Sock company strives to keep jobs in Vermont

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(Host) The news about U.S. manufacturing is frequently bad. Companies often move their operations overseas in search of lower prices or cheaper labor. The domestic textile industry began this trend years ago. Mills moved first from New England to the South and then to Asia in order to cut costs.

One Vermont company is pushing back. Cabot Hosiery Mill in Northfield is “in-sourcing,” not out-sourcing. The company has launched a new brand of socks that the owners hope will keep customers satisfied, and keep jobs in the Green Mountain State.

VPR’s John Dillon learned how socks are made, and has this report.

(The whooshing air of sock knitting machines)

(Dillon) Most of the time, you probably don’t think much about what’s on your feet. Some of us are even lucky if our socks match at all.

But making socks is both art and industry, a blend of the high-tech and old-fashioned.

(Beliveau) “Right now, we’re entering our manufacturing facility. We have about a 70,000-square foot building with 100 knitting machines running five days-a-week, 24 hours-a-day.”

(Dillon) Sales director Roland Beliveau is the tour guide through the rows of cylindrical knitting machines and spinning cones of yarn.

There’s something Willy Wonka-like about this sock factory. Every few minutes or so, an air hose plops a finished sock onto a growing pile of hosiery.

It’s a lot of socks. The mill produces five to six thousand dozen pairs a week.

Other pneumatic air lines suck the waste wool out of each machine and send it flying to a large bin on one end of the mill floor. You get the sense that there’s little extraneous movement in this dizzying whir of machinery.

But as efficient as the mill may be, the competition from overseas suppliers is intense. Cabot Hosiery’s main business is the private label market in which the company makes socks for well-known brands like L.L. Bean. Beliveau says the globalization of the industry has squeezed the small Vermont company.

(Beliveau) “A lot of this business is, they’re going to Mexico, China, Africa. They’re just trends that we can’t control. We do business with major retailers and global footwear companies. They’re under tremendous pressure to keep costs low. We definitely don’t make the cheapest socks in the world but we do make the best. We are definitely at risk for losing customers because of price concerns.”

(Dillon) So, as a way to compete on the global stage, the company launched its own brand of socks. It’s called Darn Tough Vermont. The socks are geared for the outdoor and performance market. They’re made with Merino wool and they’re the kind you’d wear for skiing, hiking or cycling.

(Stabene) “It’s very important, because if you don’t have a brand today, you can’t compete with the Orient. They can sell you a dozen socks for five bucks.”

(Dillon) Harvey Stabene has been designing socks for about 18 years. Before that, he was a mechanic for the knitting machines.

(Stabene) (taps keys) “And here you’re going to switch fingers. You’re going to come out, change the RPMs, select another pattern drums, shut the air off.”

(Dillon) He uses a computer to instruct the machines to follow a complicated recipe of yarns, colors, stitches, and patterns. But sometimes he has a hard time explaining what he does.

(Stabene) “I was in a barbershop the other day and the guys says to me what do you do? I said I make socks. And he goes: There’s really people sitting around thinking about how to make socks? I said, oh yeah, they’re made on computerized equipment, very expensive equipment and there’s a lot of thought that goes into them.’ I said, socks are part of style and style is a big thing today. We make performance socks and we make stylish socks and we try to make our performance socks stylish.'”

(Dillon) Owner Marc Cabot says he never considered buying socks from overseas or out-sourcing. The mill has 80 or more employees. Cabot says out-sourcing would mean turning his back on people he’s worked with for 30 years.

(Cabot) “They’ve devoted their lifetime to working here. That’s all they know. You can’t out-source a person with a name, and an address and a mortgage. Many people have tried to do that. So our answer to outsourcing is to take a little less margin, make the product here in the state of Vermont and keep the passion in the product.”

(Dillon) Marc Cabot’s son Ric is the third generation in the business. He conceived the Darn Tough line as a way to keep the business going for his children and grandchildren. The brand was launched two years ago, and sales have doubled each year, he says.

(Cabot) “We do have excellent private label customers, but as far as taking this into the fourth generation, Darn Tough really is our best answer. It’s something we own. It can’t be outsourced. Actually what we’re doing here we like to call in-sourcing. I like to tell people that nobody ever out-sourced something for quality.”

(Dillon) The company stands by the quality of its product. Each pair comes with a lifetime guarantee.

(Cabot) “And only because we’re actually producing the socks, and know what goes into every stitch and every course, can we offer in confidence the lifetime guarantee. And if I were outsourcing the product or even had some other mill make it domestically, I could never put my name on something that I couldn’t stand 100 percent behind.”

(Sounds of the mill)

(Dillon) There’s one promise the company can’t make. Marketing director Roland Beliveau says he can’t guarantee that the pairs will stay together in the wash.

(Beliveau) “That’s one thing we can’t guarantee against. Even in our washing machines I think we lose a few every day.”

(Dillon) For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon in Northfield.

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