Rows of knitting machines hum and chatter in unison inside Northfield's Cabot Hosiery Mills. Each machine is roughly the size of a video arcade game; at its center is a steel cylinder no larger than a coffee can. Within each cylinder, some 50 to 200 knitting needles rapidly weave complex patterns using a half-dozen different yarns. A single machine clicks and whirs for nearly five minutes before it abruptly falls silent. Then, after a brief, loud whoosh, a plastic vacuum tube spits out just one sock.
After all that activity, you'd expect to see 100 socks pop out -- or at least a dozen. In today's highly mechanized world of overseas textile manufacturing, where shrink-wrapped tube socks are literally a dime a dozen, this kind of meticulous weaving might seem ponderously slow and, well, darned inefficient.
How can Cabot Hosiery Mills keep up with much larger textile mills in Honduras, Sri Lanka, Malaysia and China, where labor and energy costs are much lower and environmental and human-rights laws all but nonexistent? "We don't," company co-owner Ric Cabot answers bluntly. "But that's not what we're all about."
Cabot is not about quantity, he says, but quality. Since 1978, Cabot socks have been hanging tough in an ever-changing apparel industry -- and sales are showing no signs of wearing thin. In an age when shoppers are accustomed to buying six- packs of cheap, white hosiery, this privately owned, Vermont family business has gotten ahead of the competition by going after the niche market of high-quality, athletic footwear.
Leading the way is Cabot's fastest growing product line: Darn Tough Vermont, a soft but durable performance sock that's recently gained national media attention in glossy, upscale magazines such as Runner's World and Outside. And at $15 to $20 per pair, Darn Tough Vermont has pulled off an even bigger coup: winning over consumers who skeptics once warned would never drop that much cash on one pair of socks.
Darn Tough's success is bucking a national trend. Reflective of all American manufacturing, the U.S. textile industry has just entered a new era of steep decline. For at least two decades, much of the apparel sold in the United States has been made overseas. But in January, global quotas on all textiles and apparel were lifted as a result of an international deal brokered in 1993.
No country has reaped the rewards of that development more than China. As The New York Times reported in March, U.S. imports of Chinese apparel are up a whopping 546 percent over last year, resulting in the loss of more than 12,000 jobs in the U.S. textile industry. According to the Times, some analysts predict that China will take over as much as 70 percent of the American clothing market within the next two years.
But while other U.S. apparel makers are getting their knickers in a knot over these ominous developments -- with many bowing to pressures to move their operations overseas -- Cabot says his company is staying put in the Green Mountains.
Not that there aren't plenty of tempting offers to move elsewhere. "We get faxes every single day from people manufacturing offshore asking us to let them make our socks," Cabot says. "But at the end of the day, people like to buy product from Vermont. I think it matters to our customers, and it matters to our customers' customers."
Cabot, who is 40, is a third-generation sock maker. His grandfather started the business in the Carolinas; his father, Marc, who's still involved in its daily operations, opened the Northfield plant 27 years ago. Today, Cabot Hosiery Mills has annual revenues in the $8-10 million range and employs 78 people, some of whom have been with the company for more than 20 years. Obviously, Cabot pays higher wages than its offshore competitors -- between $10 and $23 per hour, plus benefits, depending on the job. But as Cabot points out, it's worth the price.
"I would say that the best people in the sock industry are right here in Northfield, Vermont -- the most experienced, the most hands-on, the most technical, people who have seen it all."
That might sound like a boast, coming from an owner who occasionally peppers his conversation with the company's marketing slogans. But a visit to the Cabot warehouse reveals an impressive range of styles and patterns, both for the Darn Tough brand and for the private labels they sell to major national retailers. In the company's "sock library" -- yes, that's what they call it -- the elder Cabot, an avid fisherman, explains how he recently developed a successful line of socks.
"I got an invite to go trout fishing in Patagonia. So we went over to Bolivia, found some sweater knitters there who were doing patterns like these," Marc Cabot says, displaying a thick, woolen weave, "and we translated them into a pair of socks." After returning to the states, Cabot drew some sketches from memory and asked his designer to enter them into a computer. Within two weeks, the company had sold 100,000 pairs.
In many respects, the Cabot business model isn't that different from other small but successful Vermont businesses: Make a well-designed, high-quality product that takes longer to produce and costs a bit more than its mass-produced competition but lasts three times as long. Then, capitalize on the state's reputation for down-home durability and market it under the Vermont name. As Ric Cabot notes, "Darn Tough Connecticut probably wouldn't come off as well."
Roland Beliveau is the sales and marketing director for Darn Tough Vermont. He says he wasn't surprised when Darn Toughs' three styles of socks -- hiking/ trekking, skiing/riding and biking/running -- found acceptance in Vermont outdoor stores such as Climb High, Outdoor Gear Exchange, Onion River Sports and similar retailers in Colorado and Utah. Then last year, the company landed a major account with the national retail chain, Eastern Mountain Sports.
More surprising, perhaps, the Darn Tough line is now in stores that cater "to loggers and truck drivers and sell Husqvarna chainsaws," Beliveau says. "We don't know how they're hearing about these socks, but that's all they want to wear."
Of course, Vermonters have long known about Cabot's reputation. Every year for two weekends in November, the mill opens its doors and sells socks directly to the public at a huge discount. The annual event draws as many as 5000 people, some of whom drive from as far away as Maine and Pennsyl-vania. Folks wait out in the cold before the doors open at 8 a.m. -- just for an opportunity to buy socks by the bagful.
"The perception has moved to the point where, if they don't wait an hour in line, they feel like they're not getting a great deal," Cabot jokes. "So the longer they wait, the better they feel."
Apparently, those who have field-tested Darn Tough socks claim they're second to none. During a recent visit to Outdoor Gear Exchange in Burlington, one salesman who'd received a pair as a gift couldn't say enough good things about them. At last year's Vermont City Marathon in Burlington, the company gave away 4500 pairs to all the entrants. Reportedly, a number of runners crossed the finish line wearing them -- a ringing endorsement, considering serious athletes rarely try out new gear for the first time in competition. According to Beliveau, the U.S. Military's winter warfare facility in Jericho is now testing Darn Tough socks for possible use by its Special Forces unit.
The Cabots aren't very secretive about their success -- they had no qualms, for example, about mentioning who supplies their high-quality Merino wool in New Zealand. But some things they won't divulge. A recent tour of the Northfield mill ends at a row of industrial dryers tumbling hundreds of pairs of socks at a time. Do they ever end up with an odd number? Chuckling, Cabot shakes his head. Some trade secrets must stay in the family.