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Alabama Makers

Little River Sock Mill

Boutique sock manufacturer featuring high-quality organic cotton and designer fashions.

Zkano & Little River Sock Mill

Socks with a Story  

By Jennifer Kornegay  

A Fort Payne gal is putting a colorful, sustainable twist on her family’s trade and helping the sock industry in her hometown get back on its feet

“I love being in this community and making things here,” said Gina Locklear. Her voice floated above the low hum emanating from rows of rectangular machines pulling colorful yarns from spools overhead and “knitting” them into socks on the factory floor of the Emi G Knitting sock mill in Fort Payne, Alabama. Her parents founded the business in 1991, but 36-year-old Locklear is now taking it in a different direction with her Zkano and Little River Sock Mill sock lines and starting a new chapter in her hometown by creating socks that “have a story.”

The business has always been a family affair. “The name Emi G is a combo of my name and my sister Emily’s,” Locklear said. “That was a common thing here, for folks to name their mill after their kids.”

There were many, many mills in the small Northeast Alabama town once, more than 100 at its peak, enough to earn it the title “sock capital of the country.”

Now, only a handful have survived. In the late 1990s, the companies that bought the socks produced in Fort Payne started outsourcing to China to cut costs. By the mid-2000s, mills were closing left and right. When one of the largest mills closed in 2007, the town of approximately 14,000 residents lost thousands of jobs in one fell swoop. “It was devastating,” Locklear said.

Emi G was able to keep going, but barely. “There were multiple times we thought it was over,” Locklear said.
“The future was always so unsure.” But in 2008, Locklear had an idea. “I told my parents I wanted to use the mill to create a line of fashion socks using strictly organic cotton,” she said.

Locklear, 27 at the time, had already adopted an organic lifestyle for herself, eating organic, using organic cleaning and beauty products, and was a big proponent of its benefits. “I’m really passionate about it,” she said.

Her parents had never even heard of organic cotton, and the material’s high cost made the whole concept seem risky. “I believe in organic, and organic cotton is softer and more durable,” she said. “I also felt like we needed something to set us apart from other fashion socks.”

But there was more to her plan than that. Since Emi G had always made socks to sell to other companies, it was more vulnerable to market whims. Locklear wanted to make the socks and then sell them directly to the consumer. She founded Zkano in 2009 to do just that. The line is known for bright hues and bold stripes and is sold almost exclusively online.

In 2012, she started the Little River Sock Mill line, named for the canyon and the river that runs through it that are practically in the facility’s backyard. Its softer tones and subtler, sophisticated designs – many inspired by Southern sights and scenes (one for the spring 2017 collection is based on a wildflower found at Desoto Falls) – are sold online but also in upscale boutiques.

Locklear is continually playing with colors, styles and patterns, and her socks have caught the attention of big names in fashion, like famed Alabama clothing designer Billy Reid, who partnered with her to make socks based on his designs, and even bigger names in media. Little River Sock Mill socks earned a coveted Martha Stewart “American Made” award last year.

Not only are both lines made from organic cotton sourced from the South (Texas), the colors are created using low-impact dyes, also made in the South, custom produced specifically for Locklear in North Carolina.

The two sock lines take a little longer to make, but Locklear believes they’re worth the wait. “You can make a plain sock in about 45 seconds on our equipment,” she said. “The Zkano and Little River socks take two to four minutes each due to the intricacies of the patterns. That’s a long time in the sock biz!”

While Emi G still produces basic athletic and crew socks using traditional cotton, Zkano and Little River Sock Mill are made in the same mill, under the Emi G umbrella. And where Locklear’s socks are made is as important as how.

“My parents kept this room open, hoping that my sister or I would come back and work with them one day,” Locklear said, standing in her white-walled office with a rainbow of yarn spools lining several shelves. “I’m so happy I did. It means a lot to me to be able to do this, but to do this here, in my hometown, means everything.”

Marketing and selling the Zkano and Little River socks in addition to making them was a challenging learning curve, but Locklear has some experienced help; Rhonda Whitmier was head of quality control at one of Fort Payne’s largest sock mills, and she and her mom, Della, now do sock inspections, fill orders for shipping and more at Emi G. “Locklear is so passionate about what she’s doing, it makes me proud to be a part of it,” Rhonda said while tucking a card between the carefully folded layers of tissue wrapping a pair of teal Little River ankle “booties” embellished with butter-yellow polka dots.

Every pair of both lines sold includes a card too, a simple paper square that shares the story behind the socks. And there are plenty of the cards floating around. Both lines keep growing, and so word continues to spread about not only the socks’ style and comfort but also their positive impact on the community in which they are made.

“The story is what my parents started and what I’m carrying on,” Locklear said. “It’s about combining my love of sustainability and my family’s trade,” she said.

It’s also about a girl going home and taking a small but significant step in bettering its future; and it all comes together to create a pretty compelling tale, a yarn that Locklear is looking forward to spinning for many years to come.  

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Unless otherwise stated, photo provided by Little River Sock Mill