Stories Behind the Gear: Darn Tough
Written by Harriet Osborne // Photography Courtesy of Darn Tough
When it comes to feet, we notice discomfort fast: socks with holes, threadbare socks, socks that rub and cause blisters, and socks that slip off your heel and cause blisters. Uncomfortable socks take our attention away from what we should be doing. But good socks blend into the background. The best socks are so good you don’t even think about them – and that’s where Darn Tough Vermont comes in.
In 2004, Ric Cabot founded Darn Tough in Vermont, USA, as a new brand under his father’s hosiery business – Cabot Hosiery Mills. The objective was to create a category-specific performance sock better than any on the market, and to unconditionally guarantee it for life – the industry’s first. If a customer could wear a hole in the sock, Darn Tough would replace it free of charge. It was a bold promise, but Ric Cabot is a third-generation sock maker. ‘We can guarantee durability,’ Ric says, ‘because we knit them ourselves.’
It’s not uncommon for Darn Tough socks to last over a decade, helped by a high-density knit using machines with precisely 168 needles (their sweet spot) and the right fibres, with the right stitch types, mixed in the right amounts to have stronger resistance to abrasion.
Ric knew they had to get their socks on people’s feet for them to feel the difference. So they knitted 3,500 pairs and handed them out for free to runners taking part in the Vermont City Marathon. Some runners, they say, are still wearing the same socks today. Word spread fast, and by 2009 Darn Tough had gained international recognition. They are now sold in over 30 countries worldwide.
What drives the brand is simple: to make the world’s best socks in Vermont, USA – the same mill they’ve always been in. When times were tough in the early ‘00s, many US manufacturers moved offshore. But Darn Tough never left. The clean mountain air and breathtaking vistas in Vermont not only make it a highly sought-after place to live but also serve as an ideal testing ground for Darn Tough’s socks, specifically designed for hiking, running, and skiing among other performance categories.
Customer feedback suggests they’re doing something right: ‘I will be replacing all my old socks with these socks,’ says one loyal customer, Michael. Paul adds, ‘I discovered the key to having better shoes is getting better socks.’ Another claims to ‘wear them around the house in place of slippers.’ Instead of writing complaint letters when returning worn-out socks, customers often send love letters, post-it notes, or handmade crafts – they received 328 letters from customers expressing gratitude for the brand last year.
The feeling of gratitude is mutual. Worn socks give Darn Tough a robust testing programme with an endless supply of data. All socks are prone to see-through footbeds, but a work sock in a steel toe boot might suffer a toe hole, while a hiking boot might wear through at the Achilles. Every worn-out sock reminds Darn Tough they can do better and shows them where improvements can be made.
Guaranteeing durability keeps the Darn Tough team on their toes. The words ‘We have yet to produce our best sock’ adorn the walls at the entrance of the mill to keep them from becoming complacent. Instead, they relentlessly pursue three core pillars: comfort, durability, and fit. With natural and synthetic fibres and only three types of fibre per sock, each material has been carefully selected to meet their high standards.
The main fibre is mulesing-free Merino wool, a resilient fibre that is naturally breathable and regulates temperature. Then they bring reinforcements: Lycra spandex for elasticity, strength, and form-fitting comfort; and REPREVE, a nylon made from pre-consumer industrial waste. They also use Coolmax and Thermolite polyester fibres to deliver durability, high performance, and moisture management in socks that don’t contain Merino wool.
Durability sits at the centre of Darn Tough’s Lifetime Guarantee. A durable sock is a sustainable one; if one sock can do the job of ten, that’s nine pairs that aren’t adding waste to the environment. Darn Tough is working to replace all virgin nylon and polyester with recycled alternatives. They are also testing recycled spandex alternatives – although this is typically harder to achieve without compromising quality.
Socks with a higher thread count are generally softer and better quality. Darn Tough uses a high-density knit in 3D – over 1,000 tiny stitches per square inch – so it’s the right shape and stretch from the beginning. They have no seams either, which creates a silky smooth sock interior that prevents rubbing.
They reinforce their socks for the activity they are built for with nylon, a durable fibre that reinforces the sock from the outside, and terry loops (small yarn loops like those on a towel) that reinforce the sock from the inside. Then there’s the stitching. Darn Tough uses different stitches for the intended purpose – a drop needle for intricate patterns, alternate stitches for a smooth interior, and ribbing in the cuff to keep the sock in place.
When it comes to durability, fit also plays an important role. Constant rubbing produces friction that wears away at your socks and causes blisters. Putting on Darn Tough socks takes effort – and that’s intentional. The better the sock fits, the less friction will occur and the longer the sock will last. Darn Tough’s Performance Fit is a next-to-skin fit that closely hugs the foot, reducing bunching, slipping, and sliding issues even after weeks of wear.
Darn Tough knows that athletes depend on their feet day in, day out – and they take their trust seriously. That’s why testing the socks is an important part of the process. It’s not uncommon for Darn Tough staff to wear a newly developed pair of socks for 30 days straight without washing. One of the team members even went a full 40.
Behind the scenes, Darn looks much the same as 20 years ago. The tech is better; they have more machines and two more facilities. But they still operate as a family – three generations strong with skills passed down from father to son. Giving back to the community remains at the forefront. Last year, Darn Tough provided $150,000 in relief to flood victims, donated over 19,000 meals, and contributed over 800 hours of volunteering.
It’s hardly surprising that many employees have been with the company from the beginning. Over the years, they have built a loyal community they know by name. Everyone from hikers and athletes to farmers and firefighters. Like their community, Darn Tough is a hard-working, honest, and authentic brand – but they are still yet to produce their best sock.