What’s happened to socks? Textiles, in general? A personal anecdote on designed obsolescence, disposability

If you’ve been alive a few decades, and you’ve done any amount of walking, running, or working in an office, you will have undoubtedly purchased many pair of socks and shoes by now, on top of T-shirts or undershirts, pants, dress shirts, skirts, etc. Many are basically disposable objects, are they not?

Socks generally wear out in patterns that reflect how you walk, such as pronation or supination, favoring, heel-walking, etc, and can of course become damaged from improperly fitting shoes or just heavy walking. But lately, something has changed. What is it?

This Etsy blog delves into the exploitative changes made in the textile and garment industries from the 1950s to today, and highlights some of the great social and cultural shifts that led people to falling into this trap, instead of halting it. The following block of text neatly sums up this transition.

“As clothes have become cheaper, our clothing consumption has gone through the roof. In 1930, the average American woman owned an average of nine outfits. Today, we each buy more than 60 pieces of new clothing on average per year.

Our closets are larger and more stuffed than ever, as we’ve traded quality and style for low prices and trend-chasing. In the face of these irresistible deals, our total spending on clothing has actually increased, from $7.82 billion spent on apparel in 1950 to $375 billion today.

And the discounters are reaping the rewards. According to the latest Standard & Poor’s Industry Survey, the average American consumer is primarily looking for value with an impulse-buy standard of quality when they purchase clothing. As a result, H&M, Zara, and Wal-Mart — all discounters who sell low-quality clothing — are now the most powerful clothing brands in America.”

https://blog.etsy.com/en/the-history-of-a-cheap-dress/

Something has changed in textiles in the last 80, not to mention the last 25 years that I am complaining about. This began a generation ago. I wonder what it is?

In the early 1990s, I bought many socks. Brands include Hanes, Fruit of Loom, Adidas, North Face, etc. The socks I bought in the 1990s lasted until 2008-2010, despite the fact that I:

  1. Rode a skateboard wearing those socks, did street skating.
  2. Walked/skated EVERYWHERE unless I was lucky enough to score a ride. I would walk 10, 20 miles sometimes, all day, depending, including trails and camps.
  3. Because I was a filthy teenager, I would sometimes wear them 2 days in a row. 🤢

Somehow, many of the heavily-used socks I bought throughout the 90s, lasted me all the way into the mid/late 2000s. They became discolored, some of them became more brittle over time, and eventually, 15ish years after I bought them, they popped some holes or tears and had to go in the trash.

As a young adult on a small budget in a full-time single parenting situation, I needed to get more socks, and socks that were suitable for the new career I was launching! So off I went to Macys, Costco, PayLess, and Express Men’s(Seasonal box sales), Old Navy, etc, to find good bags of working-person socks. By then, I had given up skateboarding, and was walking, jogging, and riding a bike.

A couple years later, roughly 2006, I noticed a couple – but not all – of the cheaper socks I had picked up had holes. I expected that was just a fluke, and replaced them. In 2008-2009, I noticed a few more socks were busting through within only a few years of use, and I started trying different shoe types, sock types (thicker, thinner, fitted, brands, etc) to try to troubleshoot the problem. I had become a runner by then, and my runs were 2-16 miles a few times a week, always changing shoes & socks after work, before the run. By 2010-2012, only a few pair of the original (1995-98) Hanes and other brands were still ok, but MOST other socks bought more recently were already in the trash, filled with giant holes.

Same was true with various T-shirts I had, including skateboard and satirical shirts I picked up as a teenager. Two Tees in particular that I still wear to this day were bought in the 90s, a ‘Doctor Evil'(Austin Powers!) shirt from 1997, and a custom Hanes Tee that says “I eat glue” from 1995ish. These are 24 year, and 26 year old Tshirts! Their armpits are lightly discolored, and they may finally rip through a few holes today, in 2021.

Throughout the whole time (2003-2021), I was more and more rapidly replacing socks. For a few of those years, I chalked it up to the facts that I worked or ran on my feet all day, however… throughout all those sock-destroying activities, the old socks from the 90s continued to last. At the same time the new custom Tees(Cafe Press, etc) appear to be 20 years old after less than 2, regardless of delicate handling in washer(cold, low) and drier, sometimes even line-drying them to save dryer wear/tear.

Looking back, I have purchased probably 10 bags of new socks from various brands over the last 5 years alone, and today… because of COVID and a few other developments in our lives that I’ll leave for another post, we are extremely sedentary and have been for much of the last 5 years. Despite the sedentary lifestyle and the purchase of a car, leading to a situation where most of our walking is to/from carpeted rooms in our house, in between sitting for hours, the socks… have begun to wear through into holes (or entire ‘rubbed off’ sections of sock) far faster than ever before. I’ve purchased bags of socks, worn them 1-2 times, sitting or barely walking the whole time, and there are holes in a few weeks in some cases.

My experience with buying, wearing, and thinking about the durability of clothing and textiles began a long time ago, as my family and I have always had a tight budget where we needed to make sure clothing items lasted, and my analysis over time shows me the THREADCOUNT and overall durability of socks, tees, and underwear/boxers, and many clothing textiles has been radically reduced, leading to even MORE rapid cycles of clothing “Fast Fashion” and wardrobe replacement, and even more environmental and ecological problems around the earth.

Are there durable textiles out there, or durable goods? Sure, but the capitalists have elevated the cost of those more durable items to a place where only affluent people can really buy them regularly, leading to a problem where most budget-focused workers – the majority of us – buy the cheap, disposable, toxic, unhealthy crap. And we don’t even become aware of this until we have years of retail experience and see for ourselves the truth of what capitalism brings, cycle after cycle, generation after generation.

Seasonal Fashion, and generally ‘Fast Fashion’, is a trap that you should avoid if you take the global problems we all face seriously, including ecosystem collapse and warming, classism and inequality, and the major problem of outsourced jobs in the US.

Published by milkman76

Father and husband, idealist, activist, argumentalist, masterdebtor, and all around swell guy. Also- likes to aim spotlights at piles of ideological bullshit, and taking a magnifying glass to the material conditions that caused our current capitalist hellscape.

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