It is a sound familiar to many who grew up in this area — the whirring sound of knitting machines.
The sound filled the production area at Nester Hosiery, and with eyes closed, a person could have been at any point in time since the 1920s, when textile mills began to thrive in the area, but with eyes open, new details are noticed that firmly place the facility in the modern age: tablet computers on carts; a large, flat-screen, digital monitor showing details of every aspect of production; modern knitting machines producing colorful socks.
Mount Airy was known for decades as a leader in textile and sock manufacturing. Textile manufacturing began as early as 1840, with the Hamburg Mill, but the industry did not begin to thrive until knitting and hosiery mills began to spring up throughout the 1920s and '30s. Jobs were plentiful, and for those who did not want to attend college, a job in a textile mill came with good benefits and job security.
Beginning around 1999, Mount Airy lost thousands of textile jobs as many manufacturing facilities moved to other countries, where labor costs were cheaper. The symbol that still emblazons the city seal, a spool of thread, was a reminder to many that a way of life many enjoyed for so long was beginning to be lost.
Textile mills that weathered the storm found new ways of marketing their product and embraced new technology, including green technology, to improve efficiency and production costs. If a textile mill lasted through the storm of NAFTA and came out on the other side, the light looked promising.
For Nester Hosiery, embracing change and launching their own product line — Farm to Feet — has proven successful and made all the difference.
Vice President of Marketing Dave Petri shared that Nester Hoseiry began operations in 1993 in the Dobson area, as what was essentially a textile mill. Nester Founder and CEO Marty Nester had worked in the knitting and hosiery business for much of his life, starting as a mechanic and a knitter and working his way up to senior management, when he decided to start his own business. Petri said he purchased the machinery and was providing extra capacity for local mills by knitting socks, then sending them to other mills for finishing.
NAFTA began to take effect in the mid-to-late 1990s, and Petri said Nester had the foresight to see that the industry was beginning to shift offshore, so he took the opportunity to get into a niche area with wool, specifically making wool socks for the outdoor market, socks that could be used for hunting and hiking. Nester invested in special equipment made to knit wool, and when his nephew Kelly Nester (who is now president of the company) came on board, they began to work with private label production for outdoor retailers who wanted to have their own brand of socks.
A customer base was building, so Nester Hosiery invested in new technology and moved to Mount Airy around the year 2000. A new addition was seamless toe technology, with socks knitted on a cylinder without having to go to another piece of equipment to create a toe seam. Petri described this move as essential, because it led to an increase in efficiency and production capacity.
Nester Hosiery uses a variety of knitting machines on its production line, specializing in the seamless toe production. Special software is used to manage everything from the raw material to the final product, with live information about the process shown on large flat screen monitors.
“Everything is networked together,” Petri said. “It's all done machine by machine, with line displays on the screen with names of who we are knitting for. All our knitters carry handheld tablets with the same information.” During quality checks, if a sock does not pass, Petri said the knitters will get a message on their handheld tablets and they can trace the sock back to a specific knitting machine.
The newest machines on the production line use 200 needles, which knit a sock with a tighter construction, yet a lightweight feel. After knitting, socks go into a steam tumbler, instead of the more water-intensive washing process the company once used. Petri said that more than six gallons of water were once used per one dozen socks. That is now 3.5 gallons of water per dozen.
“We were able to cut our water consumption over 35 percent in the last year, and we no longer use dryers,” which Petri said cuts down electricity costs. A computer controlling a laser is used after the socks come out of the steam blast, and socks are stretched on a shaper, to offer consistent sizing. Socks are then packaged, some by hand, and others with a packaging machine. Socks that were once manually bagged are now bagged by automated process, with much less plastic and no waste.
“There really is a lot of technology behind what we do,” Petri said. “It makes the entire process much more efficient.”
“A flat toe seam allowed us to take performance socks for the outdoors to the next level,” Petri shared. More private retailers became interested in carrying Nester's socks after they invested in the new technology, so they began manufacturing and selling socks directly to retailers, which then led to the company building relationships with global brands.
Nester Hosiery then saw an opportunity to to work with the retailers' design development teams to create their own sock designs, which were sold online and in stores.
“And it all led to where we are today,” Petri said, referring to Nester Hosiery's own Farm to Feet line. “With all the expansion and all that knowledge, of making socks for almost 20 years, we felt there was a great opportunity for us to create our own sock brand. We wanted do something that was not being done in the way it could be done — a completely American-made sock, an outdoor performance sock, all the way from the farm to the feet, using American-grown Merina wool and American-sourced nylons and elastics.”
Nester Hosiery is very much a family business: Marty Nester's nephews are involved — Kelly Nester as president and Keith Nester as vice president of operations. Marty Nester's son Dusty is the director of operations. The 190 employees are an extended family. Now the company has added an extended family that extends across the country, as they developed their own supply chain, from the farm to the final product — their own outdoor performance sock.
In the fall of 2011, Nester Hosiery began work on the Farm to Feet line when Petri said they discovered they could finally have a U.S. source of Merino wool, not only sourced from an American farm, but also processed in this country. “Merina wool has always been in the United States, but the processing of it for application in socks hasn't always been there. We were able to process it from greasy wool into wool top, but it was exported for shrink-treating. A major top manufacturer in South Carolina finally invested in that technology, and now we get shrink-treated, American-grown wool, completely processed in the U.S.”
At that point, after discovering another major key — the top manufacturer — Nester Hosiery began experimenting with the wool and produced a variety of private-label production socks to perfect the process. From there, Petri said they started developing American supply chains for nylons and elastics used in the band of the sock.
Finally, in 2012, the Farm to Feet brand was created. It was first presented at an outdoor retailers' show in Salt Lake City. “At that point, we didn't have brand identity yet. We had the name and the production process, but we were still in the development of our brand's identity. In response to the concept of our American-made sock, we decided to take the view of looking down through the supply chain and really thinking about that production, from the farm to the consumer, to their feet, and that was really well-received by the media and other retailers,” Petri shared.
Capturing the brand's identity was the final piece of the puzzle, which led to finalizing the concept of the Farm to Feet brand in the spring of 2013, when they came up with the logo and packaging concept and took the line to their first trade show during that summer.
“We went from a Nester Hosiery-only booth at the show to a Farm to Feet booth, and we really had a great response to our brand identity,” Petri described.
Sharing the Stories Behind the Socks
The Farm to Feet line was “really well-received” across the country, and Petri said a big part of that was the stories they tell on the packaging, stories about those who are involved in creating the sock, from farmers to shearers to those who work in the production facilities.
A local photographer, Jordan Brannock, was hired by Nester Hosiery to photograph those involved. She traveled to a ranch in Wyoming and photographed the rancher, the sheep, people sheering the sheep; and traveled to the top-making facility, the yarn-spinning facility, and the packaging-facility — with all the photographs used in the marketing efforts and on the packaging itself.
Last year's launch, in the fall, involved 18 styles of socks and featured six individuals on the packaging. This spring, more styles were added, along with five more people featured on the packaging. By this fall, when the company will expand the men's line and add a new women's line, across four categories of use, the packaging will feature 24 people and their stories, from all across the supply chain. Petri said they will eventually feature all the stories from those featured on the packaging as part of their Farm to Feet website. Next year they are looking to add new types of socks, such as ski socks.
“The stories of the people has resonated amazingly well with everyone who picks up a pair of socks,” Petri said.
Stories Nester Hosiery packaging stories include local employees, such as Vincente Castillo, “a dedicated boarding operator at Nester Hosiery.” Castillo's featured story gives details such as how he left Mexico as a young man “in search of a better life,” and how he became a U.S. citizen in 1996. Another Nester Hosiery employee featured is Carolyn Weddle, who has worked there for eight years, inspecting and folding socks. Long-time Nester Hosiery employee Ken Schumate, one of the original employees, is also featured. Schumate now works in sock development for Nester Hosiery.
Other stories featured are that of Fred Roberts, a rancher with sheep in Wyoming that provide wool; Raeford Spinning plant employees, Chargeurs Top Facility employees from Jamestown, S.C., where wool is processed into wool top; and a supervisor with a sheep sheering crew as well as the owner of Fairchild Shearing.
“You can see the eyes of the person peeking over the socks when you look at the packaging and when you look at the display,” Petri described. “My vision is that when a retailer has a good mix of socks on their wall, what the consumer will see is the face of America — diversity in age, gender, color — these are the people who work in our country, these are the jobs we are supplying by the purchase of these products. This really resonates with people.”
The Farm to Feet line features four categories of uses: adventure hike, adventure sport, sporting, and everyday use. Petri said every sock features 100 percent toe closure, a comfort compression fit with elastic from the top of the foot through the arch area, “for a good comfort fit that will stay on your foot where you want it to stay all day long, with no slipping and no hot spots,” a design to reduce foot fatigue, and they are all designed for durability and minimal wear and tear in the typical areas of rubbing, such as the heel pocket and toe pocket.
The adventure hike series features several styles of hiking socks of different weights for warm and cold weather hiking. The adventure sport category is what Petri described as a “multi-sport sock” The adventure sport socks have a lightweight but densely knitted construction. The sock is also made to wick moisture with added cushioning on the bottom.
The sporting sock was created with the hunter and fisher in mind, Petri said. They feature an over-calf wader sock for those who like to go wading or for those who wear high boots, crew height medium-weight socks for hunters or fishers wearing regular boots, with features such as a deer or fish knitted into the sock.
The everyday sock line was designed to be fashion-forward with bright colors, intended for everyday wear. The line features ultra-light and medium-weights.
The names of all the socks feature cities that have a connection to the company. There is even a sock named “Mount Airy,” Petri shared. Many of the socks feature names of cities in North Carolina.
A huge part of the success of the Farm to Feet line involved marketing efforts — the line has its own Facebook page, Instagram, Tumblr, and Twitter account, frequently used to engage consumers and potential buyers with colorful photographs, interactive giveaways, stories about the outdoor gear testers, and pictures of the socks in use.
Farm to Feet sponsors Angler Andy Montgomery, a Bassmaster pro. Leading outdoor magazines such as “Backpacker” and “Runners World” have featured the Farm to Feet line, with “Backpacker” naming the “Boulder” sock as one of the top ten essentials for this year.
“Within the country, there is a desire, a want, a demand for US-made products. The fact is, a lot of products you purchase will say “Made in the USA,” but if you read a little closer, they are made with imported materials. A lot of sock mills in the U.S. claim “Made in the USA,” and that is true, mills throughout the country may in some cases be using U.S.-grown wool or U.S.-grown cotton, but all components, including the nylons and elastics may not be from the United States, there is a global supply chain involved. The fact we were able to be authentic really resonated with people. We can really tell people: 'We are 100 percent American; we know exactly where our product comes from.'”
The 100 percent American brand links perfectly with traceability and sustainability, Petri shared. “I can say with absolute certainty, our wool was grown on a U.S. farm somewhere in the Rocky Mountain region. I can say that the elastic in the sock originated in a plant in Virginia, then went to a plant in North Carolina to have nylon covered on it. This resonates well with the consumer, when you can talk about exactly where the product came from.”
For more information about Nester Hosiery or Farm to Feet, visit www.nesterhosiery.com and www.farmtofeet.com.
Reach Jessica Johnson at 719-1933 and on Twitter @MountAiryJess.