A rising brand of unique sandals
is making a name for itself in Morgantown.
On a warm day, the doors and windows are open and a dozen or so workers are settled in a large workroom. Each employee has a workstation, but enjoys open space while chatting over the tasks at hand. Seemingly endless strands of rope snake around the room, but in no time, the piles are transformed into pairs of shoes—all of them made by hand.
Sound like a foreign scene? It’s not. The decline of American industry has been an issue of controversy and lament for some, but you don’t have to go back in time or out of the country to find this kind of work environment. In fact, you don’t even have to leave the state. Off Pierpont Road, near Cheat Lake, this scene unfolds every day. The workers are local and they’re making Gurkee’s Sandals, an innovative product that is steadily gaining the favor of folks across the country for ethical production and unbeatable quality.
These sandals have come a long way from their origins in a 1980s hippie commune. When two men took over operations, they sold the sandals out of their van. One of the men was named Gurkee, and the sandals have been his namesake ever since, even after Ray Sickles bought the company in 2009. Although Ray kept the name, he made some major changes—namely, moving the manufacturing center for the sandals from Mexico to Morgantown. “It’s really rewarding to hire people in our community to produce products that work for kids, grandparents, and the everyday person,” says Ashley Sickles, marketing specialist for Gurkee’s.
All of the materials used in a pair of Gurkee’s are made in the United States. Each pair begins with thousands of tiny polypropylene fibers—the same material used to make carpet. The fibers are spun into yarn, which is then spun into rope specially designed for Gurkee’s sandals. Yard after yard of rope is cut to Gurkee’s specifications before being handcrafted into the sandals that eventually find themselves on customers’ feet. The shoes are light—weighing ounces instead of pounds—and form to fit the shape of your feet. Besides being comfortable, the shoes are remarkably durable, typically lasting from 10 to 15 years. They can be machine washed and dried, and any loose threads can be burnt off with a lighter. “We recently got a call from a customer who had owned her Gurkee’s for 20 years, and the only reason she needed a new pair was because her dog ate one,” says Ashley.
These unique sandals are getting nationwide attention. They were recently juried into Tamarack, and hundreds of retailers carry Gurkee’s, including hip clothiers like Urban Outfitters and Opening Ceremony. Employees say the next step is to simply build on their strong foundation. “It comes down to getting our name out there and proving that we make a quality handmade product,” Ashley says. “It’s like Crocs. Everyone knows what that is. We want to get to the point where if someone says Gurkee’s, they know that means rope sandals.”