Guaranteed for Life
Vermont Socks Live Up To Their NameKYLE PARTAIN
Sheep Industry News Editor
A nondescript brick building sits back off Highway 12 in Northfield, Vt. While Whestone Drive is paved, it leads to a dirt parking lot that seems somehow appropriate as home to Cabot Hosiery and its line of Darn Tough Socks.
Every pair of Darn Tough Socks comes with a lifetime guarantee, so it is fitting that they are manufactured in the middle of the Green Mountains. Mother Nature can bury the factory in snow, pelt it with rain and bake it with a searing sun, but through it all, the mill remains. As the second-largest employer in the geographic center of Vermont, Cabot Hosiery has outlasted numerous challenges since Marc Cabot started the mill in 1978. Back then the company produced mostly private label socks for names such as The Gap. But shifts in manufacturing sent those jobs overseas, and Cabot Hosiery was facing a challenge the likes of which it had never seen by the early 2000s.
“We were down to three days a week and 35 people, and on the verge of losing everything,” says Marc’s son, Ric, who bought into the family business in 1989 and has since taken the reins. “That’s the birth of Darn Tough. It means a lot of things. You’ve got to be Darn Tough to survive. You’ve got to be Darn Tough to make it in domestic manufacturing. People want their socks to be Darn Tough. Going through life, you’ve got to be Darn Tough. Don’t you want to be Darn Tough? It means that if you’re out there, we’re out there with you.”
“We built this factory around 1993,” says the younger Cabot. “We were making mostly private label at the time. No wool, mostly cotton. Then, all that stuff went off-shore. I never considered walking away from it. But it was obvious we had to do something different in order to maintain the business, save the jobs and not lose my house.”
Despite the dire circumstances, opportunity was easy to see. The American-made sock market barely existed at that point, but it was “crowded in the middle” according to Cabot.
“That’s when I came up with the idea for a quality product,” he recalls. “If we couldn’t make the best sock – given our staff, our technical expertise and our experience in the industry – then nobody could. The creation of Darn Tough was a way to try and save the business, my dad’s legacy and what at the time was a shrinking footprint. We had to ask ourselves, ‘What do we have to do to keep it here.’ Darn Tough was the answer.”
It would have been easy to wallow in self-doubt at that point, but Cabot couldn’t afford to let himself go down that rabbit hole. After all, he admits, it’s easy to take the small hole you might find yourself in and turn it into a moon-sized crater.
“I think when you’re that close to losing it all, if you get it that mind set, it just makes everything that much heavier to get out from underneath,” he says. “You have to have an idea and be able to see that path. Not going down the path was never an option. We could see that light at the end of the tunnel. It was bright because nobody was even talking about producing this high-end product.”
Darn Tough socks include a mixture of fibers, but the base is and always has been Merino Wool, which has proven through the years to be a perfect starting point for performance clothing ranging from socks to outerwear.
“Wool makes sense,” Cabot says. “Wool has a great story. The idea was to sell it to core users, such as people in the outdoor business and athletes who understand and appreciate a well-manufactured, more expensive product. The performance aspect of the knitting and the wool made sense for these types of consumers.”
Approximately 3,500 pairs of the new Darn Tough socks were given away at the Vermont City Marathon in 2004. Response was overwhelmingly positive and the company soon signed its first retail account in the nearby state capital of Montpelier, Vt.
“The one big turning point was just coming up with the idea to make our own socks,” Cabot admits. “After that, we had constant turning points. When people liked them at the marathon, that was a turning point. When we convinced our first retailer to sell them, that was a turning point. It’s been a bunch of small, but consistent turning points that have helped us to grow through the years.”
Cabot estimates it took about a year for Darn Tough’s reputation to venture outside the company’s home state. But the “Made in Vermont” tag line has always been beneficial.
“That creates one sale,” Cabot says. “But people aren’t stupid. They’ll buy something once, but the fact that they keep buying it and the business keeps growing is a testament to the quality of the product.”
Since the beginning, Darn Tough has offered a lifetime guarantee on each pair of socks it sells. A unique aspect in the industry, the guarantee is as intertwined with the Darn Tough brand as the state of Vermont.
“After you create the product, you have to continue to develop that brand,” Cabot says. “It’s important to have a story that differentiates your brand from the competition. But you can never lose sight of the product.
“When we started Darn Tough, it was just a name. We had a few socks, but it was the brand that helped us develop an emotional connection with our customers.”
Darn Tough guarantees not only the construction of each pair of socks, but also the comfort and fit. Consumers can return socks for nearly any reason and expect the lifetime guarantee to be honored.
“Of course, socks wear out,” Cabot says. “We don’t claim they will last forever. What we do say is they will outlive or exceed your expectations for what a sock is supposed to be. We offer the guarantee as a way of standing behind the product, but also as a way to improve the product.”
Consumers looking to cash in on the guarantee and receive a new pair of socks must send the old pair to Vermont. Each pair sent in is then tested for quality control purposes. The company actually has a low rate of return, but each pair contributes to the improvement of Darn Tough socks in the future.
“Within 18 months of getting a sock back, we can see an improved product on the shelf,” Cabot says. “Offering the lifetime guarantee is part of our strategy for continuous improvement in our manufacturing process. The socks you buy from Darn Tough six months from now should be better than the ones you buy today. It’s always an ongoing process for us.”
Recent expansion at the Northfield plant means Darn Tough will produce even more socks in the years to come. The company added dozens of new knitting machines and nearly doubled its workforce in the past year while expanding into a nearby mill space that had previously been shuttered. Plans for adding on to the current mill, building additional space in an open lot next to it or further renovating the leased mill are all on the table.
“We’re producing about five million pairs of socks a year now,” Cabot says. “That’s a lot wool.”
About a quarter of a million pounds, in fact. The wool comes from a variety of sources, including domestic and international.
“We’re open to deepening our exposure to domestic wool,” Cabot says. “We would like to buy more domestic Merino. We buy a good amount of it now, but could incorporate even more of it into our line. We just haven’t found much of the 16 and 17 micron that we need. We obviously support domestic manufacturing. We’d like to bring along as many domestic partners as we can.”
Much of the American wool purchased by the company goes into its tactical line for the U.S. military. The company has designed a collection of performance tactical socks to meet the uniform and mission requirements across all brands of service. Sock styles include boot, dress and physical training, and account for a wide variety of needs dependent on temperature and terrain. After all, it is important for the U.S. military to be Darn Tough.
Ric Cabot and Cabot Hosiery have proven to be Darn Tough in the past dozen years, and there’s no reason to believe that will change anytime soon.
To learn more, visit DarnTough.com