As you (hopefully) may have guessed, herringbone is called herringbone for a reason – and it’s pretty straightforward.
That’s because herringbone looks like an exaggerated version of… well, the bones of a herring – or the skeleton of just about any fish, for that matter. Thanks to its thin chevron-like stripes, herringbone has a clear resemblance to what you threw out the last time your gramps showed you how to properly prep and filet your fresh summer catch.
The pattern itself is most often associated with fabric, and dates all the way back to ancient Egyptian textiles (not to mention the jewellery of the elite), but was also the go-to for the extensive system of roads built by the Roman Empire. That’s because the interlocking of the criss-crossing chevrons proved to be the perfect way to absorb the compression of constant traffic and footfall.,
Thus, cultures the world over have followed in Ancient Rome’s footsteps (sorry) ever since – you can find examples of herringbone-style roads (and flooring) in countless countries across the globe.
The same durability that herringbone affords roads is the exact same reason that the pattern continues to be a go-to for fabrics.
Oft described as a twill variant, herringbone is created by periodically reversing the twilling to change the diagonal wale, thus creating the chevrons. It’s also typically wool, making it forever popular for tweed pieces like suits and outerwear. Herringbone fabric isn’t necessarily always wool, though. During and after World War II, for example, herringbone was the pattern of choice for the cotton fatigues for various militaries since it would stand up to the repeated wear and tear of everyday use, while also allowing for lighter-weight combat uniforms that were more suitable for warmer climates.
Herringbone is also a go-to for a couple of more seemingly unexpected applications. For example, Brunelleschi's Dome in Florence is credited with herringbone’s surge in popularity among masons during the Renaissance, as that particular method of brick-laying provided far more strength than the alternatives that were available at the time.
Herringbone gears, on the other hand, are a popular type of double helical gear for multiple reasons. Not only do they (like other helical gears) allow for the smooth transfer of power since they’ll always have more than two teeth enmeshed at any given moment, they also offer a balanced side thrust and are perfect for turbine engines.
Application in Footwear
So, how exactly does all of this apply to footwear?
Sure, there have been various examples of tweed kicks over the years, but herringbone is typically reserved for another part of the shoe entirely. That’s right – the outsole!
Herringbone traction has long been the go-to for basketball kicks, and those for just about any other sport you can think of. That’s because herringbone is perfect for multidirectional footwork, allowing the wearer to stop on a dime and change direction with ease. It can also be infinitely tweaked; many sneakers use a variety of patterns (most of which are derivatives of herringbone) on different parts of the outsole to provide the optimal amount of traction based on contact, conditions and biomechanics.
A perfect example of this is Kyrie Irving’s signature line for Nike. As the Swoosh have explained in the past, when designer Leo Chang – the man long behind Kevin Durant’s signature Nikes, and the same dude who worked alongside Jerry Lorenzo to create the Air Fear of God 1 – started working with Kyrie, he ‘had never before seen an athlete contort at such extreme angles when accelerating, cutting and crossing over’. So, Chang opted for modified herringbone patterns throughout the entirety of the original Kyrie 1’s outsole – a design feature that’s been carried over and tweaked for each subsequent Kyrie silhouette. Chang even extended the pattern up to the sidewalls of the midsole for additional grip and slippage-prevention.
So, next time you look at your favourite athlete’s signature kicks, take a look at the outsole. It fits in seamlessly with how and why they play their game of choice the way that they do – and it almost certainly resembles the bones of a fish.
Header image via Nike.