We’ve been partnering with friend and fellow Alabamian Gina Locklear of Little River Sock Mill for four years to create a line of Made in the USA, organic cotton socks that complement our collections. Our most recent designs (stripe shortie, crew, and tall) launched alongside the Leisure Collection last month and match the quality and coziness of our (also) Alabama-manufactured, organic cotton clothing perfectly.
There are many similarities between our businesses. One of the biggest: Florence was once known as the T-shirt Capital of The World, and another northern Alabama town—Fort Payne (home to Little River Sock Mill)—held the title of Sock Capital of The World. The sock business has been in Gina’s family for almost three decades, and she stepped in in 2009 to become more involved and create her own lines: zkano and Little River Sock Mill. Over the last ten years, Gina has been steadfast at compassionately growing her businesses in her community and has been committed to providing an organic and quality-made product.
Below we share our in-depth interview with Gina about the challenges, struggles, and triumphs of running a small business with a focus on American-manufacturing and organics. Enjoy.
AC: Fort Payne, Alabama, faced the same challenges as Florence—when economic changes reconfigured the entire clothing manufacturing industry. Yet your parents decided to keep their Emi-G mill open. Why do you think that is?
GL: They didn’t have a choice. They had to keep it open. And it was more like we were trying really hard to figure out a way not to close. All of the mills around us that had been in town for years and years, friends and family, they were losing their mills.
AC: Have there been any challenges in merging your business with your parents’ business?
GL: In the beginning, the Emi-G company was a “greige goods” manufacturer. They produced according to the specs given to them by their customers. They made huge quantities of socks. They were all the same style; they were all white socks or gray socks—usually athletic socks. But, whatever it was, it was extremely basic production in mass quantities. The point was to get the product finished and out the door. So, that was pretty easy compared to what we are doing now. There was a big learning curve associated with: 1) creating your own brand, how do you do that and everything that goes with that? Getting the logo, the website, and branding and packaging. And then how do you sell it? It’s been a learning curve and it was really hard in the first year of our business and it’s still hard today, to be honest.
AC: Knowing the struggles they faced, where did your drive to get back into the sock industry come from?
GL: In a nutshell, I wanted to think of a way to keep the mill open. We weren’t promised tomorrow. I watched my mom and dad start this business from the ground up. When they started in 1991, we had this tiny mill on the top of Sand Mountain and they were employees in their own mill—and they still are today. But they were running the manufacturing process then and there were only three people total and my mom and dad were two of those people. I spent summers at the mill watching them do that; that was really special to me and I just realized how valuable it was. In 2005, when outsourcing was stealing away the hosiery industry, I didn’t want it to go away. I just thought: what if we start making our own brand of socks and if we build it into something successful, we won’t have to worry about losing our business.
Seeing what it did to the town—all the mills shutting down, the impact that it made. Half of the town’s population in 2005 was employed by the hosiery industry, so thinking about those people who were losing their jobs, it affected friends of ours, family members. Every single person in Ft. Payne had a connection to the hosiery industry and it was heartbreaking.
During that time, people were not talking about Made in the USA back then. I thought, if Americans knew what was happening to manufacturers around the country, they would care more and maybe think twice about going into these big box stores and purchasing clothes made cheaply in another country.
AC: You own and manufacture under the brand names Little River Sock Mill and zkano. Where do these names originate? And why did you choose them?
GL: Both brands operate under the umbrella of my parents’ existing business. We refer to Little River Sock Mill as the sister brand to zkano. zkano is inspired by Alabama Native Americans. It loosely translates as a “state of being good.” That’s our philosophy of making socks from start to finish at my parents’ mill, with organic cotton, low-impact dyes, and a process that we try to make as sustainably as we possibly can.
And Little River Sock Mill is named after Little River Canyon, which is in Ft. Payne. It’s a National preserve, it’s stunningly gorgeous, and “Sock Mill” spoke to the fact that we make our socks. And I loved it because, growing up, I loved going to Little River Canyon; it’s part of everyone’s lives in Ft. Payne. I thought: “Sock Mill”, I like that because I feel like what makes us unique as a sock brand is that we actually manufacture the socks that we sell. And there are not very many brands that do that. So I wanted to, perhaps, make that more obvious than it was under the zkano label.
AC: What are the differences between the two brands? They have their own aesthetic and point-of-view.
GL: The materials and processes are the same, but for zkano, it’s more graphic and bold and has some loud color combinations and bolder designs. Whereas Little River has softer color palette, softer designs, and textures not found in Zkano. It’s more feminine. Zkano might be considered more fun. It appeals to two different audiences and with Little River, it’s inspired by vintage patterns; we do a lot of vintage floral patterns each season.
AC: Like Alabama Chanin, you create an organic product. How was that decision received in your hometown? And what have been your greatest challenges in maintaining an organic supply chain?
GL: We have a LOT of support from our community. We just opened up a storefront in our mill and have been blown away by the support we’ve seen in our own community and in Alabama. And, yes, we’ve had questions about organic cotton, why we use organic cotton, but that was mostly when we first started in 2009 when organic wasn’t as commonplace as it is today.
I think that where it has been hard has been finding US-grown organic cotton, which we weren’t able to source during the first three years of our business—now we do. We had to figure out a way that was outside the box because calling up our yarn rep and ordering cotton, well, you couldn’t do that with organic cotton. They had the product but the quantities they required were just insane. We couldn’t afford to buy those quantities as a small business. So, we imported it from Turkey during the first three years and then found a way to purchase the raw cotton and then have it spun at a smaller spinner. We ended up going straight to the source instead of through a yarn distributor and that’s been working for us.
Otherwise, the challenges have been building a brand and building a brand using organic cotton. The profits aren’t what they would be if we were using traditional cotton, but we’ve made a commitment to staying organic and that’s a challenge we knew we would face going into this.
AC: What are your greatest design inspirations and/or challenges?
GL: For Little River, we did a collection based on some quilt patterns. I love the storytelling aspect behind quilting. It’s fun when you can have very specific inspiration, because we don’t always. Sometimes they are inspired by trends and things that I think are fun. And I’m not a designer, just so you know. I just figured out how to put colors and designs together on my own. It’s been a constant learning experience. I think our designs get better each season. Right now, we are working on both brands back-to-back and I’m a little more inspired if there is some quiet time between seasons.
AC: Doing business sustainably and responsibly has very unique challenges. What advice would you give to those who want to tread a similar path?
GL: I would just encourage them. Let them know that they have to be fluid and roll with the punches. Because it’s not a clear and straightforward path—at least it hasn’t been for us. If we’d done traditional cotton and regular dyes, there’s a lot of things that I think would have been easier. You also have to be ready and know that things won’t always work out the way you intended because there’s a unique set of challenges there and you will be constantly problem solving.
AC: You have collaborated with other designers, like Billy Reid. What benefit do you find in collaboration?
GL: We don’t do a lot of collaboration—mostly just with Alabama Chanin. We collaborated with Billy Reid in the past, and we just launched a new collaboration with imogene + willie. We want to work with brands we have a connection with. You’re kindred spirits. You care about the same things. Your customers care about the same things. For us, the Alabama tie is very special.
AC: What do you find to be the most rewarding part of keeping your family’s business growing and creating your own brand?
GL: I love working side-by-side with both of them every day. And I love that they are getting to see it, even though we have a lot of growing to do. I feel like we’ve done fairly well over the years and it’s exciting to me that they get to see that and that they get to be in that environment every day. Now that we have our store, people come in and talk about our socks and they say the nicest things and we’re blessed to have so much support and when people walk through the doors we get to hear about it. My dad is in there a lot and it’s affirmation that we made the right decision. Plus, it’s time I get to spend with them and getting to be by their side every day and still learning from them every day is particularly special. And we’re just glad to be open. If you’d asked me in 2009 if I thought we’d be open today, I’m not sure what I would have said – but we are and it’s growing still. It’s great for all of us to witness that because we were in a really low place. It’s a good feeling to know that people connect to the story of Ft. Payne and they want to support that.
AC: Can you tell us what is next/on the horizon for your brands?
GL: That’s a good question. We haven’t announced this yet, but we’re about to. We are doing some wool socks—so that’s going to be very new for us. This will be under the zkano brand. Next month we will be putting some merino wool socks on our website, so we are pretty excited about that. We’ve had many requests for years – so we are finally working on that. It’s a big deal to us. It might not seem like it from the outside, but it’s a huge deal to us.
We are extremely proud and honored to continue Ft. Payne’s textile tradition at our mill. And we’re not the only mill still open, by the way. There’s about fourteen of us, but there were over 150. It’s special for us to be partnering with Alabama Chanin because we were the “Sock Capital” and you were the “T-Shirt Capital” so we have a special connection.