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Ever admired the hosiery of a Lufthansa stewardess? It’s almost certainly by Falke. Founded in 1895 by Franz Falke-Rohen, the business is still in the hands of the same family and is still headquartered in Schmallenberg, a hillside town two-hours’ drive from Köln. Falke doesn’t just do tights; it also makes some of the best men’s socks around, plus a hi-tech sportswear and a ready-to-wear line. In 2006 the company had sales exceeding €186m.

Markus Unger, manager of quality control, says that when most people visit the factory, they “expect to find one big machine where workers throw in some yarn and dye, and out come socks minutes later”. Instead, it can take up to six weeks to produce a pair of top-quality socks.

In Schmallenberg 250 knitting machines (many are Bentley-made, dating back 50 years) work at full capacity from Monday to Saturday, turning out 20,000 articles a day. But quality is still key to the Falke operation. Its sea island socks are made from slow-growing cotton harvested just once a year in the Bahamas.

While the knitting of the finer articles remains in Schmallenberg, Falke has plants in eastern Germany, Hungary, Portugal and South Africa, where much of the non-skilled labour is carried out, including toe-closing, dyeing, stretching and packaging – but everything comes back to Schmallenberg for inspection.

Falke facts:

2,431: total workforce
1,237: workforce based in Germany
1,194: workforce around the world
€186m: total sales in 2006
150: tonnes of yarn stored at sites around Schmallenberg
400: needles used to make Falke’s finest pair of tights
20,000: number of articles knitted each day in Schmallenberg
35: number of toe hand-linkers now based in Hungary
450: number of socks hand-linked per worker per day
179: number of Falke concessions around the world (127 in Germany, 52 international)

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