On exceptionalism and American-made socks.
by Jason Daley | photograph Tom Davenport
The racks at your local outdoor retail shop are an anthology of great American business stories, from Patagonia’s founder Yvon Chouinard cutting and patterning fleece jackets to Timberland creating waterproof work boots to dominate the blue-collar rap music business. But even the most iconic American brands do little more than mock up their jackets and hiking pants in solar-powered, medicinal weed-scented HQs before manufacturing them in sketchy factories throughout Southeast Asia. The sock aisle, however, might as well be littered with Team America sock puppets frying bacon and screaming “Fuck Yeah!” Nearly every outdoor sock brand carries the Made in USA stamp, including Wigwam, Darn Tough, FITS, Farm to Feet, Woolrich, Goodhew, Teko, and at least a dozen more.
So why is performance hosiery the last U.S. garment standing? In a phrase worthy of a Blake Shelton lyric: Fourth and fifth gen All-‘Merican mill families are kicking ass, that’s why. When Hanes, Fruit of the Loom, and other value-pack makers fled the country in the last two decades—part of an exodus that wiped out roughly two-thirds of American textile jobs—rather than knit their own death shrouds, U.S. mills primarily in the Southeast invested in better technology, thus leveraging their deep experience to make their own socks and attract specialty brands. That innovation pushed sock-tech to mind-bending places, helping brands integrate yarn made from bamboo and coconut shells, use silkier merino wool, and hack their machines to make them sew better. “Think of Tennessee and North Carolina as the Silicon Valley of Socks,” says Robert Thomas, product line manager at Smartwool. “We’re the hotbed of hosiery.” Cue the puppets!
Socks are also kind of easy to manufacture. While it takes dozens of steps to build a good rain shell, top-shelf hiking socks unfurl from Italian-made circular knitting machines, often monitored by a single operator. Add skiers, ultra runners, and mountain bikers willing to drop a Jackson on a single pair of merinos, and the economics work. “If you’re Hanes making millions of socks and competing on price, even three cents in extra labor costs can make or break you,” says Jim Markley, co-founder of Goodhew. “But if you’re selling a quality sock for $20 retail, you’re not going to fight over a nickel or 15 cents. You can afford to stay in the U.S.”
Those numbers were enough to bring Point6, which began manufacturing in China, back to Chattanooga, Tennessee, and Fort Payne, Alabama, in 2010. The move helps the company maintain the production quality of its socks, which are made completely from compact-spun wool. Coming home was also a must for marketing. “The fact that we are made in the USA and are supporting local workers helps us stay competitive,” says Point6’s Stacia Betley. “It also reduces our footprint. Sustainability is a priority in the outdoor gear market.”
In fact, footprints (sockprints?) should get even smaller in the next few years. In the last decade, companies have clued into domestic merino production, breaking Australia and New Zealand’s chokehold on big wool. Farm to Feet and Goodhew now use North American wool in their socks, and other producers are starting to flock (so sorry) to U.S. yarn as quickly as it’s produced.
So next time you lace up your Chinese boots, slide on your Bangladeshi parka, and don your Italian sunglasses, you’ll know the most important part of you is still swaddled in red, white, and blue—your pride.
From the Early Winter 2015 issue.