Old Shoes and Socks

Photo: Fort Rock sandals, The Oregon Encyclopedia, https://www.oregonencyclopedia.org/articles/fort_rock_sandals/#.Yg5599_MK5c
5,500 year old shoe found in Areni,Armenia. Photo: Pinhasi R, Gasparian B, Areshian G, Zardaryan D, Smith A, et al. via Wikimedia

Photo: Pinhasi R, Gasparian B, Areshian G, Zardaryan D, Smith A, et al. via Wikimedia

The world’s oldest LEATHER shoe was found in a cave near Areni, Armenia, by the world’s luckiest grad student, Diana Zardaryan. The straw stuffed inside the shoe might qualify as the world’s oldest sock. Or it may have been filler to keep the shoe from drying out flat when not in use.

Like a moccasin, the Areni shoe was made from a cut-out of scraped hide. The laces were part of the cut-out, dangling from one side, with matching eyelets on the opposite side. The 5,500 year old Areni shoe has a bulge around the big toe, showing the wearer habitually put it on his right foot. The Areni shoe is 9 1/2 inches long (in the US, men’s size 6 1/2, woman’s 8).

FYI, the world’s oldest shoes are Fort Rock (Oregon) slip-ons, made from rope. Five lengths of rope, braided from the stringy insides of sagebrush bark, form the sole and fold back to form the upper. In 1938, archaeologist Luther Cressman of the University of Oregon unearthed dozens of Fort Rock shoes, preserved 10,000 years in a layer volcanic ash.

Photo: Cropped from the hi-res original by Marie-Lan Nguyen via Wikimedia

Photo: Cropped from the hi-res original by Marie-Lan Nguyen via Wikimedia


Artemis Rospigliosi, at the Louvre. Photo: Marie-Lan Nguyen via Wikimedia

In a way, the history of shoes has already come to an end by the time of the Artemis Rospigliosi, a first or second century Roman copy of an earlier Greek statue. Enlarge the closeup of her left shoe to see a sole built up in layers of toughened leather. The soft leather upper, a separate piece, is sewn onto the sole. The back and forth lacing is novel (only one lace) but recognizable in shoes that are in your closet right now. What’s left to invent but Velcro?

Between Artemis’ big toe and second toe, a tie-down holds the flaps of the upper in place. This practical detail confirms we are looking at a depiction of a real shoe, not an idealized icon.

The drapery around the top of this boot-like sandal, with its lion clasp in front — is it functional or purely for show, suggesting the lion’s mane?

Note: Click photos to enlarge.


Three British kings: James I, Charles I, and Charles II. Image: Composite of two portraits by Daniel Mytens and a portrait of Charles II by Simon Pietersz via Wikimedia

Closeup of Charles II's shoes

Closeup of Charles II’s shoes

High heels rode into Europe in the late 1500s, an innovation copied from Mongol horsemen. The stepped-up heels provided non-slip control in the stirrups.

In the portraits of three British kings, James I (left) wears a flat-soled shoe, tied with a showy bow.

His son Charles I wears riding boots with a modest heel and spurs. The yellow leather folds down fashionably. His white stockings, bunched at the knee, are held up by ribbons with metal “points,” attaching to the royal pants. No one, not even a king, can bear having their socks slip down in their boots.

On the right, Charles II knew how to ride a horse, though you wouldn’t guess it from his footwear. The height of his heel has nothing to do with riding, everything to do with personal elevation. The red color even calls attention to the added altitude.  In fashion, Charles II’s court followed the court of Louis XIV, where stockings to match one’s shoes were de rigeur. Open toes and backs, a large, waggly tongue, and sparkly ribbons proclaimed the importance of style and self-presentation. Charles’s grandfather, sponsor of the King James Version of the Bible, would surely have cringed in his flat-soled slippers.

09aStripeSockCompositeTo understand socks, we have to appreciate the foot — its subtle shape, kinetic repertoire, stress points, and absolute lack of help from the calf in keeping socks up. See how the stripes swell and bend when the socks are on, revealing a  continuum of curving, mobile surfaces beyond description by even the most advanced mathematical models. Hence the importance of knitting.

Knitting produces a fabric made of loops. Loops allow some “give” in fabric, which means socks can fit snugly to the uncanny forms of the foot. In contrast, woven cloth is an interlocking mesh, which does not stretch and has to be  cut and sewn for a close fit. Even then, there will be puckers.

World's oldest socks, at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Photo: Fæ via Wikinedia

World’s oldest socks, at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Photo: Fæ via Wikinedia

The world’s oldest extant socks — from a 4th/5th century AD Greek colony at Oxyrhynchus, 50 miles south of Cairo — were knit using a single-needle method  called naalbinding. With a separate compartment for the big toe, these socks were likely made to be worn with sandals similar to flipflops.

For centuries, knitting was an art known only in the Muslim world. Knitting came to Scotland from Spain in the 1400s. Until then, Europeans  wore stockings cut and sewn from cloth. Or they wore foot wraps, which could not “breathe” and tended to become very smelly indeed.


Stocking frame based on William Lee’s design. Photo: Wikimedia

In 1589, William Lee invented a knitting machine and asked Queen Elizabeth for a patent. She said “not yet.” She didn’t want to deprive villagers of extra income from knitting. Moreover, the work from Lee’s machine was coarse — only 8 stitches per inch. A few years later, he tripled the number of stitches, but the answer was still no. A century went by. Eventually Lee’s machines — also known as stocking frames or framework knitting machines — made Nottingham more famous for knitted cotton stockings than for Robin Hood.

05bKnitMachineBeardedNeedle05cKnitMachineSinker05dKnitMachinePresserBar05eKnitMachineFinishThe key concept in Lee’s machine was the “bearded” needle, bent into a hook at the end. Sinkers push the yarn down between the needles, forming loops. The needles then retract, pulling the new loops toward the last row of loops. A presser bar closes the hooks on the bearded needles, allowing the new loops to be pulled through the old loops. The needle doesn’t snag because its point is pressed into a  slot in the body of the needle. These illustrations are adapted from an article titled “The Art of Knitting”at the Barrow Upon Soar page of the leicestershirevillages website.

The Morning Toilet by Jan Steen. Image: Adapted from Wikimedia

The Morning Toilet by Jan Steen. Image: Adapted from Wikimedia

The second version (1665) of Jan Steen’s The Morning Toilet shows the strangle marks on a woman’s calves from stockings . There is a footie sole in the stocking, Her wood-soled shoes, called pattens, have a slightly elevated heel. Poor thing, time for bed.

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