“Don’t listen to those who say, “It’s not done that way.” Maybe it’s not, but maybe you’ll do it anyway. Don’t listen to those who say, “You’re taking too big a chance.” Michelangelo would have painted the Sistine floor, which would surely be rubbed out today.”                                       Neil Simon

Early 2008 – Ft. Payne, Alabama: Terry and Regina Locklear sat in the office at their sock mill, Emi-G Knitting, wondering what their future held. The mill was quiet. All the workers were laid off except for a few key employees. On the days the plant operated, it ran at 30% capacity, which didn’t come close to paying the bills.

Terry knew they should close the plant as most sock mill owners in town had done. But his stubborn heart told him to hang on. He knew they would never re-open the plant if they closed the doors.

Terry had long dreamed of owning a sock mill. In 1991, he quit his job as the general manager of a Chrysler dealership, took a leap of faith and started his own mill with borrowed money. He named it Emi-G Knitting after his two young daughters, Emily and Gina. Terry and Regina worked long hours for years to build their business. Annual sales would eventually top $3 million. Russell Mills in nearby Alexander City was their anchor customer and white athletic socks were their bread and butter.

For decades the green sign on the road into town had declared, “Welcome to Ft. Payne – The Official Sock Capital of the World.” Sock making had been king in the town of 14,000 since W.B. Davis opened the first mill in 1907. In 1994, when the North American Free Trade Agreement was passed, more than 125 sock mills were employing 8,000 people. Then when cheaper imported socks began to flood the American market, the mill closures were rapid and devastating.

In 2008, on a tough day for Terry and Regina, 26-year-old Gina showed up at the plant. She had been praying about the situation and felt a tug to come home. Gina had decided to quit her real estate job in Birmingham and join the family business. Passionate about organic and green living, Gina excitedly suggested introducing a fashion sock made from organic cotton and dyes.

Terry, a committed disciple of white-athletic-socks-sold-in bulk-to-big-box-retailers, wasn’t buying Gina’s idea. He was deeply concerned about her joining a business whose future was in the past. He knew the new product would require new sock machines and no money was available to invest.

Gina persisted. Her enthusiasm eventually influenced her father to commit to a small budget for product development. Gina sought the help of Billy Reid, one of Alabama’s leading men’s clothing designers. After considerable research and product development, Gina persuaded Emi-G mill manager Vance Veal to tackle what her father thought impossible: produce a six-color, multiple-pattern sock. He did it.

After purchasing several state-of-the-art Italian sock machines and many trials, Gina’s new product was born. In late 2008, Gina introduced the Zkano line of six-color fashion socks for women made from organic cotton grown in Lubbock, Texas, and dyed yarns sourced from North Carolina. The socks, aimed at 15- to 35-year-olds, featured trendy stripes, polka dots, and colors. The socks were an immediate success. Emi-G followed the women’s sock rollout by introducing men’s fashion socks.

In 2013, Emi-G introduced another line, Little River Mill Socks, named after the river that flows by the factory. The two popular sock brands were sold online directly from Emi-G and in over 200 stores nationwide. Socks sold for $15 to $30 a pair.

Gina was 12 when Terry started his sock mill. She had doodled colorful sock designs in a notebook and helped in the mill by sorting socks. More than 30 years later, she designs the socks, and Vance Veal figures out how to configure the machines to produce her designs.

Today less than 10 sock mills are operating in a town that once produced 600 million dozen pairs of socks annually, 12% of the world’s socks. In the shadow of Little River Canyon, the Emi-G sock machines are humming. Gina Locklear refused to accept the inevitable, found her calling and saved the family business.