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High-end sock producer Thorlo dips BIG toe into mask making

Posted May 28, 2020

 

By John McCurry

 

Thorlo, known globally for its activity-specific, high-performance socks valued by hikers, runners and other sports enthusiasts, has turned its hosiery engineering expertise to produce face masks.

 

For the past several weeks, as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, the Statesville, N.C., manufacturer has carved out a new niche by converting a number of its sock knitting machines to produce personal safety masks.

 

Thorlo’s Face Tek masks are being sold primarily to consumers through a new website, facetekmask.com, launched on April 22. Sales have been robust. In about five weeks, the company has sold approximately 70,000 masks. That includes some companies that bought them for employees such as Winston-Salem, N.C.-based R.J. Reynolds, which purchased several thousand. But sales have mainly been direct-to-consumer though the website.

 

“We really didn’t design the masks to be sold through brick-and-mortar retail,” said Thorlo CEO Lynn Thorneburg. “We wanted it to be a business-to-business thing, mainly for industrial use, as well as direct-to-consumer through our website.”

 

Around March 10, as all of the business shutdowns were sweeping across the U.S., brick-and-mortar retail came to a virtual stop. Thorlo’s major customers signaled they wouldn’t be ordering socks for the foreseeable future. Amazon halted orders for 30 days. As a result, Thorlo went several weeks without any retail orders, resulting in the furlough of all but necessary personnel.

 

“We were essentially shut down for about four weeks,” Thorneburg said. “During that time, our engineers saw the need for masks arising out there, and they said they thought they could make them on our circular sock machines. Within about three weeks, we had a mask developed and we had a website open.”

 

Thorlo’s retail locations are still mostly shuttered. Except for recent orders from Amazon and Dick’s Sporting Goods, the company has been relying on sales through its website, which has accounted for half of its business in recent years.

 

The masks are a product of the company’s desire to make a contribution to the pandemic battle while also helping bring its employees back to work. Thorneburg credited the ingenuity of this engineers in making the project work. Face Tek masks sell for $12.99. Thorneburg said comparable masks sell for $15 to $30, and he considers Face Tek to be a higher-level mask. Thorlo is currently producing 20,000 masks per week.

 

Thorlo received a federal Paycheck Protection Program loan in mid-May, enabling the manufacturer to call all of its employees back to work for at least eight weeks. In the midst of its Spring sock sale, Thorlo is even running overtime and hiring part-time help to cover increased direct-to-consumer sales. Thorneburg said that will subside by July 4 and resume normal patterns. He hopes that retail businesses will be back by then.           

 

Thornburg said several factors differentiate Face Tek masks from the many other cloth masks designed over the past several weeks. Because they are made on a knitting machine, the mask is made in one piece rather than from a cut-and-sew operation. The construction is 50 percent nylon, 25 percent polyester and 25 percent CuTec copper fiber, which permanently binds copper to a matrix of polyester, nylon and spun polyester fibers. Tweaking programmable sock knitting machines didn’t prove to be difficult for Thorlo’s engineers. The major accomplishment was the mask’s design, Thorneburg said.

 

“We had already been using copper-infused polyester for socks and we knew it had antimicrobial features that would be good for a face mask,” he says. “There is no research on copper that is peer-reviewed or FDA-approved that says it kills COVID, but it does kill similar bacteria. We chose that as the core fabric that covers the face and the other feature is it does not have straps that can chafe the ears. Ours fits over the head like a turtleneck, and then is pulled up to cover the face.”

 

Thorlo dialed up production as it chased demand. For the past month, because of its retail customers still closed, the company has made more profits on masks than on socks. Sales accelerated after the CDC recommended wide use of cloth masks.

 

“Our masks are for ordinary people to wear when going to the grocery store or to go pick up their food or medicine, normal out and about,” Thorneburg said. “This mask has a double layer, which is recommended, plus it’s got the copper, so it is a very good personal use mask. That is all we designed it for.”

 

Thornburg said he isn’t sure how long Thorlo will produce masks, but he figures it will be at least until an effective coronavirus vaccine is available. There is potential for the masks to be altered somewhat for activities such as skiing if the design is tweaked.  Thus far, all sales have been online without retail packaging or promotional efforts.

 

The masks are currently available only in black, but with summer approaching, Thorlo will soon produce a white mask and may consider offering a pink version to observe Breast Cancer Awareness Month in October. The masks are one-size-fits-all now, but soon three sizes will be offered. The company is also exploring ways to improve its new mask.

 

“We are preparing to enter into a collaboration project with the N.C. State University Wilson College of Textiles to look for ways to upgrade this mask, so that it would rate at a higher standard,” Thorneburg said. “If we are able to do that, we might be able to sell it to some governmental units, such as the military, but it will need more work.”

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