Science Questions

Where do lost socks go?

Sun, 1st Nov 2009

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Stephan Gyoery asked:

I would like to know where socks go when they put some into the washing machine? I made some observation that I put matching socks into the washing machine and I get only single socks back. Yes socks are not quantum mechanical entities. Where are the socks going?


Kat -   I think you have to give up some socks as a sacrifice to the “God of Washing”.  I don’t know.  Maybe they didn’t end up as pairs in the washing machine when you put them in.

Chris -   I’ve got a theory of this actually.  I think what happens is that socks, very often, glue themselves to the inside of the machine so you remove the washing but you might leave one glued to the top so it gets separated from its counterpart.  You then go to the washing, hang washing up, process it, put it all back in your bedroom all ironed and stuff and now you got an oddsock.  You find the other one and that gets processed separately but by then you’ve got this odd sock in the bedroom and you think “Oh I must have forgotten to wash this one” so I put back in the wash.  Its counterpart is probably – or in the wash then the other one comes back from the wash having been found later but by then its counterpart is now in the wash and the two remain separate forever.  I think that’s what it is. 

Kat -   (Laughing) Yeah that’s the same circulating odd socks.

Chris - Actually I just got an email from Drew Merchant and he says 'I had to take apart my wasjing machine recently and I found 3 socks stuck in the drain tube, so this is where I think they end up'.


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Stephan Gyoery asked the Naked Scientists: Hello Naked Scientists,   I am enjoying your show from Switzerland listening to the podcast (I'm slowly catching up with the present). I think I have one of the fundamental questions of mankind: where do socks go when they vanish in the washing machine?   I thought that this phenomenon of single socks returning without partner is limited to white tennis socks (experience dated from the 80's), but I can now attest that the same happens to black dress socks as well: once in a while (~20%) one out of a pair of socks "vanishes" when washing in a washing machine. First I thought that Black Holes are made up of lost socks, but...   Okay, quite seriously: would there be statistic evidence for this observation? And would there be an explanation (mathematical/probability)?   Cheers Stephan What do you think? Stephan Gyoery , Mon, 26th Oct 2009

Ah ha! (Don's his deerstalker and lights his pipe) The case of the disappearing socks. Elementary, my dear Watson Stephan. It is usually the case that the missing sock never entered the washing machine in the first place. However, it might be, where the sock was indeed put into the machine, that it now resides within a duvet cover. (Just to add to your problem, how is it that duvet covers often manage to turn themselves inside-out in the washing machine?)

So, if the sock was not put into the machine, where is the absconder?

In the case of those who unfortunately suffer from ***ahem***, dare I say? Yes I dare..... Foot odour, I believe the offending garment may, seeing its opportunity, 'make for the hills', so to speak. Alternatively, a passing animal (either 4 legged or 2) with a (whispers) foot fetish, may perloin the said garment for their perverse delectation.

I also believe that there is a mysterious place within every home to where many a missing item goes to fox us all. In this place, should one ever be found, there will be the missing socks along with numerous coins, earrings, screws (from something you set out to repair and could never reassemble), nail clippers, pens and a host of other objects which seem to have a knack of eluding us.


"Yes Holmes, my dear chap?"

"Call a Handsome Cab. Our services are required in Switzerland."

"Switzerland Holmes? Isn't that where Swiss Rolls come from?"

"Buffoon, Watson." Don_1, Mon, 26th Oct 2009

Being the owner of many washers, and also the main repair person in my home I have had the honor of finding the answer to that question!!

On many occasions socks slip up over the top of machine tub and are lost that way I have found may socks stuck in the water pump of the washer and know that they can go through the pump and into the waste water drain... but many stuck in the pump and burn up the pumps..! If water level gets to high and machine is overloaded it can be swept over the side and get into the drain hose and pumped out with rinse water etc.. Karen W., Tue, 27th Oct 2009

I'm a leg amputee. As it's hard to get my shoe on and off my fake foot, and because my fake foot doesn't sweat I don't often change it. All my socks match but I always get even numbers out of the dryer. I would suggest having one leg taken off of you want to keep your socks. Also you might be able to sell odd socks to amputees who don't use a fake leg.

If there are other amputees here I'd like to know if you keep your socks. Perhaps an interesting kitchen science? mountaineirc1969, Thu, 5th Nov 2009

Dryers can not only rearrange matter, they can teleport it too.
Socks usually are turned into common metals.  Dryers only being 220 volts can only teleport items short distances.
That spare change in your sofa, yep, lost socks.  And your lost remote control and keys, that's where the lint comes from in the dryer's catch filter. AllenG, Thu, 5th Nov 2009

Then how do you explain the loose change in MY sofa. Considering my dryer doesn't seem to eat my socks. Maybe it's the socks from next door. I'll start giving the change to her if that's the where are my keys... mountaineirc1969, Thu, 5th Nov 2009

Stone me!!! That's a bit drastic. Not that I have anything against you personally, nor any other amputees, but I'll pass on that solution if you don't mind.

Now where's that woolly hat I put in the wash?

♪ ♪ ♪ding dong ding dong  ♪ ♪ ♪

Who's that at the door? Aghhhh! Its mountaineirc1969 and he's got a guillotine I'M OFF!!! Don_1, Thu, 5th Nov 2009

I've always found that duvet covers have a strong tendency to swallow up socks and underwear (and even T-shirts) in the wash.

Talking of things lost, in the kitchen last weekend I pranged my mp3 player which was on my belt-clip. The player came partially out of its plastic holster and the AAA rechargeable battery disappeared never to be seen again. I spent ages spying under the fridge and under the washing machine with torch and mirror -the 'only' place it could have gone- and I can see no trace. I've checked all the pocket of the trousers I was wearing at the time of the disappearance. I've also checked inside the washing machine (the door was probably ajar at the time). techmind, Thu, 5th Nov 2009

having parts of your body removed to save socks is a bit extreme. It's entirely up  to  how badly you want to save socks. Personally I'd rather lose my socks if I could have me leg back. mountaineirc1969, Fri, 6th Nov 2009

I recall finishing a paper on this and similar phenomena in 2015; a one hundred year effort.
Sadly, my "On the Thermodynamics of Losing Booties" was universally rejected by all respected journals.
(Something to do with the unification of hydrodynamics and bleach theories, they said.)
Democritis, Wed, 20th Apr 2016

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