Secondhand socks

My teaching involves setting the learners lots of activities to do. At these times I want to let them get on with it without my input, so I have small blocks of ‘spare’ time. I used to take a book along with me to read, but I did tend to get interrupted and so never really got much reading done. More recently I have started taking some knitting with me. This is an ideal way to fill time, and I can even chat and answer questions whilst doing it. I lug lots of teaching stuff around with me, so don’t really want to be carrying chunky pieces of knitting, so I usually take a sock.

Hand-knitted socks

As well as keeping me amused, the activity often elicits questions, particularly since I usually knit on four or five needles and use self-patterning sock yarn. Usually, the questions are about the complexity of the process and the reason for using so many needles, but a few weeks ago I was asked a question that rather had me stumped:

why do you knit socks when they are so cheap secondhand?

I’m rarely at a loss for words, but this one was hard for me to answer. Fortunately someone else responded with the most obvious question:

you can buy secondhand socks?

And the answer was “yes you can,” apparently very cheaply from car boot sales. As an infrequent visitor to car boot sales, I have little idea about what one can buy at them, but the few times I have visited such an event my perception (at least here in west Wales) is that the stalls are dominated by books, old videos, bric-a-brac and plants. My friend Anja obtained all the crockery and cutlery for her wedding reception from car boot sales, but I have never thought of them for clothes shopping. The group discussed the subject and, it turned out, that in the local area (which is very rural) no one had encountered a significant market in secondhand socks, but if you visit the big car boot sales around major cities in the UK, they are full of very cheap, hardly worn clothes, including socks. Perhaps this reflects the relative affluence of cities compared to the countryside; perhaps it reflects attitudes. Are  country-dwellers less likely to consider their purchases disposable, or simply too poor to just discard clothes when they no longer appeal?

I suppose that I shouldn’t be surprised that clothes are not always bought to last – the prevalence of retailers on the high street selling cheap items, often produced in sweatshops should be an indicator that these are disposable goods. If you have to save up for an item, you are surely more likely to value it than something that you buy on a whim for just a few pounds. In addition, the perception is that it’s ok to get bored with a cheap item, because you can throw it away and get a new version. I suppose, however, that the fact that clothes are being sold on is a good sign to some extent… if even socks can find a second home, then there must be hope for all sorts of other items.

Self-patterning socks

But wouldn’t it be better if we valued the items that we do own. Considering that 20% of the world’s population use 80% of the world’s resources, perhaps a small step to redressing this balance would be to cut back on using any more stuff. And, in fact, knitting socks may lead me to do this. First, most sock wool is guaranteed for 10 years – so the product that I am making should last me a good deal longer than most socks that I could go and buy from the shops. But second, because I will have spent time in the act of creating these socks and because they are unique, I think that I will value them more – perhaps taking time to mend them should they become damaged, rather than simply discarding them.

We often hear the phrase “reduce, reuse, recycle”, and buying second hand delivers the second of these, but if we could all do a bit more of the first we could make an enormous difference.

Leave a comment


  1. You really hit the nail on the head with this column. Our throwaway society is so wasteful, and valuing, and caring for, what we have would be a good first step to cut down on garbage.


  2. I hate that most things are considered disposable these days. Maybe the difference you suggested between city and country dwellers isn’t only about finances, perhaps city people are less likely to have that dual wardrobe, ‘good clothes’ and the ‘old clothes’ for working outside where previously good clothes go to die.

    I am interested in what drove that student to ask the original question. Surely they realized that knitting socks is about the activity of knitting and not about saving money. Even brand new socks from the shop would probably be cheaper than the total cost of knitting your own.


    • I did wonder about the reason for the question – no one before has ever asked me why I knit, just about the technicalities/yarn etc. I can’t answer, but perhaps if you focus is on finances, knitting is just a frivolous activity!
      You are right though about the good clothes vs old clothes for working outdoors… many and various are the former ‘office’ clothes that I now wear in the garden!


  3. I definitely agree with you about valuing the socks that you’ve made more, versus not-valuing the inexpensive item purchased on a whim. It’s actually something that I’ve been thinking more about lately; that the things I, or someone else, has produced with their hands is something that I value more and take better care of. When I make it, I know how much time and effort went into the making of it, and the personal joy and satisfaction I got from making it. Also, when I buy items that have been handmade, knowing the face and name of the person who made it also makes it more valuable to me, so that I’m more likely to take care of it.


    • You are so right…earlier this year I went on a basket-making course. I found it really difficult and didn’t, in fact, enjoy it much, but I did come away understanding what hard work goes in to making even a quite small basket. I also discovered that they have to be handmade – no machine can do it – so I will never again buy a cheap sweatshop-made basket and I will always be grateful to the crafts people who do put in all that hard work.



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