STORY BY BENJAMIN LERNER
PHOTOGRAPHY COURTESY DARN TOUGH VERMONT
Strength. Flexibility. Adaptability. Resilience.
For Darn Tough Vermont, these qualities perfectly define both their products and the people behind them. When Darn Tough CEO Ric Cabot first founded the brand in 2004, he created an honest and unpretentious product line that revolutionized the sock industry by rejecting established norms. Refusing to compromise on his ethical principles or lower his quality standards, Ric was able to build on his father’s legacy of innovative textile entrepreneurship and grow Darn Tough into a formidable industry powerhouse.
Ric’s father, Marc Cabot, began his journey in the textile industry after leaving a promising reporting job at the Miami Herald in the early 1960s. After experiencing creative frustration as a writer, Marc ultimately found his artistic calling in fabric design. As Marc himself puts it, “Every artist has to find their way to make their creative mark on the world. Writers do it with a typewriter. I used a knitting machine to express myself.”
When Marc was hired as a designer at a successful corporate textile firm in New York City, he was quickly presented with the opportunity to accept a high-paying job as a sock salesman. Marc then made a bold and unconventional decision: he declined their offer and opted instead to continue his work as a textile designer on the condition that he could work part-time in a knitting factory in North Carolina to learn the finer points of hosiery production.
After familiarizing himself with industry-standard knitting techniques by immersing himself in his work at the hosiery mill, Marc returned to New York City. He then spent years developing business contacts in the textile industry while working as a designer and salesman. When the time was right, Marc capitalized on the knowledge and skills he had acquired during his time at the knitwear factory in North Carolina. He developed a uniquely cunning business strategy: working directly with hosiery mills as the exclusive commissioned sock designer for corporate clothing brands, he operated both as a creative consultant and a business negotiator. This unique arrangement allowed him to broker airtight deals between hosiery manufacturers and corporate suppliers.
By drafting exclusive product design contracts with name brand companies such as Calvin Klein and Perry Ellis, he was able to create higher profit margins on both ends by excising intermediary suppliers. He created a direct supply line between textile manufacturers and major clothing brands that set new standards for commercial efficiency in the knitwear industry. In the process, he built a reputation as an astute and honest businessman. His ability to read the market and anticipate future trends allowed him to survive through a series of tumultuous market fluctuations.
In 1978, Marc founded Cabot Hosiery Mills in Northfield, Vermont, and realized his dream of owning and operating a successful hosiery manufacturing business. Eleven years later, his son Ric joined the company in 1989. When Cabot Hosiery Mills lost the majority of their corporate supply contracts due to rampant outsourcing in the early 2000s, Marc and Ric began to encounter considerable financial difficulties. Confronted with an intimidating predicament, they refused to capitulate their values or back down. Following in his father’s footsteps, Ric made the courageous decision to take the reins of the operation. Ric applied the hands-on experience he acquired through years of hard work on the Cabot Hosiery Mills knitting floor towards the design and development of the Darn Tough brand. Ric and Marc subsequently formed an intergenerational family financial partnership, and invested a large share of their remaining assets into Ric’s new business venture.
With the fate of the family business resting on his shoulders, Ric seized the opportunity to move the company forward with zealous enthusiasm. Drawing his inspiration from the hearty and resolute spirit of the Vermont residents who staffed the Cabot Hosiery Mills factory, he crafted high-quality socks that were every bit as resilient and adaptable as the people who made them. It was no easy feat to develop a viable new business strategy that could meet the demands of a quickly changing market, but when the going got tough - that’s when Darn Tough got going.
It all started when Ric made the first run of Darn Tough branded socks in a collaborative partnership with the Vermont City Marathon in Burlington in 2004. By blending the natural moisture-wicking and antimicrobial properties of fine gauge Merino wool yarn with the elastic flexibility of nylon, and Lycra®/Spandex, Ric created a comfortable athletic sock that was both flexible and durable. Word quickly spread past the local Vermont community, resulting in distribution contracts with national outdoor supply retail chains such as L.L. Bean and REI.
As Darn Tough’s market reach continued to grow, the operation expanded past the original Northfield sock mill to include two additional buildings – one auxiliary sock finishing and inventory enter in Northfield known as the “Nantanna” facility, and one corporate office building at the former site of the Keurig Coffee plant in nearby Waterbury. Due to Darn Tough’s continued commercial success, Ric has received multiple purchase offers from larger corporations seeking to acquire the brand. He has turned them all down in favor of retaining ownership himself.
Ric takes pride in Darn Tough’s locally-based manufacturing process, and refuses to follow the near-ubiquitous industry trend of foreign outsourcing. Every stage of Darn Tough’s sock making process is consolidated within their three company-owned locations in Northern Vermont. Ric’s dedication to small business values, independent ownership, and honest craftsmanship is embodied by Darn Tough’s corporate slogan: “We have yet to produce our best sock.”
True to that philosophy, Darn Tough goes to extreme lengths to make sure that every sock that they produce lives up to their exacting quality standards. Darn Tough Brand and Community Marketing Manager Courtney Laggner says that “from the early stages of raw material quality control to the final finishing and shipping stages, so many hands touch each pair of Darn Tough socks before they get sent out as a finished product.”
The sock making process begins with an intensive raw material inspection stage. All of the wool, nylon, and Lycra®/Spandex Darn Tough uses to make their socks goes through multiple levels of quality control before it continues onward to the main knitting floor. Once the raw materials are brought into the Northfield sock mill, they are painstakingly examined by the Raw Material Quality Control team to make sure they meet Darn Tough’s standards of thread count, strength, color consistency, micron count, denier (fiber density), and elastic recovery.
Raw Material Quality Control Specialist Heather Grant explains that “when we source our materials, we have to make sure that they are up to our standards. We can’t have our material fall out of our acceptable color range or fall short of our fiber strength requirements. In order to measure the strength of the fibers, we use what is called a tensile strength testing machine. It stretches the fibers to test their strength. To test color, we use a spectrophotometer that measures color density. We use machine-integrated software to process the results. If the color falls out of an acceptable range in a bullseye graph, we send it back. It’s a self-improving diagnostic process. By providing feedback to the partners that we source our materials from, not only can we make our own products better – we can help them improve their own quality control efforts on their end.”
Darn Tough applies a similar diagnostic feedback system to all of its internal quality control procedures. With tens of thousands of socks shipped out daily, clear communication is essential at all steps of the manufacturing process to ensure that every sock meets Darn Tough’s exacting quality standards. Each sock that emerges from Darn Tough’s knitting machines originates in the design department, where sock designs and color themes for future collections are conceived as far as 18 months in advance. Sometimes when time is of the essence – such as special collaborations with local charitable organizations like the Vermont Food Bank, the sock designs are drawn up and sent through the development department in a matter of weeks.
In either case, Darn Tough’s artistic team collaborates with their graphic design team to create digital sock designs that are then sent onward to the development department. The development team uses rendering software to turn their artistic concepts into tangible product designs. Using advanced textile engineering techniques, they create algorithmically bit-mapped formulas custom tailored to the machines used on the Darn Tough knitting floor.
According to Development team specialist Trevor Rossi, “There’s a lot of mathematical thinking involved in the process, but you also need to have a good eye for detail. It’s equal parts engineering and artistry. Each bitmapped unit has to be in the right place so that the yarn transitions that the machine makes when knitting the socks will be in the exact right spot. Every little dot in the computer program is just one tiny stitch – you have to stay vigilant to make sure that the
pattern comes out perfectly.”
After the development team creates the sock design program, it is digitally pushed out to the main knitting floor, into a knitting machine. Before the Darn Tough knitting team can begin production on any new sock style, a test run of prototype socks is knit on a designated “sample machine.” The test socks are then taken down to the quality control testing department, where they are stretch-tested for strength and durability. After being approved by the quality control department, the new sock styles advance to the production stage.
Knitting Floor Shift Manager Brian Kilmurry says that “each different type of sock produced by one of Darn Tough’s machines comes with a job ticket – basically, a spec sheet that tells the knitter the style and color of the sock, and the yarn types needed to complete the job. The job ticket also tells the knitter what part of the sock the yarn is going into, and which corresponding yarn feeding center it gets fed through in the machine.”
Knitters working on the Darn Tough knitting floor are tasked with keeping the machines clean in order to prevent yarn buildup and ensure correct tension on the thread used to knit the socks. They also hand check each pair of socks by turning them inside out to make sure that the toe seams are not missing any stitches. Occasionally, routine problems such as broken needles will result in noticeable irregularities such as unwanted thread color inconsistencies on the surface of the socks. When complicated mechanical problems arise with the machines, an advanced team of in-house technicians stands ready to restore the machines to proper working order.
Master Technician Jim Cannon has been working at the Northfield knitting floor since the earliest days of Cabot Hosiery Mills in 1978. He says that back when he started at Cabot Hosiery, “everything was all mechanical. It wasn’t nearly as safe or advanced as it is now with all the
technological safeguards. The knitting machines we use today are pretty autonomous in a lot of ways, but you still have to make sure that the program sequence is entered correctly and that the yarn is properly fed into the machine.”
Darn Tough’s manufacturing process integrates state-of-the-art sustainable business practices to make sure that nothing goes to waste. All of the “waste-yarn” created by the knitting machines on the production floor gets transported through a vacuum system to a custom aerated disposal unit where the yarn pieces are collected in a plastic receptacle and then shipped out to a recycling facility. Not only does it allow the excess yarn created by Darn Tough’s sock making process to be recycled into wool products such as mixed-fiber carpeting, it also prevents yarn buildup in the machines that can lead to mechanical errors.
After the socks are knit and inspected by the floor team at the sock mill, they are bagged and sorted according to style and size and then transported to the nearby Nantanna facility in southern Northfield to be washed, dried, and “boarded” by the Darn Tough Sock Finishing Team. Brand and Community Marketing Manager Courtney Laggner explains that “in order for Darn Tough’s socks to achieve their signature custom performance fit, they are first washed and dried in energy-efficient combination steam wash-dry machines. They are then placed on metal foot-shaped “boards” that are custom-shaped for each gender type and size of sock. After being placed on the metal boards, they are flash-heated in a machine that bakes the socks until they custom fit to the perfect size. The socks are then taken to the auditing department, where they undergo another layer of visual and hand inspection. It’s important to inspect the socks at every stage of the process to ensure quality standards are met.”
After the socks are audited, they move on to the shipping department, where they are boxed and packaged for distribution through their fulfillment center in Ohio – or directly to consumers out of the Waterbury facility in Vermont. As Darn Tough continues to expand, their product line has grown to include a variety of different sock categories custom made to accommodate different market niches.
Their best-selling sock model is their “1466 Hiker” model, designed for maximum durability and comfort on long-range hikes. The Lifestyle sock line features colorfully stitched yarn patterns that showcase the more whimsical and fun side of Darn Tough’s design department, such as the “Animal Haus” women’s crew socks, which feature custom stitched foxes, llamas, or sloths. A unique collaborative effort between Darn Tough and professional snowboarder Jake Blauvelt resulted in the “Edge” over-the-calf snow socks, which provide cushioning comfort, warmth, and breathability, perfect for an athletically engaging afternoon on the snowy slopes. A recent philanthropically
motivated sock collaboration between Darn Tough and the Vermont Food Bank resulted in the “Foodbank Farmer’s Market” crew socks. All of the proceeds from the socks were donated to the Vermont Food Bank’s efforts to provide healthy meals for Vermont families struggling with food insecurity.
Darn Tough also supplies both the United States and New Zealand military with durable and trustworthy socks for their active combat troops. All of the socks that Darn Tough makes for its American military contracts are fully Berry Amendment compliant using Merino Wool sourced from suppliers located in the United States. Although the official military socks remain unavailable for civilian purchase, Darn Tough has created a commercial Tactical line available to the public. With advanced moisture wicking and unbelievably smooth seam fusion, socks such as the T4033 “Tactical Boot Cushion” are perfect for extended use under the harshest conditions.
Darn Tough remains firm in their resolve to provide exemplary customer service to their clients. Their unconditional lifetime guarantee program ensures that any sock that becomes extensively worn or damaged through extensive use or natural wear and tear can be replaced free of charge by placing an online claim with the Darn Tough Warranty Department. According to Darn Tough Director of Marketing Brooke Kaplan, “Darn Tough was the first company in the sock business to offer an unconditional warranty program. Many have followed in our footsteps, but we were the original. Here at Darn Tough, we believe that our customers deserve nothing less than excellence. If you live an active enough lifestyle to wear through a pair of our socks, you deserve a replacement free of charge.”
Warranty claims for worn and damaged socks all get processed through Darn Tough’s Warranty Processor Sara Polander. Sara says that the most fulfilling thing about her job is being able to “read claims from customers who have grown attached to their favorite pair of worn-out socks. People will tell me things in their claim like “I love these socks. I didn’t even want to warranty them. I feel like I got my money’s worth.” It’s so fulfilling to be able to provide a new pair to people who love our products so much.”
In addition to providing a sense of security and safety to their customers through their sock replacement guarantee, Darn Tough also goes above and beyond to create a positive and nurturing work environment for their staff members. Throughout all of its stages of commercial growth, Darn Tough has continued to uphold their ethical values of integrity and accountability. According to Raw Material Quality Control specialist Heather Grant, “it’s immensely gratifying to everyone who works here to know that Ric and Marc are so personally involved in the company. They know so much about everyone who works here. When Marc or Ric Cabot visit the knitting mill floor, they always stop to chat or say “Hey, how’s it going?” They remember little details about the people in our lives. It’s little personal touches like that that make all the difference. It really makes us feel like we’re part of the Darn Tough extended family. When my husband had only been working here for four months, he injured himself when he was at home. Marc Cabot took the time
to come to visit him at home to check on how he was doing. His department manager came to visit him too. He even brought a pizza with him! That kind of personal connection is hard to find
From the closely-knit stitchwork in their socks to their closely-knit connections with their employees on the Darn Tough staff, Ric and Marc Cabot have shown that the secret to success and longevity in the textile industry is hard work and attentive dedication. By taking the time to build strong connections where it matters most, they have created a company and brand equally as timeless and durable as the socks that bear the Darn Tough name.