64 - The Sock Monster

One learns, slowly, to read the little label affixed inside one’s clothes – the one that indicates what temperature to use in the washing machine and the setting to be used for the iron. Eventually one learns that taking stuff to the dry-cleaners is a pain too far and so remembers to look at the said label when looking at a purchase. With practice, one (still, eventually) learns that some materials would be best ironed on the inside, that steam can be used at low temperatures and one may even rediscover old skills such as ironing through paper for better effects. Why we don’t teach our children these skills, I fail to understand. I said some of this recently at a dinner with people from Oz and the US, (or is that os and uz?) who said, translating, I am an idiot for knowing how to use an iron, for possessing one and why not use drip dry - and how very British. Which made me look at their clothes closely; I am as unimpressed as their clothes are. If you feel I have misrepresented your nation, do write with refutation, please; I will wield cudgels on your behalf.

In the same way that we learn to use the iron more effectively, so we also learn to use the washing machine. In the modern climate of saving energy we tend to wash clothes at cold settings, often colder than is effective. Washing machines offer a huge range of washing programmes, few of which are appropriate for the next wash and implying, by that very variety, impossibly huge families, co-operative washing schedules or very in-frequent washing schedules. Most of us, I think, end up using a limited range of set-tings. I suspect that many of us simply find something that works and settle for ‘wash’ and ‘not wash’. Talking to student-age people, it seems that bothering to set a temp-erature (intelligently) doesn’t happen. Deciding whether the majority of the wash is of the same material or the same colour enough to modify the settings on the machine is a rare event, probably based on experience. Experience, that is, of the sort that spoiled some clothes – your favourite red socks remain red but change the colour of your underwear; a dark blue towel leaves patches of something vaguely blue on your cotton shirt.

“Wash dark colours separately”, it often says in the essential reading: separately from what, pray? Darks separate from lights? whites? Do you do a socialist wash? [all reds together]. Do you wash blacks separately from reds?

So, to socks.

Have you noticed that, however many pairs of socks - and, therefore, an even number - you put into the wash, an odd number comes out? Do you wash your socks separately or with the other similar colours?  Does it make any difference to the essential question here:
Why do fewer (not less) socks come ‘back’ from the wash then went in?

Answer: the sock monster.

“The what?” you think. Empirical evidence – meaning the experiment offers an explan-ation that makes no theoretical sense as yet  - says socks go into the wash and some of them disappear. So where do they go to? You’ve been back to look in Confusion (a good name for your washing machine if it’s not already labelled as Philip’s)¹ ; the sock is not there. It has vanished. If things can vanish, then there are quite possibly other things we cannot see, not merely the tree in the quad². In which case, we can surmise some other agency has possession of your sadly missed hosiery. This agent is the sock monster.

I have a whole drawer of once-white running socks, about 50, where 70% are now odd socks – and the total number is, of course, odd. I have running socks where the sort of weird thinking that reduces people to obsessive-compulsive disorders applies - such as ‘my team wins when I wear these’: “I wash these socks by hand so they don’t lose their lucky charm, their luck or their charm”. Well, I don’t, but I would if I had any.

No, I have not seen a sock monster any more than you have. But I can confirm that most washing machines soon acquire one. Obviously, sock monsters come in ones, not pairs. I suppose they may group together in odd numbers – odd primes would seem appropriate - and I am waiting for any regular user of a washeteria to tell me about missing clothing – but they certainly don’t collect in pairs.

I am reasonably convinced that the sock monster consumes socks, since the missing ones rarely reappear. It may be that juvenile SMs work up to actual consumption, for I have noticed that newer washing machines do surrender the missing hose, making you think you merely misplaced it.

My brother’s family all wear black socks. Not exclusively that colour, but they do have a lot of socks that are black. On at least one side³. The family has a periodic sock wash of around 50 pairs (that’s obviously the number, not the period). There is therefore a post-wash family game of pairing the socks (back together). This requires serious sock-recognition skills. Observing this domestic ritual with some fascination, I asked about their sock monster experience. This caused complete confusion and a run of mismatched black socks (who would know?). This family has a monster-free sock wash: or perhaps has not noticed, but they’re a pretty bright, observant lot. I wonder whether perhaps a sock monster can be diverted by a surfeit of supply.

Readers should experiment. In private. This may be safe to do at home.

DJS 20100828

 Written as a birthday gesture to Sam Scoins of the Auckland branch of the family,
who will be able to read it at about the same time as the story makes sense.
It is his image at the top of the page.

1 Philips, Philip’s: insert-able apostrophes are available from any Lynne Truss website.

2 There was a young man who said, "God                                 Dear Sir: Your astonishment’s odd,
     Must find it exceedingly odd                                              for I’m always about in the Quad.
    To think that this tree                                                        and that's why this tree
    Should continue to be                                                will continue to be
    When there’s no one about in the Quad.                    Since observed by, Yours faithfully,God

Ronald Knox, writing about Hume’s theory of causality        Bertrand Russell (perhaps)


3 A mathematician, an engineer and a politician were sharing a train carriage as it travelled north in Britain. As they crossed the border into Scotland, the politician looked out of the window and said, “Oh, look, all sheep in Scotland are black”. The engineer commented, “That’s a little sweeping, surely; the sheep in that field are black”. After a short pause in which the other two watched the politician regain control of his emotions at being corrected, the mathematician said, ”Actually, we can’t even say that much with any great accuracy. All the sheep we could see in that field were all black - on at least one side.”


Our newest washing machine is called Dobby or Dhobi, being both a dedicated house-elf and a washing wallah.


© David Scoins 2017