Since 1993, Nester Hosiery in Mt. Airy, N.C. has been helping specialty outdoor merino sock companies manufacture their products, and 20 years later, it’s ready to expand the business with an outdoor sock brand of its own called Farm to Feet.
Can the industry sustain another merino sock brand? Indeed it can, especially if there’s a different hook, says Nester Hosiery and Farm to Feet President Kelly Nester. For Farm to Feet, the focus is not only domestic production, which many outdoor sock brands tout, but also domestic sourcing of the wool and every component for a truly 100 percent U.S. product.
In launching the products this summer 2013, Nester tells us about the resurgence of American made wool, how the company plans to compete and the particulars behinds blending wool with other materials to create outdoor socks.
Tell us how Farm to Feet came about?
Nester Hosiery engages with the global supply chain for sourcing merino and manufacturing socks, which includes great international and US partners. In 2011, we asked ourselves if it was possible to create a broad product line of the world’s best merino socks made 100 percent from US sources. This was not just the merino, but also every component in the socks, and down to the packaging.
Was that an easy thing to do in the United States?
It was a challenge that did not come together overnight. The merino yarns were something we had in the hopper, but sourcing all synthetic components, ensuring that they perform to our high standards, and fit from the first day you wear them and for years down the road, that was something that had to be tested.
Do you think we’ll see resurgence in not only American made socks, but now American sourced socks too?
To me across many product categories, but especially in textiles, the consumers are beginning to really ask the bigger questions, 'Why is this not made here?' I read recently where in the 60s 95 percent of textiles bought in the United States were made in the United States. In the middle 90s that number was 50 percent and in 2011 that number was 3 percent. Many of those items will always be better suited to be imported and many for good reason. With performance merino socks though, that’s not the case.
What’s the difference?
The cost of the material itself is a much greater consideration than labor. (Click here to read a previous SNEWS story on the topic.) And the equipment just keeps getting more and more efficient, especially with the right management infrastructure. We are the world’s most technologically advanced sock-maker. This goes well beyond the fact that we use the latest and most advanced machinery and equipment at all stages of production. We have a market leading product design and development innovation; we have a proprietary software system in place for complete enterprise management; and we have a leading environmental sustainability program.
Any other advantages to making a 100 percent U.S. product?
There are many. You don’t have to plan container shipments so your speed to the market increases and you can keep a lean inventory. And the companies you are working with are generally on the same time zones.
How about advantages of the U.S. wool itself?
The U.S. merino wool has a little more crimp to it, which makes it slightly more durable, which is ideal for socks.
There are many sock brands advertising 100 percent merino wool, but they’re just talking about that all the wool in sock is merino. In reality, within the entire sock, there are other fabrics — polyester, nylon and lycra — that outweigh the merino. What are the content percentages of your socks?
I find that this question sometimes confuses folks who are not familiar with manufacturing, so I will try to answer it in detail. In sock knitting, yarns play different roles. There are skeletal, reinforcement and pattern yarns in addition to what at Nester we call the “body yarn”, which makes up the majority of the overall content. Our Farm To Feet hiking and hunting socks all use a “body yarn” that is 100 percent U.S. merino wool. In our experience merino blends as a body yarn serve a very good purpose for more active end uses and we may use them in future product extensions. That all said, to create exceptional fit and durability we do use U.S. elastic and U.S. nylon for the skeletal and plating yarns. So yes, the wool in our socks are 100 percent U.S. merino, but our socks do include other yarns, but generally those account for 10-20 percent of the sock’s components, the remainder being U.S. merino.
What price range will your products fall under? Will you sell direct-to-consumer?
Essentially between $18 and $30. $18 for a traditional midweight hiking sock, $20 for the majority of our lightweight socks, $23 for the majority of our midweights socks and $28 for the best wader sock ever invented. They’re available for shipment to retailers; we’re not doing direct-to-consumer sales yet.
You debuted Farm to Feet at Outdoor Retailer Winter Market. How did the experience go? What lessons did you pull from the trade show? Should attendees be on the lookout for Farm to Feet at Summer Market?
The experience was wonderful. Our sales agencies showed the line to numerous retailers who were very enthusiastic about our story and the socks. We were in a meeting room, so there wasn’t a lot of traffic from retailers who happened upon us — you had to hear about us and seek us out and there were many who did. For our first show this worked very well as we could really concentrate on targeted accounts. We will absolutely be at the Summer Market. We will have a much larger presence at Summer Market as all the components of the brand will be complete, including an expansion of the line.