Each year, Our State’s Made in NC Awards celebrate the talent and creativity of North Carolinians. Meet the state’s winners, honorable mentions, and judges. Check out all of this year’s
As Gus Davis hiked with his family along the Mountains-to-Sea Trail in Pisgah National Forest, he did what 6-year-olds do: picked up pretty rocks and acorns that caught his eye. When he needed a sack to carry them in, he improvised with a sock. But it wasn’t just any sock — it was a Farm to Feet sock made in North Carolina, a homegrown brand that Gus’s mother swears by.
“They’re socks, they’re acorn carriers, they’re all those things,” says Jennifer Pharr Davis, who’s walked more of our state’s ridges, balds, peaks, and valleys than just about anyone. In 2011, Davis hiked the Appalachian Trail in a record 46 days, and she wore Farm to Feet socks when she took on the 1,175-mile Mountains-to-Sea Trail in 2017. “I had a couple pairs so I could change them out,” she says, “but the socks I had at the beginning, I still had at the end, and there were no holes in them whatsoever.”
Farm to Feet socks first hit stores in 2013. They’re the brainchild of Kelly Nester, CEO of Nester Hosiery, in Mount Airy, who envisioned a high-end house brand that would draw entirely from American suppliers and serve as a model for sustainability. A decade later, Farm to Feet socks have proved hugely popular among outdoor enthusiasts like Davis — and they won this year’s Made in NC award in the Style category. The success of the line has helped Nester Hosiery expand its operations, bucking the decades-long trend of shuttered textile mills across the state.
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The door inside Nester Hosiery opens to what sounds like a cloudburst. “This first room here is our knitting room,” Kelly says as he leaves a quiet office area and enters a huge room with machines stretching in neat rows across the floor. “Hearing protection is not required,” he continues, raising his voice above the din. “I always offer it, though, ’cause some of the areas are a little loud.”
Kelly leads the way through the roar of American industry, a sound that has quieted in the past quarter-century, but never stilled. His uncle Marty founded Nester Hosiery in 1993, and Kelly and his team have started a new chapter in the story of one of North Carolina’s oldest industries.
The company’s Farm to Feet line represents a 21st-century twist on textiles. These days, the mill’s knitting machines are a computer-driven tangle of metal, cables, and flexible hoses, all capped with colorful spindle halos. Each machine works to turn strands of yarn into fancy hosiery. Workers carry tablet computers to monitor and tweak the process. The machines spit out a variety of socks, from stripes and solids to vibrant designs of trees, dogs, guitars, and logos for open-air destinations like the Appalachian Trail.
Farm to Feet socks sell for about $15 to $30 a pair and line shelves at North Carolina retailers like Mast General Store and Great Outdoor Provision Co., as well as national stores like L.L. Bean. Nester Hosiery has partnered with Jennifer Pharr Davis to create a sock that includes a portion of the logo for Blue Ridge Hiking Company, her guided adventure outfit. In an outdoors world often saturated with machismo, Blue Ridge Hiking’s logo features the silhouette of a woman.
“When I got into hiking and backpacking, the traditional symbol for hiking was a guy with a pack and a stick,” Davis says. “Nester came up with a sock design [in which the hiker] distinctly has a ponytail. It felt different and inclusive.”
Blue Ridge Hiking isn’t Nester’s only partner. A new design slated for this fall — the one that won a Made in NC award — features the logos of both Farm to Feet and the Asheville-based Eagles Nest Outfitters (ENO), along with images of ENO’s signature product: a hammock. ENO is one of more than 80 companies that make up the nonprofit trade group Outdoor Gear Builders of Western North Carolina.
Anna Rawlins, ENO’s marketing director, says that the workers at her company swear by Farm to Feet. “On any particular day, you can see their iconic cuffs on most of our employees,” she says with a laugh. “It’s become an ongoing joke when we flash our cuffs at each other. So when Farm to Feet reached out to do a collab sock, it was a no-brainer.”
The wool used in Farm to Feet socks originates in the Western United States, where the landscape supports large sheep ranches. Wool is a natural fiber, with qualities that make Farm to Feet socks ideal for the trail. “They’re really good about breathability and moisture wicking, so if your feet do get wet, they dry fast,” Davis says. “That helps so much with foot health and foot care on the trail.”
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In its earlier years, Nester Hosiery specialized in making regular ordinary socks for other companies. By the late ’90s, the factory had expanded to make technical socks — a development that culminated in Farm to Feet. Kelly came up with the idea in 2010, when he hired a photographer to document the company’s manufacturing processes for a marketing campaign. “The idea jumped out of the images: We have to figure out a way to tell a story out of this; create a brand.” The first Farm to Feet socks hit the market three years later.
As he winds his way through the 133,000-square-foot main facility of the plant, Kelly stops at a machine that grabs finished socks, folds them in half, and loops them through thick paper display sleeves, ready to hang in stores. “I think that out of all of our processes, this is the one that looks the most like a Dr. Seuss factory,” he says with a smile.
Nester Hosiery has made socks in North Carolina for 27 years — and in this factory for almost 20 of them, preceded by other companies that operated out of the facility for decades. In the textile industry’s heyday, the largest mills in Mount Airy employed thousands of workers. That was before the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and other factors sent many of those jobs overseas. Nowadays, Nester employs about 225 people in its specialty sock business, up from about 165 in 2019.
Jason Hooker is one of four generations of his family to work in the factory, starting with his grandfather in the 1960s and continuing with his mother, aunts, uncles, and son. Hooker started as a line mechanic in 2003 and worked his way up to become Nester’s quality and technical manager. “I think there’s something to be said when the biggest companies left and we’re still here,” Hooker says. “Obviously, we’re doing something right.”
That something is Farm to Feet. Ten years on, the line has become a homegrown success story, on and off the trail. The company makes 120,000 pairs of socks a week, and the roar of its knitting room shows no signs of quieting down.
Back in the office area, Kelly peels one of the socks off a foot mannequin to demonstrate its seamless toe closure and detailed design. At the rate they’re going, Nester’s 21st-century socks will continue to serve hikers and acorn collectors on trails across North Carolina and beyond for decades to come. — Eddie Huffmaan
Turtlebay Jewelry — Currituck
Mountains-to-Sea Trail Commemorative Ring
While hiking on the slopes of Mount Mitchell one spring, Danielle Beaty was inspired by the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, the 1,175-mile footpath that meanders through 37 counties. “The trail exposes you to every single portion of what makes North Carolina remarkable, from scenic mountain views and rivers to small towns and the Coastal Plain,” she says. Since 2004, Beaty, an adjunct instructor of professional craft jewelry at College of the Albemarle, has been making pieces connected to her love of the ocean and the beauty of the state’s landscape. Her Mountains-to-Sea Trail Commemorative Ring, cut and pierced to mimic the shape of the state, includes icons that represent the trail, from mountains and marshes to a boot that commemorates the brave hikers who’ve completed the adventure. “The journey ends at Jockey’s Ridge on the Outer Banks,” Beaty says, “so I featured the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, which is an emblem of our state’s connection to the sea.” — Tamiya Anderson
Appalachian Gear Company — Kings Mountain
For textile engineer John Gage, there’s no better way to take a trip down memory lane than by taking a trip to the North Carolina mountains. Growing up, he spent summers at Camp Mondamin in Henderson County, where he fondly recalls rock climbing, singing songs around late-night campfires, and roasting marshmallows on the end of a stick. “I’ve always loved the outdoors — hiking, backpacking, paddling, you name it,” he says. The outdoors is Gage’s first love, but it wasn’t until high school that he discovered his second. His father’s cousin worked at a large textile company, and while Gage was visiting the manufacturing plant, a light bulb turned on: “I felt an instant connection to the entire operation, and I knew immediately that textile manufacturing was for me,” he says. After graduating from North Carolina State University’s College of Textiles, Gage worked several jobs in the industry before starting Appalachian Gear Company in 2015. The AG-Tee — composed of 80 percent alpaca fiber and 20 percent Tencel, a cellulose fiber sustainably made from eucalyptus trees — is the brainchild of Gage and his business partner, Mike Hawkins. The lightweight T-shirt provides comfort and performance to even the most rugged outdoor enthusiasts. “We want people to spend less time worrying about what they’re wearing,” Gage says, “and more time enjoying the outdoors.” — Tamiya Anderson