Made in Portsmouth

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Shoe Choice’s Blue Lace Project

Bluespindles

What’s in a shoelace? Some cotton or poly fiber. A little plastic tip. Not much at all, really. But the Blue Laces have one more ingredient: American Pride.

These 51-inch waxed cotton, neon blue shoelaces are the centerpiece of an international campaign to highlight U.S.-made products. And they originate at the Sole Choice Inc. factory on Murray Street in Portsmouth, Ohio.

Formerly the Mitchellace factory, the Sole Choice operation is the “last bastion” of Portsmouth’s moribund shoe industry. At one time, the city hosted seven shoe factories and support businesses such as two lace factories, 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,” said Bryan Davis, vice president of sales for Sole Choice. “We’re the last one left standing.”

After 107 years in business, Mitchellace was about to go under when local businessman Nelson Smith, along with Portsmouth native Davis, 43, and a couple of other employees, bought the company out of receivership in 2009.

“As private citizens, we said we’re not going to let another industry disappear from this area,” Davis said. “We’ll put people back to work and make a go of it.”

The company brought back manufacturing that previously had moved to Central America. Now, after five years of steady growth, about 40 people work in the 360,000 square-foot factory that houses thousands of vintage winding, weaving, braiding and packaging machines.

Davis brought a lot of operations back in house, from graphic design to packaging, to reduce cost and react quickly to customers’ needs.

The company makes shoelaces for New Balance, Foot Joy, Red Wing and other high-quality brands and ships laces into China and Japan where most shoe factories are located. Their products also go into eyeglass holders and products for the medical industry. The company also blends its own shoe care products such as paste and wax. All the packaging and shipping is handled in-house as well.

Overall, Sole Choice does business in 13 countries across four continents all the while competing against lower-cost offshore production.

“We’re not always necessarily the least expensive, but we are always the highest quality, and that still means something to a lot of people,” David said.

The next push is to grow the retail shoe care product line. The company already makes private label products for stores such as Bass Pro Shops and is working to get its own products on store shelves. Products are available in some area stores, such as Menard’s in Chillicothe, Ohio. The company is revising its labels to promote “Made in the USA” more prominently. Some shoe companies are bringing more production and jobs back to the U.S. after sending them overseas and are looking for American products to use.

The Blue Lace Project started with a call from Jake Bronstein of Flint and Tinder, a New York City-based online retailer of high quality, made-in-America products. Bronstein wanted to launch a Kickstarter campaign online for the Blue Laces, which he called the equivalent of a yellow ribbon for American manufacturing.

The goal was to raise $25,000 from backers in 30 days. That goal was met in 10 hours, and the project went on to raise more than $150,000. Orders for the Blue Laces jumped from 10,000 pairs to 40,000 pairs, and the last of the 12,000 orders shipped in February.

The Blue Laces are the epitome of American-made products, woven from neon blue cotton, waxed, and capped with a stamped aluminum aglet, or tip. There’s a video on the Blue Lace Project site showing strongman Matt Mills pulling a 3,000-pound truck using the laces tied to a heavy-duty harness.

The blue laces have gone literally around the world and back again locally. But, most touching to Davis were the orders sent to service members around the globe. A big batch went to sailors onboard the carrier U.S.S. George Washington, forward deployed near Japan.

“These men and women are not just defending us; they’re supporting us by buying our products,” Davis said.

Now the company is developing its own line of laces of different colors based on the Blue Lace design. There’s a story behind a simple shoelace that most people don’t think about.

“The great thing is, we didn’t allow another industry to go under,” Davis said. “And, the fact is we’re growing and we’re competing internationally.”

 

More information and to see a great video about the project, go to

www.bluelaceproject.com

www.solechoiceinc.com

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Gary Wollenhaupt