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'When you first start, you hope and dream to grow as a business'

Apr. 24, 2014

Inside IU goes behind the scenes at For Bare Feet Originals, one of the world’s largest specialty sock manufacturers. The company was founded by IU alumna Sharon Rivenbark in 1985 and serves as homage to her late son, who also studied at IU.

sewing machines

For Bare Feet was founded by IU alumna Sharon Rivenbark in 1985 and serves as homage to her late son, who also studied at IU. What began with an antique Banner Knitting Machine has been replaced by a Martinsville-based factory with licenses for college athletics teams and the NFL, MLB, NBA and NHL. | Photo By Chaz Mottinger

The hum of a hundred sewing machines is louder than the Aerosmith song playing in For Bare Feet's Martinsville factory. The blue and green buttons on each machine console flash to indicate the machine's progress. Blue means the machine is working. Green means socks are completed. Red means the machine is broken.

The business of making socks

Two workers dart between broken machines, reorganizing the spools of yarn tangled above them like spider webs. They press a few buttons and the machines are humming again. Ten minutes later, a mechanized vacuum sucks a newly knitted sock from the needles, spitting it out into a plastic basket on the ground.   

Another set of workers yanks the socks on top of steaming boards, moving in precise repetition. Hot steam presses each sock into a smooth, flat pile. Employees then move the freshly pressed bundles to tall metal racks on the other side of the factory. Dozens of different-colored spools of yarn rest around the edge of the room. Vegas gold, Kelly green, Tennessee orange: If a sports team has a color, it's there.

Artists sketch electronic renderings of sock designs on tablets in a smaller room down the hall. Further down the hall are the factory schedulers, then the accountants, then the marketing department and, finally, the sock sample room.

Thousands of socks line the walls: socks with dogs and cats, socks with NFL, MLB and NBA teams,  socks with cream and crimson stripes. It's where the company keeps track of the socks and where  creations are displayed to potential buyers.

Sock giveaway

Faculty and staff can enter to win a pair of IU-branded socks from For Bare Feet. The names of five winners will be drawn for gray-and-red or red-and-white IU socks. | Photo By Ric Cradick

Enter to win

Current IU faculty and staff using a valid IU email address can enter to win a pair of IU-branded socks, a value of $7.99 to $13.99, from For Bare Feet. The contest opens at April 24 and closes at 4 p.m. April 28, 2014.

For Bare Feet recently rebranded its entire logo and is offering shoes, flip-flops and new types of socks. Buyers come from around the world.

Since it was founded nearly 30 years ago, the company has grown into one of the world's most respected sock manufacturers. Its 225,000-square-foot factory produces so many socks that vice president of marketing Jason Gater said he doesn't even have a specific estimate.

"Thousands," he said. "Hundreds and hundreds of thousands."

An antique knitting machine

IU alumna Sharon Rivenbark was a single mother and schoolteacher with five children. Her son, Timothy Scott Magnuson, was diagnosed with a brain tumor at the age of 16; she was told his capacity to work would diminish over time.

So she bought an antique Banner Knitting Machine; a metal contraption with gears and wheels like an old film projector. When Sharon and Tim opened their first sock shop in 1984, they got their picture in the paper. Tim and Sharon started making socks and selling them in Antique Alley, a hotspot for collectibles, jewelry and clothing in Nashville, Ind.

But For Bare Feet quickly outgrew its small location. Marcie Davis, IU’s director of retail -- as well as tourists from around the state -- helped spread the word about the special socks in Nashville. Sharon and her daughter, Kelly, began knitting cream and crimson socks for the IU Bookstore and attending the National Association of College Stores Convention, where they sold socks to other colleges around the country.

Kelly Baugh, now vice president of sales at the company, remembers dumpster diving for shipping boxes during the company’s startup years. While managing sales for the company at age 19, she also studied at IU, missing multiple classes each month to attend trade shows or conferences.

sock factory

Since it was founded nearly 30 years ago, For Bare Feet has grown into one of the world's most respected sock manufacturers, said director of marketing Jason Gater. | Photo By Chaz Mottinger

“We’d goof off,” Baugh said. “That made the best memories between mom, Tim and I.”

The family spent several Thanksgiving evenings setting up a sales kiosk in College Mall. Sharon would buy them all turkey sandwiches from the food court and they would help their mother sell socks.

'I can’t believe how far we’ve come'

“When you first start, you hope and dream to grow as a business,” Baugh said. “Now looking back, I can’t believe how far we’ve come. It still only feels like the beginning.”

After Tim died, Sharon and Kelly continued growing the business they had started together as a family. During the next decade, For Bare Feet acquired licenses for college athletics teams and the NFL, MLB, NBA and NHL. Famous athletes can be seen wearing For Bare Feet Originals on fields and courts around the globe.

In 2011, a fire destroyed the Brown County factory. But For Bare Feet continued; Sharon and Kelly, along with other executives, stood on the back of a pickup truck after the flames went out and promised all their employees that their jobs would be safe.

Several months later, the company moved into its current home in Martinsville, where Sharon and Kelly -- along with hundreds of employees -- still work together doing what they did more than 30 years ago: make socks.

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