By Paul Vlachou Having driven passed my final destination, Surratt Hosiery Mills, I did a quick U turn on a quiet and otherwise deserted country road. Surratt is a family-owned sock manufacturing business in Denton, North Carolina, about a two hour drive from Charlotte. You could have forgiven me for getting a little lost since Denton is a somewhat far-flung town, home to about 1,600 people and with mostly local businesses, so there’s no need for bold signage. I ventured up a long driveway and around the back of a giant metal shed, still not sure if I’d found the place. As I turned a corner, I saw a lanky looking man who seemed to be on his lunch break. I pulled up alongside him with my window down. “Paul?” he asked. It was Eric Surratt, just the man I was hoping to meet. We shook hands and he directed me to drive back around and meet him at the front of the property. His Grandfather started Surratt Hosiery in 1939 with the making of its first sock on January 1 of that same year. Following in his footsteps, Eric’s father Irving took the helm in 1972 upon his graduation from NC State University. Eric joined the family business eleven years ago when he began an apprenticeship under the mentorship and guidance of his father, with the goal of managing the family business when his time came. Eric setting up the Lonati I soon found out that Eric had indeed succeeded his father in taking over the reigns at Surratt. As I walked through the offices and upon the factory floor, it was immediately evident that the factory had quite a long history and, even more so, that it had character. It was a little bit dusty and the wood floors had definitely seen their fair share of traffic. Sock patterns lined one wall and there was machinery everywhere. My first impression was that of a family-run business that had certainly been around the block — exactly the way Eric had described it when we first spoke on the phone. Most of the machinery was no longer being used (I would later learn that some of it was more than half a century old), except for a long row of newer knitting machines, including some beautiful ones that had recently arrived from Italy — 168 needle knitters from the famed Italian Lonati factory. These are exclusive machines and I could tell that Eric was proud of their presence and eager to trumpet them as the best in the industry. As he continued to walk me through the factory, introducing me to friendly faces along the way, it was important and comforting to see that everyone I met seemed happy and content in their work. From the sorting and packing of socks to the inspecting and tuning of equipment, the vibe was calm and collected with just the right level of busyness to affirm that work was getting done, but also that people were enjoying a nice bit of banter as they went. Looping back to take a closer look at those beauties from Lonati it occured to me that while these extraordinary machines were doing the brunt of the work, creating a great sock still required the delicate touch of a human hand — which is where Eric’s talent and love for his craft really shone. I came to think of him as a sock artisan. He would dart back and forth between machines, always carrying a pair of long-nosed tweezers in his back pocket. At lightning speed, he pulled thread here and there, over this and through that, tweaking and tinkering like a mad genius seeking perfection. A curious creator myself and fascinated by the process, I asked him question after question and the more I learned, the more I appreciated the craft and realized that I’d found the right place to make our socks. Thinking back, during one of our first conversations Eric had declared “if we can’t make your sock here, then no one else can do it either.” Now, having seen him and the factory in action, there is no doubt in my mind that he was correct. After a morning spent getting to know the factory, it was around noon and Eric suggested we pop out to grab some lunch in the town centre. About 15 minutes later we arrived at what looked like your standard American diner and Eric told me this was pretty much the only gig in town for a good lunch. We stepped inside and as he greeted the staff and employees I instantly got the feeling that everyone here knew each other and as we sat down at our table, a few hello’s later, Eric confirmed that that’s exactly how it is. A lot of businesses in Denton are in the manufacturing industry and in the past have fallen on hard times following the US government’s introduction of the controversial NAFTA agreement. I have no doubt that this is one of the main reasons why Denton is now such a tight-knit community. Eric says that before NAFTA they shipped approximately 30,000 dozens of socks a week, while employing a growing workforce of 100; after NAFTA, business diminished greatly with approximately 4,000 dozens being shipped weekly, requiring the assistance of a much smaller group of only 12-15 employees. Staying on the subject of where garments are made these days, I asked Eric if he’d felt the knock-on effect of the “Made in America” movement making a comeback over the past several years. “Surratt Hosiery is certainly feeling the effects,” he said. “We work with smaller designer brands and smaller quantities — something weren’t necessarily open to doing before — and we always strive to go the extra mile for our customers.” To me, that extra mile meant I could take a quick flight from NYC to NC and sit down and have lunch with the man running the show at Surratt. We could talk about our businesses, our families and where we came from. As Eric says, “We see Eleven as a business we understand, can help with challenges and that we can ultimately trust.” Eric kindly took care of the bill and we headed back to the factory. Once we arrived, he was quick to get back in front of those Lonati’s and a short time later we were sitting in his office going over the details of the latest samples he had produced for Eleven. Now the beautiful thing about an Eleven sock is that the designs are formed by knitting different yarns of colored merino wool together, and when you notice how intricate some of the artwork is — you’ll understand why it would have been an easy decision to go down the route of a sublimation print, but this is something we always wanted to avoid from the get-go. The way a jacquard knit sock is constructed is similar to pixels on a screen. A 168 needle machine means you have a 168×168 digital canvas to work with. So when we’re designing our socks at Eleven, it’s almost like a throwback to the days of MS Paint. If you want your sock design to remain sharp and consistent, every facet of the artwork needs to be treated as if you’re filling in a single pixel at a time. After you have a beautiful design, the focus shifts to the shape and fit of the sock and through the wonder of modern day technology, every row of “pixels” can have a different amount of stretch to it. As Eric enlightened me on the subject and showed me the “skeleton” of one of our socks on his laptop, I began to realize just how complex and painstaking the process is, but also the deep satisfaction that it brings to finally grasp a finished sock. The way Eric describes the process, “seeing the sock move from a computer drawing to a tactile object in my hand is my love. I liken it to holding a baby for the first time.” At that point it occurred to me that we had found a man who was as passionate about socks as we were about football — it was a perfect match. Out on the factory floor a bit later in the day I was lucky enough to meet Eric’s father, Irving Surratt. I was pleasantly surprised when I learned that he had already heard quite a bit about Eleven from Eric, since nowadays Irving plays less of a role in the day-to-day running of the business. Still roaming about the historied floors, though, he’s quick to impart wisdom and decades of experience on his staff and is one of the main reasons why Surratt has remained in business for almost a century. As I stood back and watched him discuss the intricacies of our Eleven sock with Eric, I couldn’t help but admire the man for remaining so passionate about his craft. Interested by the relationship between himself and his father and the generational gap between them, I later asked Eric what it was like working together and if they ever butt heads when it comes running the family business. “For sure, today’s business relies more on technology-driven communications, creations, and shipping methods and I think the relationship between my dad and me is a perfect combination between the past and the present.” He went on to say that Irving remains “instrumental in answering questions, whether about knitting, dyeing, or finishing” and that if he doesn’t have the answer, he always knows where to turn in order to find it. The older generation, in his own words, “is my foundation.” Surratt staff inspecting and packing our socks By the time we wrapped up our conversation it was late in the evening and most of the Surratt staff had left the factory. Just myself, Eric and Irving sat in an office, discussing the arch-band around the sole of the foot — eager to resolve a couple of small issues before my flight back to New York. Eric made one last adjustment on the computer and sent the design through to the Lonati machine, all of us confident that this next sample would be perfect. When the sock finally slid down the machine’s shoot and into Eric’s hand, he asked Irving to give it a quick wash and dry — a process every sock needs to go through before it can form its final shape and fit. It was at that moment that I found out Irving had been driving back and forth from his home, placing the Eleven samples in his regular washer and dryer as opposed to running their industrial machines after hours for a single pair of socks. Have I mentioned how much I admire this man’s zeal? Thirty minutes later Irving entered the office with the latest sample and the three of us studied it with pointed intensity. I tried the sock on and felt it out, and in the same way that you know the moment the ball leaves your foot that it’s going to dip into the top corner, I knew it was the one.