From the Cone Mills Corporation Records #5247, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
THE RETURN OF CONE MILLS DENIM
By Greg Houser
I’m standing just outside the weaving room at Cone Denim Mills in Greensboro, North Carolina, with the plant production manager, Ed Cox, and we’re looking at an antique Draper loom behind plexiglass. It stands about five feet high with a wide front and is painted a deep green with yellow accents on the safety guards, like a squat tractor. At one time, some 2,300 of these mechanical looms weaved all the Cone Mills denim in the room next door. “Because of the harmonics in the room,” Cox tells me, “there was an old wives’ tale that said if they started all those looms at the same time and they were all rocking at the same time that the floor would collapse.” I try to imagine it, the wooden shuttles dragging the cross threads across and the gears and belts of so many machines churning in violent unison. “I don’t know if that’s true,” he adds, “but you used to hear that a lot.”
Today, the bulk of Cone Mills denim is made on modern air jet looms, which weave the fabric by shooting the cross thread (weft) through the vertical threads (warp). The newer machines are faster and cheaper, but Cone still has forty looms from the ’40s and ’50s in production. Cox is a second-generation garment industry worker and has been at Cone since graduating from North Carolina State with a degree in textile management in 1986. He explains that when the vintage looms were brought out of storage in the ’90s, to meet a new demand for old-style jeans, Cone had to reinstall wood floors to get the denim just right, such are the temperament of these early machines. “Levi’s came back to us and wanted vintage denim. We originally set one of the old looms on the cement floor and wove some. They said it didn’t look like the same denim. One of the keys is that that loom has to sit on a wood floor to have that flexibility. You can’t duplicate that on a modern loom.” It’s this flexibility that gives the product its unique look; vintage denim is inherently flawed, with textures and properties not found in fabric woven on modern looms.
Selvedge, or selvage, denim—so called because of the clean edge on the out seam of an assembled pair of jeans—takes longer to produce. A vintage loom can weave about ten feet of denim, anywhere from 28 to 31 inches wide, in about an hour. Modern looms produce wider swaths about ten times faster. The vintage looms at Cone Mills are expensive to maintain because the Draper Corporation drastically cut operations in the mid 1970s, with the final employee leaving the plant in 1980. Jeans made from this fabric are pricey—usually upwards of $150 a pair—and, more often than not, they will also come unwashed and stiff, ready to be broken in, the way your grandparents bought jeans. The unwashed aspect allows wearers to create individual wear patterns, unlike regular jeans, which get belt sanded. Right now, Cone is the only manufacturer of selvedge denim in the United States.
I’m instructed to wear earplugs, then Cox opens the door to the weaving room and we go in. We are greeted by controlled chaos, a cacophony, the floor shaking beneath us. The tall ceiling meets in a peak, giving the impression of a large barn. In front of me sits the collection of forty green and yellow mechanical Draper looms on an incongruous square of maple flooring set down on top of the old cement. A few weavers—the shock of crimson hair belonging to Mildred, who’s worked at Cone for more than fifty years—move along the rows, tending the machines. To the right of the older looms are their modern cousins, sleek and gray, which sound more like electric typewriters next to the satisfying whir and chunk of the old Drapers. It’s the old looms I’m here to see because the denim woven on them, here in this room at Cone Mills in Greensboro, is spurring a rebirth of garment manufacturing across the South.
Largest Mill in the World.
This headline from the Atlanta Constitution on June 18, 1902, announced the latest endeavor from Moses and Ceaser Cone in Greensboro, Jewish brothers from Baltimore who by then had one of the most enduring names in the American garment industry. The new mill added to the Cones’ growing empire that already included the Revolution and Proximity plants. It would be called White Oak for a 200-year-old tree on site, and it would “make denim blue goods exclusively and be the largest plant of the kind on earth.”
On a handshake deal in 1915, Cone became the exclusive supplier for the most iconic jean, arguably the most iconic American garment, the Levi’s 501. The operation expanded to incorporate mill towns that offered affordable housing to employees and their families. The Cones also set up churches of varying denomination, community centers, and stores for workers. (According to Ed Cox, contentious, though friendly, softball games were held between the neighboring mill villages.)
Eventually, of course, garment production migrated abroad, devastating the American textile industry, including Cone Denim. Proximity Mill closed in 1978 and Revolution followed in 1982. (Today, their buildings live on as a hotel and office space.) But Cone adapted and survived. Its namesake tree no longer stands—the remnants were repurposed into a coffee table that sits in the Cone Mills historical archive—yet the White Oak plant endures, buttressed by enthusiasm for denim blue goods produced on vintage looms. Cox told me the selvedge product makes up about 25 percent of Cone’s current business. While so much garment manufacturing remains overseas (Cone has a plant in China) or in Mexico (where Cone has two other mills), the Greensboro location serves as the home base for the Cone Denim company and is still an important production facility, thanks to a growing base of Southern jean makers demanding Cone’s selvedge denim.
Carrie and Matt Eddmenson made their first 250 pairs of Imogene + Willie jeans in Nashville from three rolls of Cone Mills denim they scooped up when Carrie’s family’s business shuttered its doors in 2009. That business, Sights Denim Systems in Henderson, Kentucky, was once a leading company in the process of softening up jeans (stonewashing) for clients such as OshKosh B’Gosh and Levi’s.
“It was one of our favorite selvedge denims from Cone. When we were all divvying up who was taking what, we said we’d take that,” Carrie said, sitting in the newly expanded Imogene + Willie studio, which occupies two rooms in the old Marathon Motor Works building (a few doors down from Antique Archeology, made famous by the History Channel show American Pickers). Their production room is occupied by vintage Union Special sewing machines and racks of freshly assembled jeans ready for the store; in the studio, three employees work on iMacs at sparse desks.
Once they’d sold the first batch of jeans for $100 each, the Eddmensons opened a retail outlet in a defunct service station in Nashville’s 12 South neighborhood. Four years later, Imogene + Willie is a profitable enough business that Carrie and Matt were able to open another location in Portland, Oregon. They’re still using the same fabric from those first pairs, after Cone agreed to start making it again at their request. “There’s not any better feeling I get from a tactile physical object than finding a pair of Levi’s from the past,” Carrie said. “It makes me cry. There’s got to be something to that.”
About halfway between Nashville and Greensboro, twenty-six-year-old Bill Mitchell is just getting Billiam Jeans started in Greenville, South Carolina. Mitchell’s operation is crammed into every available inch of a screen-printing shop, Dapper Ink Custom Outfitters, while he waits to move into a new retail space. Two vintage sewing machines sit in front of the cash register and Mitchell’s creative director, Palmer Dill, cuts denim patterns on the floor.
Too tall for a medium and too thin for a large, Mitchell could never find clothes that fit right, so he taught himself how to tailor. He sewed his first pair of jeans on his mother’s sewing machine at home. He still has them. He takes me in back, past bikes hanging on the wall and t-shirt printing stands, and digs through a long plastic tub, producing his prototype. The jeans are truly wretched. Bill laughs as he handles them, tries to explain the garish red stitching on the pockets and the oversized belt loops. “It is awful, it’s terrible. I sewed over top of the change pocket, the belt loops wrap over the waist band, the seams are incredibly twisted, just a really bad pair of pants,” he says, then adds, “But it was so cool that I was wearing something I’d made.”
That was four years ago, and Mitchell has honed his skills since then, teaching himself through reverse engineering and trial and error. He made jeans for friends for about a year before he bought his first batch of Cone Mills denim and decided to make jeans a career. Taking inspiration from the humanitarian efforts of Toms Shoes and Warby Parker, young outfits that have written generosity into their business models, Mitchell sought a cause that Billiam Jeans could help. “I wanted to benefit something that needed immediate relief. Human trafficking is a situation that I couldn’t imagine being in and I wanted to use what I was good at and benefit a cause I thought was the greatest injustice of our generation,” he said. Now, Billiam offers classic five-pocket jeans made from Cone selvedge, and 20 percent of profits goes to Wellspring Living, an Atlanta-based organization with a mission to raise awareness and provide treatment programs for victims of childhood sexual abuse.
Imogene + Willie and Billiam are just two of the Southern companies ushering the White Oak plant into its second century of production. Evan Meyers, a vintage Cone enthusiast, just opened Civic Threads in Greensboro, a store that will sell products made with Cone denim. In Asheville, Jack Roche and Wren Kelley stock several brands made with Cone at their store Old North, and will launch their own label, Ruby City, in the coming weeks. Across town, Russell Shurtz sews jeans in his living room shop and will soon sell them under a brand called Circle A. Marcus Hall, the son of Levi’s factory workers makes jeans in Knoxville, Tennessee, as Marc Nelson Denim. Victor Lytvinenko and Sarah Yarborough, a husband and wife team, run Raleigh Denim Workshop in North Carolina.
Back in Greensboro, Cox and I are standing outside the indigo dyeing room when he finally looks at my jeans and asks what I’m wearing. I’m forced to admit, bashfully, that the denim was made in Japan before I protest, a little too much, that they were cut and sewn in the United States, though.
“We’ll have to get you in some Cone,” he says.
“I have some,” I say. “At least I think I do.” Then I remember the recently repaired 1947 reproduction Levi’s sitting in my girlfriend’s bedroom a few hours away in Asheville. “I have a pair of selvedge 501s,” I offer.
“Close enough,” Cox says.