According to the History of Mitchellace, around the turn of the 20th century, Charles Mitchell, a retail shoe clerk in Chattanooga, Tenn., invented a slot machine for dispensing shoelaces.
When a representative of the Selby Shoe Company saw his machine, Mitchell was persuaded to come to Portsmouth and manufacture his machine.
Within a year, the new business, Mitchellace Manufacturing Company, expanded to manufacturing its own laces and purchased six new revolutionary braiding machines.
By 1909, the company discontinued making the dispensers, and shoelaces became the major product.
Since that time, 1,200 braiding machines are in operation at Mitchellace and weaving and knitting have been added to the manufacturing of shoelaces.
Not only did the company expand internally, they joined in a partnership with Tye-Rite Inc., of Des Moines, Iowa, and purchased Marsh Shoelace Company of Los Angeles, Calif., and the Diamond Braiding Mills, of Tarpon Springs, Fla.
Mitchellace eventually acquired Tye-Rite Inc., Joyal & Van Dale Company, of Providence, R.I., General Shoelace Company, William Jette Inc. and Milton Fabrics increasing the manufacturing capacity and making Mitchellace a major supplier of shoelaces.
Today, the company is one of the largest manufacturers of shoelaces in the world. In 1985, Kerry Keating acquired controlling interest in the company and today, his sons, Steve, Tom and Mitch, have taken over the operations.
“We think we are the largest in the world but we're not positive,” said Steve Keating, president and CEO. “We've been to China and been in several shoe lace factories and none of them are as big as ours. China imports a lot of shoes. Most of the shoes in the U.S. today are imports.”
Mitchellace ships out to about 30 countries and they have supplied some military laces.
Keating has been in the business for 25 years. His brother Tom is CFO and his brother Mitch is COO. All of his children also work in the plant.
“Michael is in sales, Kristin is in customer service and my youngest son, Matthew, works in the factory,” Keating said. “Hopefully, it will be passed on to the next generation.”
Mitchellace was started by his great grandfather Dave “D.D.” Mitchell and his brother, Charles, who actually started the business. Charles left but Dave stayed, he said.
His dad, Kerry, came into the business as purchasing agent in 1962 and he was at the plant about eight months when his grandfather died at his desk.
“His background was teaching and coaching,” Keating said. “Jamie Williams took dad under his wing and taught him a lot about the business. He was part of the Williams family and a stockholder in the business.”
Mitchellace has several departments that are housed in the former Williams Manufacturing Company building, using about 365,000 square feet of space.
The manufacturing begins when the orders come into the office and using a material requirement planning system, the raw materials are ordered.
“What we bring in from outside suppliers is the yarn and all the packaging material and everything we need to do the entire job,” said Ryan Bouts, director of manufacturing.
Three different types of production are used for the shoelaces, woven, braided and knitted.
For weaving, the yarn is ordered in different colors and put on a warper that converts the yarn from the cones onto a large spool.
“This is just a preparation stage for us then to take it out to put it behind the loom that actually runs woven production,” Bouts said.
There are several different looms that takes the warp yarn to produce yarn that is round, oval or flat. About 40 looms are running every day.
“We can do anything with a loom like that,” he said.
They have many different colors and types of fibers in the yarns. Cotton, polyester, nylon and polypropylene yarns come in a variety of sizes.
“The size of the yarn we use is critical in making the final size,” Bouts said.
Although Mitchellace is considered more of a narrow fabric manufacturer, they can make up to a two-inch wide fabric. Some of the wider laces are used as binding for leg braces, lanyards, straps for back packs and gun slings, he said.
The company also makes football lacing, pull cords for toys, drawstrings and sleeving materials used by electric companies, among other products.
The designs on laces are printed in a process called sublimation printing where a machine transfers a colorful pattern onto the lace.
Many specialty-type products and promotional pieces for companies who want to use their logos are made using the heat transfer system.
The lace printing machines can run six different designs at one time.
In the braiding department, the yarn is prepared for braiding on a machine with 16 spools of yarn that are wound on a bobbin.
Some of the laces are put through waxes for dressy shoelaces.
“We have multiple wax machines and each one of them has a little different setup,” Bouts said.
Many of the machines the company uses are unique and designed in-house in the engineering department, he said.
Colorful bungee laces are braided with elastic to give them a curl that can stretch.
In the tipping department, the strings are tipped to finish the ends. One process is called fuse tipping.
“It's actually taking the process of heat pressure to take the braid itself to melt the fibers together then sets it,” Bouts said.
Another tipping process uses ultrasonic technology.
“The process of ultrasonic sound waves actually penetrate the middle of the braid,” he said. “It melts the fibers and changes the molecular construction so that with this particular tip, you couldn't pull apart, you couldn't dissect it.”
Another type of tip is an acetate tip using acetate film, putting in the right amount of acetate wrapped around the braid and then pressure is applied. One tipping process can add a company logo to the tip.
Over the years, Mitchellace has added many shoe-related products to their line of shoelaces, such as, Shine Rite shoe polish that was introduced in 1991 - shoe waxes, saddle soap, water repellent and mink oil.
A new line of insoles also has been introduced into the retail line. More than 600,000 pairs of shoelaces are produced each week at Mitchellace. That does not include the bulk products produced at the plant.
The company has another plant in Honduras called Cordones de Honduras.
“The Honduras plant does just about everything that we do here, it's a smaller version of this plant,” Keating said. “Honduras ships to the U.K. and Germany and they also ship to Central America and supply Mitchellace in Portsmouth. We process it from there - mostly the packaging.”
In the United States, only about a half a dozen companies manufacture laces, he said.
The company has diversified in other product lines with the main emphasis on insoles. Keating has been working on the new products for about a year and a half.
The insoles, called Rhino Tuff, are puncture proof and in a demonstration, a 16-penny nail is used to stomp on.
“We've had a lot of fun with that product,” Keating said. “We don't just step on the nail, we slam our foot down on the nail. We've never had a case where the nail has gone through.”
Another new product is called Seaots, short for sea otter. The Seaots is a clog that has an insert that will actually mold to your foot.
“I'm waiting on samples from China so that we can do a full launch on the product,” Keating said. “We're anticipating that it's going to be very big. We're hoping to have them in Scioto Shoe Mart locally and other shoe stores, hopefully by November, but the larger companies may not launch them until next spring.”
Another new product is called Liquid Leather, a polyurethane dye that can change the color of shoes, belts, coats, purses.
“It's actually a dye that will adhere to leather,” he said. “We have a world wide exclusive distribution on that and we're in the process of finalizing packaging and selling it to the manufacturers of shoes and boots. There's nothing like it.”
PHYLLIS NOAH can be reached at (740) 353-3101, ext. 234, or email@example.com.