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There’s a place, way down east in Jamestown, South Carolina, where wild wool goes to get scoured, spiffed up, and ready for a transformation. It’s a factory on the banks of a river, and it smells like a potent cocktail of farm animals and grease. It’s called Chargeurs Wool USA, and its a long way from where the wool started its journey.
That was a soaring, sagebrush-smelling, charming Old West sheep shearing camp in a place called Hay Hollow, Wyoming. Over two short days, in the wind and sun, 2,000-plus western-bred Rambouillet sheep farted their way into a mobile sheep-shearing “plant,” where an Uruguayan shearing team relieved them of their fleeces. The wool—all 45,000 pounds—then traveled in bales on a flatbed truck southeast, across the country. Twenty, 30, or maybe 50 hours later, it ended up at the only wool washing and processing plant in America, Chargeurs, along the Santee River.
Since 1955, Chargeurs has specialized in turning “greasy wool”—the stuff straight off the sheep—into “wool top”—clean, gorgeous, silky wool ready to become garments and socks. But before raw wool can become garment wool, it goes through several processes.
The fluff that looked so enticing back in Wyoming now floats in a tub of boiling hot water. It’s a burbling soup of mud, “vegetable matter” (sagebrush, twigs), and lanolin (wax secreted by the sebaceous glands of wool-bearing animals).
Wool’s intensive 10-step transformation from greasy to glorious
A worker adds freshly-shorn wool to a baler at Hay Hollow, Wyoming.
Bales of wool sit on the loading dock at Chargeurs processing plant, awaiting the bath of their life.
Greasy wool gets blended before the scouring.
Greasy wool then moves through a series of hot water troughs, where it is raked, agitated, and separated from grit, grime, and lanolin.
Freshly scoured wool takes a trip through the dryer.
The carding process, in which wool passes through rollers covered in tiny wire teeth, does two key things. First, it removes small pieces of vegetable matter (like grass and other organics) from the wool fibers. Second, it organizes and aligns all the wool fibers in the same direction so they can be twisted into yarn.
Clean wool fibers are then twisted into long ropes.
The ropes are fed through a machine that forms them into neat coils.
This technology—which descales each wool fiber and applies a non-toxic to make it softer and prevent shrinking or felting—was developed in the 1970s as a way to make wool easier to wash and care for. But until the American Sheep Industry invested in the U.S.’s only superwashing machine five years ago (at Chargeurs), American wool had to be sent abroad for superwashing.
Squeaky clean wool is now ready for the knitters.
Big metal rakes, unchanged since the 1600’s “open” the wool and agitate out the gunk. It’ll go from this tub into another before being “carded” (disentangled and cleaned again), “combed” (further refined, losing short fibers and more vegetable matter), and “superwashed” (chlorine-treated to become shrink-free). Shortly thereafter, it’ll become “wool top,” a long, luxurious wool fiber rope resembling the several-stories-long braid of an overrated Disney damsel in distress.
Once clean, this wool will then embark on yet another journey, to one of several sock mills that dot the east coast. So many outdoor performance socks spring from the Alabama, Tennessee, North Carolina corridor that Robert Thomas, Smartwool’s product line manager, once proclaimed it “the Silicon Valley of socks.”
Today, Goodhew, Teko, Farm to Feet, Woolrich, Patagonia, FITS, Darn Tough, and other outdoor sock companies all either knit their own socks or have them knitted by hosiery mills along the East Coast. And if any of these socks employ American wool, the raw material comes here, to Chargeurs, first.
In the American wool supply story, wool must pass through many hands—in turn, employing many American workers—on its journey from sheep to apparel. It’s an interesting tale, even if you don’t geek out on textiles and lanolin.
Sheep ranching is as old as wagon trains and westward expansion. But wool sock-making predates the Civil War. (Woolrich started making socks in 1830). And without this piece of the puzzle—cleaning and processing the wool, spinning it, and knitting it—the ranchers back in Wyoming would lack a home for their product.
Local jobs for a local economy
“Jamestown,” where Chargeurs is located, “is not so much a town as a crossroads with one stoplight,” says Diego Paullier, the company’s commercial manager. Jamestown’s neck of the woods is “pretty rural, so we get people from a 20-mile radius wanting to work at Chargeurs.” Other area jobs include grocery store or gas station clerk, daycare provider, or department store salesperson.
All these jobs are minimum-wage, offer no benefits, and therefore offer little stability for workers. Chargeurs employees, on the other hand, get “a living wage, health insurance, and 401K,” says Paullier. In an era in which the U.S. has outsourced five million factory jobs since 2000, the plant employs 60 full-time factory workers. “It’s not a huge number,” concedes Paullier. “But it translates to supporting 60 families.”
First-, second-, and even third-generation families take one of three eight-hour, five-day-a-week shifts, driving forklifts, scouring wool, working as mechanics, engineers, in management, or as quality control operators, before some of them trade shifts with other family members. David Cooper, 83, for instance, has worked at Chargeurs for 62 years; his son, Roy, for 35 years; David’s daughter Norma Morris, for 19 years; and Norma’s stepson, Ken, for four years.
From “wool top” to wool socks
Once the wool is clean—it’s a rigorous, multi-step process (see Gallery, above)—it’s wound into a long, silky, off-white “rope” reminiscent of Rapunzel’s braid. Then it’s coiled into round blue bins, each weighing around 200 pounds, and shipped to a spinner, who’ll turn the “wool top” into wool yarn, and send it to one of the knitting mills on the east coast.
Nester Hosiery, in Mt. Airy, North Carolina, is one such mill.
Ten thousand people live in the town that looks out at Pilot Mountain, a metamorphic quartzite peak topping out at 2,421 feet.
The median household income in 2015 was roughly $33,000. Textiles boomed in the 1970s and ‘80s, like they did up and down the East Coast, but they took a hit when NAFTA went into effect in 1995. By the early 2000s, several large U.S. sock manufacturers, including Fruit of the Loom and Haines, moved overseas for cheaper labor.
Nester, however, kept jobs in Mt. Airy. It opened in 1993, with fewer than 20 employees; that number now reaches 190—and balloons above 200 during busy seasons.
“Working here is a sought-after arrangement,” says Kelly Nester, the company’s CEO. But it took Nester Hosiery’s founder Marty Nester’s vision to make it so.
As a young man, Marty did shift work at Renfro before climbing his way into leadership roles, after which Brown Wooten Mills hired him away. In 1993, he left Brown Wooten to start his own “greige knit mill,” which sells “unfinished” socks to other hosieries.
But thanks to NAFTA, in 1995, he started seeing his customers either close shop or take their business overseas.
In both cases, they no longer needed Nester. So, Marty decided to become a vertically-integrated, full-fledged hosiery manufacturer, specializing in wool—not cotton—socks. After a few years, he took it a step further and began specializing in outdoor performance socks.
Kelly Nester joined the company around then, too. The uncle and nephew team “began knocking on doors of outdoor retailers, looking to partner with existing brands to make wool socks,” says Dave Petri, Nester’s vice president of marketing. Their first big accounts: Bass Pro, Cabela’s, and the Boy Scouts of America. By 2000, they had close to a dozen accounts, says Petri.
Keeping up with the Nesters
The Nesters were early adopters in a major technological sock advancement: a machine that could knit socks with seamless toe closures. This not only improved the fit of socks and eliminated friction inside them, it cut out one manudacturing step, says Kelly Nester. Instead of closing the toe of each and every sock by hand, a machine could make quick work of the job.
Then they developed an innovative software system that let them trace each sock through the entire manufacturing process. “As we were becoming more and more involved as a major supplier in the outdoor industry, one of the things that became very apparent was that customers wanted more traceability in their supply chain,” says Kelly Nester.
The first 100-percent American-made sock
The idea of traceability blossomed from there. “We realized that if we worked hard enough we could make a 100 percent made-in-America sock,” says Dave Petri. “Not just the wool, but the nylon, the spandex, and the Lycra.”
By 2010, Petri says they were ready to “control their own destiny,” so they created the Farm to Feet brand.
Nester, as a company, was already committed to the idea of manufacturing transparency. Kelly Nester had the idea to send a pro photographer to shoot each step of the manufacturing process. In essence, those pictures created Farm to Feet.
More and more Americans are becoming conscious of where their products come from, says OIA’s policy adviser Andrew Pappas. In fact, a recent Outdoor Industry Association Consumer Vue study shows that 30 percent of U.S. outdoor consumers are willing to pay more for products made in America.
Farm to Feet caught on with consumers embracing the idea of traceability. The growth curve is impressive: By 2014, the company had quadrupled in size; in 2015, it grew by 50 percent; last year it grew by 90 percent. “And this year,” says Kelly Nester, “we’re projecting 65 percent growth.”
Nester is a family-run affair, from Marty, the founder, to Kelly, the CEO, to Kelly’s brothers, Keith and Kerry, also company executives, to Marty’s son, Dane, Farm to Feet’s new product designer. They’re proof—like the sheep ranching families—that sometimes the best products are created by people who’ve made them for generations. Farm to Feet’s traceability also explains its explosive growth in the four years since it’s formed.
Brendan Madigan, who owns Alpenglow Sports, a specialty outdoor retail shop in Lake Tahoe, California, says Farm to Feet socks are “a highlight in our store.”
“The sock category is one of the most competitive and challenging in the outdoor industry, but Farm to Feet gives people a reason to purchase their product,” he says.
“As the world grows more apart and polarized, people are voting with their dollar. Positive messaging—like Made in America—sets brands apart. When a brand like Farm to Feet backs their message up with action and good product at a fair price, everyone wins—most importantly, the customer.”
This story was made possible through travel support from Farm to Feet and the American Wool Council.