Footwear designers have long sought to satisfy a request from athletes: make shoes as comfortable as socks. Nike in the 1980s tried with a flimsy mesh sneaker called the Sock Racer. The shoe offered comfort but wasn’t durable. Subsequent efforts ran into similar problems. Now the world’s largest sporting-goods company thinks it’s discovered the Holy Grail—a 5.6-ounce running shoe called the Flyknit, made from synthetic yarn ingeniously woven together by a knitting machine. But Nike executives are excited about more than a possible blockbuster product. They say the manufacturing advance that makes the Flyknit possible is the real find.
The computer-controlled weaving technology, which knits the entire upper part of the shoe in a single piece that’s then attached to the sole, promises to cut labor costs and production time while also increasing profit margins and opportunities for personalization. It may even bring some shoe manufacturing jobs back to the U.S. In traditional shoemaking, machines cut scores of pieces that workers must then assemble. By reducing or removing that step, the most labor-intensive part of the process is eliminated—along with the main reason for making shoes in Asia’s cheaper labor markets. “This is a complete game-changer,” says Charlie Denson, president of the Nike brand. The process cuts costs so much “that eventually we could make these shoes anywhere in the world.”