Monday, December 12, 2011

A Sock Yarn Experiment

High-tech sock yarn seems like a bit of an oxymoron. Knitting is an inherently low-tech activity, and sock knitting in particular is deeply rooted in tradition. But knitters are always on the lookout for the new and exciting.  And the military/industrial complex is always looking for new ways to leverage their R&D investments. The past several years have seen the introduction of carbon-fiber knitting needles, and conductive yarns now available for industrial use will soon make their way to the hand knitting market, so you won't have to take off your gloves to use your i-phone.

A couple of seasons ago, one of my favorite artisan yarn companies, Lorna's Laces, introduced Solemate, a high-tech sock yarn. Solemate is composed of 55% Superwash merino wool, 15% nylon, and 30% Outlast®.

Outlast® viscose is a fiber that arose from NASA’s efforts to make spacesuits that would keep astronauts comfortable over a wide range of temperatures. It incorporates microencapsulated phase change materials.  What is a phase change material? It’s like water.  It changes from a liquid to a solid and back again in response to changing temperature. Outlast® is a cellulosic fiber (think rayon) that includes these space age components. I’ve seen in used in bedding and outdoor gear. When spun into sock yarn, it is supposed to keep your feet warmer in cold temps and cooler in hot weather.

Of course, the big question is “Does it work?”

I was given a sample skein of Solemate to play with while it was in the testing stage, long before general release.  I made a pair of socks, and they have been in regular rotation for over a year now.  They are soft and comfortable and pretty.  I wear them often.

In a recent gathering of knitters, I overheard a discussion of the big question.  None of the folks involved in the discussion had worked with Solemate, so it was a lot of speculation and conjecture.

It occurred to me that the only way to know if this yarn really does keep your feet more comfortable was to put it to the test. An experiment was born.  I would wear Solemate on one foot and a conventional sock yarn on the other foot, and see if there was any difference.

1.      This was completely subjective and unscientific. My only measurement was “how do my feet feel compared to one another”.
2.      This experiment took place on an early winter day in Northern California.  The high that day was about 62°F, there was a bit of wind, the skies were clear, and the sun shone bright. I was not shoveling my way out of a blizzard or hiking in Death Valley. I’m sure the folks at NASA tested the technology in much more extreme conditions. They probably wore lab coats and everything.

7:30 am On the left foot, I’m wearing a sock of about the same age as my Solemate sock, made of Lana Grossa Meilenweit, which is 80% wool, 20% nylon.  Both socks are about the same thickness. On my right foot is Solemate. Baxter thought if he helped, perhaps I’d hurry up with this camera business and feed him his breakfast.
8:00 am Wearing my walking shoes, ready for our daily walk to Starbucks.  Both feet were comfortable throughout the walk.
10:00 Sitting at my desk working. Both feet are just fine.
12:00 Wearing my clogs, out running some errands. No discernable difference between my feet – both are warm and comfortable.
2:00 Spinning at my wheel when it occurs to me that my feel are cold. After careful consideration, I determine that my left foot is slightly colder than my right foot.  However, my spinning wheel is a single treadle, so my right foot does all the work while the left is idle.  Could increased circulation to the right foot be making it warmer? I would need to borrow a double treadle wheel to control for that.  Science is hard.
5:00 Perched at a stool at Diane’s kitchen counter comparing the relative merits of a 2006 Russian River Pinot Noir and a 2009 Willamette Pinot Noir. Warm and comfortable from head to toe. It may have been the wine.
8:00 Sitting in my knitting chair watching TV, when again it occurs to me that my toes are cold. Neither foot is busy at the moment, so I carefully consider whether there is a difference. It seems that the left foot is a bit chillier than the right.
1.      I take my feet and their comfort very much for granted.  Unless something hurts, I simply don’t pay attention. It was odd to consciously monitor the comfort of my feet, and to compare one to the other.
2.      Under admittedly mild conditions, the Solemate sock seems to have kept my right foot marginally warmer than a standard sock yarn kept my left. But it wasn’t enough difference to make me go change my socks. And your mileage may vary, particularly if you live in a part of the country where extreme temperatures are common.
3.      It is a really good thing I did not attempt a career in science.

Would I make more Solemate socks? You bet I would.  They are comfortable and soft, with a pretty sheen. They have held up well, showing no wear after more than a year in the sock rotation.

If someone who lives in a colder part of the country decides to try a similar experiment to expand on my “research”, I’d love to hear about it.

PS: Lorna's Laces is developing a sport weight version of this yarn, and are holding a naming contest. Check it out here.

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