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Telling the Story of Fort Payne Through Socks

How one family helped revive an Alabama town by producing footwear with a sense of place. 

Once known as “the Sock Capital of the World,” Fort Payne, Alabama, produced one out of every eight pairs of socks in the world. Over half of the town was employed by the sock manufacturing industry, but today it’s only a shadow of its former self. Outsourcing of sock manufacturing has caused most of Fort Payne’s sock mills to close, a move that hurt Alabama’s economy.

Despite the closures, Fort Payne’s rich textile tradition remains — and it inspired Gina Locklear to establish her own specialty sock companies Little River Sock Mill and zkano.

Gina Locklear Founder of Little River Sock Mill and zkano“The big reason I decided to join my parents in our family business is because I witnessed firsthand what outsourcing did to our community,” she says. “At one time, we had more than 125 sock mills in our town that seemingly closed overnight in the early 2000s.”

Locklear says her family’s business has changed drastically over the years as a result of the outsourcing. “There have been many times in the past decade that our business’s future was uncertain, and we feared we would have to close our doors,” she explains. “I wanted to create brands of our own so we could tell our story and the story of Fort Payne through our socks.”

Outsourcing hasn’t been the only challenge companies like Locklear and her family have faced. Their use of organic cotton, though widely supported now, didn’t quite resonate with customers at first.

When she launched zkano in 2008, the idea of using organic cotton in clothing was very new. zkano was one of the first brands to sell organic cotton fashion socks. “Many people understood the importance of eating organic food, but they did not understand the importance of incorporating organic into all aspects of their lives, including their wardrobe,” says Locklear.

Both zkano and Little River Sock Mill adhere to Locklear’s belief in socially responsible businesses. They use organic cotton, low-impact dyes and sustainable practices to produce high-quality socks, while also helping to revitalize Alabama’s sock-making tradition.

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Though the town’s boom era now exists only in memory, Locklear recalls the excitement and economic impact the mills one represented in town. “At one time, the hosiery industry in Fort Payne employed 8,000 of the 14,000 residents in our community,” she says. “Being such a small and close-knit community, it seemed as though everyone you knew was involved in the sock business somehow.”

Locklear’s grandmother made socks in the 1950s at the first mill that opened in Fort Payne in 1907. She also had many relatives who owned socks mills just like her family, and her best friends’ parents were in the sock business.

“The sock industry was our town’s core,” she says. “Even though I was very young at the time, I vividly remember the ‘buzz’ that was about town due to our booming industry.”

Community support for Little River and zkano has once again brought the town together. Locklear says community support for the businesses has been high, especially since Little River Sock Mill never closed. Her parents have been making socks in Fort Payne since 1991. By joining the business, she was able to reinvent the “mill” by incorporating her passion for sustainable living.

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Locklear pairs environmental responsibility with fashion in a unique, sophisticated way. She designs the socks, drawing her inspiration from “the South, nature, fashion trends and things in everyday life.” Designs vary each season and for each brand. Little River offers Southern, vintage-inspired patterns for women (a men’s line is launching this year), while zkano specializes in “athleisure” socks for everyday comfort.

A foray into design has also left Locklear more observant. “Since I began designing our fashion socks five years ago, I find that I am more aware of my surroundings and am always on the lookout for unique colors and textures, wherever they may be. I love using unexpected and seemingly off-the-wall color combinations in our socks.”

Photos courtesy of Little River Sock Mill. 

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