When it comes to socks we must learn to think beyond black and blue boring Christmas presents from unimaginative relations, or worse – wacky novelty pairs; a good pair of socks are an investment and an essential part of one’s outfit. Socks, however, are all-too-often the last part of one’s attire to be considered as they are often relegated to ‘underwear’, but in fact they are often more visible than we realise, and rather than a cheap ultimately faded black/grey baggy sock which exposes your calf all too easily, a good sock can be used as a statement piece and splash of colour to complement and complete a look.
And this is exactly what Pantherella socks are about – a pair of Pantherellas will last, as unlike many of its High Street equivalents, they have not been made to be disposable, but both functional as well as aesthetic. Discerning Pantherella sock devotees – they supply Harrods, Selfridges, Barney’s New York by the way – want socks that look and feel good and Pantherella, a family-run company, are proud to be one of only a few remaining sock-makers in Britain, but the only one at their quality level, producing beautiful, comfortable and durable socks. Since the late 1930s the Leicester-based factory, in the hosiery heartland of Britain, has been consummately creating the highest quality gentleman’s socks, by highly skilled craftsmen & women from the highest quality materials chosen for its specific properties; cashmere for softness & warmth; fine cottons (Egyptian & West Indian Sea Island Cotton) for coolness & refreshment by wicking moisture away; merino wools (including the extremely high-end Escorial) for both lightness and warmth.
Pantherella socks are all about look, comfort and performance, as due to the highest possible quality control, they keep their colour, texture and shape. The result is literally seamless, as special hand-crafted hand-linked toes mean you never have to experience the discomfort of cheap and cheerful knobbly seams etching into your toes again! Traditional machines, experienced craftsmen coupled with modern advancement and a steady eye on contemporary design has meant that 5th generation Justin Hall, the passionate and committed CEO and owner, has taken an iconic British company into the 21st Century whilst staying true to its roots of ultimate quality that cannot be rushed. A year-long in the making, each bi-annual seasonal collection builds upon a growing brand presence, moving the discerning sock-wearer away from ‘safe-but-staid’ blacks, greys and navies to colourful, yet still classic, statement socks, including a recently launched range for the ladies too.
Here Justin Hall allows us to gain a rare understanding of how the proudly British name Pantherella are continuing to increase its global brand presence as an affordable luxury that you can wear a pair of every day!
Firstly, for those readers who aren’t familiar with Pantherella, please can you explain what you do?
Pantherella is a renowned English sock maker, established in 1937, making classically-crafted socks using the world finest yarns selling to discerning customers. We have an exclusive offering, and produce the largest collection of new socks each year at the premium end of the market.
What are the qualities of Pantherella socks that make them so special?
We focus on exceptionally high quality socks, combining the world’s best raw materials with classic English designs and a steadfast attention to detail throughout production at our Leicester-based factory.
The real benefits of our socks, although expensive, are that the customer gets exceptionally good value. You can get a lot cheaper socks which look good at the point of sale, but it’s after the fifth or sixth wash that you notice how different these socks are in comparison to a Pantherella sock; our socks have far less pilling, the colours are more vibrant, and their durability means they will last longer. Ultimately there’s nothing worse than a poor, tired pair of socks to bring down the look of a nice suit or jacket and trousers combination.
As Pantherella are the manufacturer and the brand, and not an external brand that sub-contracts work out to Turkey or China, we can ensure incredibly high levels of quality of control, checking for colour continuity, sizing, mis-patterning, dropped stitches etc, and any that aren’t right get pulled out and discarded immediately, resulting in very low quality issues with retailers or customers.
We also use the highest quality materials, as ultimately a luxury sock is all down to the raw materials and the fibres that you start with. We use cashmere, Cotton Lisle, which is a long staple Egyptian cotton, genuine West Indian Sea Island Cotton – we use WISICA, which is the genuine version, whereas others use “Sea Island Quality” which is not the real deal – and this is a pretty exclusive fibre for us to use in socks. We are also the only sock maker to use Escorial wool, which is a type of merino wool derived from Mahgreb sheep that were taken down to Australia and New Zealand in the 19th Century, where a limited number of flocks still live. It’s an incredibly light and airy woollen product popular in suiting, and we’ve worked closely with Escorial Group to develop the right yarn for sock making with specific performance requirements, and it’s made exclusively for Pantherella.
Pantherella has traditionally been associated with the production of socks for men. Is that still true today?
Historically the Pantherella brand has been globally synonymous with exceptional men’s hosiery but in the last few years, we have become a destination for women’s products also. In fact Pantherella’s original founder, Louis Goldschmidt, originally established the company as a women’s sock company, and only then went into men’s socks after a few years, which eventually became the mainstay of the business. The size of the women’s sock market isn’t as large as men’s, with many women preferring to wear stockings and tights, and as we only focus on socks this is reflected in the range we put together, but the ladies range is growing. Our women’s cashmere socks are highly sought after along with our recently launched patterned collection such as our iconic Herringbone styles.
Can you make a fashion statement through wearing socks?
Socks can easily complement a look and give it the final detail to show good taste and refinement. Equally poorly chosen and tired socks can undo a look just as quickly. Socks are as important as every other article in a wardrobe for men and for women and are overlooked at your peril.
Sock production has changed radically over the past century. How important is embracing the use of new technologies for Pantherella, whether that is in production or design?
Getting the balance between old and new is essential to Pantherella. We still produce all of our products in the same factory as 75 years ago in Leicester. We also still use some of our specially designed Bentley Komet Knitting machines, which were produced exclusively to Louis Goldschmidt in 1937. But what makes Pantherella unique is that we blend the old with the new across manufacturing and design. As a business, Pantherella has invested heavily in new machinery so that we can keep the standards high. Design is also an important part of the process….offering seasonal collections inspired by key trade events such as Pitti Filati in Italy.
By way of insight into your work, could you briefly guide us through the production process for how you make a pair of socks?
We produce two seasonal collections each year, each with over forty different styles of patterned socks. Our design ideas are inspired by Pitti Filati yarn show, where various themes covering colours, textures and knit patterns come forward for the new season, as well as listening to our customers around the world for trends, including our agents in the USA and Hong Kong, and distributors in Japan and Australia. We also visit shops in Italy, New York and London to see what’s strong there.
Socks are no longer just blacks and navy blues, as in previous years, and there has been a migration to more patterned and colourful socks; people want to tie-in their socks with the colours of their seasonal wardrobe. A lot of hard work goes on in the factory by our design team to interpret this information before production can even commence, and we typically start designing six months ahead of the launch of a new seasonal collection.
With regards to production of the socks, in brief there are about eight main steps that cover sock making but within each there can be many, many intricate individual processes or checks. The design and sampling process is normally about 12 months ahead of the socks arriving in shops and is a detailed process in itself. Once we have a new designs ready for production then a mechanic will set up one of the 10 different types of knitting machines depending on the patterning and yarn count.
The first sock is checked and approved by our quality department before the knitters monitor the full production. The socks then progress into the linking department to close the toes and get turned before moving into the wet room. Depending on the type of sock they will undergo a different cycle that effectively relaxes the fibres and adds some moisture before they are steam boarded according to size.
They then pass into the examination department to undergo a number of checks before moving forward into the hands of the packaging department to apply branding, bands and rider tickets. Finally they are picked and shipped mainly around the globe as up to 70% of the socks are exported.
Eighty years ago, there were over 200 hosiery manufacturers and 30,000 people employed in the industry in Leicester alone. How important is maintaining full production of your socks in England, and specifically Leicester, to you and your brand, and do you feel people today really care about the provenance of a product?
We believe that our customers care even more than ever that our product is still produced in England and this is the back bone of our brand, and we’re proud of the fact we have 85 employees based in our factory in Leicester.
Due to globalisation – a huge amount of hosiery factories either shut or relocated but Pantherella has always had a strong global customer which has given the brand longevity.
Pantherella acquired another prestigious Leicester-based sock manufacturer, Scott Nichol, in 2007. Can you explain the reasoning behind this, and how it complements the Pantherella brand?
Pantherella is primarily a fine gauge product therefore acquiring another brand which holds all of the same USP’s as Pantherella, such as quality and standards, but for a more outdoors or leisure customer, was imperative to the growth of our umbrella company. We now appeal to a broader base than before.
Pantherella is a distinctive name; the only reference I can link the name to is a type of Spanish moth, but I’m sure that can’t be the origin of the name! Can you explain how the name came about?
Unfortunately, only Louis Goldschmidt knows the real truth about the name Pantherella but we believe that it stands for Strength, Dynamic and always striving to be the best.
How important is the quality of your materials in creating your socks, and how do the qualities of different fabrics – such as cashmere, Escorial and West Indian Sea Island Cotton – compare in terms of longevity and comfort?
The reason why Pantherella only uses the best fibres and yarns is because they deliver the ultimate in finish, comfort and performance. Socks are fashion accessories but a Pantherella sock needs to deliver on quality and performance as well…therefore only using the best yarns available can guarantee that we can deliver the best to our customers.
For instance, our Cotton Lisle is mercerised, which changes the cross-section shape of the yarn strand resulting in a stronger yarn, a brighter yarn – as more light is reflected, and the wicking properties of the yarn are improved as well. With normal, soft combed unmercerised cotton, it will feel incredibly soft and smooth when new, but if you hold it up to the light you will see little hairs on the surface, and it is these that start the pilling fairly quickly and give the impression of losing colour. Each of our fibres have different qualities and I could write pages on each of them but the only real measure is to try them.
Comparisons between the different fabrics, and which socks work best, is very subjective and down to the personal preference of the customer. Cashmere produces a comfy, warm sock, ideal for wearing overnight or walking around the home, but its fibres are too delicate for walking so will never make walking socks. Whereas Escorial is a type of merino wool with a very high level of crimp, with lots of air and loft, with a fine micron, making the socks feel light and airy and very comfortable when walking. West Indian Sea Island Cotton is a long staple cotton with a high percentage of uniformity, which allows the fibre to be spun into a supremely soft yarn, which is strong, with a silky handle.
I personally wear wool in the winter and cotton in the summer, which is probably what most people will do, but not everyone follows these rules and some people still wear a fine gauge wool in the summer due to its good wicking properties. One sock to try this summer is the new Hamada or Savannah sock in a cotton and linen blend; it is a light and fresh new fibre ideal for the warmer months.
With such an array of socks available, do you have any general advice for someone considering making a purchase, such as choice of material, length of sock and colour, depending on purpose?
Socks are still quite personal so there aren’t really any rigid rules to follow as such, but there are some general considerations. The best starting point is probably by fibre with Cotton Lisle being the most popular choice for summer. It is an extra long staple Egyptian cotton that is combed gassed and mercerised giving it superior strength, colour brilliance, pill resistance and wicking properties. There is then an extensive range of options in classic and more contemporary styles and if you have never tried long socks then you should as they are guaranteed to stay up banishing the unflattering flash of bare calf; one thing that never looks attractive is when men cross their legs or put one leg on the other knee flashing several inches of pale calf – Italians and Americans are very good at paying attention to what they called “dressed socks”, compared to the British.
What’s next for Pantherella; are we going to see the opening of a store, greater sock ranges, further collaborations with other designers?
Our big focus is to continue to deliver great products and service which has been the strong core of the brand for decades. So in answer to the question “what’s next?” we are pushing to tell more people about who we are and what we do. It is a strong message that resonates with customers but we are too often described as a hidden secret of the sock world and we now need to sit up and get noticed.
We’ll be setting up a US website later this year, simplifying the ordering process for our American customers, which is our largest export market. I anticipate we’ll develop our presence in Japan, which is also a strong market for us, which has seen orders increase by 50% over the past year. Design-wise, there’s a lot of focus on heritage patterns at the moment, both Herringbone and Houndstooth in fine gauge merino, which are in vogue and people are responding very well to them.
Thanks to Justin Hall for taking time out of his busy schedule to answer our questions. All images © Pantherella.