An American Story: Farm to Feet Socks Leverage 100-Percent U.S. Supply Chain

7/9/2013
Farm to Feet socks are made from merino wool for its intrinsic moisture-wicking and temperature regulation properties and sourced from a variety of American sheep ranches out West.
Nestled in scenic Mt. Airy, NC, hometown of Andy Griffith and a model for the fictional town of Mayberry for “The Andy Griffith Show,” Nester Hosiery has been churning out socks since 1993. Like many apparel manufacturers in the South, Nester cut its teeth as a greige mill, knitting and seaming one basic style of sock before making serious investments in 1995 to transition to producing high-quality wool-based performance socks for well-known outdoor retail brands.

That move to a direct-to-retail model proved to be a wise and fortuitously timed decision that ultimately saved Nester, as apparel manufacturing chased the bottom dollar by moving en masse overseas in the 1990s and “greige mills became dinosaurs,” says company president Kelly Nester. Indeed, the company’s genesis also was a result of strategic forward thinking. Kelly’s uncle and company founder, Marty, was initially a farmer by trade who chose to moonlight in textile manufacturing for additional revenue as production of his cash-crop tobacco, a wholly unreliable source of income, also shifted overseas as concerns over its link to cancer increased in the United States.

Fast-forward to 2013 and Nester Hosiery is poised to launch its own brand: Farm to Feet, a uniquely conceived line of premium performance socks for the outdoor industry — featuring a 100 percent U.S. supply chain. In many senses, the time to launch a patriotic, thoughtfully produced apparel brand couldn’t be better; although consumers have notoriously short memories, many are still up in arms over the recent shocking tragedies at apparel factories in Bangladesh, with petitions to fast-fashion retailers flying furiously around the web, demanding transparency and accountability for overseas production.

As a result, “Made in the USA” is regaining significant luster amongst consumers. But Farm to Feet takes that U.S.-produced concept one giant step further by obsessively building a supply chain and brand that ensures every single step of the process leverages American product, American talent, and American manufacturing. It’s not exactly a hard sell considering the lingering economic uncertainty. The foremost challenge, though, is educating consumers about the key differences between “Made in the USA” — which often means produced in the United States but made from imported materials — and 100 percent American, admits Nester.

Farm to Feet socks are made from merino wool for its intrinsic moisture-wicking and temperature regulation properties and sourced from a variety of American sheep ranches out West. There is, of course, a slight premium to using U.S. wool instead of the more popular sources from New Zealand and Australia, says Nester, but those costs are offset by the considerable savings in logistics. Wool from U.S. sheep tends to be coarser and have more crimp than others, making it stretchy, spongy and great for precision-fit performance socks.

The brand uses 22.5 micron wool created from a blend of different microns of wool to achieve the ideal mix of strength and softness. “The perception of wool has changed through generations of outdoor enthusiasts,” explains Nester. When the company began working with wool in the mid-1990s, synthetic-based performance socks were still heavily en vogue.

Nester relies on Raeford, N.C.’s Burlington Industries, a longtime supplier to the U.S. military, to spin and dye wool top into yarns. In fact, once the wool travels from sheep ranches to the southeast, the rest of the supply chain happens within 300 miles of Nester’s headquarters, with Chargeurs, a French firm with a Jamestown, S.C., facility, converting the raw wool toppings into wool blends. Finding U.S.-produced complementary yarns — nylons and elastics — to finish the socks was a greater challenge, says Nester. The brand sources nylon from Sapona Mills in Cedar Falls, N.C, and gets its spandex from McMichaels Mills of Madison, N.C.

Even Farm to Feet’s paperboard packaging is made in the United States, supplied by Snyder Packaging of Concord, N.C. — and the brand font and bold logo were created by American designers. Consumers can learn about the U.S. supply chain right on the package, with QR codes directing them to the Farm to Feet website to learn about the U.S. workers — from the sheep ranchers to the Nester staff and everyone in between — who have a hand in creating the socks. And if shoppers want to visit the website just to look at photos of really cute sheep, they can do that, too.

With the initial July product launch, Farm to Feet socks are offered in ankle, mid-calf and above the calf styles and a variety of designs, colors and sizes for men. Ranging from lightweight everyday socks to mid- and heavyweight socks suited for serious adventure hikers and sportsmen, each style is named for a place in the supply chain, such as Boulder, Colo., where Nester’s technology team is based.

Perhaps Farm to Feet’s biggest design distinction is the brand’s fully looped seamless toe closure, which improves comfort and helps to prevent blisters and irritation at the point of seam. “There’s no skimping on building the best sock possible,” Nester says. Air channels running from the ankle to the top of the sock in some styles offer ventilation for improved breathability and comfort.

The brand will be carried in 50 locations this summer — eight of which are Cabela’s stores — with plans to expand to up to 120 outdoor retail stores by fall. Farm to Feet already is looking ahead to spring/summer 2014 when women’s styles and a new adventure sport category will be added. Production in 2014 will use 200-needle knitting machines, which allow for lighter weight performance socks with more stitches per inch providing denser coverage.

Nester Hosiery relies on its proprietary custom-built SockInfo system to manage many aspects of its business, from inventory to forecasting and demand planning. It has made improvements in its manufacturing facility to improve operations, such as automating its warehouse, and to reduce its environmental footprint. For example, the company has reduced consumption from seven gallons to three gallons of water per dozen socks by switching from washing to steaming during the production process, which saves $1 per dozen and slashes a day from the production cycle.

Nester also is using a bluesign-approved softener, and Nester executives are mulling getting a Farm to Feet sock fully certified to bluesign’s rigorous standards. “In the [outdoor] industry, no one talks about green initiatives because it’s just expected that you’re doing it,” explains Dave Petri, director of sustainability. “I think eventually the sustainability officer title is going to go away because it should permeate every aspect of the business.”

Nester is confident the quirky 100 percent American socks will compete well in the outdoors market. “Everything we’ve done as a company had led up to Farm to Feet,” he says. “This is the product we were born to make.” 

Jessica Binns is a Washington, D.C.-based contributing editor for Apparel.
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