When Nike researchers asked runners to describe their ideal shoe, they sang the praises of socks. With a snug fit, socks are practically unnoticeable to the wearer. Nike set out to make a shoe that fit like a sock while still providing support to the foot. In an article on Co.Design, Tony Bignell, director of Nike’s footwear innovation, explains: “So the idea was, how do you engineer a sock into a high-performance shoe?” The result of four years of research is the Flyknit, an extremely lightweight shoe with a knitted upper body that loosens and contracts with the movement of the foot. For Nike, this was a complete shift in the process of how shoes are made — new machines, techniques and fabrics were developed specifically for the Flyknit.
While some hail Nike’s new shoe as the “future of footwear,” others aren’t convinced that the FlyKnit is anything more than a gimmick. For a large company like Nike, co-opting the terminology of a handcraft evokes a warm cozy feeling that offsets the technical jargon also used to describe the shoe. Instead of the actual process — a factory filled with mechanical weaving machines — we imagine a room full of grandmas, humming as their knitting needles produce the fabric used in each shoe. One commenter on the FastCo article claims that this is no different than toilet paper companies who claim their products are “quilted.” Yet even if the shoe’s name plays to our nostalgic sense, Nike has plenty of faith in their innovative product; several athletes will compete in the shoes at the London 2012 Olympics. Gimmick or no, if you see Nike’s woven shoes on the feet of a track star accepting a gold medal, you can be sure that other shoe companies will be quick to adopt knitting in their process.
Chappell Ellison is a designer, writer and design writer. She currently lives in Brooklyn, New York where she serves as a contributor for The Etsy Blog and design columnist for GOOD.