You may never think about everything it takes to make a set of NTS Base layers or a pair of socks. That’s okay, you don’t need to. The steps to go from sheep to socks…or Base layers…or Mid layers are extensive. But they’re worth it.
Take a look at what we do, and see if you don’t think you’re getting a lot more than just a product at the end of the day. When you buy a Smartwool product, you become the last stop in a supply chain that feels good all along the way.
We work with a select group of trusted partners, and value long-term relationships.
In fact, Smartwool has been in partnership with 9 out of our 11 major supply chain partners for over 10 years. We know that each link in our supply chain is an expert in their field, and that each delivers top quality product with great service at an optimal cost.
Our favorite part about our partners: they love what they do and they believe in Smartwool.
It all starts with a haircut
Our Supply Chain really begins with flocks of hardy Merino sheep grazing on lush grass in the shadow of jagged mountains.
We feel that the best wool comes from sheep that are happy and healthy. It’s important they have good food, an ample water supply and shade in the heat, and that they don’t have to worry about predators. Weather plays a part, too. The best forecast for growing wool is a moderate rain cycled with hot, dry conditions in the summer, followed by a cold winter.
Quality wool starts with quality growers and we think we have the best growers in the business on our side. We know our growers by name, and are a family bound by partnership with similar ideals.
Growers are critical to the quality of the wool and to the success of their flocks. It’s the grower’s job to select a ram with the right genetics and to breed sheep that promote the right characteristics — for instance, a bulky fleece and little wool on the face (if you had too much wool in your face, you’d have trouble seeing, too). The grower also works to ensure their sheep are healthy, are mustered at the best times, and don’t overgraze. Under the care of a skilled grower, sheep are integrated into the natural environment and help maintain it.
The growers we work with are devoted to their trade and we want to keep it that way. We are the pioneer in enabling long term contracts for wool growers. These contracts offer assurance of future fiber demands and certainty through stable income, so growers can better manage their flocks, plan for the future, and provide us a stable source of quality wool at a set cost.
Wool straight off the sheep’s back isn’t anything you’d like to snuggle up to.
It’s greasy (sheep naturally produce lanolin) and tangled with dirt and bits of plants. Not to mention, sheep don’t take baths.
We turn greasy wool into clean, soft wool that’s ready to become yarn through a process that starts with three steps: scouring, carding and combing.
These processes decrease the weight of the wool, but the byproducts can be repurposed: lanolin is used for soaps, cosmetics and ointments; short fibers are turned into felt for things like carpet pads and billiard cloth; and even vegetable matter can be used as fuel. The clean wool is blended again and aligned.
Next, we wash the wool a second time, scrubbing down and smoothing the microscopic scales on each fiber. If we leave these scales alone, they’d catch on each other, ultimately causing wool fabric to shrink. Fibers are then lightly coated with a soft resin that further prevents them from interlocking, and the wool is dried.
Spinning a Yarn
Turning airy slivers of wool top into a soft, strong, yarn takes a lot of specialized machines and a lot of blending.
There are three steps to spinning Smartwool yarn: preparation, spinning and winding.
In the preparation stage, wool top is blended multiple times. After it’s blended well, we blend it some more. The goal is to take a naturally varied fiber and create consistency and evenness. Even though one wool fleece can make 40 pairs of socks, a single pair of socks will have wool from a number of different sheep. Fibers from wool top slivers are gently combed apart, then combined again into a precursor to yarn or a “roving.”
Next, a series of machines compacts and pulls or “draws” the roving into yarn. Twist is added to hold the yarn together and give it strength. Finally, the yarn is wound onto a cone and shipped to the knitting mill.
A standard cone of yarn weighs three pounds and has almost 25 miles of yarn. We use well over half a million cones of yarn a year — that’s enough to circle the earth 500 times. Talk about spinning a yarn.
Forget your grandmother’s knitting needles — knitting socks in a hosiery mill involves hundreds of computerized knitting machines, each of which knits with up to 200 needles at a time.
But that doesn’t mean the process is automatic; specialized workers are needed for every step along the way.
From start to finish, a single sock may be touched by a dozen talented people.
Cones of yarn are hung on the creel rack built above the machine — one knitting machine can use four to 20 cones of yarn at a time. The yarn is threaded into the machine, the machine is programmed to make a specific sock and then the knitting begins.
Every two to six minutes, one sock is knit.
Different machines make different types of socks. The fewer the needles, the coarser the gauge or the heavier the yarn that is used. For instance, an 84 needle machine would knit a heavy sock, while a 200 needle machine would knit a light sock.
Fresh off the knitting machine, a sock is a tube of fabric, so it heads to seaming. There, a worker turns each sock inside out and sews the toe closed with the help of a seaming machine.
Next, socks are washed and lightly dried. Then, they are boarded, a process very similar to ironing a shirt. You may never iron your socks again, but we like to do it for you once so it’s love at first sight.
Socks are inspected and paired by hand, then are packaged and placed in cartons, ready to begin their journey to your feet.
When it comes to knitting your favorite Smartwool apparel, the process is similar to how you might make apparel at home:
You start with a pattern, trace it onto fabric, cut out the right pieces and then sew them together on a sewing machine. In a factory setting, this process is labor-intensive and requires careful attention to detail and experienced workers.
Our NTS fabric is knit on large circular knitting machines. A large tube of fabric comes off the machine — when the tube is cut open, the fabric can be five feet wide. The fabric is finished, rolled and transported to the cutting room, where it is unrolled and allowed to relax. Changes due to humidity and the rolling process can slightly stretch the fabric. By laying it flat and letting it rest, the fabric returns to its natural state. If the fabric does not relax properly, the pieces we cut and sew might be too small. Wool is considered a “lively” fabric — it absorbs and releases moisture, and the fibers’ crimp gives it some natural stretch and recovery. That makes it more difficult to work with in manufacturing environments than other fabrics. But, like anything, there’s nothing a little down time can’t fix.
The fabric is laid on the cutting table. A number of layers can be cut at a time. An operator guides a hand-held blade around a pattern, cutting through the fabric in a more exact and efficient manner than by using scissors.
Our NTS pieces are then sewn together with flatlock seams because they are extraordinarily secure and have virtually no bulk. Since two pieces of fabric are connected edge to edge, an added benefit is that there is less waste. That doesn’t mean it’s easy; this type of sewing requires a specialized machine and a skilled operator. There is no margin for error. But we figure that’s a good way to make things more exciting.
The garments are steamed and packaged, then head straight to a store near you.
At Smartwool, quality is at the core of every decision we make. From the materials we choose and the designs we create, to the manufacturers with which we partner, quality is our priority.
Quality is not just a step at one of our factories. It’s built into our processes, from product creation to manufacturing to logistics. All factories conduct standard quality inspections at multiple points in the production process. We track quality issues closely to identify and address trends. We want our customers to have the best possible experience with our products.
We expect our Supply Chain partners to meet the same standards we expect of ourselves, and we encourage and support them to do so through auditing, training and seeking innovative methods to achieve our mutual goals. We audit all manufacturers and subcontractors every year, always focusing on continuous improvement. We use internal and external resources to evaluate factories. Our review process is collaborative and focused on root causes.
For more information on our Global Compliance Principles and our entire Corporate Responsibility platform, see www.vfc.com/powerful-platforms/sustainability.