Now Made in the USA: Minus33’s Merino Wool Socks
About 25 years ago, something radical occurred in the world of outdoor apparel. Merino wool socks made their debut in outdoor gear stores and significantly changed the way people viewed wool clothing. Unlike wool garments of the past, Merino socks were soft and not itchy, plus they delivered the warmth and performance of traditional wool. While Merino wool was first introduced in hiking socks, companies like Minus33 have expanded its use and include it in socks for everything from hunting to skiing to everyday wear.
While Merino wool socks are a relatively modern product, the family behind Minus33 has a long history with wool. It’s been the beating heart of a family business that dates back to the early 1900s. As times and technologies have changed, the family-run company has evolved to keep pace with customer demands. The company recently announced that it would begin manufacturing its high-quality Merino wool socks in the United States.
Lawson Glidden, lead sock designer at Minus33, spoke about the company’s history, what prompted the decision to move manufacturing stateside, and what goes into every pair of the company’s socks.
The History of Minus33 and the Minus33 Family
In a sense, Minus33’s history reflects the broader story of American manufacturing. The company has experienced dynamic growth, a period of decline, and even rebirth.
The story starts in 1916 when Luther Packard, Lawson’s great, great, grand uncle, founded L.W. Packard & Co. (Minus33’s parent company, which has been in the Glidden family ever since.) The mill was situated along the Squam River in Ashland, New Hampshire, where Minus33’s headquarters still reside. In the early 1900s, the nascent company made wool flat goods, which manufacturers could purchase and then turn into suits and other products.
Textile operations continued until 2002 when outsourcing upended the industry. As Glidden tells it, L.W. Packard’s cost-conscious customers would buy the American-made textiles, ship them overseas, create clothing there, and ship the new apparel back to the United States. This process eventually cut out domestic production altogether.
Another industry shift led the company to rethink its focus in 2002 and launch the brand Minus33, which symbolizes the extreme temperatures that some of the company’s merino wool gear is designed to withstand (in this case, -33°F). While not all of the company’s gear is designed for weather that extreme, it’s what the name is meant to represent.
At this point in the industry, there were new machines and processes that allowed companies to produce comfortable, washable, and durable Merino wool clothing—an unthinkable idea just years earlier. The company still continued to make wool flat goods in the United States until 2002 and woven fabrics at their joint venture in China until 2010. However, due to the new versatility of merino wool, when the company relaunched, they also began making base layers for snowmobiling, and quickly expanded into making socks, underwear, shirts, and other apparel for hunting, skiing, hiking, and other outdoor activities.
“There are people out there who still think wool is that itchy sweatshirt their grandmother gave them when they were six,” Glidden says. “But now wool is soft, comfortable, and stays comfortable longer—even when you’re active. Once you put it on, you don’t go back.”
While new machines allowed Minus33 to manufacture comfortable, durable Merino clothing, they also helped the company bring some of its manufacturing back to the United States.
Years ago, sock-producing machinery required a team of workers to keep the process running smoothly and make adjustments as needed. However, new technology led to more automation, which required fewer manual changes and streamlined the entire sock construction process. Automation also reduced costs and made it possible to bring some manufacturing back to the United States.
Behind the Scenes of the Sock Manufacturing Process at Minus33
While modern machinery plays a crucial role in sock manufacturing, the process begins long before a single sock rolls off the production line. As with any product, it starts with an idea.
The first thing Glidden and his team must do is determine a new sock’s purpose. Is it a dress sock? Is it for hiking, running, or something else entirely? Once the company decides the type of sock it will make, Glidden creates up to 100 sample socks before deciding it’s ready for the wider world.
He begins with a dozen or so samples, “just playing around,” as he puts it. At this point, he’s working with various fibers, deciding on yarn size, and finding the ideal combination of materials—like wool, nylon, and spandex—for the right levels of comfort and stretchiness. With the next dozen or so iterations, Glidden zeroes in on sizing, tightness, and overall functionality while also fine-tuning the appearance.
Then, the real testing begins. Glidden wears every sock for a week, washing it every day and putting it through the dryer multiple times to see whether (or how) it shrinks. He also puts the sock through a variety of active situations to test its endurance.
It’s a time-consuming process, but one Glidden is proud to work through. “There’s just so much quality control you can put it into the process to make sure you’re making a sock you want to wear every single day,” he says. “Because, if you don’t want to wear your socks every day forever, why would anyone else?”
Made In the USA: Proud to Be Home
During the design process, Glidden creates anywhere from 30 to 100 sample socks for every finished product. He says that wouldn’t be possible without domestic production. “It’s way better to have the sock right in front of you,” he says. “You can get through the iterations of making and testing a sock really quickly. It’s definitely one of the biggest reasons we brought it back—so we could do this quick turnaround testing and make sure we’re making these great socks.”
Thanks to its U.S. production, Minus33 can be more responsive to customer needs, industry trends, and seasonal changes, says Glidden. Plus, customers appreciate that they’re getting high-quality socks made by a family-owned, independent business in the U.S.
For Glidden, there is also a personal benefit. “We have these sock machines in the same building we used to sell wool in 20 years ago, and that’s exciting,” he says. “I’m working at the family company that, when I was in grade school, basically closed. I didn’t think I’d ever have the chance to come back, but here I am.”
If you enjoyed learning more about Minus33, you should also read:
- Wool vs. Merino Wool: 6 Notable Differences and Why You Should Care
- Promoting Safety in the Outdoors: Minus33’s Work with the HikeSafe Program
- Quiz: How Well Would You Survive in the Wild?
Written by Matt Wastradowski for Matcha in partnership with Minus33.
Featured image provided by Minus33