Chance was and still is a very energetic Australian shepherd that spent last spring with us as a foster. His major vice, in my opinion, was that he loved to chew on my socks.  Worse he managed to convince another dog, Cajun, that this was entertainment. By the time Chance found his permanent home, my sock supply was down to half. When Chance moved out, Cajun also stopped chewing on my socks. It was time to rebuild my sock supply.



As I explained in my post on fashion for engineers, socks are not an easy choice. I thought I had the perfect solution when I started replacing all my old socks with basic black socks. I no longer had to worry about mismatched socks and if I lost one I could still use the others. I picked the basic black dress socks from Gold Toe because I could get those anywhere, or so I thought.

Fortunately for me, Amazon keeps a record of all your purchases. All I had to do was go back a year, find my original order for Gold Toe socks and order another four pair. Couldn’t be easier. At least, that’s what I thought until I received my order.

Both the texture and color were slightly different from the socks I already had. It’s not a big difference. I certainly can’t tell in dim light but in bright light it was obvious. I was back to dealing with mismatched socks.

When I thought about it I realized that this simple problem gave me an opportunity to explain to my wife why she always thought I was so obtuse. Engineers are taught to think in terms of requirements and this would make a great example of the way I think.

Gold Toe probably buys their cloth already dyed. When they buy material they have to specify what kind of material and what color. So what would be involved in specifying black with a polyester cotton blend? How many shades does black come in? Don’t you need to specify a ratio for polyester and cotton? How thick is the cloth supposed to be anyway? These are all requirements.

If I refine my requirements to flat black with a 50/50 blend of polyester cotton and 1/16″ thick, does that get me closer? Closer but far more expensive. Those of you who buy cloth know that cloth is specified by weight not by thickness. Trying to specify thickness will greatly increase the price because the vendor will have to do special handling on the order.

What does 50/50 mean anyway? Is 49/51 good enough? Since these are socks, I should also specify a stretch factor. How much force does it take to stretch the fabric by 25%? How would I measure that anyway? Going back to color, what is flat black anyway? Can I include a color sample? While we’re at it we also need to specify a dye permanence. What color does it need to be after 10 washes?

The requirements for this cloth are getting more complex by the minute and I’m still not assured of getting a good color or material match. The thing about requirements is that someone has to verify those requirements. The more you have and the more stringent they are, the more expensive the item will be.

Take the 50/50 blend for example. When I specify 50/50 blend, I also have to specify by weight or by volume. I have to specify a tolerance because no one will be able to make an exact 50/50 blend. Two percent sound good? I have no idea but I know the cost will skyrocket if I make the tolerance too tight.

How do I intend to verify that blend anyway, chemical analysis on each lot, audit my suppliers processes on a regular basis, take his word for it?  Each of those methods has additional costs associated with them. While taking their word for sounds like the lowest cost choice, it can get very expensive when you find out they were only telling you it met all their requirements.

The color has similar issues. Do I specify the exact chemical composition of the dye? If I do that, I also have to specify how the dye is applied. It’s much easier to tell my vendor what color I want and let him use his expertise.

17618I can’t ignore the Government’s role in all this. I’m certain they’ve established standards for calling material cotton and for 50/50 blends. I’m equally sure that the Government has a say in the types of chemicals used in the dye. I sure don’t want to find out that the dye in my socks is poisonous or environmentally unfriendly. It’s obvious I need to reference the Government standards in my document.

This is beginning to sound like several pages of documentation and there’s no question that each page of requirements adds to the cost of the final product. If I get any item wrong, leave a little too much leeway, or not enough leeway, I’ll be spending way too much and still not get what I want.

That’s the engineering approach, build a requirements document that specifies the key characteristics, while trying to keep it affordable. Requirements that can’t be verified are as bad as no requirements at all. When my wife asks me to pick up a pound of hamburger on the way home, I’m asking questions to fill in requirements not to act obtuse.

My wife, who does Shibori (Japanese tie dying) as a hobby, has a slightly different approach to the sock issue. “Of course there will be dye and material variations. If you want the same color you have to get all your socks from the same dye lot.”

I think that sums up the differences between the engineering approach and the artistic approach. I still don’t know if she wants ground round, lean ground round or ground sirloin. Do you think it will matter if I only get 0.96 pounds?

© Copyright 2013 Byron Seastrunk, All rights Reserved. Written For: Opinion by pen