Technical Skill & Creative Ideas Supporting Domestic Sock Manufacturing from "SOUKI"
Technical Skill & Creative Ideas Supporting Domestic Sock Manufacturing from "SOUKI"
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Nara Prefecture is famous as "Japan's No. 1 Sock Producer." In this region, there is a company that has been involved in sock manufacturing for nearly 100 years: Souki Inc.
This company utilizes its old machines while also taking on the challenge of offering a unique experience that only they can provide: "making socks by pedaling a bicycle."
This time, we spoke with Kohei Debari, the company's president, about the company's history, the characteristics of the socks they manufacture, and their branded products.
Kohei Debari
Kohei Debari

Born in 1979. After 10 years of experience as a salesman, he joined the family business in 2010 as an intern. In December 2014, he became the CEO of "Souki Inc.". In 2015, he launched his own factory brand "Re Loop" and subsequently released the brands "SOUKI SOCKS" and "aiamu." He expanded his products to department stores and general stores, starting with Nakagawa Masashichi Shoten. In 2016, he started the "Charicks" service, which allows customers to experience sock-making by pedaling a bicycle. This unique workshop experience using vintage knitting machines has been featured by domestic and international media. In 2021, he opened "S.Labo-エスラボ-," a socks enjoyment lab that includes an in-house brand shop (deau), a workshop space related to socks (manabu), and a Charicks experience area (asobu) within the premises of their factory. They welcome visitors from all over Japan. He is committed to the sock industry and the revitalization of Koryo Town on a daily basis.

Durable and Breathable Low-Gauge Socks

Tell us about your company's history.
Our company was founded by my great-grandfather in 1927. We are soon approaching our 100th anniversary. However, we only incorporated in 2014, so that part is fairly recent. I became the president at the time of incorporation, and since then, our business has been steadily on track.

This area is known for its cotton production, and until the Edo period (1603-1868), industries like Yamato Momen and Yamato Kasuri were flourishing.

However, entering the Meiji era (1868-1912), cheaper imports started coming in from abroad, leading to the decline of those industries. In turn, the sock industry took root here.

My great-grandfather learned how to make socks somewhere while also working as a farmer. He started making socks in the barn as a side job. At that time, it was rare in Japan to use machines to make socks, but my great-grandfather was already using machines back then.

Nara is also famous as a sock-producing region. How many sock manufacturing companies are there in Koryo Town?
At its peak in the 1990s, Koryo Town, with a population of about 33,000, had around 200-300 sock factories. Now, that number has dwindled to about one-tenth, roughly 30 factories.

It is often called "the top sock town in Japan," but most of the socks distributed in Japan are made in China. Domestic production accounts for about 10%, and about 60% of that is manufactured in Nara Prefecture.

So most socks are made abroad. Are there differences in the socks produced by different companies?
Originally, sock manufacturing followed a division of labor system, producing items categorized into casual, ladies', men's, and business, each using different machines and materials.

However, circumstances have changed, and companies that initially produced tights have started making socks, and companies that specialized in sports socks are now handling casual ones as well. Although each company has areas they excel in, the distinctions are becoming increasingly blurred.
Please tell us about the socks your company manufactures.
Our company specializes in low-gauge socks. Low-gauge socks are characterized by their thick yarn and loose knitting pattern.

In the sock industry, gauge, which refers to the number of stitches in a given dimension in knitting, is not used. Since socks are tube-knitted, the number of needles per round, or "needle count," is used instead. The more needles, the higher the gauge; the fewer the needles, the lower the gauge.

Due to ease of production, the most commonly distributed socks are of medium gauge. Medium gauge needle counts are roughly between 130 to 160 needles per round.

How does the needle count affect the finished socks?
It affects breathability. Many people opt for thinner socks in the summer, but high-gauge socks have finer stitches and are more airtight, which reduces breathability.

In other words, thicker low-gauge socks are less likely to cause stuffiness. While the type of fiber also matters, loosely knit fabrics generally offer better breathability.

After joining the family business and starting to wear low-gauge socks, I found myself unconsciously wearing them every day. They are less stuffy in summer and warmer in winter. The thickness also makes them more durable, preventing holes. I realized that low-gauge socks are truly excellent products.

Does the difficulty of manufacturing change depending on the needle count?
Low-gauge socks are challenging to produce, but the difficulty doesn't vary significantly. However, the prevalence of medium and high-gauge socks is often due to differences in cost and production efficiency.

Using thick yarn in low gauge knitting results in a heavier product, while creating something lighter with thin yarn keeps costs down. Even when using the same yarn, the stitch count can change the retail price.

Additionally, the needles used in low gauge knitting are thick and made of iron, so they rarely break. If operated at high speed, the machine will chip or malfunction before the needles break.

Since the machinery must be operated slowly, if a factory using high-speed machines can produce 220 pairs of socks a day, in low gauge knitting, it can produce only about half that amount.

That said, the thick needles allow for both threading many thin yarns and using a single thick yarn. This means that socks can be crafted with original yarn by mixing different materials and textures.

While the market mostly uses high-speed machines, our company, being small, aims to tackle more niche challenges.
Is the twisting of the thread done by your company?
Yes, it is done in-house. We use a specialized apparatus, but the manufacturer of this machine no longer exists.

Mixing different threads can easily result in a striped pattern, so we use our company's added technology to knit and create a beautiful marled effect.

As long as the thread is thick enough for the machine, there are no specific material restrictions for combining threads. Each machine has a suitable yarn count (thread thickness), so we consider these points in-house when combining threads.

Does the appearance of the fabric change depending on the thread?
Socks have a certain limit to the thickness of the thread that can be used, so it's difficult to show much texture. Instead, patterns can be displayed.

The thinner the thread, the higher the technology required and costs are also higher. In the past, thinner threads were less common, so there were more low-gauge socks.

You mentioned that there is a suitable yarn count for each machine. How different is the thickness of the thread between high-gauge and low-gauge?
The yarn count used for high-gauge is typically a single strand of "30/1 (Sanmaru-tan)." For mid-gauge, it's usually two strands, and for general low-gauge, about 8 to 10 strands.

At our company, we use threads that are double the thickness as our mainstay, so we make low-gauge socks with threads that are approximately 20 times thicker than what's used for high-gauge.

It also depends on the characteristics of the fibers, but in general, the thicker the yarn, the more durable it is, so our low-gauge socks can be used for a long time.

How are socks made?
Socks need to be stretchy, so they are composed of both back and front yarns. The front yarn typically uses natural fibers like cotton or silk, while the back yarn uses stretchy fibers like polyurethane. These are knitted together using a method called "plating." Finally, the finished socks are set in molds, shaped, and pressed with steam to fix their form.

The back yarn usually has a predetermined thickness and does not come in many varieties. In contrast, there are many types of front yarns.
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