Mutual Crush: Developing Work Socks with the Salmon Sisters

Emma and Claire, the Salmon Sisters, chatting with Darn Tough designers while looking at test socks

I can trace my crush on the Salmon Sisters all the way back to 2018.

I was inspired by Emma and Claire because they took me on an authentic journey into commercial fishing. They live surrounded by rugged Alaskan landscapes and unique textures and colors from fishing nets to seagull wings. The wilderness they share is so starkly different from Vermont visually, it feeds my creativity, yet the passion they bring for community feels so familiar to here in Vermont.

The Salmon Sisters cooking some salmon up for dinner

The Salmon Sisters not only provide a high-quality product, but they are also active stewards of sustainable fishing and their community, much like Darn Tough’s support of Vermont manufacturing and the Vermont Foodbank.

I also have an intense appreciation for women-led businesses as a woman myself. I feel empowered seeing women in leadership roles because it can and will transform communities for the better.

Mutual Crush

I’m part of the Product team here at Darn Tough, planning and designing socks. As Design Manager, I develop each season’s trend boards that provide inspiration and a forecasted direction to our product designers on materials, color, or pattern. My on-going crush for the Salmon Sisters was known on the Product team. Pictures of Emma and Claire peppered my trend boards season after season.

Emma and Claire on the boat, their dog licking their faces

Fast forward 3 years, I was thrilled to learn the Salmon Sisters reached out directly to Darn Tough customer service seeking to work together. Apparently, the crush was mutual!

"We're commercial fishermen and our community loves and lives for Darn Tough socks! ... We wondered if you'd ever be interested in teaming up with us to make some custom socks ... We're looking for something breathable with warmth, that can be wicking and comfortable inside an Xtratuf Boot for long 20-hour fishing days in Alaska. Ideally, they would feel warm without being too chunky." — Emma

Turns out, Emma and Claire were loyal Darn Tough customers and had been wearing and recommending our socks for years. They described that the most coveted gift every Christmas was that fresh pair of Darn Tough socks.

The Salmon Sisters' feet wearing darn tough hiking socks at home by the fire

Needless to say, I was beyond excited when I heard they reached out, and even more excited to work with them on developing a sock.

Learn From the Old

To get the design process rolling, we had them send us a box of (what was left of) their favorite Darn Tough socks, hard worn by years working on the boat and docks.

When building a new sock, the best place to start is at the end of another sock's life. The Salmon Sisters crew are tough on socks and can spend up to 4 months fishing on the water every season. Their old socks gave us tremendous insight into how their socks wore down over time so we could build better.

No Detail Too Small

The next step in our journey with the Salmon Sisters was learning how and when they wear Darn Tough socks. We wanted to dig into the details. Every. Detail.

Emma and Claire standing on their fishing boat at dock

Emma and Claire got us, no detail was too small, and they shared openly with the product team the ins and outs of wearing rubber boots, their main footwear on the job.

We gained valuable insights from these conversations. Claire stands a certain way in her boot to stabilize her body from the waves tossing the boat; Emma rolls down her boots on the docks to vent pent-up moisture.

Salmon Sisters coiling ropes on the boat deck

These details energized me as a product designer and my coworker Olivia as product developer to develop solutions.

Designing Socks for Rubber Boots

Once we’d analyzed the Salmon Sister’s worn-out socks and absorbed all the information they could provide, we were ready to tackle the challenges they (and their feet) face in their unique situation: wearing rubber boots for long days working on a boat deck.

Increasing Breathability

Waterproof rubber boots are built tough for hard work in the harshest of conditions. But to keep the elements out, most rubber boots are the opposite of breathable and can create a microenvironment of warm, pent-up moisture.

Our Merino fibers are up for the challenge:

  • Their almost supernatural structure actively reacts to your body to bring temperature stability in all conditions, wet, cold, or hot.
  • Even in hot humid conditions, wool absorbs both moisture and odor molecules from sweat and wicks it away from the skin, leaving things cool and dry.
  • Merino then pulls double duty, releasing the absorbed moisture back into the air, causing evaporative cooling.

Merino fibers for the win!

Close up of the vented mesh zones up of the side of the Emma Claire work socks

We added breathable mesh zones up the length of the leg and top of foot for these socks to give Merino an assist in the moisture and temperature management it does so naturally. Inspired by the work industry, we designed the mesh zones on the leg to have an angled shape much like work safety tapes.

As Emma rolls down her boots on the docks, these breathable mesh zones on the leg get to work quickly by releasing moisture.

Impact Protection

The dynamic movement of the ocean pitches and rolls the fishing boat. To stabilize the body, the Claire and other fishermen will push forward into the toe box of the boot and backwards into the heel to lock their stance.

Fisherman seated on boat in Emma Claire socks, close look at the full cushioned toe box

To protect the toes from the impact of this stance, we created a lightweight terry loop cushioned toe box that extends from the tip of the toes to the forefoot (just as the arch of the foot starts). We then extended the cushion at the back of the foot (from the heel up) to protect the heel and Achilles from the impact of the foot against the frame of the rubber boot.

Seaworthy Durability

A commercial fishing boat out at sea

Last but not least, we considered the roll of the boat and the effects it can have on the ankle section of a sock. The typical thin layer of jersey knit could leave fisherman’s ankles exposed to weakness. We saw this wear and tear reflected in the worn-out socks Emma and Claire sent us.

We added contoured terry loop cushioning over the ankle for comfort, and stability, and that Darn Tough durability, reinforcing these socks to take whatever rubber boots and waves threw at them.

Putting Our Updates to the Test

With these discoveries made, socks designed and knit, now we test. And test. And test. And test.

Testing at Home

As we built and tested this new sock with the Salmon Sisters, we started to think about other industries that rely on rubber boots day to day. A heritage industry in Vermont (besides the sock industry of course) is agriculture. Farmers all over the state wear through 1-2 pairs of rubber boots a year.

Man seated confront porch pulling rubber boots on over the Stanley K work socks for rubber boots

Wanting to ensure that these socks not only functioned on the high seas but also out in the high fields, we enlisted Zach, a local Vermont farmer, to test these new features in that environment.

Owner and operator of Cross Farm, an organic meat farm in Barnet, VT, Zach gave us a worn out pair of rubber boots, which allowed us to analyze and validate that the wear spots on his socks matched our findings from the Salmon Sisters’ old socks.

Zach is on his feet for 10 hours each day running chores from walking the property, to mucking the barn, to moving animals from pasture to pasture. Whether at pasture or at sea, the lightweight cushion footbed is key to reducing foot fatigue when you are on your feet all day.  Zach put each version of the sock through its paces, and the results supported the design elements from Emma and Claire. Turns out that on land or at sea, a rubber boot is a rubber boot.

Testing at Sea

Back in Alaska, the Salmon Sisters put the Darn Tough sock designs to the test on the water with big waves and gale-force winds.

Three different sock prototypes the Salmon Sisters tested

We are the Mill, and our prototyping center is right here in Northfield, which allows us to refine our design until its right. We designed, knit, and evaluated over 12 protosamples before we landed on the right sock.

Every detail was considered and tested to drill down the perfect weight, height, cushioning and feature sets for this new collection. For example, our mid-calf height hits just above staple rubber boot heights; Emma and Claire found this height was perfect for all-day comfort without any bulky excess.

Socks That Work Harder

Just as the Salmon Sisters strive to work hard and be productive, we at Darn Tough strive to design and knit socks that will get you there.

Salmon Sisters seated on tailgate wearing Emma Claire work socks and putting on rubber boots

The Emma Claire and Stanley K work socks are the result of hours of feedback, testing, and design. They breathe in rubber boots, but they’re also a solid choice to pair with work boots, including safety toe footwear.

We have yet to produce our best sock, but with the support and feedback from Emma, Claire, and people like them, we think we came one step closer with these socks.

About the Author

Jenny Knapp was born and raised in Vermont and works as Darn Tough’s design manager. She is obsessed with product and design, which started when she threaded her first needle at age five. When not designing socks, she enjoys gardening and building extremely elaborate forts with her daughter.