Gina Locklear, a Fort Payne, AL, native, is a modern-day sock maker. She hails from what was once known as the Sock Capital of the World, and has joined the family business to revive the industry. Gina founded two specialty sock companies, Little River Sock Mill and zkano, both of which use organic cotton, low-impact dyes and sustainable practices. Her parents, founders of a local manufacturing business, engrained the importance of quality and hard work in her, and she is continuing their efforts to boost Fort Payne’s economy. We welcome Gina Locklear as our FACE of the South today, and celebrate her creativity, dedication to her community and commitment to quality, as seen in her companies.
You are originally from Fort Payne, AL, which was once known as The Sock Capital of the World. How did the area earn this title?
In 1907, the first sock mill opened in town, and it all started there; mill after mill began opening. At the end of the 1990s, we had close to 130 mills here in our small town at a time when about 1,400 people (about half the town) were employed in the hosiery business. Also at that time, Fort Payne’s hosiery industry supplied about half of the socks in the United States. So it was definitely our town’s main industry for many, many years.
Can you tell us about growing up in Fort Payne and seeing the sock industry firsthand through your parents’ manufacturing business, Emi-G Knitting?
My mom and dad started our business in 1991, and they started it from the ground up. I was about 12 years old at the time, so I really got to see firsthand what it was like. I saw everything they had to do to get the business started; they worked very, very long hours to get our business up and successful. Ultimately, that is what led me to get into the business. Obviously my parents were in the business, but so were my best friend’s parents and other family members; even my grandmother made socks here in the ’50s. Being a kid from the town known as The Sock Capital of the World, I noticed a buzz around town. People came in from all over the world to make sock deals here, and I remember as a kid how much fun it was; there were so many community events and things centered around the hosiery industry. It has all changed now; I miss the buzz that used to be here.
When did you launch Little River Sock Mill and zkano, and what is the difference between these two companies?
Little River was founded in 2013, and the sister company, zkano, was founded in 2009. Both are under the umbrella of Emi-G, the family business, that opened in 1991. All socks are made under the same roof in our mill, but zkano is more of an online brand. There are a few stores that carry the line, but for the most part, it is online. Little River we designed especially for the boutique market. So we will have different textures and patterns with Little River that you won’t see in our zkano line. I would say Little River is just a tiny bit more sophisticated.
What is the mission for these companies?
We make organic cotton socks and use sustainable materials with both lines. And we make both in very small batches — they are the same in that way. My mission is to keep our doors open and keep making really high quality, sustainable socks for our customers.
What is the biggest struggle you have faced working as a local, small business? What do you see as your greatest achievement?
Our biggest struggle is definitely our size; we have a small budget as a result. We could probably use about five more employees that we just cannot hire yet. Our budget is so small and because of that, you have to wear so many hats; it would be nice to wear a few less hats. Having a small business, you have a small budget as a result.
My biggest accomplishment, by far, is winning the Martha Stewart American Made Award this year .
Can you walk us through the sock-making process?
First is the design process, which is when we choose colors for each season based on current trends. Once we have our colors, we decide on the designs and patterns for men’s and women’s. After that is set into play, we go to the mill (which is just a few steps from my office) and start product development on the machines. Our plant manager basically puts our ideas into a sock. We begin running samples, and we run hundreds of different colors for each of the styles. Once we finalize the styles, we go into manufacturing. In manufacturing, there are a few steps: the knitting process, the seaming process and finishing (washing, preshrinking, boarding and ironing so they’re pretty for retail). From there, they go to the Package and Fulfillment Room, where we package all of our socks. Every single step of the process happens here under our roof.
Why do you think it is important to raise awareness about family-owned businesses and the harm of outsourcing and global competition?
In the early 2000s, Fort Payne saw mill after mill after mill closing — that is one reason I wanted to get into the family business. I witnessed firsthand how it not only affected our town, but the people of the town with the loss of jobs and businesses. For many of these people, it was their life’s work. I think they felt lost; they had to find new careers. We are talking about half the town. And I saw what it did to my own family. We were fortunate enough to keep our doors open and stay in business, but our business has changed drastically over the past 15 years. There have been many times we thought we would have to close; it has been a struggle.
My main reason for starting zkano was because I felt that people didn’t know what this outsourcing was doing to American businesses, like ours, and the many in our town. I think that people should know about it. They need to know what is in the label. Our story can help shed light on that.
What is your favorite restaurant in Fort Payne?
If I am wanting a cheeseburger, there is a great place in town called The Strand. It has a great, bad-for-you cheeseburger that is delicious.
Fill in the blank: You’ll never see me without my _______.
Socks. Cheesy, but true. I wear them every day.
What’s your bucket list travel destination?
I would love to go to Thailand!
What advice do you have for women who are looking to start a business of their own?
Find something that you care about, that gets you excited, that means so much to you, and try to make it your job that you do every day.
Thanks, Gina, for enlightening us today. And thanks also to Liesa Cole Photography for the great photos.