It’s important to me to know the origin of where each part of our production takes place, not to mention one of the most enjoyable parts of running my own business. Since launch, Socko's sock packaging has been through several iterations. Always plastic-free, always 100% recycled and recyclable, always made in the UK. Keeping the packaging minimal but premium and incorporating our signature mini mending kit with every pair has been a constant.
Fineprint is a company that specialises in printing and packaging for a variety of products, including socks. They were recommended by Socko’s manufacturers and I have been working with both independently run businesses since day one. However, despite lots of friendly emails, calls and Christmas cards over the years, we had never put faces to names. So a few weeks ago I took the train from a grey London and travelled through the snowy countryside to arrive in a bright, crisp Nottingham in order to see firsthand how the printing process works.
Emily from the management team kindly picked me up from the station and took me to meet the rest of the most lovely team of people I’ve met in a long time. As the snow thawed, I was warmly welcomed into Fineprint, introduced to everyone and a wonderful smell of ink. Fineprint has two directors; Barry and Peter and employs a further five people. Barry also heads up Fineprint’s sister company, Hayman Creative who specialise in digital printing, framing, graphics, signs and display products including board games! They share the same space but are tucked around the corner from the guillotine, two litho printers, the Heidelberg press, a creasing machine and a couple of other machines, as well as Bev’s fulfilment station where checks and packaging assembly take place.
Production on our labels had already started as the ink needed to be dry in time for us to proceed to cutting but Chris took the time to talk me through the process of lithographic printing. With lithographic printing you expose your design onto an aluminium sheet. This sheet has two areas; the non-image area is called the hydrophilic area and the darker image area is called the oleophilic area. Within the press itself there are two sets of rollers. One set controls the ink and the other set controls the water. The two need to be balanced so you get a thin film of water. The theory is that because oil and water repel each other, the water will run away from the oleophilic areas and stick to the lighter areas and that’s how you get a print. It’s all about fine tuning and getting the right balance of ink and water.
Watching Chris work the machine to target different zones (or keys) and make minor adjustments is like watching someone play the piano. He showed me the plate unit, the blanket and the impression cylinder and even had a handy diagram to show where they all sat across the multiple different coloured inking rollers. Using a magnifier, I was able to see how the overlapping series of dots make up an image that looks like a crisp photograph to the naked eye.
A tea and a Tunnocks later, Peter showed me how the cutting and crease rules are set up on Socko’s form (the template used to cut out our bands). Just one fifth of a millimetre plus some carefully placed creasing matrix make the difference between a cut and a crease. These variables also need to be adjusted depending on the paper stock that is chosen. We supply Fineprint with an FSC certified 100% recycled stock from an Italian company called Fedrigoni. Once printed, the B2 sheets are cut on a powerful guillotine. It’s very satisfying to watch it slice through a stack of paper like butter. They are then ready to be run through the Heidelberg cylinder press - a machine I recognised from my letterpress days at art school that has been adapted to die cut packaging like mine. Peter checked that the cuts and creases were correctly placed by popping out intermittent bands, folding and assembling them. This ensures that each piece of packaging is uniform and fits the socks perfectly.
My afternoon at Fineprint was so interesting and made me feel a lot closer to the process, and of course the people. It was great to learn about the sustainability of the company too. As well as using vegetable based oil ink, the chilled water used in the printing process is filtered and constantly reused, making it an eco-friendly option with no harmful chemicals. Fineprint has also helped raise over £1.57m to date for The Woodland Trust, planting more than 420,000 trees and capturing over 96,000 tonnes of CO2. I hope you will agree that the quality that comes from these processes and employing the skills of passionate, conscientious craftspeople make a difference in the final product and the first impression you get from our socks.
A big thanks to Emily, Richard, Pete, Barry, Chris, Craig, Bev and Matt for their time, brilliant service and hospitality.