United for healthy feet

United for healthy feet

Why are conventional socks actually cut in the shape of a trapezoid in the anterior, forcing the toes to crowd together? That’s the question that Dr. Wieland Kinz and his research team asked themselves, and the answer came courtesy of their brainchild, plus12socks: They run in a straight line along the big toe, which creates a fantastic amount of room.

And because we just love the idea of having plenty of space for our toes, the Admiral Butterfly by plus12socks has migrated to the Wildling Shoes shop to be part of the 2021 Spring/Summer collection, and has been joined by its woolly colleague, the Hawk Moth, for fall 2021. But truth be told, Wildling Shoes' history with plus12 goes back a lot farther than that. Wieland, founder of the Children’s Feet – Children’s Shoes research team, and Wildling Shoes founder Anna first met back in 2014 at an event in the Netherlands centering on children’s feet and proper measurement, which Wieland had organized together with his team. At the time, Anna and Ran were busy tweaking and tinkering with the first Wildling shoe prototype. Needless to say, the conversation inevitably turned to their mutual aspiration: How can we give (children’s) feet more space?

The story behind the anatomically shaped socks

But let’s rewind the narrative a little more and join Wieland on his quest for the sock. After all, he’s been dedicated to the cause of healthy children’s feet for a good 20 years together with the Austrian research team Children’s Feet – Children’s Shoes. The sports scientist became involved in the topic during his studies while working for a shoe company that was looking to expand its product line to include children’s shoes.

“I was asked to track down pertinent studies and data, and I found it fascinating to see how few studies there actually were, and how all of the existing studies came to the conclusion that children were wearing shoes that were too small,” he recounts. “That was my introduction to footwear – I wanted to find out why that was. After all, shoes had sizes, so why didn’t they work? I then combined sports science with medicine for my dissertation ‘Kinderfüße – Kinderschuhe’ (Children’s Feet – Children’s Shoes). On behalf of the Austrian Federal Ministry, I worked with a research team to measure the feet of 858 kindergarten children to find out how many of the kids wear shoes that fit. To do this, we developed a prototype for a measuring tool that measures a shoe’s interior length, since at the time there was no such thing. And then I just stuck with the whole shoe thing because I simply couldn’t believe that there was so much wrong with it. And from there, it wasn’t much of a stretch to start looking into socks.”

Which makes sense, since what good are well fitting shoes if your feet are stuck in confining socks?

Image: Kinderfüße – Kinderschuhe

Conventional socks don’t fit our feet

In the course of their research, Wieland and his team took X-ray images of children’s bare feet compared to their feet in comfortable socks. The pictures made it abundantly clear just how much conventional socks constrict the toes, even when they feel comfortable. The findings obtained from measuring several hundred children’s feet answered a question that yielded yet another “aha” moment: When are children’s feet bigger, with or without socks? You would think they’d be bigger with socks, given the added material. That makes the answer all the more astonishing: “A lot of us don’t want to believe this, but practically across the board, feet wearing socks are shorter and narrower than bare feet, despite the thickness of the material. This clearly indicates that even though the socks are stretchy, they’re still generally both too tight and too short. On top of being anatomically incorrect.”

When it comes to the health of children’s feet, the fact that ill-fitting socks are the norm is a real problem. And in the meantime, we’re seeing study after study proving just how damaging the impact can be for our foot health. Wearing socks that are anatomically incorrect and too short alters the position of the big toe, just the same as wearing shoes that are too short. It starts to curve towards the second toe. And that can be the precursor to what many adults know as hallux valgus, which is one of the most common foot issues.

Wildling Minimalschuhe Schwärmer
High cut and with merino wool Image: the Hawk Moth. Wildling Shoes/Sandra Chiolo

Vision: Freedom for toes – in socks, too

What can we do about it? What was needed was a sock that was perfectly straight in the big toe region and that also provided an indicator showing when it was too small. Logical as it may sound, the execution itself proved to be rather tricky.

“I’ll be honest, the sock idea is now more than 10 years old. The fact is that to this day, there is sadly still no technology anywhere in the world that would allow the asymmetrical, fit-to-the-foot sock design that we had in mind to be knitted by machine. We knocked on the door of innumerable prototype builders to share our idea, only to be met with curious befuddlement. And as a bonus, I’ve managed to build up a vast collection of interesting sock prototypes over the years,” reports Wieland wryly. Anna and Ran are also all too familiar with a lot of these stumbling blocks from their start-up phase with the Wildling Shoes vision (except that the prototypes for a minimal shoe designed for everyday wear were significantly more expensive).

If it doesn’t fit, we’ll make it fit

But their perseverance paid off; both of these innovations have ultimately been realized successfully. In 2020, the time had come. The first plus12socks entered production and it was obvious: These socks are a perfect fit for Wildling shoes. The Wildling Shoes team was involved primarily in testing the prototypes, with numerous trials of real-life wearability in terms of the material and fit. The socks also undergo laboratory testing together with Wildling shoes, measuring qualities like abrasion resistance.

But how was the problem of the non-existing production machine finally resolved? By developing a new kind of technology for a new kind of sock. “To make sure it doesn’t taper inwards in the toe region, but instead follows the natural placement of the toes, we now have our sock knitted by machine in a completely square shape,” explains Wieland. “As a second step, each sock is then sewn again individually by a tailor and rounded to match the natural shape of the foot and the particular size.”

This creates a subtle seam at the tips of the toes, which is embedded in soft plush. There’s also a red dot on the heel that lets you know when the sock has gotten too small. Once the dot moves from its proper place, it’s time for the next size up. The socks are designed for both kids and adults.

Toe freedom is a big hit

So what do the customers have to say? “The initial feedback has been very good across the board,” Wieland enthuses. “The sock is a big hit. At the same time, of course, we’re still investigating the technological options and looking into what we can do to improve and advance the product. We now have two state-of-the-art knitting machines and our own production facilities in Vorarlberg, virtually right around the corner from our office. This is extremely practical, to be sure, and we’re also proud to be able to have our production carried out entirely in Austria.”

Wildling Shoes Admiralfalter
Anatomically shaped and knitted from cotton – the Admiral Butterfly. Image: Wildling Shoes/Sandra Chiolo

Anyone wearing the socks for the first time is instantly struck by how different they feel. These socks are unlike any other. Just like the feeling of slipping into a Wildling shoe for the first time. In light of all this, it stands to reason that Anna’s projects and Wieland’s projects would cross paths again. After all, the only thing that goes well with indulgently roomy shoes are indulgently roomy socks. So now you know the story behind Admiral Butterfly and Hawk Moth. Happily united with a happy ending. And the moral of the story? Innovative ideas tend to demand an abundance of patience, tenacity, and stick-to-itiveness – and are still sometimes met with bemused reactions. But if you keep your eye on the prize, you might just be rewarded with some happy toes when all is said and done. And seriously, what could be better than happy toes?

What do you have to say about the plus12socks? Have you tried them yet? If so: What’s your impression, and what do you think of this special new feel? We welcome your feedback and reviews – after all, the foot-friendly everyday socks are very special products for us, too.


Cover image: Admiral Butterfly in action. Image: Wildling Shoes/Sandra Chiolo