Before you dive in here, you may want to check out this post, where we covered the beginning of the sock-making process, featuring a bunch of good people and good stuff that happens at the Mill. Now, we're taking you down the road to Nantanna (the name means "fine spinner"), another Darn Tough building nestled between Northfield's Main Street and the Dog River. More behind the scenes in knitting American made wool socks.
Dylan – Boarding Supervisor
After the socks are knit, we clean them for you. No need to fear that first time throwing them in the laundry (though you might want to check out our sock washing instructions). This isn’t their first rodeo – Dylan and his team have already put them through the wringer (figuratively anyway).
Dylan walks into a room with a big smile under a mop of curly hair. He’s just that kind of guy. The kind of guy who loves spending free time hiking with his one-year-old husky pup.
With seven and half years of Darn Tough under his belt, Dylan has seen a lot of Darn Tough’s growth, including process improvement. When he first started, all washing and drying happened at our Mill in Northfield, and it took 40-50 minutes per load. He’s happy to report how that’s changed saying, “It’s much more efficient; we’re tuning everything up.”
Today, socks leave the Mill after being knit, and travel via truck about 5 minutes down the road to our Nantanna building. The large bags of socks come off the truck and go straight to the Wash/Dry team.
With upgraded laundry machines that are both a washer and dryer in one, the longest a load takes these days is 11 minutes. Each machine contains programs for the different sock styles and thicknesses, ensuring a perfect first wash.
Once the socks come out all dry and fresh smelling, they go to Boarding. Think of this as ironing in the air. Each sock gets hand placed onto a metal sock form. The forms are by size: large socks go on large forms, small socks go on small forms, etc. These forms then travel through some super hot air. Boarding makes sure the sock is the right size and shape, ready to wear.
“It seems like an easy job,” Dylan explains. “A lot of people walk through saying, it’s just throwing socks on a form. It actually takes skill to make the sock come out looking good. I think it’s a talent, and it’s hard work. The machines run at 300 degrees, and it’s so hot.”
Despite the heat, Dylan loves his job. “It’s a good vibe here. The team camaraderie and moral are like something I’ve never seen.” It’s not unusual for the team to meet up for post-work basketball games.
Beyond forming the sock, Boarding is a moment when every single sock gets touched. As boarders place the socks on the forms, they handle every sock, making sure to catch any irregularities and flag them with a red tag. This red tag is a signal to Auditing that this lot of socks warrants a closer look.
Heather — Inspecting Technician
“I’m maybe a little OCD. Just a smidge.”
If you’re auditing socks, being a little OCD can serve you well. Heather has 6 years of quality inspection experience. If there’s something wrong with a sock, she’ll spot it. And she might be listening to heavy metal at the time (“People don’t expect that. Yes, I’m old, but I love heavy metal.”)
After a sock has been boarded, it gets placed with the rest of the socks from its lot onto a rolling cart and sent over to Auditing for inspection. About 20% of a day’s socks get hand inspected right then. The team also notes any red tags and goes through every sock from that lot to make sure the socks are meeting the rigorous quality standards.
This isn’t the first or last time a sock gets inspected along its journey – knitters do quality checks at the machines, boarders watch out for defects, packagers keep an eye out for irregularities – but it might be the most thorough. Heather gave us the walk through.
Before she even picks up a sock, Heather and the other auditors look over the entire tray of socks, checking that the colors and sizes look right, the weight is good, and other visual cues.
Picking up a sock, they start with a cuff check, watching out for signs of broken needles or latches. From there, they assess the leg for uniformness or tensions issues. Heels and toe seams get special attention to make sure everything was stitched together correctly.
It’s amazing how much Heather can spot without even turning the sock inside out. A small defect she notices on the outside of the sock pushes her to turn socks inside out, looking for the larger issues that small defect can signal.
“Each sock has their own personality,” Heather says, meaning certain defects are more likely in one sock style compared to another. The work done by the entire auditing team helps us make sure we only ship the best socks out the door, socks we can stand behind, socks that Heather loves and uses on her travels, including a recent Alaska trip.
If you’re looking for a sock recommendation, Heather loves the Steely and Mountaineering socks for wintertime. Her new fox tattoo has also made her a fan of the Animal Haus fox socks, cause why not match?
Heather — Packaging Line Supervisor
For the record, this is a different Heather. Equally great. This Heather has been a part of the Darn Tough family for an impressive 24 years. Her coworkers like to remind her that’s almost a quarter of a century.
A hockey fan, fisher, and camper, Heather uses and loves Darn Tough socks, but what keeps her here year after year is the people. “I love the people. We work as a team, and we still have a good time. I just enjoy what I do and seeing everybody every day.” We like seeing her too – her sense of humor is on point.
Carts of socks make their way to Heather’s team after inspection is done with them, with a short pit stop first at Stickering, where the carts pick up packets of unassembled packaging. Heather’s team takes that packaging, grabs a pair of socks, and hand assembles every pair to be purchase-ready. Many people on the team were on the auditing team at one point, making this just one more place someone is checking the sock quality.
Packagers work in teams of two, trading off the tasks of putting the packaging around the socks and placing packaged socks into boxes that can be handed over to shipping. This gives each person a break, important when you consider that a single team packages between 2,000-3,000 pairs per day. AKA up to 250 dozens, cause when you see as many socks as Packaging sees, you start counting in dozens.
Packaged and boxed socks are placed on a skid, then wheeled over to Shipping, the last step in the process of getting Darn Toughs from idea to your door.
Don — Shipping & Receiving Supervisor
A 10-year Darn Toughian, Don has been involved at almost every point of the sock-making process at one point of another, from boarding and wash/dry to knitting and picking orders. He loves seeing the entire process and is always asking how we can do it better, more efficient.
Efficiency is vital for Don. “It’s surprising the volume of socks we process with the number of employees we have.” The team is six people, including himself, six people who get a lot done. They see socks out the door to destinations all around the world.
Once the skids come in from Packaging, shippers do a final quality check to make sure everything is all set, that what’s on the box label is what’s in the box. They also pull out a couple socks from each box to make sure all looks good. Then it’s a matter of getting the right sock boxes onto the right truck and out the door.
That wraps up the sock journey (well, at least for the moment – maybe we’ll take you on a tour through our Warranty Program in a future post). One last Don quote though.
“I’m 42 and I still skateboard. I haven’t broken a bone yet.”
Skate on Don.
P.S. He’s hoping to get a chance to skate in the Mill. We are maybe including that here in hopes it’ll help make that dream a reality. Shh…