Saturday, December 8, 2012

The Conundrum of the Lost Sock

NOTE:  This post is available as an MP3 podcast. Please e-mail me if you are interested.


Everybody knows the problem of lost socks.  They get lost in the dryer—usually at least one per load.  It’s tempting to think we exaggerate about the problem, but we don’t.  I had proof of this a couple years ago when a Clarks shoe store was offering socks with an unconditional lifetime guarantee.  It seemed to good to be true, but while I was in there, a guy came in and dumped a bunch of worn-out socks on the counter.  The clerk cheerfully replaced them.  How could this be? I wondered.  Then it hit me:  most of the time, any halfway decent pair of socks will get lost in the dryer long before it wears out.  Clearly, if this savvy retailer is banking on this fact, it must be more than an anecdotal phenomenon.  Since then I’ve been paying close attention, and my personal sock attrition rate has been staggering.

In this post I explore possible causes of, and solutions to, this ubiquitous problem.

Possible explanations

How can we explain this extraordinary phenomenon?  It spans geography, households, cultures, owning vs. renting, laundry room vs. Laundromat, urban vs. rural … you can’t escape it.  Why socks?  Why does the dryer seem to have it in for this one article of clothing?

One explanation I’ve considered is that we actually lose all kinds of clothes in the dryer, but that we just don’t notice because there isn’t a surviving mate that draws our attention to the loss. 

This notion is bolstered by my experience with cycling gloves, which I launder pretty often.  (One of the main functions of a cycling glove, after all, is wiping snot off my upper lip.)  I’ve had loads of laundry where I’ll end up with three right cycling gloves and zero left ones.  I stare in astonishment:  you’ve gotta be kidding me.  But this explanation falls down for three reasons.  One, losing gloves is simply less frequent a phenomenon—it lacks the utter inevitability of losing socks.  Two, my cycling gloves usually do reappear eventually, whereas socks never do.  Three—and this is the kicker—I don’t even put my cycling gloves through the dryer.  I line-dry them.  So this glove comparison is a dead lead.

Another flaw with the “ we notice because they’re pairs” explanation is that it doesn’t explain why the dryer doesn’t “disappear” socks uniformly—instead, it seems to pick high-value targets.  All kinds of my socks have made it through the laundry cycle, in pairs, load after load, for years.  For example, I have these stupid Tuxedo-theme cycling socks I bought at Sports Basement a decade ago, which I wear on the trainer.  They go through the wash again and again but are still with me.  Oddly, I seldom wear them in the summer but they still show up in the dryer, ready for service, time and time again. 

Meanwhile, those  amazing lifetime-warranty Clarks socks I bought, which are as soft and just generally awesome now as the day I bought them, suffer routine casualties.  Half of them are gone, I think.  The strategy of the Clarks home office is unfolding exactly according to plan.

Worst of all is when I see one of my Smartwool socks in the fresh laundry basket.  I’m immediately filled with unbearable anxiety as I do a Search & Rescue for its mate.  A Smartwool sock is like that unfamiliar security guard you see at the beginning of a “Star Trek” episode, and you’re like, “Uh-oh, this guy is toast, probably even before the opening credits.”  Except that unlike the security guard, I care deeply for my Smartwools.  I only own a few pairs because they’re so damn expensive, and are such amazing socks.  My brother Max, who has bought me most of my Smartwools, commiserates.  “It’s almost like a fetish,” I told him recently, “except it’s not actually sexual.”  He replied, “Yeah, I know.  It’s like a platonic fetish.  A good slogan would be ‘I love my Smartwools, but we’re just friends.’”  So every time I spy a Smartwool, I dive into the laundry pile, frantic, sometimes even calling out to the lost sock, “Smartwool, where are you?  You’ve lost your wingman!”  Clearly, the simple explanation that we only notice lost socks doesn’t come close to answering the high-value target question.  (Here is a photo of one of my Smartwool orphans.)

Another theory is that the socks are being converted into dryer lint.  There’s something compelling about this idea, given how much lint a single load of laundry can produce.  Sometimes a dryer load will include some really cheap garment that colors the lint dramatically—as in, 90% of that batch of lint is from that one garment.  Could it be that the higher quality socks are more vulnerable?  I do have clothes that are gradually dissolving.  A t-shirt I’ve had for twenty years is becoming transparent, and at one point an entire sleeve broke off, like a glacier calving, but the process is so gradual.  The socks that survive the dryer stay pretty much as good as new, while Smartwools that are actually new abruptly go missing.

As the obvious explanations don’t pan out, we have to think more creatively.  Could the dryer somehow be acting like a wormhole to other dryers?  I’ve had to consider this.  One day, completely out of the blue, a black Smartwool cycling sock miraculously appeared in the fresh laundry.  I’ve never owned black cycling socks, but my brother Max has.  Could his sock have passed through his laundry into mine, perhaps through some wrinkle in the space-time continuum?  (Max doesn’t have its mate—he probably threw it out years ago.)  I guess I don’t need to mention that this sock shows up regularly in laundry loads despite the fact that I have never worn it.

Alas, the wormhole explanation doesn’t bear up under scrutiny for the simple reason that I’ve lost hundreds of socks over the years but very seldom happen upon an interloper.  Unless somebody is getting tons of socks this way, this theory violates the Law of Conservation of Matter.

The closest I can come to closing the book on this mystery is to acknowledge that it is, in fact, a mystery, of the “Why are we here?” and “How did the universe come into being?” kind.  I take the sock conundrum to be a fleeting glimpse into a higher realm.  If a divine creator decided to use a metaphor to rebuke our human affectation of understanding everything, he could do worse than saying, in effect, “You can’t even keep track of your socks—how can you pretend you can explain the universe?”  Personally, I’d like to hold the scientists’ feet to the fire on this sock thing, because I’ve never been satisfied with their Big Bang theory, and their smugness about it irks me.  Sure, Stephen Hawking can feel confident in scientific explanations, but maybe that’s just because he’s never had to do his own laundry.

What is to be done?

On a more practical note, there may be steps we can take to combat this problem, whether we understand it or not.  For example, in my household it’s standard practice to put all the unpaired socks in a cloth bag so that when the next dryer load comes out you can try pairing them up again.  (Is there a standard term for unpaired socks?  Growing up we always called them “missing mates,” but this isn’t actually correct.  How can you store something that’s “missing”?)  Occasionally, I’ll discover that we actually have two cloth missing-mate bags going, and I’ll get really excited thinking that when both bags are dumped out on the bed I’ll pair up all kinds of socks.  But it never works out that way.  I end up with fifty socks on the bed and only one pair.  It’s totally depressing, like a mass grave.  This “solution” is nothing more than self-delusion.  Those socks are gone, and they’re not coming back!

Another tactic I’ve tried is to buy tons of identical socks at the same time, so that no matter how many socks are lost in a load, you’ll only ever have a single missing mate.  This is a nice theory, but hard to put into practice.  First of all, it’s dangerous to buy too many pairs of socks if you don’t know how good they will prove to be.  I bought five pairs of work socks at Discount Shoe Warehouse ten or twelve years ago, and hated them almost right away.  Though from a lost-sock perspective they’ve been amazing—I haven’t lost a single one—they get thinner, scratchier, and more brittle with time.  I only wear them when nothing better is clean, and yet they continue showing up in the fresh laundry, as if just to taunt me.  The other problem is that even socks from the same manufacturer vary from batch to batch.  For example, look at this:

The DeFeet socks are great, and I got a good deal because two of the three shown are technically defective.  They’re all supposed to say “Performance Bicycle” on them, but a huge batch was made lacking this logo.  So Performance sold them as manufacturer’s seconds.  I’d have bought six pairs, but they didn’t have that many, so I have a mix of large and extra-large, which is a disaster.  Look at the non-defective sock on the far left:  the logo isn’t the only difference.  It’s a slightly thinner sock, and has a strange pseudo-cuff at the top.  I cannot mix-and-match it with the others—I refuse. 

Now look at the EBVC socks below those.  All are the same size (L/XL) but the ones on the far right have shrunk more.  I can’t wear them so I gave them to my wife.  She constantly pairs them with the other ones, which makes me crazy.  There are actually three generations of sock here.  Two say “Sweetness & Light” on them, and at first glance these two seem to match.  But if you look closely (zoom in!) you’ll see that the shade of orange is slightly different.  That’s only the visible difference between the socks.  They feel a lot different on my feet, too.  I don’t expect my wife to pay attention to the difference in color, but I do ask her to keep her socks—which are the only ones that don’t say “Sweetness & Light”—separate.  She cannot be bothered to follow this simple rule, so I’m forever un-pairing these socks.

To recap:  of the six socks shown above, no two can be paired up to my satisfaction.  Meanwhile, once a pair of socks has been worn in the rain, its color no longer matches the others even if they did start out being identical.  Clearly, the all-identical-sock strategy doesn’t really work. 

Another tactic is to use special clips or bags to keep pairs of socks together in the washer and dryer.  Kind of a neat idea I guess, but as particular as I am, I instinctively recoil from it.  Dozens of plastic clips or bulky bags going through the laundry?  Really?  Can I picture myself sitting on the edge of the bed, perhaps whistling merrily, as I root through the dirty laundry for matching socks so I can clip or bag them?   I cannot.  And yet (as you’ve doubtless already gathered) I’m far more pedantic than my wife.  No way in hell would I ask her to do clip or bag socks.  If she won’t take pains to properly match up my freshly laundered cycling socks, is she really going to match up the ones I’ve just sweated in for six hours?  I suspect there are very few households that could pull this off, and if fate did pair up two people compulsive enough to use sock clips, that couple would have bigger problems ahead of it than lost socks.

What about single people, though?  They have total control over their laundry and nobody to answer to!  Might they use a sock clip or sock bag?  Well, again I see a couple of potential problems.  Many single people are the younger crowd who still go to Laundromats, and many of them see the Laundromat as a possible pick-up spot.  Something about a sock clip seems unwise as a singles-scene tactic:  there’s something twee about sock clips, an aura of enthusiastic thrift, or of Hints-From-Heloise practicality, that a single person might want to avoid projecting. 

Meanwhile, anybody who uses clips or bags needs to face the fact that this practice is like trying to save someone from drowning only to get dragged under yourself.  Sure, that sock is clipped to another, but what’s to keep them both from getting lost?  The prospect of clipping a couple of Smartwools together, only to have neither of them make it out of the dryer, is too hideous to contemplate.

Here’s an innovative solution:  how about just going barefoot?  Obviously, most climates wouldn’t support this, at least not year-round, and there are other issues.  Living in the Berkeley area, I could probably swing the no-sock thing by wearing sandals, but if you wear sandals around here you may project a certain image that carries negative consequences.  Depending on the neighborhood, a stranger may try to sell you either marijuana or handmade crafts.

Sockless cycling is an even bigger quagmire.  Show up at a club ride and you’ll be spurned, because riding sockless makes you look like a triathlete.  Don’t get me wrong, I respect and even admire triathletes, but there’s a certain code in road riding that says don’t even think about looking like one.

The only other solution I can think of concerns attitude.  Why not just lighten up, and stock up on identical socks even if they turn out to be of inferior quality, or allow yourself to wear slightly mismatched socks once in awhile?  Even if I could take that advice—which I can’t—lots of people wouldn’t.  Those who care deeply about socks are probably less of a minority than you might think.  For example, when asked why he wore black cycling socks for the Alpe d’Huez time trial in the 2004 Tour de France, Lance Armstrong replied, “That’s what came out of the bag this morning.” He suggested, in other words, that it wasn’t a conscious choice to wear black socks.  Needless to say he was lying.  (How do we know he was lying?  Come on, he’s Lance Armstrong!)  When we consider how widespread deceit was during Armstrong’s era, we can safely conclude that any cyclist who claimed not to care much about socks was also lying.  Ergo, no matter what they say, people care a great deal about socks and cannot be reasonably asked to lighten up about the lost-sock phenomenon.

So, if we’re not supposed to lighten up, how can attitude help?  The solution is to commiserate.  My recent lost-sock conversation with my brother, which inspired this post, was deeply satisfying.  You could and should have that discussion with your friends and family.  They need to know that they’re not alone in losing socks in the dryer.  Talk about it.  Make light of it.  Delve deeply into it.  Use this mystery as a jumping-off point for scientific, spiritual, philosophical, and/or ontological discussions.  And never, ever stop wondering about it.  After all, someday somebody may have a breakthrough.


  1. I very rarely lose a sock in the dryer. But I am meticulous about matching up all socks with their proper mates - I have many pairs of black dress socks that are "identical" in that they're all from the same maker and are ostensibly in the same style, but there are inevitably slight differences between pairs, and, more obviously, greater visible wear (at heel and ball of foot, mostly) in the older pairs. I shudder at the thought of putting a more worn sock with a newer one...

  2. When I do my laundry, I make certain to put my socks in first. That way, they aren't at the top, where they might get sucked into the small seam between the wash bin and cylinder.