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Treat your tennis socks the way they deserve

By Jolie Kerr

John Jannuzzi, who wrote the literal book on socks, has a practical reason for keeping his tennis socks from getting grungy. “If nothing else, socks will keep your tennis shoes fresher, cleaner, and generally in better shape. It’s a sound financial investment in the long run.”

The author of How To Wear Socks adds that socks are “a quintessential piece of a tennis wardrobe.”

So then how do we keep our tennis socks looking good?

We will do so with knowledge, because knowledge is power: Tennis socks are afflicted by stains that are unique-ish to tennis, and so those stains must be addressed in addition to the usual problems that befall socks—holes, smells, dinge.

“Dinge? Come again?” Dinge! It’s an actual term that’s used in the laundering world to describe the dingy appearance textiles take on over time due to product buildup and residual staining left behind after washing. But let’s put a pin in dinge for the moment and turn first to those tennis-y stains.

Grass, Dirt & Red Clay: Treating Tennis-Specific Stains

If you are squeamish or quite conservative, you will want to skip ahead to the paragraph that begins, “Now that we’ve established that grass, dirt, and red clay stains are of the protein variety…” and the rest of you will want to stay with me because we’re going to have some dirty fun.

From this day forward you will never, ever forget what type of stains grass, dirt, and red clay are because I’m going to tell you this thing that you will retain for life: Grass, dirt, and red clay are protein stains, as are human sexual fluids, and therefore I refer to them as “the jizz of the earth.” You should feel free to do the same! People seem to really love it.


Now that we’ve established that grass, dirt, and red clay stains are of the protein variety, we can talk about eliminating them. The good news is that treating protein stains is quite easy; you can correct them by applying an enzyme-based laundry pretreatment product like Krud Kutter Sports Stain Remover or Zout prior to laundering.

(As an aside, the manufacturer of Krud Kutter Sports Stain Remover, Rust-Oleum, used to make a product called Krud Kutter Red Clay Stain Remover that they discontinued, a decision about which I remain furious. The people at Rust-Oleum assured me that the Krud Kutter Sports Stain Remover is its stand-in, and I believe them…but I do not fully trust them, right?)

If individually spritzing your socks is more than you can reasonably add to your laundry-day experience, that’s fine too. The products that treat dinge will also help to eliminate protein stains, albeit perhaps not quite as successfully as those ole enzymes.


On Dinge & Odor Remediation

So, dinge! Here’s the jam with dinge: It’s the result of using too much detergent, mostly, though the overuse of other stuff like fabric softeners certainly contributes. What happens when you use too much detergent is basically the opposite of what you think—you think more detergent = more clean, but no! If your clothes come out of the wash all full of soap, they are not clean! Then, over time, that soap will mellow into the fibers of your clothes, making them look gray. Enter, dinge.

The solution to that is to stop using so much detergent, and to use what’s called a “laundry booster” to help with in-wash stain removal. For dinge, as well as for protein stains, a powdered oxygen bleach like OxiClean is a great choice. To bring already dingy whites back up to bright white, soak them in an oxygen bleach solution and then wash them in the machine as usual BUT DON’T USE DETERGENT. We’re trying to get detergent out! It will feel unnatural and wrong and you might even have some anxiety about it, but I promise your socks will come out looking very, very clean.

Watercolors by Leanne Shapton of some of the notable socks from the archive of the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, RI. From top: Monica Seles, Serena Williams, Billie Jean King and a pair of tennis stockings, provenance unknown. Featured in Racquet No. 4

Athletic clothing, albeit not as much socks as, say, spandex shorts, also will suffer from the overuse of detergent in another way—product buildup contributes to the problem of just-washed gym clothes still smelling like a locker room. So, we’ll all do our best to curb our desire to fling detergent enthusiastically about the laundry room, just really wild out with the detergent, and instead be judicious with our detergent.

Employing general laundry best practices will also help, though no one wants to hear it:

Don’t overstuff the washing machine (your socks, they need to move in those suds!);

Don’t use more detergent than is necessary (DINGE!);

Opt for the extra rinse cycle because no matter how many times I tell people not to overuse detergent they overuse it anyway and the extra rinse cycle will help to wash out all that extra soap (sigh).

Jolie Kerr is a cleaning expert. She can fold a fitted sheet, and also she is a witch, but those two things are not actually related. (Or are they?)

Above: Monica Seles

Sock Hall of Fame Watercolors by Leanne Shapton