NEW YORK CITY — Another winter, another struggle to keep your feet warm.
But before you impulse-buy a pair of high-tech arctic thermo boots, listen up: A growing number of companies are harnessing nature's most insulating fibers, often from animals native to frigid winters.
Forget Merino and cashmere. Here's where to buy a pair of made-in-America socks that are warmer, lighter, less irritating and more durable than wool.
Alpacas are native to the South American Andes, so their fleece is designed to handle extremely cold climes. Alpaca hair is great for sensitive skin because it's hypoallergenic and feels soft and silky like cashmere or mohair — only it's much lighter, stronger and better at wicking moisture away from the skin. Like sheep, alpacas are usually shorn annually, and then the fleece is graded by color and fineness. Domestic alpaca fiber production is relatively small compared to countries like Peru, so many sock companies import the fleece and do their manufacturing stateside.
Where to buy:
This Portland-based family company makes everything from stylish work socks to heavy-duty ski socks, which will set you back between $17 and $39. The socks use a blend of imported alpaca (30 percent) and Merino wool in the zones that need the most insulation and absorption, and synthetic fibers in the areas where moisture can be wicked away from the foot to evaporate into the air.
Warrior Alpaca Socks
Warrior has a huge range for adults and kids, including therapeutic socks for diabetics, yoga socks with extra grip and super cozy slipper socks with leather soles. Although they have some butter-soft 100 percent alpaca styles, most blend the Peruvian fiber with acrylic, lycra, spandex or cotton to make them more durable and functional. Basic socks start at $12.75 and go all the way up to $69.99.
The Alpaca Fiber Cooperative of North America has around 2,000 members who send in fleece to be turned into yarn, blankets and apparel under the America's Alpaca brand. The popular "Extreme" sock line is out of stock for the time being, however you can still purchase black or brown dress socks for $20. The yarn contains 54 percent alpaca fiber from right here in the U.S.A.
At the end of the 19th century, the American bison or buffalo had been hunted to the brink of extinction. But the continent's largest land mammal has returned to healthy population numbers, and ranchers now breed them for their meat, leather and down. Once slaughtered, the animal's winter undercoat is harvested for down; the process is labor intensive, so be prepared to pay a premium for the luxurious results. The fiber is lightweight, durable (read: machine washable) and hypoallergenic; it also insulates and wicks moisture better than wool, which means warm, dry feet all winter.
Where to buy:
United by Blue
The eco-conscious, Philadelphia-based company just funded its latest product, the Ultimate American Sock, on Kickstarter, where you have until Dec. 18 to pre-order a pair for $25 (after the campaign ends they'll retail for $38). The single design comes in three different colors, and is made from 24 percent bison down blended with Merino wool, nylon and spandex.
The Miskin family has been raising bison for decades, and the Texas ranch produces all manner of bison-down products including blankets, gloves, scarves and hats. Buffalo Gold sells six different socks from sports styles to sleepwear, which cost between $35 and $55. They use two custom yarn blends which are minimum 40 percent bison; the other materials include silk and yak down, which both combine well with the fiber.
Lester's Bison Farm
This Wisconsin farm also blends its undyed bison fiber with silk or yak down, which is similar to bison but more readily available. All four of their styles are at least 28 percent bison fiber and cost $45; their other products include accessories like gloves and hats, rugs and blankets, and even bison meat.
The musk ox lives in the frigid Arctic, and its fur is multiple times warmer than wool or even alpaca. It's a protected species in Alaska, and like bison, the American musk ox was once dangerously close to extinction. Fiber made from the musk ox's undercoat is known as quiveut, or quiviut, and is extremely light and fine. It's also very rare, since it's usually harvested by hand-combing the animals or collecting fibers from the ground after they've naturally been shed.
Where to buy:
At her studio in Alaska, artist Margaret Rye weaves and knits custom quiveut blankets, shawls and accessories — including slipper socks you won't want to take off all winter. Each order is knitted by hand (allow 4 weeks) or on a machine (allow 2 weeks) using 40 percent quiveut blended with Merino wool or silk for elasticity. Since these are handmade socks made from hand-harvested fibers, they don't come cheap: women's sizes range from $195-$225 and men's are $210-$240. If you're handy with a pair of needles, you can buy a skein of sock yarn instead for $75.