Sockmaker Thorlo makes quick, successful turn to face masks

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By Edward Martin

None of its 200 employees had the coronavirus, but by early April it was obvious that the pandemic posed an existential threat to Statesville-based sockmaker Thorlo. First, online commerce giant Amazon, which is Thorlo’s biggest customer, concluded that socks were not essential and those who made them, unprotected from shutdown orders. Orders from large retailing sporting-goods chains cratered.

Scores of employees were furloughed, including brand manager Tracy Harris. ‘’We were no longer shipping to Amazon and when you have these other stores closing, we had to shut the factory down,” he says. “We didn’t knit any socks for probably three weeks.”

What followed was a remarkably fast industrial gear change, capped by making the best of a bad situation for thousands of consumers and the front-line medical and other workers struggling to keep them healthy.

Over two weeks in early April, plant engineers devised ways to rejigger Thorlo’s complex circular knitting machines to turn out thousands of personal protection masks. They were branded as Face Tek, using materials on hand to avoid potential supply chain gaps.

“It took them probably a week to make samples, try out fittings on different folks and seeing how they held up, using the different fibers we already use in our socks,” Harris says.  “We use a nylon and polyester blend with copper that permanently binds to the polyester.  Copper has natural antimicrobial properties.”  Thorlo’s Statesville plant is registered with the federal Food and Drug Administration.

“There’s an immediate need for personal protective equipment in the consumer sector, and Face Tek serves this while keeping our factory running and ourcommunity employed,” says Dave Varsik, Thorlo’s research-and-development director.

By early May, Thorlo had sold more than 50,000 of the masks, stretchy, black bands that cover the mouth and nose and retail for $12.99.

While the masks served to get knitting machines up and running, Thorlo’s direct-to-consumer sales remained strong. “We had orders going out and I was shocked at how well they were doing,” Harris says. “I don’t guess we were quite to the level of people hoarding socks like toilet paper, but I was surprised at how they held up.”

Founded in the 1980s by the late Jim Throneburg, Thorlo tailors cushioned socks for dozens of sports and other activities.  A “12-hour-shift sock” is designed for workers who stand and walk for long periods, using special cushioning and compression. “If you’re on your feet all day, your legs can hurt and this lessens fatigue from standing,” Harris says.

Earlier this year, the company rolled out its Donate4Me campaign contributing a pair of the socks to health care workers who typically stand through much of their shifts.

“When you place an order through our website, we pull a pair of them and put them in a kitty to donate. We found people reaching out to us, who often have friends or family and would like to have the socks sent to their hospitals. One of those was a lady who had two sons, both emergency-room doctors, who worked in two different states.”

The program had recently donated about 1,000 pairs to nurses and others, at an average retail price of about $16.99.

“It’s hard to see the smiles on their faces because of the masks,” Harris says, “but we know it’s there.”

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