Sock It to Me!

A demonstration of an antique sock machine at the Brandon Library


BRANDON—Who would ever have thought that watching a sock being made would be exciting, enthralling, even jaw dropping? Not me, certainly. Yet, that is exactly what happened last Saturday afternoon at the Brandon Free Public Library when Bonny Dutton of Fleece on Earth in North Chittenden demonstrated the art on her over 100-year-old sock-making machine. The jaws of her rapt audience repeatedly dropped as Dutton explained how this incredible, complicated, yet ultimately simple machine worked. 

BONNY DUTTON OF North Chittenden shows off some of the socks she’s made with her antique sock machine, which she demonstrated this past weekend at the Brandon Library. The machine can make in a few hours what it would take days to make by hand.

Mounted on a small table, her cast-iron machine built in 1921 is essentially a vertical cylinder with a hand crank, though you have to see it to appreciate the intricate details. Attaching one strand of her special sock yarn to a pre-made waste piece hanging below, she began cranking a specific number of rounds to start the sock, while 60 vertical latch needles ensured that the fiber was knitted to create the tubular top of the sock. The yarn she uses is a combination of dyed wool and polyamide, a man-made fiber that makes her products machine washable. The onlookers were captivated as a beautiful knitted web eventually grew out of the bottom of the contraption, pulled down by a two-pound weight. Audience members each got a chance to “get cranky” and take a turn cranking the handle to get a feel for how this works. 

As Ms. Dutton approached the heel of the sock, the real magic happened. In a process that included moving half of the needles out of commission, she knitted back and forth on the remaining half, forming a perfect heel wedge, again using a specific number of turns. One-hundred years ago, a sock maker would have to count all the rotations of every step, and heaven help them, she explained, if their child interrupted the process and they lost count: they would have to pull out the yarn and start all over!  Dutton has brought modernity into the process by adding a digital counting device to the contraption, resulting in perfect counts every time.

Continuing to the toe, Bonny introduced us to some fascinating history related to the process. In World War I, there was a major problem with the health of soldiers’ feet. Standing long hours in wet and filthy ditches, “trench foot” became a major health issue for soldiers, and gangrene and even foot amputations were not uncommon. The British War Ministry asked British citizens (mostly women) to make 300,000 pairs of socks for their troops, and they obliged, using their trusty sock machines. But there was a caveat: the socks could have no obvious or prominent seams, especially at the toe, because that would cause abrasions and sores that would result in more foot trouble. 

A CLOSE-UP VIEW of the antique sock machine demonstrated last weekend at the Brandon Library by Bonny Dutton. The intricate, diabolically clever mechanism initially required careful counting in order to ensure the proper number of turns. A digital device now keeps track.

A certain Lord Horatio Herbert Kitchener, an imposing-looking man with a prominent handlebar mustache, insisted that the toe  be closed up with a stitch that is invisible and leaves no seams to rub on the foot. Although he did not offer how to accomplish this feat (apparently the stitch was created by one or more of the women) his orders were followed, and to this day it is still employed and is called the “Kitchener stitch.” It is done by hand with a needle and yarn after the sock is removed from the machine, and Dutton demonstrated it for us; I still don’t understand how it works. And I won’t even attempt to describe how she makes ridiculously cute sock rabbits using both this machine and extensive hand stitching. 

After going to a 3-day “sock school” and then practicing for over a month to master the art, it now takes Bonny Dutton about one hour to knit a pair of socks. If done manually, it would take many, many more hours, certainly over a period of days, to produce the pair. She creates gorgeous products of bright colors from digitally dyed self-striping yarns that result in extraordinarily crisp and brilliant patterns. Different-sized socks are made using interchangeable cylinders on the machine, which, by the way, is very expensive, as you might imagine for a fully working antique. 

Surprisingly, this contraption is still in widespread use today, and local clubs occur all over the map. Aficionados periodically gather into “crank-ins” and collectively sit and produce socks in a communal manner, sharing techniques and stories along the way. Bonny originally attended a “crank-in” in Maine, which helped get her into the swing of things. 

This is only the latest in a long line of fiber-making that the uber-talented Dutton uses. She weaves, spins, knits, crochets, sews, teaches, and more. All her sweaters, heirloom hand-woven scarves, items for the home, children’s clothing, and of course socks are available for purchase through her business, “Fleece on Earth” at Feather & Flora Farm in North Chittenden or online at  

I had never put much thought into socks, the truth be told, but Saturday afternoon changed all that. I will never again take the sock for granted. And next time you hear of a sock-machine demonstration don’t hesitate to attend, as you won’t be disappointed. Plus…warm, wooly socks to go! 

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