Visit to Iwaki Sock Lab and Factory (Part 1)

We went undercover to a sock factory in Iwaki City, Fukushima Prefecture, where "ide homme" socks, which will go on sale in June, are made. There, we found a world of socks that can only be made with precious craftsmanship and old-fashioned machines.

On a certain day in April, we were given a special opportunity to visit a sock factory in Iwaki City, Fukushima Prefecture, where "ide homme" socks, a brand we have recently fallen in love with, are made. Through a certain chance, I was allowed to wear socks made of "GIZA45," an Egyptian super-long-staple cotton, which is now said to be a phantom material since its cultivation has been discontinued.

I heard that there is a craftsman who spins the last remaining rare raw cotton at a factory in Iwaki City, and that he is one of the few people in Japan who can handle ultra-fine yarns. I was eager to see the factory with my own eyes after hearing such an interesting story, so I made a special request for a tour of the factory. Since this was a rare opportunity, I will report on it in two parts!

What is "Iwaki Sock Lab and Factory"?

In December 2022, the "Renown Inx" Iwaki factory, which had one of the best technologies in Japan, closed its 50-year history due to the company's business transition. And "West", a sock manufacturer that has been engaged in sock production for over 100 years but closed its own factory 20 years ago. These two companies joined forces to create "Iwaki Sock Lab and Factory" in January 2023.

The name "Labo and Factory" reflects the desire to make this a place of co-creation where new manufacturing challenges are taken on, rather than just a factory for production. The company owns a double-cylinder high-gauge machine, which has become rare in Japan, and is also making efforts to train craftsmen and pass on skills that are dwindling in number.

First, he showed us the stockroom where the yarn used to make the socks is stored. There are cotton and nylon yarns of various colors collected from all over the world. There are many different colors and thicknesses of yarn, and they choose the yarn according to the kind of socks they want to make.

When I thought about it, I realized that socks are not made by sewing fabric into socks, but by knitting yarn on a knitting machine. When you think about it, a sock factory is like a knitting factory.

Among the stock, I found "GIZA45," a fantastic material that I was looking for this time!

Egyptian extra-long staple cotton, which is now no longer cultivated and is said to be a phantom material. Of course, this was the first time for me to see it in yarn form, but I was surprised to see yarn so fine that I thought it was thinner than my hair. I was also shown other cotton yarns, but they are in a completely different dimension. It is because they are knitted with this ultra-fine yarn that they are so comfortable to wear. After showing us the yarns imported from all over the world, we were taken into the center where the knitting machines are actually gathered.

The first thing that catches the eye upon entering is an old-fashioned silver machine with an atmosphere of THE KIKAI, which is sure to make any man's heart skip a beat. This is a high-gauge double cylinder knitting machine that uses 200 and 240 needles to knit GIZA45, a cotton yarn spun as fine as hair, into a silky, high quality, shiny fabric. The technology used by the craftsmen to adjust the knit stitching in 1/100th of a millimeter increments is an old-fashioned machine with a human touch that is quite human in nature, creating a firm fit and a sleek silhouette for the foot.

What was particularly impressive was that the machine was in the process of being taken apart and overhauled. He told us that to become a full-fledged craftsman, one must be able to overhaul a machine by oneself. I was impressed that the craftsmen were overhauling the machines by themselves, while I thought they were leaving it to the maintenance staff or repairers. It seems that every overhaul changes the feel of the machine, and the fine-tuning of the machine is the essence of craftsmanship.

In the next lane, we went to a zone where the latest Italian-made knitting machines were lined up in rows. This machine was much more automated than the old one, knitting yarn on the spot and completing a pair of socks in about 5 minutes. The machine was mainly used to make casual mass-produced socks.

This view of the two rows of knitting machines, which could be called a flower path. I can't get enough of it.

And then I saw a female craftsman working on a difficult-looking process. It seems to be a special machine that inserts a needle into each stitch of the weave and sews it all up at once.

He asked me, "Would you like to try it, Mr. Hasegawa?

I am proud of my dexterity, so I tried it with full confidence and found it very difficult. After repeatedly inserting and removing the needle, I thought it was perfect, and here is a picture of the finished product.

Not good at all!

How much work is involved in the sewing process to make a product that requires 100%, no-mess, setting and sewing of every single stitch? That's why the seams are not uneven and the joints don't hit the toes, making them comfortable to wear. These socks are made with such a large amount of threads, machines, and craftsmanship. I am beginning to worry that the price is too low. If this situation continues, high-quality socks will disappear from the world.

I think that people don't spend much money on socks because they are considered consumable goods, but if you think about it, it is like wearing both sleeves of a high-end sweater. The Iwaki Sock Lab and Factory is amazing!

In the next part, we will finally see how the finished socks are shipped. In the second part of the series, we will introduce the finished socks and what kind of socks we have lined up!