In celebration of the 20th Anniversary of Solmate Socks, we are releasing some short stories from the founder of the company, Marianne Wakerlin.
Before going into this next story, I’d like to offer some back-story. All through the 1990’s, Marianne knit socks by hand and gave them to friends and family as gifts. As her son, I received many pairs, as did my friends, and my girlfriends, and my friend’s girlfriends, etc.
Over 100 pairs of socks were knit by hand, and as she knit, she dreamed. She loved fiber arts and dreamed of sharing beautiful, wearable art with the world. The only problem was that each pair of socks took two weeks to knit by hand, and she couldn’t make them fast enough. So she started to research mechanical sock knitting and hosiery mills, and found that there were clusters of them throughout the South, many around the North Carolina countryside (this was all before the internet made searches like this easy).
Eventually, Marianne found out about a Hosiery 101 course offered at the Hosiery Technology Center near Hickory, NC. Over 3 days she learned about yarn sizes, machine types, needle counts, and all the intricacies that went into a completed pair of socks. She brought along one of her hand knit socks to discover if it could even be replicated on a machine. The stakes were high, and this trip would decide whether she could pursue her dream, or have to let it go.
-Randy Wakerlin, Co-Owner of Solmate Socks
By Marianne Wakerlin
I graduated with flying colors from Hosiery 101 at the Hosiery Technology Center in January 2000, but I still needed to find the right mill to knit my socks. I sought out Dan St. Louis, head of HTC, for advice. “Try Ron at Eleanor Knitting,” Dan suggested in his slight twang. “He is patient, adventuresome, and trustworthy.”
According to Dan, the Eleanor mill offered the ideal combination of double cylinder machinery and a forward-thinking proprietor. Rodney, one of the instructors, drove me that afternoon.
Marianne at the Hosiery Tech Center with Rodney and Dan
Even though it had a Hickory address, the mill was tucked way out in the middle of nowhere. We drove for over half an hour, along curving country roads lined with banks of red clay and open farmland around houses. Occasionally a lonely gas station appeared along a deserted stretch of blacktop. Without preamble, a cluster of buildings appeared abruptly when we rounded a curve on narrow asphalt.
Not far off the road stood a low brick manufacturing building. The little house sitting next to it, I found out later, belonged to Ron’s parents and Ron’s house was a few hundred feet away. The placement of these structures told me all needed to know about the tight family business.
We entered through a large glass door into a nicely decorated lobby. The only indication we were in a hosiery mill were the copies of North Carolina Hosiery Industry magazines fanned neatly on tables next to Delft blue upholstered chairs. From behind a sliding glass window, a petite woman stood up, slid open the window and warmly greeted Rodney. He introduced me to Lorie, Ron’s wife, who welcomed me and asked where I came from.
“I’m from Illinois,” I said, suddenly self-conscious of my Midwestern accent.
“Well then, you’re probably used to this cold weather we’re having down here,” she said as she tugged her blue cardigan more tightly around her shoulders. “Can you believe it was below freezing when we got up this morning?”
I thought about Vermont, where I was housesitting for the winter and wondered if it got above freezing in January.
“How are Angie’s kids?” asked Rodney.
“Growing,” Lorie said with an eyeroll and a smile. “Our younger daughter’s going to have another baby soon so then we’ll have five grandchildren.”
“That’s a lot for you and Ron to keep up with, isn’t it?”
“Sure is. I’ll just go tell Ron you’re here,” she said politely as she slid the window closed. Her voice was soft, her manners gentle and I felt relieved that the whole industry was not big guys and loud machines. I looked around and registered the feminine touch of the little blue and white vase with tiny dried red flowers set on a shelf before a narrow mirror.
“Hey there Rodney,” came a deep voice from the doorway. A short man with broad shoulders and an open friendly smile walked slowly into the lobby.
“Hey Ron,” said Rodney as they shook hands. “This is Marianne, the lady from Illinois.”
“Pleased to meet you,” said Ron as he held out a hand accustomed to hard work. “How’d you like the course at HTC? I’d been wondering if Dan was still teaching those.”
“I never knew there was so much to this business,” I responded, more naïvely than I realized.
“We really pile a lot of material in there,” added Rodney. “Hey Ron, how’s your daddy these days?”
“Getting around a little slower and keeps losing things. Driving Mama crazy.”
“I was just telling Marianne that you and your daddy started this place out of your garage in the early 1970’s.”
“Sure did,” replied Ron. Turning to me he said, “Don’t think you’ll want to hear the whole story right now, but it wasn’t hosiery knitting like you see it today.” Leading the way, Ron invited us down the hallway and back to his office.
Rodney told me on the drive over about Ron and his dad Lorne starting the Eleanor mill. I wondered if it was named after his mom but forgot to ask. In the beginning, Ron was one of the first mill owners in the area to acquire computer driven circular knitting machines, a sharp change from the simple instruments Lorne had favored. Over the next twenty years the business grew, and buildings were enlarged and added. When double cylinder machines came on the market, again Ron saw an opportunity to set himself apart and positioned his company for a specialty kind of production. He and Lorie and daughter Angie took over the business after Lorne’s retirement.
The main entrance to the mill
In Ron’s office, on a wall to the left of two chairs was a large framed peg board filled with socks. Deep browns, dessert tans, cavernous blues, and mysterious shades of aquamarine dominated the display. My eyes held onto a pair of argyle socks in chocolate, navy and burgundy as I slowly sat down, resisting the urge to inspect the luxurious exhibit.
I wondered if all the socks had been made at Eleanor, and which, if any, had been knit on double cylinder machines. In the Hosiery 101 course I learned that theoretically, the Dera 5.1 could knit my patterns. In needing to stay focused, I suppressed the desire to examine socks reaching out to me from the wall in favor of facing forward for the task at hand.
Ron dropped solidly into his chair behind a large shiny brown desk with a right-hand return supporting a microwave size computer monitor framed with colorful post-it notes. Dog eared Rolodex cards spewed from a card stock Ferris wheel. Twenty-five years of contacts sat at the ready next to a wide beige telephone with a long unevenly coiled cord. Behind him, a tall cabinet with lattice glass doors covered one of the windows, obstructing natural light. If it weren’t for the wall of soft socks and the nicely upholstered chairs, the room would have been overtaken with robust furniture and electronics.
Ron reached for a small cardboard box exploding with socks that sat untidily in the middle of his desk. Without leaving his chair, he turned to pile the box on top of similar cartons and envelopes haphazardly stacked on the floor.
“I’m trying to get one of the programs for Walmart’s fall line of men’s socks,” he said to Rodney by way of explanation for the chaotic parade of containers lining one wall. Cones of yarn spilled over the tops of cartons with cardboard tags dangling from strips of tangled string. The colors were grey, beige, navy blue and off-white.
“Oh yeah?” said Rodney as he glanced at the samples. “What kind of production are they talking about?”
The argyle sock hovering behind my head begged for more attention. I faced forward with obedience, listening to the conversation at hand. I didn’t want to be impolite. There was a lot at stake in this visit.
“I’m hoping they’ll be big, but right now they’re dragging their feet on approving my samples.” Ron and his chair returned to the desk and he tilted back, intertwining his fingers over his stomach. “They’ll probably take the majority of the programs to their Mexico plant and ask for a rush order right at the end.” Both men nodded in agreement over obstacles NAFTA imposed on the hosiery industry.
With no warning, Ron turned to me and said, “I hear you have an idea.”
Taken by surprise, I mumbled about hand knitting socks I hoped could be done on a machine. I reached in the bag on my lap and pulled out my sample.
Stretching it gently, I laid the thick multi-colored single sock on the newly cleared space on the desk. I smoothed it down as I slid my hands apart like drawing the curtains on a stage. “Be good,” I told it telepathically.
Ron rocked forward in his chair to get a better look, resting forearms on the edge of the desk. I was relieved that his shoulders did not jolt, nor his face grimace as he soundlessly stared at the bright red, purple, yellow, lavender, fuchsia and green sock that vibrated on the highly polished surface. I knew from HTC courses that my sock was an anomaly and for reasons that I did not understand, would be difficult or impossible to replicate in a mill. In a room smothered in browns, my sample sock levitated with fresh possibilities.
“This is the kind of sock I’ve been hand knitting,” I began. That it had not been produced on a knitting machine could have gone without saying.
Rodney stayed silent and I followed up with, “I’m wondering if you could knit this.”
Ron reached for the sample. I filled the silence with information that may or may not have been useful. “It’s knit with six colors and eight different patterns plus the three purl sections, I mean ridge rows,” I corrected, using proper terminology. “Most of the patterns are conventional, but a couple I made up myself.”
Ron’s sizeable hands grasped and turned the sock over. He folded it to inspect the heel and gave it a gentle tug while examining the design elements. His raised eyebrows suggested a multitude of questions. He came out with just one.
“Where’d you get that yarn? I haven’t seen anything like that before.”
I was about to tell the name of my favorite knitting shop when Rodney took the conversation in a more productive direction. “These are wool yarns made for hand knitting. Too thick for any machine we’ve ever seen.”
“You want to use wool?” asked Ron as he glanced up at me to gauge the grit of my response.
“Yes, wool socks,” I reinforced without hesitation. That was the plan.
Ron took a long critical look at the thing he held and measured challenges he would face with an unfamiliar fiber and a myriad of design elements that had not been tested on his machines.
As he let go of the sock and leaned back in his chair, he said, “I’m not sure we can reproduce this. I know we can’t knit three different colored ridge bands.” He pointed to the heel. “How’d you get a pattern in there?”
I shrugged my shoulders as if to say, “I just did it, that’s all.” What sort of question was that anyway? What did he mean “how”? It was basic knitting. I alternated colors while I knit the heel flap, then picked up the stitches along the border and then decreased stitches until I had the original number on three double pointed needles.
Ron stared at the configuration of the heel. “Our machines use short rowing for the toes and heels. I don’t know how you did this, but we can’t knit that here.”
As I froze at the remarks, Rodney spoke for me. “There’s a lot of stuff Marianne can do like that in hand knitting. We’re wondering what parts of her designs can be done on a knitting machine and what parts she’d have to change.”
The word ‘change’ pierced me.
“We can’t knit two different colors in the heel or toe sections, but I think some of the other designs we can do.” He rocked forward and picked up the sock again to study patterns more closely and count stitches. “This here is just a checkers pattern and this one’s a wave, so I know we can do these.”
While I held my breath and Ron focused on my sample, I looked at the sock nearest me on the pegboard. The yarns, in soft tones of camel, delft, and misty grey were knit in a honeycomb pattern. They looked luxurious, plush, sumptuous and nothing like the ones I hand knit with thick sturdy yarn on size four needles. By comparison, the sock Ron held in his hand looked clunky and obnoxiously loud. If Ron’s socks represented what was out there, my sock designs were drastically different from anything on the market. Maybe I had rowed too far from shore.
I couldn’t tell if Ron was willing to stretch as far as I wanted to go. Maybe he would dismiss my idea as an albatross, hindering efficiency in his production line. Unless he was compelled by inquisitiveness to see if it could be done, he might not develop an untried product. I wondered how adventurous he was.
He held onto the sock. I searched his face. Out of the stillness he raised one eyebrow and asked me how many colors I was using.
“Six. I’ve used seven but it doesn’t hold together visually,” I replied, thinking he was suggesting more colors.
“Can you do it with five?”
I could and I had. With this, optimism crept back into the room. I knew the overall effect would not change much by reducing the number of colors. Knitting heels and toes in a solid color in the short row method would change the appearance a little more. I willed the discussion forward.
“Think you could live without the patterns in the heel and toe?” he asked as he weighed my response.
“It doesn’t sound like there’s an option,” I said before considering better word choices. Then, “With five colors and all the different patterns it will still be a spectacular sock,” I added with enthusiasm.
“I don’t know about all the patterns yet,” he interjected. “Think you can knit another sample for me? Something closer to what we can actually do?”
That was the invitation I was waiting for. I agreed wholeheartedly.
He asked a few more questions. Rodney had to answer for me, since I didn’t know the difference between dinner and denier. Ron reached into his desk drawer and pulled out a stiff cardboard gadget that looked like a double-sided slide ruler with a spinning disc in the middle. He turned the dial and slid a section out from the bottom and turned the gadget over as the two men calibrated yarn size, number of ends and amount of cross stretch. To my surprise, the conversation settled on the yarn.
“This sock doesn’t have Lycra in it, does it,” said Ron matter-of-factly.
“No,” I said. “It’s mostly Merino wool.”
“Rodney, does anyone at the Hosiery Tech Center know of a wool supplier that makes two eights?”
“I think there’s some companies up there in Canada or Maine that make wool for knitting machines.”
“I think you’re right,” said Ron as he spun in his chair and stood to open the cabinet. He couldn’t extend his right arm all the way as he reached for a binder on the top shelf and flinched with the attempt. Pulling the binder down with one hand, he cradled it with both arms and turned around to put it on the table.
“Shoulder bothering you again?” asked Rodney.
“Yeah. Probably have to have more surgery. My shoulder’s why I had to miss the golf outing last summer,” he said with regret. “Might not happen again. Sponsors are pulling out. You hear anything about that?”
“That’s what I hear too,” responded Rodney with disappointment. “They say there aren’t enough mills down here anymore to make it worth their while. A lot of the suppliers are hurting and just can’t afford to sponsor a big golf event.”
“Too bad,” Ron added as he found the section in the big green binder of wool yarns. “Lorie enjoyed the fashion show they put on for the wives.”
During the discussion about golf outings, my mind went back to what Dan had said about needing a mill owner who was trustworthy. I agreed with Dan’s assessment of Ron. He struck me as an honest man. If he was desperate for work, he would have jumped all over the chance to get his hands on a new product and tell me anything I wanted to hear. Ron hadn’t done that. He took his time to expose the unknowns and admitted he couldn’t do everything I wanted. I could trust him to tell me the truth about whether the socks could be knit or not. And if they could be knit, I could trust him to develop the new idea with discretion.
Ron showed the catalog to Rodney and they concurred on Jagger Brothers in Maine. He slid the binder of pre-dyed washable wool in sizes of yarn developed for industrial machines across the desk. My enthusiasm dulled as I looked at selections.
“Here’s a nice color,” Ron said as he pointed to a gloomy shade of reddish brown called “Eggplant.” “It looks like they have some purples you might like too. Here’s one called ‘Burgundy Blossoms.’ I like the flecks of navy in there. Gives it a little texture.”
I liked Burgundy Blossom too. I had a wool jacket in that color that I wore to funerals.
He took another look at my sock and searched for a page with yellow yarn. An uncourageous orange called “Cinnamon” appeared at the bottom. “And here’s one called ‘Sallow.’ Is that a plant?” he asked as he pointed to a sickly light brown color toward the top of the page.
I hadn’t thought about the right fiber or size for machine knitting, let alone the right colors. My sole focus had been on the mechanics of knitting the designs and patterns that denoted my socks. I didn’t want to spend any more time looking at ugly colors that muffled my passion.
The primary purpose of the visit had been to determine if the socks could be made on one of Ron’s machines. After being at the mill for at least half an hour, unbelievably, I still didn’t have an answer. The sideways discussions about golf events, a sock line for Walmart and a parade of terrible names for yarn colors didn’t get me any closer.
I had not yet picked up on the importance of meandering conversations. In the north, we made perfunctory remarks about the weather, asked fleetingly about one’s health with the reliability that we would not get an honest answer, and then went straight to business and stayed there. The awareness I would need for working in the hosiery industry in North Carolina was much broader than yarn counts and hosiery machines. I remembered Dan’s use of the word “patience”, reflecting his opinion of Ron. He must have known I didn’t have much.
Realizing we’d gone as far as we could with our office discussion, Ron asked if I wanted to see the knitting machines in action before the end of first shift. I had seen circular hosiery machines at HTC, but not in full production on a mill floor. Things were about to get real. I was excited to encounter the double cylinder machine reputedly capable of knitting my socks.
From the calm of the front offices, we filed through a hallway door to the back of the building into a dimly lit cavernous warehouse. Curiously, hovering over boxes stacked against the wall, a large mounted elk head surveyed yarn inventory.
Ron remarked, “I see you’ve spotted the elk I took down in Wyoming last year. Lorie won’t let me hang it in the house.”
I’d been to Wyoming. Hiking trails to waterfalls, riding horses.
Ron from "Eleanor Knitting" and Marianne posing with the elk
In the doorway leading to the mill floor, a lanky guy in a light blue shirt rolled a cumbersome canvas hamper stacked with cones of grey yarn through a wall of thick vertical plastic strips. The heavy room dividers allowed wheeled traffic in and out while mitigating dust and noise. We followed the hamper and Ron held the plastic strips aside as I entered the raucous knitting room.
Whirling gears, the off-beat clunking of angular machine parts slamming decidedly into place, and the constant hum of air sucked through shafts assaulted my ears.
On the left, a woman sat at a toe-closure machine, ear buds blocking automation noises and providing entertainment to accompany her monotonous task. She smiled at me and gave Rodney a head nod. She was one of two women on the floor that shift.
On the right, large cones of yarn uncoiled from tall rods suspended over two long banks of knitting machines. The monotone assortment begged for color.
Rodney excused himself to say hi to the knitter tying a fresh cone of yarn onto one almost empty. Next to him stood a fixer, adjusting timing on a machine with the delicacy of a surgeon. Well-maintained machines ran with a green light. A red light had caught the fixer’s attention and he completed his task, replaced the tool in his pocket and moved down the row.
The air was filled with lint, the sound was deafening, and the floor was slick and glossy. I felt conspicuous in my smooth leather soled Danskin shoes and white sweater. I shut down as many of my delicate senses as I could before they were jolted off their bearings.
With raised voice, Ron cautioned me about the slippery surface as he led me further into the room. Running the length was a beautiful wood floor, shining with oil and scuffed in well-worn paths from decades of technicians circulating between machines.
Halfway down the first aisle, Ron stopped at a Dera 5.1 knitting machine. I stared at this: the guts of an R2D2 bolted to the top of a washing machine. “Nice to finally meet you,” I said in my mind, bowing in silence.
Ron gestured to a spinning disc and enlightened me about the unique features of the double cylinder machine. I didn’t want to miss a word and leaned in. I alternated my gaze from the mechanism to his lips as he described how the sock was knit inside columns of needles rapidly sliding up and down. The contraption whirled like a movie of a carousel in fast forward.
When the motion slowed to alternating semi-circles, Ron said it was short rowing the heel. Within a few seconds the machine whirled to life again and completed the rest of the sock. Once released from the constriction of the needles, the material was sucked into a clear tube at the top of the R2D2 contraption. The sock flew around the bend and was ejected through a flap into a wire basket where it lay breathless. An LED in a small square window read the next sequential number. The machine spun into motion to start another nameless sock.
Ron plucked the newly knit sock out of the basket and showed me the finished product. Inside-out, the toe was open like a gasping fish. He turned it right-side-out to show the honeycomb design from the pegboard. I admired the depth of blue tucked behind an edge of velvety brown. The surface in grey heather was soft and continuous. I nodded approval.
“How many needles?” I shouted.
He told me 84, around a 4 ½” cylinder. This meant favorite patterns in multiples of eight could not be knit consecutively. Unhappily, I registered one more modification for my sample.
Ron led me back out of the knitting room through the vertical strips and Rodney wrapped up his conversation. In the hallway I adjusted to the stillness as Ron went into his office.
We hadn’t stayed long, but it was all I needed. I came away with the image of an army of knitting machines in a well-organized room that was probably as clean and orderly as they come in an industrial setting. It was hard to imagine my socks being produced there after years of knitting in a comfortable chair next to a window listening to Pachelbel Canon in D. The socks in the mill seemed somber. I imagined how new, wild cousins would wake them up.
“If you make those design changes, I think I can figure out a way to knit that sock,” Ron said as he returned to the lobby, handing me his business card.
“That sounds great,” I replied, as I put the card in my bag without looking at it. “No design in the heels and toes, knit in short rowing, same color in all three raised ridges, and patterns divisible into 84,” I recited, showing I had learned something new on the knitting floor.
“And five colors, not six,” he added with a grin.
Oh, right. Guess I forgot.
Rodney listened and nodded. With a hopeful tone, Ron said he looked forward to getting my sample sock. Even though his closing remarks sounded encouraging, I didn’t sense he was as eager to push forward as I was.
Our departure lingered with polite remarks and greetings to family members and business associates, and hopefulness for the hosiery industry. I couldn’t wait to debrief myself in a quiet hotel room and disconnected halfway through the long, protracted goodbye. Maybe with time, I’d develop the patience for local customs.
As Rodney drove slowly down the gravel drive, I looked at the entrance sign.
“Huh!” I said too loudly to myself.
“What’s that?” asked Rodney.
“I didn’t see the sign when we pulled in. I thought Ron’s company was Eleanor. But it’s L and R.” I shook my head in wonder. “For Ron and Lorie, I guess.”
After a short pause Rodney said, “I think L & R Knitting is named for Ron and his dad, Lorne.”
“Hmm. Clever,” I muttered.
Ron and I used our parents’ names in titling our companies. I was using the Spanish word for sun, for my mother’s name, Sunny. “Sol” also signified a bond between two different but compatible souls.
Would L & R Knitting be a different but compatible mate for Solmate Socks? I hadn’t yet told anyone that the other sock in the pair wouldn’t match. First, I had to find out if my socks could be made at all. As Rodney pulled out of the driveway and onto the meandering road back to town, I caught one last glimpse of the long building. Silently I whispered, “Hope to see you again, Eleanor.”
Marianne adding her wool socks to the peg board of fame in Ron's office
The story of this fateful meeting 20 years ago between my mother, Marianne, and Ron Brittain from L&R Knitting fills me with appreciation. I’m so thankful for Dan and Rodney at the Hosiery Tech Center for making the introduction in the first place. Ron proved to be a perfect partner, for he was “patient, adventuresome, and trustworthy”, just as they predicted.
I’ll share some spoilers here; Marianne did see the mill again, many more times in fact because Ron figured out how to knit Solmate Socks at his facility. Over time, she learned patience and the art of meandering conversations. The knitting machine that Marianne greeted on that first visit is still in operation today and is still making Solmate Socks 20 years later. Many things have changed of course, Ron retired in 2014 and Marianne in 2015, and my wife and I purchased both businesses to keep the legacies alive for another generation. We named the new mill Sunnyside Textiles, again honoring my Grandma Sunny.
Ron still lives across the field and rents us the building he built with his father. Marianne sometimes stops by the mill on trips down south for bike trips or quilting workshops and has long visits with Ron and Lorie at their lovely house. Ron’s mom still lives across the driveway from the mill and waves at the employees arriving for their shift.
Some of the employees who worked at L&R Knitting back when Marianne first visited 20 years ago are still employees of Sunnyside Textiles, and have worked on every Solmate Socks style ever released. I travel to North Carolina a few times a year to work at the mill for a week or two at a time, and I sit in the office where Marianne and Ron met for the first time and admire the wall of socks that has become much more colorful over time.
Ron and I have gotten to know each other over the years, and I find him charming, curious and thoughtful. Mostly I admire his adventurousness, because he didn’t have to meet with Marianne in January, 2000. He was working on a Walmart program, which was the bread and butter of the hosiery industry at that time. But he took time to meet with some random lady with a hand knit sock and a dream.
We all get to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Solmate Socks today because Ron was willing to make Marianne’s dream of beautiful, wearable art, a reality. Thank you, Ron!
- Randy Wakerlin
Sunnyside Textiles One Year Anniversary Party (from right to left): Marianne, Ron, Lorie, Randy, Corbin, Lisa, Sage.