wear them the next day; how many of us are seen in black tights half the week in winter? Most of us have more than one pair so I'm sure nobody assumes we wear them day in and day out without a wash (gosh, I hope not!!). If you wear a different coloured pair of socks over the top, to keep your feet warm, it's the socks that will get noticed, not the tights.

    In spring/autumn some of summer I wear cotton leggings with a tunic over the top, or under skirts and dresses. Again you get what you pay for. The supermarket variety starts coming apart at the seams on the first wear. Spanx however has been excellent.

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  27. I like (and often wear) Wolford merino tights. Their anthracite color is truly elegant. It's not a stupid grey, but a really good one and they are warm, too. They are not cheap, but they don't rip or pill, either. Their wool leggings are good, too. They don't get super baggy, which can be kind of appealingly gamine but does not float my boat most days.

    These days it's so freezing that I've been wearing bright American Apparel tights with wool leggings over them and woolpower liner sock followed by woolpower normal sock and THEN shearling lined boots that belonged to my mother in swinging 60s London. I do not get cold feet.

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  28. kfg - Gross?! That lovely puke green is one of my favourite colours! In the case of Hillborne, that's pearlescent puke green.

    Sheila & Terry - Thanks for the link; I will check them out. Would love to buy wool apparel made in New England.

    What Would a Nerd Wear - Yeah, I was disappointed too. A lot of my clothing comes from J. Crew and the quality is usually quite high. I had been wanting to try Wigwam. So many socks to choose from!

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  29. Carinthia - Ooh, which fountain pen are you saving for? My winter tights are black, gray, navy and army drab olive. And the socks that go over them (and stick out over the tops of my boots) are even more recognisable. I do tend to prefer specific ones and wear them over and over, but I've been trying to get out of that rut and "diversify" a bit.

    neighbprtease - Anthracite! The name alone makes me love the colour. Most of my clothing is some shade of gray, puke green, or taupe, so these sound just right for me. Must resist!

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  30. I've ordered these for the past few years and these are my most favorite wool tights ever. They are a company in Germany, can't find any like these in the states for sure, they are like wearing a sweater on your legs. They are sooo warm and comfy and super thick but a little pricy, but I think they are totally worth it. :^)

    http://www.robaversand.com/xtc/Mens-tights/Cable-pattern/Cable-pattern-merino-knit-tights-Sz-4-38-40-pink-marled--1077.html

    http://www.robaversand.com/xtc/Mens-tights/Wide-ribbed-tights/Wide-ribbed-merino-wool-knit-tights-Sz-6-brown--811.html

    http://www.robaversand.com/xtc/Mens-tights/11-ribbed/Juno-Merino-Mix/11-Strickstrumpfhose-Merinowolle-Gr-4-beige--1097.html

    http://www.robaversand.com/

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  31. Fountain Pens...there's a (sort of) affordable but very lovely one by Curtis here in Australia. Check out: http://www.curtisaustralia.com/index_files/Luxury.htm
    I like the Celtic Green one. About $695 AUD.
    I love the Montegrappa Italia pens but hard to find under $1K here which is just too much. And ST Dupont from France has pens to die for but sadly in the same price range.
    Online from Germany does a "Romance Green Glamour Fountain Pen" which is really affordable - about $90 here but not sure of the nib quality. More at www.pensdeluxe.net on that one.

    The anthracite tights neighbourtease has mentioned sound gorgeous and a great alternative to black. Neighbourtease, are you a Mitford fan by any chance? :-)

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  32. Nice! I don't own any Curtis Australia or Dupont, but am familiar with them, and I hear the quality is quite good. As far as modern pens go, this is probably my overall favourite pen in terms of both looks and how much I use it (another picture here). I would not buy a pen by Online for $90; their quality is iffy with steel nibs that sometimes work poorly. If you like the colour of that Online pen, but are contemplating the price range of Dupont & Curtis, have you considered Nakaya? They are highly collectible hand-crafted Japanese pens that are lacquer coated in a variety of colours and finishes. I have one in a blue-green "rough stone finish", as well as some smooth lacquer ones in olive and dark red.

    Anyway, got a little carried away with the fountain pen talk there, sorry!

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  33. Won't keep the fountain pen talk going too long either but love the Pelikan - v-e-r-y nice. Checking out Nakaya now online. Thanks for the tip about Online. I figure any pen under about $150 is probably going to be a bit scratchy; have been caught in that trap before.

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  34. The very last articles of clothing I had from my pre-transition wardrobe were my Woolrich wool boot socks. They finally gave out last year; I used to wear them over Smartwool or other wool socks when the weather was really cold.

    I haven't been cycling in this crazy cold weather we've had here in NY. Recovering from surgery and the accident I had the day before Thanksgiving, I don't want to risk anything. But I do plan on riding again soon, so I'm happy that you wrote about your holiday gifts.

    Fountain pens are one hobby I'd like to indulge in. I have a few Waterman and Cross fountain pens; I acquired the former during the time I lived in France. I tried a Dupont once: It's like tasting one of Jacques Torre's chocolates after a steady diet of those chocolate Santas and Easter bunnies they sell in the local 99 cent store.

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  35. Back to the wool socks for a bit. I wear them year round, and could never seem to have enough (or the money to keep up the habit!) so about 6 years ago I taught myself how to knit my own. Then how to spin my own yarn for them. Now THAT makes for pure heaven on the feet!

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  36. I have yet to wear wool in the summer, though this year I plan to finally have faith and give it a try.

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  37. Our cats shed constantly. Any idea how much cat one would need for a pair of socks?

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  38. MDI - we have thought the same about our very sheddy dog, but i want a scarf...or a sweater(!): http://www.viceland.com/int/v15n8/htdocs/wool-of-dog-142.php

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  39. The real question is: how to spin the cathair into a wool that will be resistant to pilling?

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  40. Isn't this where I came in to this movie?

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  41. Yes, as you can see the catwool fantasy is a recurring theme.

    genevieve - Thank you for the link! If all I had to do is save the fur and send it in, that makes things a lot easier than doing the spindle thing. I can knit, so that stage is not a problem. Stay tuned...

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  42. Peppy is getting shaved tonight...

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  43. I like Wigwam socks. I have two heavy duty pairs and I simply can't wear them out. They must have nylon blended with the merino wool. They were expensive but well worth the money. I also have a Pelikan "women's size" tortoise shell fountain pen but alas I put it in a "safe place" and now can't find it! I purchased it about 9 yrs ago from Levenger's.

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