High-Quality Socks with 100 Years of History
Today, fast fashion dominates the apparel industry, with most clothing manufactured in China and South-East Asian countries such as Vietnam and Bangladesh—mass production has become the norm.
Socks may be the smallest item in the wardrobe, but their purpose is invaluable. Few places in the world maintain the tradition of fine sock making; the superior quality is simply unachievable in mass-production plants.
In this article, we will examine the little-known world of socks and the long-sustained sock traditions of Nara, Japan.
Where Are Socks Made?
Nearly 90% of the world’s socks are manufactured in China. In 2019 alone, China produced over 21 billion pairs. As an example of the volume, one single city—Datang—which, like Nara, is also known as “Sock City" produces roughly two pairs of socks every year for every person on earth.
The remaining 10% of the socks come from the U.S., Italy, Pakistan, and Japan. Historically, these countries have had well-developed sock industries, but in the 1990s they all suffered from China’s rapid rise to dominance in the legwear trade.
Of course, quantity is not the only measure of the industry. The savvy consumer demands quality and sustainability. So, where are the best socks made? Our biased opinion (supported by a substantial amount of evidence) is that socks and legwear made in Nara, a prefecture in central Japan, is hands-down home to the highest quality socks in the world.
Koryo-cho, Nara: A Town Dedicated to Socks
Nara prefecture is located just south of Kyoto; its capital, the city of Nara, was the capital of all of Japan in the 8th century. Today, Nara is famous for the Great Buddha Statue, Tōdai-ji Temple, and Deer Park. Besides being recognized for these great wonders, Nara has a niche claim to fame; it is by far the largest producer of hosiery in Japan.
Within Nara, most manufacturing facilities are seated in the town of Koryo-cho, a hub for over 150 companies that make 40% of Japan’s socks. That equates to over 36 million pairs produced per year in a town populated by only 35,000 people. The history of Koryo-cho is imbued with sock-making dating back to 1910. With 110 years to refine a very particular craft and generations of sock makers passing their wisdom forward, it's no wonder Nara's reputation for quality stands out from the crowd.
Craftsmanship and integrity get noticed. Super-brands like Chanel and Hermes often choose Nara to produce their high-end legwear. No doubt they would agree, Nara wins the title, “maker of the best socks.”
Fun Fact: In 2010, as part of the uniform for the Discovery Space Shuttle mission, Nasa chose “Super Sox” made in Koryo-cho by Okamoto Inc.
How Nara became the World’s Sock Capitol
To understand how Nara became a hub for the sock industry, let’s take a walk back through time and explore the sock evolution.
A Brief History of Socks
Protecting one’s feet came naturally to prehistoric humans. In the Alps, a frozen mummy carbon-dated to 5,300 years, was found wearing leather shoes filled with dried grass. Was grass the prehistoric precursor to socks?
Fast forward. The modern ancestor of what today we call socks is said to have been invented by Arabian nomads around the second or third century B.C. Yet the oldest written evidence was found in Roman ruins in England, dating back to 100 A.D.; revealing two pairs of socks were sent to a soldier, fighting in Britain, from his family back in Rome.
Fun Fact: The oldest existing pair of socks was found in Egypt, dated between the 4th~6th century A.D. They were knit in stockinette stitch, the same stitch most of our socks are made in today.
Machine-made socks have also been around longer than most people think. William Lee of Nottingham devised the first stocking frame knitting machine in 1589. This was the only type of sock knitting machine used for centuries; the principle of its operation remains in use to this day.
History of Socks in Japan
While William Lee was devising ingenious ways to improve the manufacture of socks, Portuguese merchants were introducing the first Western-style socks to Japan. Of course, that was not the first time the Japanese were introduced to foot coverings. There are records of cloth-made slippers existing in 400 A.D., yet only for ceremonial purposes.
Finally, in the Heian Period (794~1185), tabi, the ancestor of today's toe sock, was born. Originally made from leather, wearing tabi was at first considered a sign of weakness and only appropriate to be worn by the elderly in winter.
Slowly, wearing tabi became more popular amongst the general population. It wasn’t long before the people of Japan developed an appreciation for the Western-style knitted sock.
Prostitutes were the first to learn the technique at designated foreign trade ports. They, in turn, spread sock-knitting all over the country, and the custom of wearing knit socks rapidly spread across Japan.
The introduction of Western-style clothing in the Meiji Period gave another huge boost to Japan’s sock-making industry, enough that by the 1930s, Japan was one of the biggest sock exporters in the world.
A Farmer Side-Hustle becomes the Height of Craftsmanship
Sock making was first introduced to Nara by Taijiro Yoshii in 1910. Taijiro bought two sets of man-powered knitting machines and started a family business of sock making.
Yoshii began by taking orders from big companies in Osaka, but over time envisioned a new way to meet the demand for socks. Farmers populated the area and had a need to improve their income, especially in the winter months. They had room in their barns for sock-knitting machines, those machines were easy enough to operate by women and children who often did the bulk of the work.
Taijiro, bottom right
Then came World War II, which brought devastation and ruin to most of Japan’s industries, including Nara’s. That said, Nara was able to rebound faster than the larger cities like Tokyo and Osaka, which had experienced near decimation. By the late 1950s, freshly graduated baby boomers from across Japan flooded Nara’s sock factories for work. The town was now shrouded in steam from countless chimneys connected to sock presses. Within 10-years, Nara officially became the biggest sock manufacturer in Japan.
Over the years, various fashion trends evolved. In sharp contrast to the original military influences, Nara’s sock factories began to diversify designs, colors, and materials, and an explosion of creativity and technical refinements ensued.
Why Nara Socks are the Best
While production in China was skyrocketing based on cheap labor and a mass-production model, in 1990, sock production in Nara peaked at around 350 million pairs per year. Instead of attempting to compete with China based on volume, which would demand lowering production costs, the focus in Nara turned to quality and making the best socks in the world.
Made with High-Quality Materials
Nara prides itself on using only the highest quality materials, a tradition dating back to the 19th century when Nara was home to high-end textile production. The advantages of a well-developed presence in the textile industry meant Nara already had access to high-quality fibers.
Quality fibers made from natural materials such as wool, cotton, and silk require small, frequently maintained, correctly adjusted machines. In comparison, the massive knitting machines used in China are designed for use with synthetic materials.
Another secret ingredient in Nara’s socks is rubber—an often-overlooked element. Rubber is a sensitive material that begins to decay the moment it takes form. Mass-produced socks are commonly stored in warehouses for months and sometimes years before they make their way to the consumer. Meanwhile, the elastic grows weaker; for this reason, fast-fashion socks often have an unsatisfying grip. Nara socks are made with higher-quality rubber and shipped fresh from the factory right after being made, maintaining and extending their viability well beyond the average expiration.
Flexible and Intricate Designs
In Nara, socks constructed in small batches give makers the freedom to experiment with new and innovative designs. Knitting machines in Nara are operated manually and can produce creative, high-functioning styles that are impossible to make in China.
An example of unique hosiery produced in Nara would be; designs with purposely built-in holes, five-toe socks, L-shaped socks, art prints, lace, or even socks with folded edges. Even knee and elbow supports are produced using Nara's specialized sock knitting machines.
At Tabbisocks, we carefully curate our top favorite socks from Nara, Japan to help you express your individuality and bring more color to your life. Explore some of our unusual specialty items such as printed tights and sheer socks.
Accumulated Knowledge and Craftsmanship
Knitting machine operation requires much skill as there are many steps to completing a single sock. A large bulk of the work is performed by human hands, including constant rotation of machines, position adjustments, and careful inspections for mistakes. As you might imagine, experienced hands produce a better pair of socks.
Nara has been making socks for over 100 years, powered by generations of sock makers with a vast accumulation of knowledge. Their sole goal: Make the best socks possible. People in Nara are more than manufacturers; they are proud craftsmen who take their work seriously.
Japan values perfection in all art forms. The extra care put into design and construction is easily recognized. Not only can you see the difference, but you can most effectively feel the difference when you slip them on your feet. Wearing Nara-made socks is a homecoming for your soles.
Live Your Color with Tabbisocks
Presently the United States market is flooded with fast fashion and cheap goods. Finding authentic, high-quality products that fit one's lifestyle can be an enduring challenge. Tabbisocks stands behind the craftsmanship of Nara. We work closely with craftspeople and factories to create, prototype, and test products for quality, style, and functionality. We are here to help you meet your needs.
Join us at Tabbisocks, the home of comfort, creativity, and sustainability.
All of our products are proudly made in Nara, Japan.