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Does America have a national manufacturing capital?

It depends on the industry, I suppose. For automobiles, we often think of Detroit. For airplanes, we think of Seattle. But what about apparel – or more specifically – what about socks? Do we even make socks in America anymore? The answer is a resounding “yes,” and it’s an industry worth saving (not that I think any American industry isn’t).

Until recently, Fort Payne, Ala., was the sock capital of not just America, but of the world. But now the sign that proudly said so when entering the city limits has been taken down, and even the residents of Fort Payne acknowledge the loss of that once proud distinction.

Ten years ago, Fort Payne produced one out of every eight pairs of socks made on the entire planet and was home to no less than 125 sock mills. Today, only 14 remain.

The latest company to abandon the area is Montreal-based Gildan-Prewett, which claims it can save $1.50 per dozen at its Honduras facility. The Canadian company, after its foreign investment in a local business that was started in 1953 by Fort Payne citizens, is now fleeing Alabama to employ foreign workers. After Gildan-Prewett leaves, the industry that remains will only keep 600 Americans employed.

So how can we buy socks that we can be certain are American-made? One of my favorite companies is Sheboygan, Wis.-based Wigwam Mills, Inc. They may not have ever had the distinction of being called the sock capital of the world, but they’ve been churning out socks since 1905.

Wigwam’s Sheboygan manufacturing facility is state of the art. They constantly work with their local utilities to improve efficiency, and they’ve installed solar panels to heat their water and motion sensor lights to limit wasted power.

All Wigwam products carry at least a one-year warranty and their Wigwam Pro line is guaranteed for two years. How’s that for American confidence and commitment?

To be sure, the demise of the American sock industry has been in the works for many years. I saw it firsthand in 2003 when I visited a closing mill for a story that local news channel WBTV was putting together.

WBTV was doing a story on a textile plant closing in Bowling Green, S.C., that would claim 160 jobs. That textile plant paid $100,000.00 in taxes in 2002. The invisible hand of the “free market” was wreaking havoc left and right. It came on the heels of the largest permanent layoff in North Carolina’s history when Pillowtex Corp. went bankrupt.

But to many hardworking Americans in the region, the supposedly invisible hand of the free market was not invisible at all, especially when they had been permanently freed from their jobs.

Even though the “Buy American” issue is more in the news now than it was then, the local response to the story was off the charts. Anchorman Paul Cameron of WBTV had this to say about the reaction his station received as a result of the interview: “The response … has been nothing short of overwhelming. The comments were mostly that we didn’t do enough. Our 11 p.m. news last night was far and away the ratings winner – with numbers higher than we’ve seen in a year.”

Back in January of 2008, I reported on how our federal government was likely to impose tariffs on socks imported from Honduras since statistics showed a 99 percent import surge from that country from the end of 2006 to the end of 2007.

In April 2008, the U.S. Committee for the Implementation of Textile Agreements (CITA) determined that cotton socks originating from Honduras were causing “serious damage” to our U.S. producers, and applied a 5 percent duty on the full value of the imported goods.

If you’re a “Buy American” supporter, learning about “serious damage” to our economy should warrant serious consideration about doing what we can to make things better. After all, it’s our country, and our prosperity is our responsibility.

How was Honduras able to export 27.3 million dozen pairs of socks (that works out to over 327 million individual pairs) to us in just the first 11 months of 2007? Because we were all too willing to buy them!

Peggy Smedly, author of “Mending Manufacturing” and editorial director of “Start” magazine, got the idea for a China-free Christmas list back in 2004 and found both American-made and Chinese-made leotards at Target for $14.99. In Wal-Mart (I was doing research there, not shopping there) I found six pair of Hanes socks, made in the U.S., for $4.48. Fruit of the Loom had the same style and the same size made in Mexico for the same price, once again proving that shaving a few American jobs here and there isn’t always guaranteed to even shave a few pennies off the purchase price.

One of the Fort Payne holdouts is Terry Locklear, a 66-year-old native to the area and owner of Emi-G Knitting Inc., who is modernizing his sock business. In 2009, he helped launch an organic line of socks, which are now sold at retailers in Alabama, Tennessee and Washington. Locklear hopes his organic sock line represents “the ground level” of a promising trend, even though organic socks can command as much as $16.50 a pair.

If non-organic socks suit you just fine, however, I would check out Wigwam.com. When it comes to keeping your feet comfortable, you don’t want to sacrifice quality for less-expensive labor, especially if you’re a supporter of “Buy American.” Wigwam Mills, Inc. is one proud American company that will guarantee you won’t make such unnecessary sacrifices.

Just visit Wigwam.com and click on the sock finder in the upper right-hand corner to find a retailer near you that carries Wigwam socks. You can find Wigwam socks at many popular retailers like Sports Authority, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Costco, and Gander Mountain.

Regardless of where the sock capital of the world is located now, Americans would do well to do all we can to lay claim to such a proud distinction as the manufacturing capital of the world.

After all, it was Alexander Hamilton who once said, “Every nation ought to endeavor to possess within itself all the essentials of a national supply. These comprise the means of subsistence, habitation, clothing, and defense.”

Just like our feet represent our personal foundation, manufacturing should represent our national foundation. Free trade is a policy or strategy that focuses on how to make it easier for the consumer to consume, but we cannot consume our way to national prosperity. As a nation and a people, we have to produce. Many Americans rightly and smartly understand that we cannot remain a world power without a world-class industrial policy that emphasizes and encourages manufacturing. The best way individual Americans can express their own emphasis on manufacturing is to support American companies like Wigwam that choose to employ only American workers.

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