In an era where companies are looking to cut costs through outsourcing, family-owned businesses have consistently bucked the trend thanks to their commitment to long-term employment and preservation of legacy over generations. No where is this more evident than in Fort Payne, Alabama. In 2000, the city was referred to as the “Sock Capital of the World,” and hosted around 125 hosiery mills, with 8,000 of the town’s roughly 13,000 residents producing half of America’s socks. By 2011, corporate outsourcing devastated the town’s production so that the number of mills dropped to 20, employing only 600 people.
This gutting of the local industry was all the more shocking to Gina Locklear and her family, who started making socks at the height of the boom when they opened a knitting mill in 1991. “We felt alone, our business was suffering, and we didn’t know what was going to happen. There were times we didn’t know if we would close. It was scary,” recalled Locklear.
But such fears only made her determined to fight to keep her family’s tradition and livelihood intact. “I hated knowing there was a chance something my mom and dad worked so hard to make a success could go away because of outsourcing and cheap labor.”
The Birth of Little River Sock Mill
After Locklear graduated from Samford University, she quickly launched her own venture called Little River Sock Mill that continued her family business by producing socks at her parent’s mill. But the company’s socks came with a twist: it would create socks that are made entirely from organic cotton.
“Once I decided I was going to make socks, I said they’d have to be organic,” said Locklear, “because at that point, I had incorporated organic living into all parts of my life.”
Her reasoning for going organic was twofold. Organic products play a major role in spreading awareness for local industries and businesses that hail from small communities, such as the one that she grew up in. But the practice also helps combat social costs that come from the global cotton trade, such as human rights violations for producers and environmental damage.
However, Locklear found that going organic was much more difficult than she expected. The regional textile industry had no prior push for such practices, meaning that she initially struggled to secure organic cotton that weren’t imported from foreign countries. But her passion for supporting local businesses and American-made goods paid off in the end, when she found a willing local supplier called Alabama Chanin.
“I am so proud that we’re creating a sock manufactured from start to finish in Alabama,” she says. “Alabama Chanin’s project will bring our mission full-circle.”
“We try to do little capsule stories within our collection for each season,” said Locklear. “For Fall 2015, you’ll see patterns like flying geese, and floral and star patterns that are based on quilt patterns. We’re always looking to plug in our Southern heritage when and where we can.”
In spite of the company’s many creative and socially responsible initiatives, it is clear that what truly separates it from others is the commitment to securing and preserving the family legacy. “I really look up to my parents and I’m so proud of what they did. I wanted to tell their story.” Locklear says, adding that the company has “no plans to ever leave Fort Payne.”
Original interview posted on Tharawat Magazine
Pictures from the New York Times.