Zen and the Art of Producing the Best Sock

Darn Tough mill employee hand checking the quality of a sock

Defining Quality

It was my 2nd day on the job at Darn Tough Vermont when Ric Cabot, our Founder and CEO, sat near my desk, sighed, and asked “So, … what is Quality?”

Ric likes to ask open questions like that, like most people who are more interested in the discussion than the answer. I had come from the semiconductor industry. I was more recently an IT consultant. I had just passed my Project Management Professional Certification. I knew there were specific answers to this question, yet I also knew none of those answers were really sufficient.

The Project Management field says that Quality is “the degree to which a set of inherent characteristics fulfill requirements,” or less formally, “delivering exactly what the customer is willing to pay for, nothing more and nothing less.

Rows of merino wool socks neatly lined up at Darn Tough

Those are pretty good answers, because they imply that the customer defines quality — a good place to start in the business world. But that doesn’t really cover it either. What if the customer hasn’t specified requirements? Does Quality really depend on payment?

The implication is that Quality only exists in something if there is a customer. That’s not quite right. Doesn’t Quality inherently exist in the things we observe, or is it subjective, existing only in the observer?

We have yet to produce our best sock written on the wall at the Mill

For millennia, philosophers have debated these questions. Recently, subjectivity has been cast aside in favor of objectivity, especially in the areas of science, engineering, law, and business. Subjectivity has been relegated to the corners of our daily lives, reserved for quaint past times and endeavors of art.

This classic dualistic subject/object way of approaching manufactured goods sounds right because we’re accustomed to it, but it’s not completely right. It shuts out Quality as a self-involved craftsmanship.

To put it in concrete terms, if you want to fix a car, build a factory, or produce the world’s best sock, then classical dualistic subject/object thinking, although necessary, isn’t enough. You also have to have some feeling for the Quality of the work, a sense of what’s good, of what constitutes a job well done. The key word is better.

In other words, objectively analyzing quality isn’t what makes Quality. Quality is just the focal point around which the analysis is made. It exists or not on its own, regardless of the analysis or, frankly, the observer.

A Quality Mindset

In his book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig introduces two viewpoints of Quality — the romantic view and the classic view. These two viewpoints are often at odds, and in our chaotic, disconnected spirit of the 21st century, we don’t often spend the time to reconcile the two.

The Eden floral sock in three colors, lined up on the wall

The Romantic view involves the immediate artistic appearance of something. This mode is primarily driven by feeling and intuition. It inspires us to be imaginative and creative, and is usually associated with art.

The Classic view involves the underlying scientific explanation of how something works or exists. This mode proceeds by law and rationale, and is concerned more with facts than intuition. It inspires logical classifications of how something is made, or what it’s made of, and is usually associated with technology.

Mill worker using a machine to check a sock matches darn tough quality specifications

Although looking at and even wearing a sock follows the romantic view, producing a sock is purely classical. At Darn Tough, the yarns, machines, construction, design, labor and environment, and the mastery of combining these individual elements is what creates a beautiful product, which then appeals to the romantic viewpoint.

As a society, and even within individuals, the romantic vs classical mindset can create chasms in what we value or appreciate. The easiest path is to favor one approach over the other, or to allow one to exist at the expense of the other. At Darn Tough, we continuously strive for both to coexist. We produce the most aesthetically appealing, imaginative, creative socks by applying the necessary forms of construction, materials, programs, machinery, and old-fashioned labor, right here in the sock capital of the world, Northfield, VT.

In producing a sock, like anything in life, there’s a beautiful way of doing it and an ugly way. We like to say that our production team is closest to the customer, for the simple and undeniable fact that they touch every sock before it goes onto a customer’s foot. For those team members, in arriving at the highest quality and most beautiful way of doing it, both the ability to see what looks good AND an ability to understand the methods and technology to achieve “good” are needed. Both the romantic and classic viewpoints of quality must be combined.


In managing customer satisfaction, ensuring that quality is built into every sock we produce, we must constantly balance both the classic and romantic viewpoints. In a word, the best way to achieve this balance is through the simple act of Caring.

People who see quality and feel it as they work are people who care, and people who care about what they see and do are people who are bound to have characteristics of quality.

Put another way, when someone is “together” with what they’re working on, then that person can be said to care about what they’re doing. Caring is a feeling of identification with what one is doing.

A woman at the Darn Tough Mill checking the machines

Generally speaking, I’ve found that the best quality people are quiet and modest, attentive, and skeptical. This doesn’t just apply to our QC (that’s Quality Control) department — they could be a packager, an accountant, a technician, customer service, etc. And if they’re not that way at the start, and they’re truly dedicated to their craft, the work tends to make them that way over time.

The long, slow work of caring and being challenged by the work creates humility. The end result is peace of mind from a job done well, manifested by a quality result. Ego, on the other hand, isolates you from the possibility of quality, or lack thereof, when you’re not likely to admit facts which go against pre-conceived ideas or hypotheses.

Rows of workers checking the quality of Darn Tough socks

In any given workday, you’ll often hear: “We are the Mill.” What that means is when there is a question or issue, we just go out to the production area, product development office, maintenance team, etc. and solve it right there. The ability to have hands-on caring over products and process disintegrates when it’s removed from the people who care about it. That’s why we’re still made in VT!

Caring in All Areas of Business

Objectively, the making of socks in a modern production setting consists of raw material yarns, computer programs, and machines which read instructions from the program to knit the raw material into various thickness, construction, and patterns. When all three of these elements are monitored and controlled, then a suitable sock is the product.

Looking up at the Merino Wool yarns hanging in the Mill at Northfield

Subjectively, the care of those basic elements is what produces a sock which has quality, from both a romantic and classic viewpoint. We invest time and money in these things because we care — our purchasing team sources high-end yarns, our material handling team is careful when receiving and handling those yarns, our product development team scrutinizes programs and designs which are most symbiotic with the machine, our knitting team prioritizes the care and maintenance of the machines, and finally, we have the careful and focused training of all team members who put hands on yarns, machines, and socks.

Rows of boxes of socks at Darn Tough warehouse in Vermont

It’s the care which Darn Tough employees apply to each of these elements, right here in our buildings in Vermont, under our collective watchful eyes, which swings the focus to subjectivity, where science yields back to craftsmanship.

In a sense, this quality mindset of caring destroys objectivity. I acknowledge that’s a hell of a thing for a trained engineer to say, one who has made a career in Operations Research, making objective, unbiased, and data-driven decisions. But I’ve acknowledged over time that what makes something objectively high in quality isn’t that it’s been dispassionately observed with specific traits, or proven to be without specific defects, but that other subjective observers, those Darn Tough employees and customers who feel and wear our socks, can’t help but reach the same conclusion of quality.

Quality can be seen in almost any job in any industry. When a person takes their dull job (and they all get dull at some point) and begins to search for a higher levels of quality, thus making an art of their task, their work they complete every hour and every day becomes apparent to others. For those who pay attention with curiosity and caring, that mindset begins to spread as it motivates those around them. In this way, Continuous Improvement always begins with the foundation of a Quality mindset.

Quality Redefined

So what is Quality? For me, it’s the intersection of art and technology, where care is the focus of every team member — sales, planning, purchasing, production, distribution, customer support, and all the other wonderful teams here at Darn Tough Vermont.