Olney Springs, Colorado
Alpaca wool socks and sock contract manufacturing
In 2012, after welcoming several alpacas to their rural ranch in southeastern Colorado, Karen and Michael Dietrich founded Phoenix Fiber Mill with their three biological children, including Vounov, and eight adopted children. Though they originally intended to raise the decidedly adorable creatures for their luxurious fiber alone, they quickly expanded their focus to include sock manufacturing.
"A lot of other mini fiber mills were popping up, so we decided to invest in another aspect of the same industry," Vounov explains. "Alpaca socks feel fantastic, and we chose to go that route."
Today, Phoenix Fiber Mill keeps all 15 members of the growing family busy, including Vounov's 22-month-old son. The 40-acre ranch is home to 20 alpacas and three llamas, and the family manufactures more than 12,000 natural fiber socks each year out of their house and 20-foot by 30-foot garage.
Socks manufactured using their own animal's fiber in addition to fiber purchased from other U.S. and international growers are available under the Phoenix Fiber Mill name on the company's website and in several Southern Colorado retail stores. The family also manufactures natural fiber socks for outside customers on a contract basis. "Usually, it's a small fiber grower who asks us to take their yarn and make socks for them out of it," Vounov says. "Then we send the socks back to them."
The family's equipment includes three newer computerized sock-making machines as well as two 100-year-old machines that they use specifically for simple jacquard knit socks.
Socks sold under the Phoenix Fiber Mill name are made with high-quality natural fibers combined with spandex and polyester. Vounov says that the company's catalog includes more than 40 different designs ranging from no-shows, slippers, and golf socks to crew, knee-high, and thigh-high socks.
The Rockies knee-high socks are a top seller. "They're made from alpaca wool and the terry goes all the way up the leg," Vounov notes. "People are really fond of this style for fishing, hiking, and hunting. They are also really popular for skiing."
She adds that in addition to the vivid, playful colors of Phoenix Fiber Mill's socks, the "high splice" spandex and polyester content is a big selling point. "We run that through the socks for durability," Vounov continues. "It's there to prevent the alpaca fibers from rubbing together and makes the socks last longer."
The family's sock sales doubled in 2019 as the purchase of new machines expanded their manufacturing capacity and ability to take on more contract manufacturing as well. "The market for natural fiber socks is growing," Vounov says. "People are getting back to basics and looking for simplicity. They may have tried the 'smart wool' in the past, but it simply doesn't have the quality or durability that natural fibers do."
Challenges: Vounov says "getting the word out to other fiber growers" is Phoenix Fiber Mill's biggest challenge. "That's why we do a lot of shows. We have our social media connections, but at the end of the day, it's far easier to talk to somebody one-on-one when explaining how you design and manufacture a sock. It really helps to be able to talk face-to-face."
She notes that "keeping up with demand" is also a challenge. "When we have several people who want us to manufacture socks for them, there can be a waiting period."
Opportunities: Vounov says Phoenix Fiber Mill's opportunities are "endless." The family is planning to open a storefront in their rural area where enthusiasts can gather to learn about raising alpacas and celebrate natural fibers. "The sky is the limit as far as what we want to share," she adds, noting that they also intend to install solar panels for their home and factory this year.
Needs: "At the moment, we're focusing on expanding," Vounov says. "We really need more space."