This family firm is not run-of-the-mill
There were about a dozen hosiery mills throughout New England in 1978, when Marc Cabot and a minority partner founded Cabot Hosiery Mills in Northfield, Vt. Today, Cabot Hosiery Mills is the last mill in New England, though the original facility was replaced in 1995 by a building more suited to high-speed, computer-driven equipment.
Cabot Hosiery Mills is the second-largest employer in Northfield, with a staff of about 130, some of whom have worked there for more than 30 years. It has been 100% family-owned since 1995, when Marc’s son, Ric, purchased the partner’s shares.
Marc, 72, started in the sock business 50 years ago, designing packages for the North Carolina mill where his father, Tim, was employed as a buyer. Marc struck out on his own, repping for manufacturers, in the ’60s and ’70s. His creative juices flowed when he began designing socks that paired with hot pants, body suits and hip huggers for fashion houses such as Halston and Mary Quant.
As that market waned, Cabot Hosiery Mills turned its focus to manufacturing private-label socks for stores. “We were at one time the largest sock supplier to the Gap, Banana Republic, Old Navy, Talbots and a host of brands that don’t produce for themselves,” says Ric Cabot, 47, who began working at the mill in 1989. The approach was successful until the late 1990s and early 2000s, when those brands began sourcing their hosiery offshore. Cabot Hosiery Mills found itself on the brink of closing.
But Ric had noticed a hole in the hosiery market: a need for socks for active pursuits like skiing, running, bicycling and fishing.
The outdoor enthusiast is after a “very specific result,” Ric explains. “‘I want to climb longer. I want to climb faster. I want to ski further. I want to run further.’ It’s very specific and goal [oriented]. So that’s where a specific product helps to achieve a goal. You have to feel like you can perform better in it.”
Ric founded the Darn Tough Vermont brand in 2003-04 to serve the top of the performance sock market. Competitors’ brands looked good, “but the fit wasn’t that great,” he says. What’s more, the other sock brands weren’t very durable, he adds.
To develop the performance socks, which are customized for individual sports, the Cabots focused on comfort, durability and fit, using a Merino wool/Coolmax fiber blend. To build brand excitement among the target customer base, Ric gave away Darn Tough Vermont socks to participants in the 2004 Vermont City Marathon in Burlington, Vt. “I think that’s the first little push that got people, at least around New England, knowing what we were doing,” says Marc.
The brand has since been extended to everyday socks. Darn Tough Vermont provides “the industry’s only unconditional lifetime guarantee of socks,” Ric says. “And we do that because we actually produce the things we sell.”
“We watch them being knit,” Marc notes. Because the socks are made in-house, errors can be corrected quickly. “If we had multiple factories in Asia, there wouldn’t be enough hours in a day to keep size specs in line,” he says.
The quality of the socks drew the attention of the U.S. military. In 2011 Darn Tough was awarded a nearly $5 million contract by the U.S. Marine Corps, on top of its pre-existing contract with the U.S. Army. As a result, Cabot Hosiery Mills is experiencing double-digit growth.
In addition to making Darn Tough Vermont, Cabot Hosiery Mills still produces private-label socks for other companies, including L.L. Bean, J. Crew and Orvis.
Marc speaks with pride of Ric’s achievements. “He’s not my clone. He’s his own man,” Marc says. “I truly believe if there’s a way to do it, Ric will work it out.” Ric’s children are six and eight, so it will be a few years before a third generation joins Cabot Hosiery Mills, but their future looks bright.
“If you’re really serious about something, you’re wanting to sell it and you want people to believe, then you should make it yourself,” says Ric.
Sally M. Snell is a writer based in Lawrence, Kan.
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