New footwear technology set to knit its way into outdoor and fitness

Nike and Adidas will debut new knitted footwear at this year's World Cup. SNEWS takes a look to see if the technology has legs to get outdoors.
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Step aside Grandma. Machines are taking over the knitting business.

Megabrands Adidas and Nike have both come up with technology in which a machine strings together a snappy series of stitches (a lot of stitches) to knit together the upper of a shoe from the ground up. That knit upper is then attached to a sole and, voila! A knitted shoe.

Citing benefits like excellent fit and feather lightness as key benefits, Adidas and Nike are already going head to head, er, foot to foot, in the soccer realm. Their handiwork will take center field at the 2014 World Cup, highlighting the footwork of soccer players like Uruguay’s Luis Suarez, who has committed to use Adidas’ Samba Primeknit.

AdidasSambaPrimeknit1
AdidasSambaPrimeknit2

While some speculate that stepped-on-toes will soon unravel this knitted fad, others see potential for the technology and style to make more inroads into fitness, yoga and even the outdoors. Gore-tex lined knitted kicks, anyone? And more opportunity might lie in the growing outdoor lifestyle category.

“I’d never say never,” said Mark Pikaart, footwear product marketing manager for Patagonia Footwear. “With some of the disruption that you’ve had with minimalism, by and large people are just open to more ideas in footwear. I certainly wouldn’t rule out knitted shoes."

What if
So hypothetically speaking, if knitted footwear were to creep into outdoor terrain, what would it be like? They could surface as a new ripple in the minimalist footwear wave. After all, the shoes are trumpeted as super light (the Nike Magista weighs only 205 grams).

NikeMagista
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“It’s always better, no matter what the sport is, to be as naked as possible,” said Carl Blakeslee, creative director for Portland Product Werks, which makes footwear for Woolrich. “Whether you’re running over rocks or roots or clay, being in contact with that surface and understanding your body’s relationship with it just makes you better at your game. It’s always better to be as close to the ground as possible.”

Then again, who says the shoe has to be minimalist?

Blakeslee likens the knitting process to “growing a product rather than piecing it together.” He envisions a time in the not-so-distant future where machines “knit” fiberglass fibers that could then be combined with a solvent to harden into a mold sized to exactly fit an individual’s foot. Picture that in a ski boot!

“You could engineer the upper to work with the anatomy of the foot,” he said, making “the fibers behave like tendons and enhance the movement of the foot.”

Construction project
Another benefit of knitted footwear: The process of construction is hugely streamlined since the steps to sew individually cut pieces of fabric together are omitted. Just think: It’s easier to build a sock than a shoe.

“Instead of cutting the shoe out of a flat piece of material and making the shapes, putting curves together, this knits it all at one time so it comes out already in the shape,” Adidas Outdoor Managing Director Greg Thomsensaid.

And that opens up a plethora of possibilities, not the least of which is the ability to incorporate different kinds of thread and different levels of knitted thickness into a single shoe … or garment for that matter.

“There are more materials to knit than nylon,” Jeff Dill, business unit director for Keen, points out. “(There are a) lot of woven fibers that are super durable, pliable, and flexible.”

And customization seems endless.

“You can computerize knit in areas that have less thread so they’re more breathable or knit in an area that has lot more stretch, Thomsen said. “You can have lots of different things going on and never have to make different materials,” Thomsen said. “You really could eventually fine tune it to put the ventilation where you want it and how much you want it for an individual.”

Drawbacks
But there are aspects of the knitted shoe that may not work well in the outdoor arena. In soccer, having a thinner upper encasing the foot gives footballers a closer touch on the ball and thus better ball control. But with hiking, and other fitness activities with considerable lateral stress on the foot, that knitted encasing offers little stabilization for the ankle when traversing uneven terrain.

“The problem with some of the things is stabilizing,” Thomsen said. “How do you keep your foot from moving when you don’t want it to move?”

And in activities like rock climbing, where the lightweight factor could be a boon, the knitted material would need to stand up to abrasion. Nylon certainly wouldn’t, so other materials would need to be developed. While knitted footwear has the faster, lighter appeal many athletes drool over, it will also need enough burliness to survive in the outdoors. The minimalist trend learned that lesson the hard way in a hurry.

“That’s that fine line: To give you enough durability and structure to make you feel confident, but I feel like overall people are really wanting lighter weight footwear,” Patagonia Footwear’s Pikaart said.

Lifestyle Potential
Knitted footwear does have comfort and style going for it, which of course bodes well for lifestyle pieces.

“It’s something that’s so easy on, easy off and has that very comfortable feeling. It has that ‘ah’ factor where you put it on and it just feels good,” Pikaart said. “And that has appeal always.”

So whether it manifests in lifestyle footwear or appears in performance products, the knitted shoe is coming … eventually.

“It’s happening. It’s not something that’s quite reached into the world of outdoor, but who knows,” Pikaart said.

--Courtney Holden

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