Marty Nester knew Mount Airy was the place to start a hosiery company. He heard the Surry County city called “The Sock Capital” because of its numerous hometown knitters, including Renfro Corp., which sells one of every five socks in the U.S., most of which are manufactured offshore. So in 1993, he started Nester Hosiery Inc. to take advantage of trends he’d seen during his decade or so selling textile equipment across the South.
In his visits to mills, Nester noticed a trend toward greater reliance on contract work from apparel brands. Just producing one’s own brands wasn’t cutting it for many companies. Thinking he could compete for private-label accounts, he struck out on his own. His timing was miserable: “I didn’t realize that about after two years, hosiery was going to take a nose dive.”
Employment in North Carolina’s apparel and textile plants over the last two decades has declined by two-thirds, or about 153,000 jobs. About 42,500 people now work in 909 plants, according to the N.C. Department of Commerce. Disappearing tariffs that had protected domestic manufacturing and the North American Free Trade Agreement, established in 1994, made it much more economical to produce clothing and other woven goods in Mexico and overseas, devastating much of the Tar Heel textile industry. Survival in textiles required finding specialty niches, a variety of turnaround experts warned.
Nester took that advice to heart, signing enough private-label business to build a 200-employee company with a management team that includes his three nephews, Kelly, Kerry and Keith Nester. (They are brothers.) In 2013, he started making Farm to Feet merino wool socks targeted at outdoor adventurers who hike, bike, run and fish. He also listened to his target demographic, such as Andy Montgomery, a South Carolina professional bass angler who flies the Farm to Feet logo in tournaments. The fisherman designed a sock that dries quickly and is resistant to ultraviolet rays. The socks, which comprise 10% of company sales, are made with U.S. labor and materials.
The rest of Nester’s products are made for or licensed from other companies, including Woolrich, Pa.-based Woolrich Inc. For those customers, Nester seeks the best wool and labor at the best price, regardless of origin. Australia accounts for about a quarter of the 2.8 billion pounds of raw wool produced worldwide annually, according to Iowa State University’s Agricultural Marketing Resource Center. U.S. sheep, which thrive along the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains, produce much less, about 30 million pounds in 2011.
Sourcing that rarer wool required asking suppliers the right questions, says Dave Petri, Nester’s vice president of marketing. The most important answer came about four years ago, when the first U.S. plant capable of fully processing wool for spinning opened in Jamestown, S.C. That was the link Nester needed to complete its U.S. supply chain.
The Farm to Feet brand has a supply chain that includes workers spinning wool at Greensboro-based Burlington Industries LLC’s Raeford plant, preparing packaging at Concord-based Snyder Packaging Inc. and devising store displays at Greensboro-based Ryan Scott Inc. In-state manufacturing allows shorter shipping distances, which tighten lead times, lessen environmental impacts and eliminate importing issues, such as the longshoremen labor dispute that shut West Coast ports earlier this year.
Nester, 56, wouldn’t discuss annual sales at the family-owned company, but he said Farm to Feet knits more than 7.5 million pairs of socks a year, retailing for about $15 to $25. Petri expects Farm to Feet sales to grow as it expands its retailer network, which stretches into more than 40 states and includes nine Raleigh-based Great Outdoor Provision Co. stores. The socks are set to appear on shelves at all nine Valle Crucis-based The Mast General Store Inc. locations this fall.