Why U.S.-made is hot in outdoor socks

Outdoor companies are increasingly jumping on the "Made in the USA" bandwagon, and socks seem to be leading the charge. SNEWS looks at why outdoor sock companies, in particular, are waving the stars and stripes.
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When it comes to others touting the benefits of manufacturing overseas, U.S. outdoor sock companies have … well … put a sock in it.

Unlike most of their fellow American outdoor apparel and gear brands, outdoor sock manufacturers have stuck close to home. Sock brands such as Teko, Fox River, Goodhew, Fits Sock Co., Dahlgren, Keen, and Darn Tough all promote their domestic production. And recently Point6 announced it would shift its entire sock manufacturing from China to the United States.

SNEWS® takes a look at why a lot of sock companies are waving the stars and stripes. Quality is a major driver, and so is keeping tight reins on environmental standards and transportation costs. But ultimately, American sock survival might owe its thanks to several mills that upgraded their production technologies to reduce labor costs.

Outdoor only

To be sure, this is primarily an outdoor sock trend, manufacturers told us. The bulk of everyday sock production fled overseas to Asia like so many other products to reduce cost.

“Folks who were chasing every nickel and dime went overseas,” said Thomas Lee, founding partner of the Goodhew (www.goodhew.us.com) based in Chattanooga, Tenn. The shift led many sock mills here to go out of business, but a few remained and decided to upgrade their technology and focus on quality, he said.

“American sock manufacturing has always been cutting edge, and they managed to claw out a niche making high-value products,” Lee told SNEWS.

High quality is what the outdoor consumer expects, said Heather Lingerfelt, director of brands at Crescent hosiery, the parent company of Fits Sock Co. (www.fitssock.com) in Niota, Tenn. “It’s hard to control quality overseas,” she said. “And when a consumer is paying up to $20 for a pair of socks, they’re going to expect only the best quality.”

That being said, consumers demand top quality in their outdoor apparel and gear too; yet, production of those products has mostly shifted overseas. What’s the U.S. outdoor sock secret? Are foreigners that bad in making socks?

No, said Lee. In fact, he said it’s increasingly becoming harder to discern the quality differences between socks made here and overseas. The home-field advantage for outdoor sock production has to do with labor costs.

The investments several American socks mills made in technology to stay in business, not only increased quality, they also reduced labor costs by shifting more of the work to machines, Lee said. By reducing labor costs in the sock production equation, domestic manufacturers better compete with foreign factories, whose advantage is cheap labor. Conversely, labor costs still play a large role in manufacturing outdoor apparel and gear – with more cutting and sewing – allowing the economic advantage of producing those products to remain abroad.

Still, the effectiveness of U.S. outdoor sock manufacturing could spur a similar move in outdoor apparel in the future, manufacturers told us. Goodhew plans to begin making tights domestically, and other sock companies hinted to us that U.S.-made baselayers are in the works.

Merino supply

While outdoor socks are increasingly being made in the U.S.A, their frequent key ingredient – merino wool – is still primarily being supplied from countries abroad such as New Zealand, Australia and South America.

Portland, Ore.-based shoemaker Keen (www.keenfootwear.com) manufactures its new line of socks in the United States for access to top-quality production, product line manager Brian Anthony told us, but that same drive for quality leads it to Australia and New Zealand for the finest wool and to Thailand for what it considers the best nylon and dye facility.

Even China turns to those sources, which also helps level the playing field, Lingerfelt at Fits Sock Co. said. “There is merino wool in China, but it isn’t the same grade as the outdoor industry expects,” she said. “So, yes, their labor costs are cheaper, but they have to get into the same line and pay the same price for the material.”

The same could be said for U.S.-sourced merino wool, but quality and quantity are improving here manufacturers said. Teko Socks (www.tekosocks.com) recently debuted 100-percent North American sourced and produced socks – the S3 line – made with North American merino wool, blended with polyester sourced from recycled water bottles from the South. The decision to locate production of the socks in North Carolina dictated the decision to source the materials locally, company officials said. With the merino wool and polyester coming from within 300 miles of the factory, it reduced transportation costs.

Goodhew and Fits Sock Co. are experimenting with U.S.-sourced merino wool, both already adding the domestic wool to their blends in trial runs. One issue is how to shrink treat the domestic wool here after most facilities went overseas. Lee at Goodhew said Chargeurs Wool, a French company with its U.S. headquarters in Jamestown S.C., is restarting its shrink operations here. While it’s still a chlorine-based process, which raises some environmental concerns, Lee said investments are being made to recycle the chlorine and trap the fumes. Enzyme shrink treatments are one alternative, but are still less reliable, he said.

“The goal is to get as much of the value chain located as nearby as possible,” Lee said. Goodhew plans to debut its 100-percent U.S.-sourced and -made merino wool socks one style at a time. The same story is being played out Fits Sock Co. and Keen, company officials said.

“We’re pleased to see the wool here in the U.S. has made a big improvement,” Lingerfelt said.

American pride and jobs

In addition to quality and cost, there’s also a factor of history and national pride that helps keep sock manufacturing in the United States. Osage, Iowa-based Fox River (www.foxsox.com), with a line of merino wool blended outdoor socks, has been making socks in the United States since 1900, said Jeff Lessard, executive vice president and co-owner.

The company is built on quality and tradition, he said. "I think the reason we're still making our socks here is because we're part of the fabric of the community. We provide jobs that support our local family, friends and neighbors. Why would we want to move production abroad just to save a buck or two? That may be good business, but it's not good for our brand or the country.”

The drive to be made in America is one of the reasons Steamboat Springs, Colo.-based Point6 (www.point6.com) is choosing to move its entire merino wool sock production from China to Tennessee by the end of 2011. Consumers are demanding it and so are retailers, Point6 marketing director Betsy Seabert told SNEWS at Outdoor Retailer Summer Market 2011, where the announcement was made.

“We’ve actually had retailers pass on our product, even though they loved it, but they didn’t want to buy a product made in a foreign country. Now, we’ve had dealers say ‘OK, we’re ready to buy now.’”

-- David Clucas

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