How hard can it be?
Whenever my brother Rick utters those words, it’s time to run for cover.
Four years ago, while sitting in our mother’s living room, our paths crossed during her recovery from surgery. I was to fly home, Rick was arriving to take over assisting.
The three of us sat in the living room to survey the future. Our mom, who always thought we should be in business together; Rick, a serial entrepreneur looking for his next venture; and me, a perennial freelance designer who is always ready to sign up for the next great design adventure.
Rick and I joke that we share one brain. Rick is technically inclined with a passion for innovation and creating new businesses, and I just live to create. He’s science, I’m art.
(View this page on a wider screen to see more pictures.)
Our last enterprise was (and is) a successful chocolate company. “We’re not doing chocolate”, I began.
“Ok” he said. With a degree in textiles, I had always wanted to design something in apparel. Looking down at my feet he says,”how about socks?”
To which I reply, “How about socks?” And that’s when it happened.
“How hard can it be…”
A few short months and a great deal of research later, we were on our way to the foothills of the Carolinas to meet Dan St. Louis and Tony Whitener, who run the Manufacturing Solutions Center in Conover, North Carolina.
Dan had spent a lot of time on the phone at the end of a very long day patiently answering a myriad questions for Rick. Little did Dan know this would make him “tonight’s lucky winner.” His grand prize was the two of us camping out on his doorstep for a week.
Both Tony and Dan proved even more patient than we had hoped. Over the course of a week, they gave us a basic education about sock-making, just enough to start finding vendors and piecing together a basic plan for our company.
We spent several more months noodling the details. A second road trip was mustered to shoot video for what was our soon to be our Kickstarter campaign. Rick flew to Italy to learn how to run a knitting machine. (After a few years, he’s finally gotten the hang of it – turns out they’re really complicated.)
We bought a knitting machine, designed a line of socks, launched a Kickstarter campaign and raised over three times our initial goal. A year later we completed all our fulfillment. (We learned a heck of a lot doing so – minus only locusts and frogs, I think we encountered and survived everything else.)
Not your dad’s sock business.
Made in the U.S.A.
Why, you ask, would we go to such lengths to make socks in the U.S.? Doesn’t almost everyone just make them overseas for a lot less?
The answer is “yes, they do.” But we can’t. We use an atypical knit structure that makes our socks fit better, we custom-engineer our knitting machines, create our own design and knitting software and work very closely with our mill team on prototyping, production and quality.
The kind of innovation we do and the collaborative nature of our process would be almost impossible if our machines and knitters were half-way around the globe. And typically, manufacturers want things to be consistent, making large quantities of the same sock. Most just wouldn’t put up with us. We’d be a royal pain in the butt.
The other benefit to US manufacturing is that we have a lot of contact with the people in our supply chain. We’ve been in the spinning mills, the dye houses, the box makers, and we’re on a first-name basis with many of the people who work there. We can drop in to talk through new ideas, troubleshoot problems, and trade suggestions for making our operations and products better. There’s an ease and familiarity that can only come from lots of conversation, contact and shared work.
Besides, overseas production has some pretty extreme inventory and timing constraints. Who wants to wait months for socks to arrive by container ship, put their resources into a few simple designs in a small range of colors and then figure out how to sell 60,000 pairs of the same sock you can get from anyone else? Not us.
OMG! They are sooooooo comfortable!
“Freakishly so” as one of our customers recently commented. When we set out on this adventure, Dan and Tony lamented that men’s dress socks were no longer made like they used to be in the U.S. To cut costs, overseas manufacturers have eliminated key elements of the sock structure that can protect feet from unforgiving shoes, and help socks stay where you put them. Dan, Tony and their team told us what they would want to wear. We listened to them and followed their advice on structure and materials; people comment that they’ve never worn more comfortable socks.
So far Dan loves ’em and wears ’em. (Tony likes compression socks. Stay tuned. We’re working on it.)
An unconditional guarantee.
If our socks don’t live up to your expectations, at any time, tell us why, send us a picture, and we’ll replace the socks or give you a full refund. We may ask you some questions, but that’s because we want to learn from your experience, to keep innovating and make our socks even better.
Have we mentioned color?
Nowadays, you’ll find more color in the sock market. When we started, it was a challenge to find colorful socks, especially high-quality socks for men. There are a few reasons why color is an interesting commodity in socks.
First, dyeing yarn is expensive. A design house will typically pick a few colors for each season, and commission large batches of the colors. We reasoned early on that if we were going to succeed with a design-centric sock business, we’d need to control our own colors. Using other brands’ left-overs, as offered to us by some mills, wasn’t going to give us the diversity and cohesive color palette we needed.
Having conceived of a business that could make its name on the quality and breadth of its colors, we hit a wall. There were no US dye houses willing to test and produce hundreds of colors in small batches. (The small part was mandatory. Undyed or “greige” Merino wool in the quality we needed was more than $15/pound. Each pound of wool could make a dozen pairs of socks. 500-pound lots weren’t an option!) We got lucky after first trying two dye houses, with mixed results. We went back to a very high quality house who said “no” the first time we asked them. We didn’t give up; we got a little bigger, they got a little nicer :-) We have a lot of colors.
The second reason that colorful socks with complex designs are scarce has to do with the technical constraints of knitting machines. The more colors and the more design complexity you add to a sock, the more the stretch is bound up by what are called “float threads.”
This is particularly an issue for men’s socks, as some men’s larger legs need more stretch in their socks. It’s possible to create complex, colorful designs, but when we started our odyssey, that process required a skilled knitter, a designer willing to iterate designs to match the capabilities of a specific knitting machine, and several days, possibly up to a week, of exclusive access to one machine, to prototype successive refinements of a design until it could be produced with maximum stretch. Tying up a knitting machine and a technician’s time in a traditional mill for the length of time we needed was a nonstarter.
To minimize the time we needed on a physical knitting machine to test our prototypes, we reinvented the design and prototyping process for our socks. Rick created software to take my designs, analyze them in seconds and tell me where my socks would stretch and where they wouldn’t. Instead of prototyping samples on a knitting machine in a days-long process, we do it in software in half an hour. (Our patent on the process was granted at the beginning of 2015.)
By the time I complete a design, we know it will work on the machine the first time it’s threaded. We also wrote workflow software that creates all the program files for our knitting machines, and prints out a job sheet at the mill for our team. We can have a machine knitting a new design 15 minutes after the files drop to our mill server, and go from design sketch to photography in less than a week.
Design, design, design.
I love to design, which is good because building a small batch manufacturing model demands we do many different patterns in lots of colors. For those of you who want something more unique, you’ll probably find it. And, through our First Editions subscription program you’ll have first dibs on new designs every month before they get released to our regular catalog.
If we just wanted to make a standard sock, we’d make more money with fewer hassles. But we didn’t, because we’re making the socks we want to wear; comfortable, high-quality, beautiful socks, in lots of different designs. Stripes, spots and argyles are still a large part of the market, perhaps because until recently that’s most of what was available, but that’s changing. We’ll still do stripes and spots (and maybe our version of argyles) but with the color and design elegance you’ve come to expect from us.
We’ve built XOAB with the help of a lot of people. We began with a Kickstarter project because we know no one succeeds alone. To build a better sock we needed to enlist the help of a wide community, both professionals in the textile field as well as customers interested in our journey. People like you help us to understand what works and why.
Now that we’re out of the gate, we’ve completed what we need to put our new sock business in action. No other sock company is trying our model. In the coming months, you’ll be seeing more designs released. Let us know what you like; we can adapt and create new designs on the fly. Email us your thoughts, we’re listening.
Most importantly, try a pair. Once people try our socks, they find it difficult to wear the rest of their sock drawer. You can even sign up for just one pair from our First Editions sock subscription for less than our standard retail price, and it will be delivered right to your door, almost anywhere in the world. Tear open the package, put them on your feet and run ecstatically through your home while your pets stare in disbelief that you could be made so happy by wearing a pair of socks. (Yes, hard to believe until you try it yourself.) Now go here and sign up. Or just pick a pair from our catalog and you’ll have them this week.
As always, we’re here if you need us at firstname.lastname@example.org.