Two socks enter the washer. Two socks exit the dryer.
As household tasks go, what could be simpler? A pair of socks goes from drawer to feet to dirty clothes to washer and dryer and back into the drawer.
Of course, anyone associated with a social group that faintly resembles a family knows the truth. Socks do disappear. Virtually every residence in the free world has a drawer, pile or basket of mismatched socks. Millions – no, billions – of socks drift aimlessly without mates.
“Washing machines and dryers eat socks,” says my wife of 27 years, who oversees the laundry in our seven-person family. There are other theories, of course. Sock heaven is one. A Bermuda Triangle for socks is another.
For whatever reason, our family’s mismatched-sock pile grows and grows, like an expanding cotton-blended Blob. Two or three times a year we try to match socks. Far too often, they remain alone, sentenced to the rag pile, one wipe closer to the garbage.
Today, sock sales in the U.S. are about $4.9 billion annually. Perhaps because I seem responsible for about a $1 million of those sales, I just lose it over mismatched socks. As frustration builds, I erupt, like any normal, sock-wearing person.
Once, when my daughter Allyson was playing competitive soccer, her black game sock came back from the wash inexplicably partnered with one of my black dress socks. When I put them on, the sports sock reached my knee; the dress sock climbed past my ankle. “Who in their right mind would put these two socks together?” I shouted in a rage.
My wife, returning clean clothes to drawers at the time, answered: “If you don’t like how we do socks, you can do the laundry.” By emphasizing “you” and modifying “laundry” with a word unsuitable for print, my wife revealed to me for the first time that she is truly capable of murder.
Since no matches existed for these black socks, they, too, were exiled to our pile.
“I share your pain,” says Gail Hammond-Gibson, who manages the laundry in her Long Island Freeport household of four that includes husband, Bill, daughter, Nowell, 15, and son, Julian, 13.
The family has a bag of lonely, single socks. “The problem is the bag of mismatches is larger than our supply of good socks,” she says.
Although she has no proof, she wonders if socks are made specifically to disappear, or whether there’s a conspiracy between the weavers of socks and appliance manufacturers. “It’s all about buying new socks,” she says.
Hammond-Gibson’s son seems to be the only family member who has a plan for keeping his socks together; he folds the tops of one open end into the other. “At least they get to the washing machine paired up,” mom says.
The youngster is on to something, says Audrey Reed-Granger, a marketing and public relations executive at Whirlpool, a Michigan-based manufacturer of appliances. The journey from hamper to laundry room is fraught with danger for socks.
Contrary to popular opinion, washers and dryers do not eat socks, Reed-Granger says, and she insists there is no conspiracy between the hosiery industry and the appliance manufacturers.
There are logical explanations for single-sock phenomena. First, Reed-Granger says, most socks do not make it to the washer in pairs. “Boys shoot dirty socks into hampers like they’re shooting basketballs,” she says, “so socks end up behind furniture or under the bed.”
Then she asks me if I’ve ever followed my wife as she carries a load of clothes to the washer.
I reluctantly admit that my wife often leaves behind a trail of single socks, T-shirts and unmentionables.
“The logic is based on research by Whirlpool’s Institute of Fabric Science, which studies how consumers use things like washers and dryers. The institute also claims static cling causes socks to divorce. Even when a pair gets through the washer and into the dryer, static cling can split them up. A single sock can be swallowed by a pillow case or a pant leg, which hints of textile cannibalism.
“The laundry room has been unfairly identified as a Bermuda Triangle for socks,” Reed-Granger says. “But, really, it’s not the fault of the room or the machine. It’s you.”
Well, not me. And certainly not Mary Ellen Zimmermann of Kings Park. After 20-plus years of laundry, she knows exactly why socks go single: “They escape to sock heaven.” If you were a sock, she asks, wouldn’t you be looking for greener pastures?
“Before joining Whirlpool, I had a lot of missing socks, too, and I thought I was going crazy.”
One solution is using mesh laundry bags, which keep socks together before they reach the laundry room, Reed-Granger says.
Experts like author Linda Cobb, the self-professed “Queen of Clean,” says clips and rings – sold as SockCops and SockPro and designed to link single pairs as they wash and dry – also prevent socks from disappearing. Reed-Granger prefers the mesh bags, because she says such plastic items could loosen and potentially damage the appliances.
To heck with bags and organizing clips, scoff those who launder regularly. Especially those who have large families. Bags, clips and rings are too much work. Plus, deep down, they are true believers in the household legends of sock heaven and sock-munching appliances.
Again, Reed-Granger understands. So much so that she grudgingly reveals there is a rare – an extremely rare – opportunity for a washing machine to gobble up a sock.
Under the lid of the traditional machine is a gap between the tub and the drum, Reed-Granger says. “You have to really, really overload a top-end machine, so when the cycle starts, a small item could be flipped up into that gap and be lost.”
To those who toil under mountains of grimy clothes, all the while haunted by the ghosts of single socks, it finally makes sense. “What did I tell you?” my wife says.