It used to be that very few people ever paid much attention to socks except when it came to matching colors — gray on gray, black with suits and white with jogging shorts and tennis wear.
White socks were fine for any occasion — casual, skiing, jogging or lounging around the house.
Life was easy. Then along came sock-makers who found life would be better if socks were more, well, activity specific — socks for skiing, socks for tennis, socks for hiking and socks for running. Colors were secondary.
So, comes the question, are socks really that different?
"Yes," says Jay Kroll, director of marketing for Outlast, maker of the fibers that go into such socks as Outlast, Wigwam and Columbia.
"There are differences, big differences," he said from the Outlast station in the Outdoor Winter Market show a few months back in the Salt Palace.
Outlast's interest in socks goes back to 1905 when the company looked at the feet of lumberjacks in the Northwest and introduced a sock that would keep their feet warm on the coldest of working days.
It wasn't until the athletic days of the 1970s and 1980s, however, that people started to pay more attention to what they put between their feet and shoes.
"New knitting technology and new fibers and yarns made it possible," Kroll pointed out.
Despite what many people today think, wool remains superior to cotton when it comes to warm socks. Wool is a natural insulator and can hold up to 30 percent of its weight in moisture before it begins to feel damp. Cotton absorbs moisture, mats down, offers no cushion under the foot and, worse, causes blisters by keeping moisture next to the skin.
New fibers, like the ones produced by Outlast, reduce the chances of foot discomfort by absorbing, storing, distributing and releasing body heat. That means that as the foot perspires, moisture is pulled away from the foot. By holding the heat and moisture away from the foot, it ultimately stays warmer and drier.
What happens with sport-specific socks, says Kroll, is that fibers are put in places where they are needed and taken away from areas where they are not necessary.
"We work closely with the fiber people in designing socks," he continued. "We tell them we need to cushion the socks here and need moisture control here and that we don't want the sock to fall down or bulk up.
"And what they come up with is a sock that can best work to the advantage of the athlete, whether it is a runner or hiker or skier."
So can a sock made for hiking be worn for running?
"If someone wants to wear the jogging sock to hike, it will work," says Kroll.
Sport-specific socks, however, do work best for the activity they were designed for, he said. Snowboard socks, for example, tend to be lighter and offer more moisture control than ski socks because snowboard boots tend to be warmer, thus causing feet to perspire more.
Outlast Temperature Regulation is billed as reducing perspiration by up to 44 percent in today's footwear.
In official words, Temperature Regulation reduces thermal spiking — overheating (hot spots) and overcooling (cold spots)— to help conserve energy by reducing the body's compensatory metabolic swings. That means increased comfort for longer and better performance.
George Cattermole, president and CEO of Outlast, says there are socks and clothing out there made from new space-age fibers. "Which is why it's important to ask questions and not be afraid to read the package. There's a lot of information about the product and its uses on the package. It helps to know what you're getting for your money."
Outlast also makes fibers for other clothing, such as hats and coats.
All of which, of course, makes for warmer, more comfortable feet which, in turn, makes for a happier, more enjoyable day on the slopes or on the tennis court or on a long, grueling hike through the Zion Narrows.