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Page history last edited by PBworks 16 years, 4 months ago

Socks were an important part of the 19th century base ball uniform.  Up through the mid-1880's most teams had white pants and jerseys (there were, of course, many exceptions).  The identifying colors came from stripes on the hat, a wide belt, and the socks.  The names of the Red Sox and White Sox are all the evidence which should be necessary to prove the point.


A good pair of base ball socks in the 1880's were woolen.  You could buy cotton base ball socks in period catalogs and guides, but we prefer the look of wool, and you should too. For example, below on the left, Rick has been conned into modeling a modern Columbia blue (polyester, I think) sock.  On the right, we're wearing our wool.



Years of exhaustive research and experimentation has only turned up one wool sock suitable for vintage base ball.  The primary problem is finding a long enough sock; it should to be long enough to go at least up to the knee of a big 6' plus ball player.  You're really looking for an over-the-knee length sock.  We get ours from Hamilton Dry Goods, which makes them for all kinds of re-enactors, "Renaissance, early American, Eastern longhunter, as well as fur trade and civil war."  Specifically we get the "Wool Socks" which are listed at $8 a pair and $20 for 3 pairs, which is actually competitive with a good pair of modern baseball socks, oddly enough.  We have ordered both the versions with and without feet.  Our footed socks seemed bigger and longer, but the web site says the opposite is true, so your milage may vary. 


Unfortunately, these socks do not arrive ready for use.  First off, they are only available in off-white/natural.  They are stretchy and very long, almost thigh high on my admittedly short legs, don't seem very thick, and the wool seems to have an authentic amount of lanolin (sheep oil) residue.  Basically, what you need to do at this point is abuse the wool a bit to make it shrink and felt up a bit and get rid of the lanolin.  Luckily abusing wool is easy and fits in nicely with the dying process.


Regarding dye.  The last Gray to take on our sock management duties, Justin "Monkey" Munroe, tried the super-hardcore approach.  That is, dying the socks with authentic period dye, specifically indigo.  After assembling all the equipment and noxious chemicals needed for the dying process, the results were unusable because he hadn't taken into account the lanolin residue, which resisted the dye (see the results below).  Properly stripping the lanolin would have required an additional set of noxious chemicals, and by this point Monkey had left the team over non-sock related issues, and we still needed socks.



We subsequently found that good old RIT dye works reasonably well, even without doing whatever you're theoretically supposed to do to strip the lanolin.  People who know something about textiles will probably tell you something better to use than RIT.  As far as I can tell, the biggest issue with RIT is that a package of RIT contains two separate dyes, one for cotton and one for wool, so you're generally wasting half your dye.  This belt and suspenders approach offends the sensibilities of people who actually know what they are doing, but given the fact that doing the right thing is probably way more complicated than these already somewhat lengthy instructions which follow, and that it is very convenient to use a dye which you can probably buy in a local craft shop, and having pre-matched cotton and wool dyes is handy, if I were you I'd just stick with RIT.


On the other hand, we're kind of inherently cutting corners by using the RIT, so you really do need to follow the instructions and use the RIT correctly.  In particular:

  • weigh your fabric;
  • use the stovetop method;
  • if in doubt; double the dye.

 I'm not going to recapitulate the instructions on the box, but here are a few pointers.  Buy a big, cheap stockpot (the biggest one you can find) and have some disposable plastic cups handy.  The more of this you can do without using cooking utensils, the better.  Before dying them, I wash the socks in Tide on the longest cycle in my washing machine.  I can't remember which temperature I used, but bear in mind that the next step in the process is essentially boiling the socks, so we're digressing from your standard care instructions for wool.  At this point we're hoping to get more of the lanolin out.


As you can see below, one pair of socks weighs four ounces, so you can do four pair of socks with one packet of dye at regular strength.  In most cases, you're going to want to use double the dye as is semi-recommended on the box.  You want to go for the most saturated color you can get, because these will fade.  Pictured below is a pair of our socks after one season.



Historically, the Grays had medium to light blue socks.  There is some variation in the descriptions of the color, but it seems clear that we should avoid navy or royal blue.  There were lots of teams called the Blues, but the Grays weren't one of them.  Dying these already off-white socks light blue is tricky because it doesn't take much fading for them to become gray and then we look like a bunch of prisoners instead of a ball team.  Thus in these pictures I'm re-dying the socks after the first season.  They don't look too bad right now, but they'd look terrible by the middle of next season.  In the process of experimenting with colors, I did end up with some royal blue and kelly green socks, and they look great, very saturated, and I'd think more fade resistent or at least fade tolerant than light blue.  If you're worried about fading, I'd encourage you to order three or four pair of socks, dye them your team color and try them for a year and see how your color holds up.  We use RIT "evening blue."  You can mix colors, but I'd really try to avoid that since there are enough variables already.



I bring the pot of dye to a simmer and keep the heat on while stirring the socks for 20 to 30 minutes.  You have to remember that they look significantly darker when they're in the pot than they will after they've been rinsed, washed and dried, so try not to judge their done-ness by eye and take them out too early.  Then rinse them out in cold water in the sink and throw them in a long cold wash cycle or two and hang them to dry. 



When done they'll seem less like weird, stretchy, oily hose and more like normal wool socks.  From here on out treat them like semi-delicate wool socks.  Wash them in cold, hang them to dry.  You don't want them to shrink any more.  In the picture above, the socks in the upper right are the "before" faded one year old socks.  The socks that have been re-dyed came out a shade darker than the first time, which is probably a good thing as they'll register more strongly as blue from a distance.  Hopefully they'll hold the color better as well, and I won't have to do this again next year, but if I do, it isn't a big deal.  Once you get the routine down it is easy and oddly soothing and a great reminder that base ball season is on the way!

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