You rarely give your shoelaces a second thought, but a bunch of bright blue laces from a small factory in Appalachian, Ohio are a sign manufacturing industries thought to be permanently lost are onshoring production. These laces are just a bit of cotton fiber and a metal tip, but the Bluelace Project offers one more ingredient: American pride.
The Bluelace project started when Jake Bronstein, CEO of Flint and Tinder, a New York-based online retailer of made-in-America products, wanted to launch a Kickstarter campaign online for the blue laces, which he called “a Yellow Ribbon for American manufacturing.” But he had to find a U.S. lace manufacturer to bring the project to life.
He found Bryan Davis, vice president of sales for Sole Choice Inc., a shoe product manufacturer in Portsmouth, Ohio, and one of the few U.S.-based shoelace makers left.
The blue laces are truly an American-made product, woven in Ohio from neon blue cotton canvas yarn spun in North Carolina, doubled coated with bee’s wax, and capped with a stamped aluminum aglet, or tip.
Bronstein aimed to raise $25,000 in 30 days on Kickstarter. That goal was met in 10 hours. The project went on to raise more than $150,000. The original order for the blue laces was 10,000 pairs, but demand pushed that to 40,000 pairs in 12,000 individual orders. The last of the 12,000 orders were shipped in February.
The 51-inch neon blue shoelaces are the centerpiece of an international campaign to raise the profile on U.S.-made products.
Formerly the Mitchellace factory, the Sole Choice operation is the “last bastion” of Portsmouth’s vanished shoe industry. In its heyday, more than 5,000 people were employed in its seven shoe factories and an array of support businesses such as a tack factory and a tannery.
“At one time, we had everything here to make shoes, and Portsmouth was the shoe capital of the world,” says Bryan Davis, vice president of sales for Sole Choice. “We’re the last one left standing.”
After 107 years in business, Mitchellace had closed and the bank was about to sell the machinery when a local investor, along with Portsmouth native Davis and a couple of other former employees, rescued the company from receivership in 2009.
“As private citizens, we said we’re not going to let another industry disappear from this area,” Davis says. “We’ll put people back to work and make a go of it.”
The company cancelled its Central American contracts, hired staff, and restarted the machinery. Within five years Sole Choice has grown to about 40 people working steadily in the 360,000 square-foot factory that is still home to a dazzling array of winding, weaving, braiding, and packaging machines.
From Portsmouth the company delivers shoelaces for Red Wing, New Balance, Foot Joy, and other high-quality brands. Boxes of laces regularly ship to China and Japan, where most shoe factories are located. Its lace products are also found in eyeglass holders and medical products such as catheter kits. Davis plans to grow the retail shoe-care product line, building on the private-label products it makes for stores such as Bass Pro Shops.
Today, Sole Choice does business in 13 countries across four continents, and the company is competitive with lower-cost offshore production.
“We’re not always necessarily the least expensive,” Davis says, “but we are always the highest quality, and that still means something to a lot of people.”
With the success of the Bluelace Project, Davis has revised Sole Choice’s marketing push to promote “Made in the USA” more prominently.
“There is a huge push for onshoring and we will be a recipient for a lot of that business as people move work back to the U.S., and we already are,” Davis says.
Since the launch, the blue laces have gone, quite literally, around the world.
But most touching to Davis were the orders sent to service members overseas. A big batch went to sailors on board the carrier USS George Washington, deployed in the Sea of Japan.
“These men and women are not just defending us, they’re supporting us by buying our products,” Davis says.