By Sarah Stone

The next time you pull on a pair of socks, you may have the Wilson College of Textiles to thank. The socks in NC State’s new Belltower Collection are being made right here on campus with the Zeis Textiles Extension’s (ZTE) sock robot.

“It maybe doesn’t look like a normal robot,” ZTE Director Andre West says. “But it has all the normal robot parts to it, even though it’s a different shape.” 

The robot arrived on campus early this year. West was first inspired to acquire the machine when he attended a five-week-long course on circular knitting equipment in China in 2019. 

“We came back with the idea of, ‘How do we start getting involved in this sort of equipment?’” West says. “So the sock machine is an easy start.” 

Using this automated circular knitting technology, the machine transforms yarn into a pair of customizable socks in just about five minutes. 

Here’s how it works: 
  1. Yarn is fed in and knitted together with a ring of latch hook needles to create an open tube. 
  2. The tube moves over to a different set of latch hook needles, which rotate to create the heel of the sock.
  3. The sock is vacuumed into a tube, where it is stretched around a rod and the toe is closed. 

In addition to the Belltower Collection sold at the bookstore, socks made at ZTE will also be given away at trade shows like Techtextil.

West brought the machine to Wilson College for more than just the promotional items, though. The robot also provides students with more opportunities for hands-on learning and experiences. 

Graduate students Zoe Newman and Elizabeth Kirkwood have become the principal operators of the machine. The pair have taken the robot all the way from the initial programming stage through the troubleshooting and fine tuning to finished product. 

“They’re facing challenges that they’re going to face later in life. Maybe not this, but it’ll just be troubleshooting and designing,” West says. “They may not appreciate it now, but I’m sure they’ll appreciate it later. Put some gray hairs on their head, but you know, it’s really a good experience.” 

“The textile program is sort of special in that way. That it’s more hands-on than other programs,” Newman adds. “So, we’re working on the machines daily. If we’re not working on them, we’re studying how they work or their capabilities.”   

The machine has also resulted in additional opportunities for undergraduate students. 

“We had a project with the senior design group and textile engineering,” Newman explains. “And they were looking for a few different variations of socks with different yarns. So we were able to use the machine to help them with that project.” 

You’ll be able to find Belltower Collection socks at NC State bookstores by late August. NC State bookstores created the Belltower Collection to celebrate the installation of bells in the university’s Memorial Belltower. Revenues from the trademarked brand help fund student scholarships. Adding the carillon of bells to the Belltower was made possible by a donation from 1981 College of Textiles alumnus Bill Henry and his wife Frances.

With knitted koozies in the works, West thinks socks will be the first step in a larger partnership to provide NC State students, employees, alumni and friends with high quality, locally made commemorative gear.