The true test is after the first wash. Most Marcoliani's and Pantherellas I've had are great wash after wash. Some brands I've had have just turned to trash.
Are "premium" socks worth it? - Page 2
Poll Results: Are "premium" socks worth their price on a quality / longevity basis?
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Now, expensive wool socks aren't necessarily noticeably better in durability and feel than cheaper wool socks. But there are some varieties types and designs that are better, and tend to be more expensive.
The Ferrari vs. cheapo car analogy holds pretty well past ~$15-20 per pair (basic on sale brooks brothers wool socks).
In the winter I tend to like a few types of much much thicker knit wool socks which you can't find cheap.
I get mine mostly at Paul Stuart and Turnbull & Asser these days. YOLO.
I think one problem with the discussion is how the parameters are set. People tend to equate durability and quality when durability is just one component. When you start to consider things like how the sock breathes (letting your foot breathe), what happens to the sock when you sweat, the comfort of the sock there is no question that premium socks offer something different.
For the person who wants their socks to last the longest, you probably don't want a 100% cotton sock. But, something like a 100% lightweight cotton sock from Bresciani is going to breathe much better than the blended cotton Paul Smith sock. Also, a soft wool sock using high quality yarn will be ideal for the winter for everyone and especially for the person who finds that their feet sweat a lot because of it's ability to wick moisture away and how it regulates temperature. I have worn Bresciani, Corgi, Robert Talbott and Bugatchi socks a ton. Here are my thoughts on what makes them different from one another and what makes the different blends/materials they use different from each other:
Bresciani: Best Dress Socks
Hard for me to pick, but they just might be my favourite socks. Most places in North America will only offer one to two different compositions that Bresciani makes but they usually have something like 6-8 different compositions available to the stores they sell to. The most common compositions from Bresciani you will see in North America are their 100% cotton socks. Bresciani has amazing technical skills and as a result the knitting is as good as any other sock out there. They use such fine cotton that it makes it hard for e-commerce sites to take pictures of these as the thinner material doesn't reflect light the same way a heavier sock would. This is extremely important though as it makes it breathable and a great dress sock for the spring, summer or fall. Also, while some versions of synthetic materials may have advance characteristics, generally, these are not used in making socks and the synthetic material smells way worse when mixed with sweat than cotton does. Bresciani doesn't use any synthetic material in their cotton socks so, while you still won't want to smell the sock at the end of the day, the Bresciani sock will smell way better than an 80/20 cotton, synthetic blend by another maker. When you take your shoes off, you will be thanking about this.
Until a few years ago, I assumed wool socks were itchy and had no idea the benefits. Compared to cotton, wool is much better at absorbing the moisture from your feet and a 100% wool sock (depending again on the quality of the yarn) should smell way better than a comparable cotton sock. Being from Toronto, I also like a sock that is better for colder temperatures and the wool wins out versus cotton for me for about 6-8 months of the year. If you think wool is itchy you should go to a low end suit store and feel the wool on their entry suit and then go to a high end store and feel the wools that come from fine mills like Loro Piana. If you use a shitty wool in your sock, it will feel shitty. If you use a great wool, it will feel great. If you are buying from a website, you can't feel the sock first so either buy from a website you know you can trust or email them to find out more about whichever sock you are thinking of getting.
Back to Bresciani, they actually have different wools available to be purchased. They have their general wool and a super 140 wool. The super 140 wool ends up being twice as much and would take more work for a store to explain the benefit versus buying a cashmere sock at a comparable price. Because of that, you will be hard pressed to find the super 140 available in North America. The wool they use for their other socks though are also amazing. I'm sensitive to wool and have had socks where I have had to take off after 5 minutes because of how itchy I am. With Bresciani, there standard wool sock is the first dress sock I reach for in the winter when they are clean and dollar for dollar, the Bresciani wool sock might be the best value. Depending on the wool sock, Bresciani often puts a little nylon into their wool socks to prevent pilling/add to the durability. They generally keep the nylon for their wool socks at or below 15%.
Linen/Sea Island Cotton:
Also, not something you find as readily. For the same reason you would wear a linen shirt, you would wear linen socks! The Bresciani Sea Island Cotton is another amazing sock you won't find as frequently as their regular long staple cotton lisle socks. It is definitely softer to the touch while keeping the positive benefits mentioned above for their regular cotton socks. However, it's more expensive and because the market for $40+ socks isn't as large, you won't find them very frequently in North America. If you are ok with spending that price point on socks, which if you are on a tight budget even I don't advise, you can think of this as the Bugatti of cotton socks and go ahead and find them somewhere.
The OTC sock has been covered on many other forums but Bresciani has done an outstanding job year after year of producing socks that stay up.
Corgi: Softest Egyptian Cotton Socks
Corgi makes thick knit socks out of 100% natural materials (cotton, wool, cashmere), an 80/20 cotton/wool mix and also make blended thinner socks that are a mix of 75% cotton and 25% nylon as well as a mix of 63% wool and 37% nylon.
Their thick socks are amazing and what the company has made it's name off of until recent years. Generally, the thick socks are a little more casual than Bresciani's thinner wool socks but are no less comfortable.
In North America, Corgi sells a lot of the 75% cotton/25% nylon mix. While 25% nylon might seem a little high, the Egyptian cotton that is used is ridiculously soft and comfortable. I would say in terms of pure feel, these socks feel somewhere between Bresciani's general long staple cotton lisle and Bresciani's Sea Island Cotton. However, because of the nylon and the weight of the cotton, they don't breathe as well as Bresciani's. They come in really bright and bold colours and patterns too.
If you simply want a cotton dress sock that is durable, Bugatchi is a great bet. Just like Paul Smith socks these are made from mercerized cotton which makes it a bit of a tougher sock that could handle going in the dryer (but still avoid the dryer if you want any socks to last longer). It's not as soft as Corgi's Egyptian cotton, or as breathable and light as Bresciani's but it's a few dollars cheaper and might last a longer.
Robert Talbott: Easy
They are increasing their sock collection the past year a bit and are using a lycra that prevents the socks from shrinking. They are made to not think about tossing them into the dryer and to be a sock you just don't have to think about.
If you are going to buy a premium sock, I wouldn't buy it just because it has a designer name on it. Ask the salesperson or email the website and get some advise on a couple different brands to try. If they can't or don't help you and laugh it off because you are taking the quality of your socks seriously, then screw them and don't give your business. If you are able to afford it, you really should try the different compositions that Bresciani makes or the casual thick socks from Corgi.
Ralph Lauren's nylon and poly blends are no hassle: wear 'em, then throw 'em in the washer/dryer.