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FutureStitch Aims to Redefine the US Manufacturing Model

FutureStitch’s first U.S. factory has been open for business in California for less than a year, but the firm is already gearing up for a large-scale expansion to grow beyond socks.

Founder Taylor Shupe, who opened the 10,000-square-foot facility last summer in Oceanside, said he aims to leverage innovation, speed to market, sustainability and social responsibility to redefine the U.S. manufacturing model.

With about 25 workers, the factory is on track to surpass its original goal of doubling headcount by the end of the year. “Now, we’re looking at 50 employees by the middle of [2023],” Shupe told Sourcing Journal during a recent factory tour. He also rented the production site next door, which will double the facility’s manufacturing footprint while offering space for a garden, skate park, basketball court and a yurt for meditation and yoga. The campus aims to serve as more than a workplace for the formerly incarcerated women who largely make up the staff, he said.

FutureStitch's factory in Oceanside, Calif.
FutureStitch’s factory in Oceanside, Calif. Kate Nishimura / Sourcing Journal

“This model is not without challenges,” Shupe said. “I realized early on that I would need to build a very flexible system and accommodate needs that I wasn’t used to.” Many FutureStitch employees have childcare considerations to contend with, and mandatory legal meetings to attend. Transportation also poses a challenge. “We’ve been focusing on developing this flexible style of management that would allow them to take care of things and not have such a stringent 9-to-5 schedule,” he added.

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He hopes that the campus will serve as a place where employees can enjoy elements of communal living, much like the company’s original 300,000-square-foot facility in China’s Zhejiang province. Given the unique needs of the Orange County outpost’s employee base, Shupe is laying the groundwork with state and local partners for housing solutions that could solve some of their most pressing problems. On a personal level, he wants to upend the high-attrition model that plagues the manufacturing sector. “In an industry that has an 80-percent turnover rate, we’ve only had one employee leave,” said Shupe, explaining that that individual had to relocate.

Shupe isn’t just focused on promoting a social vision, but fulfilling a bona-fide business need that has only solidified since the pandemic. Supply chains remain compromised, geopolitical tensions are deepening, and the cost of doing business has grown with inflation, magnifying the need for an onshore solution for many U.S. companies. He sees “way more interest” in onshoring today than just eight months ago.

Currently, the factory is focused mostly on sublimation printing on blank socks produced at the company’s flagship factory in China, using water-based inks and Organic Content Standard, Recycled Claim Standard and Global Recycled Standard yarns and inputs. The five-day turnaround facilitates quick replenishment on popular styles. The importance of proximity can’t be overstated, Shupe said. Minimal lead times allow for production that’s basically on-demand, minimizing the need for already limited warehousing space. Shupe said the facility produces about 100,000 pairs each month.

The factory is also ramping up in-house production of socks using advanced circular-knitting machinery. “I have about a dozen knitting machines here too, which are running non-stop to produce around 10,000 pairs”—or about 10 percent of the yield that comes from China. By the third quarter this year, Shupe aims to grow that number to about 25 percent.

Circular knitting machines.
Circular knitting machines. Kate Nishimura / Sourcing Journal

Shupe is exploring new product lines in the new facility. “I believe the only way to really grow your business commercially is to create something that’s of higher value to the consumer,” he said. While he believes that Stance socks—FutureStitch’s original product— “changed the game,” there’s only so much money to be made in the category. “I calculate my productivity on a square-foot basis,” he said, and in California, rent, energy and labor costs represent “a very hefty expense.”

That’s why he’s looking into developing a new footwear product—a cross between a shoe and a sock that can be worn on its own (multiple times, thanks to antimicrobial materials) and tossed into the washing machine when soiled. FutureStitch plans to employ a U.S.-made recycled Vibram outsole and produce the shoes in five-stage process that cuts down on waste, inputs and labor. Shupe hopes to reveal the FutureStitch design team’s in-development prototype later in the year.

While he has always been interested in broadening the factory’s capabilities, Shupe said the product concept crystallized after hearing from his Oceanside workforce. “The idea behind the product came from thinking about these women and their kids,” he said, and “what a nightmare socks are” for a family just trying to get out the door. A sock-shoe hybrid would simplify that routine. Shupe envisions a whole line of lifestyle products for children and adults.

Printed socks made for Stance.
Printed socks made for Stance. Kate Nishimura / Sourcing Journal

Because many FutureStitch workers are creatively inclined, the company is working on a development program to foster “an entrepreneurial mindset” and promote career growth. Dubbed “Boss Stitch” after a unanimous employee vote, the program curriculum will include courses in financial literacy, computers and leadership. Shupe hopes to see some women go on to open their own businesses with the company’s help.

“I’m such a believer in manufacturing and the value it creates for a society. If I can augment production and tell our story to the consumer at the same time, that’s valuable,” he said. “Lifting the factory worker onto a podium that gives them some prestige is going to attract a lot more people to the space, and the more people get into this space, the more efficient we’re going to be as a supply chain in the U.S.”