Hot Socks vs. Cheap Threads

Gina Locklear grew up around socks. As a child in Fort Payne in the 1980s and ’90s, she couldn’t avoid them. Back then, the small northeastern Alabama town was the self-proclaimed “Sock Capital of the World, ” with well over 100 hosiery mills employing approximately 8, 000 people.

Socks undoubtedly provided the primary economic support for a city of fewer than 15, 000, and seemingly every family had some sort of connection to the industry. Locklear’s parents started their own manufacturing company, Emi-G Knitting, in 1991, when she was 12 years old. Most of her friends had at least one relative who was in the business. Locklear watched her hometown thrive, and it was all thanks to socks.

And then things began to unravel. Tariffs were lowered on textile products imported into the United States, making cheap socks from foreign countries readily available. U.S. manufacturers struggled to compete, and, over the past decade, the mills in Fort Payne steadily closed. Less than a dozen remain open, with an employee count that now numbers in the hundreds instead of the thousands.

“All the sock mills just began to evaporate. It happened so quickly, ” Locklear says. “I saw that greatly affect other family members of mine, as well as many friends who had parents in the sock business. I got to see firsthand what outsourcing does to a small manufacturing town. It was really sad.”

So five years ago, Locklear decided to do her own small part to darn up the hole that had been created in the Fort Payne economy. She approached her parents, whose company was one of the few still running, about starting her own business, in which she would design and produce organic socks that would be manufactured by Emi-G Knitting.

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“After seeing what had happened (in Fort Payne) and knowing how hard my parents worked to establish their business, it really lit a fire inside of me, ” says Locklear, who had been working as a real estate agent. “I wanted to start a business that would help create awareness about supporting U.S. manufacturing.”

The result is Zkano, which was launched in October 2009. Locklear says the name derives from a Native American word that loosely translates into “a state of being good.”

“I thought that (phrase) really tied in to what we’re trying to do as a company, which is provide a good, sustainable product that’s made in the United States, ” Locklear says.

The company consists of Locklear and four employees. They produce several lines of organic cotton socks, including fashion and athletic socks for men and women, and socks for infants and toddlers. Locklear says the company is about to launch a line of men’s dress socks. The products are available online, as well as through Whole Foods Market and several boutique shops and health-food stores.

“We’re growing slowly, but we are growing, ” Locklear says. “We keep increasing our offerings little by little every year. It’s encouraging.”

Locklear’s father, Terry, says he wasn’t sure what to make of his daughter’s proposal when she approached him about starting the business and having Emi-G Knitting manufacture the products.

“I just brushed it off at first. I didn’t know a lot about organic at that time, ” Terry Locklear says. “But she kept on pushing it, and I finally agreed. Now she has a growing little company, and we’re doing all we can every day to help make it work. We’re totally behind her. We’re going to help her in any way possible.”

Because Zkano is such a small company with limited resources, there is quite a bit that Gina Locklear simply has to do herself. For example, she designs all the socks, even though she has no formal training in fashion.

“There are sock designers out there, but we don’t have the resources to add someone like that to the team, ” Locklear says. “So I just started doing it on my own, and I think I’ve gotten pretty good at it.”

As for advertising, Locklear says she has had to “get creative.” She sends samples of Zkano’s products to people who write blogs about organic living and sustainability. They often write reviews of the products, which then enables Zkano’s name to turn up in Internet searches.

Locklear says she also has taken her products to area farmers’ markets and other local stores, “just to spread the word that we’re here and there are people still making socks in Alabama.”

Those Alabama socks inevitably will be more expensive to buy than the ones made in such countries as Honduras and China. But Locklear says she hopes that through Zkano, she can convince people that there is a price to paying less.

“Just because you might be saving a little bit of money, there is a cost to it that trickles down, and those costs are great, ” Locklear says. “It affects people in your local economy with jobs.

“It’s all about building awareness. That’s one of the things we really strive to do.”

Cary Estes is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. He lives in Birmingham.

Cary Estes

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