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The Secret to Vintage Jeans

In November, 2017, the doors closed on North Carolina’s White Oak plant—one of the first, and (almost) the last, big textile mill in the U.S. to make true, vintage-style denim. Our correspondent tracks down the secret to classic jeans, and their unexpected future.

Issue: Fall 2021

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Cone Denim's White Oak plant in Greensboro, North Carolina. In the late 1800s, the plant's owners, Cone Denim, sold Levi Strauss his first wholesale supplies. Soon afterward, the company filed the patents for the hardy form of denim that set styles and identities for generations of Americans. Photo courtesy of Cone Denim, LLC, a division of International Textile Group.

By BRIAN HOWE, with updated reporting by TODD OPPENHEIMER

  1. The Selvage Secret
  2. A Machine's Fingerprints
  3. Pushing Denim's Limits
  4. The Shackles of Legacy
  5. The Myth of the Lost Looms
  6. Where Will All Those Drapers Go?
  7. The Soul of a Heritage Machine

If you’re lucky enough to own a pair of authentic, “selvage” denim jeans, you know what you love about them: their visible engineering, their durability, and the almost living way they fade and mold to your body. What you might not know is that their existence has long relied on an odd combination of obsolete machinery, working class necessity, retro fashion, American mythology, and foreign ingenuity.

The period authenticity in the weave room is more than aesthetic; the vibrations of the Drapers bouncing on the wooden floor provide White Oak denim’s unique terroir. The plant’s signature is in every swath of denim it makes, like cursive vibrations written in weft yarn.

Today, most denim, both here and abroad, is produced in extremely high-tech environments—at sprawling factories full of computer-controlled looms. These machines are big, fast, and exact, programmable to the tenth of a millimeter. That’s all very nice for a textile factory’s bottom line, but it doesn’t do much for the life or uniqueness of your pants. If you want character in your jeans, and that extra ounce of longevity, you have to go old school.

Nowhere in America was the old-school approach more vividly on display than at Cone Denim’s White Oak plant in Greensboro, North Carolina. Founded in 1895, Cone long served as the primary source of fabric for legendary American jeans makers such as Lee’s, Wrangler, and of course the granddaddy of them all: Levi Strauss. Cone’s White Oak plant, opened in 1905, is where textile makers “literally filed the patents for denim production in America,” says Victor Lytvinenko, co-founder (with Sarah Yarborough) of Raleigh Denim, a North Carolina-based vintage denim workshop.

A pair of overalls made at White Oak in 1940. Photo courtesy of Cone Denim, LLC, a division of International Textile Group.

After more than a century of continuous operation, the White Oak plant finally closed in November, 2017. I was lucky enough to visit just months before that sad end, and as I walked through the cavernous weave room, technicians and robotic arms roved among long rows of electronic looms, long-chain dye units, “slashers,” and other modern textile machinery. At one point, I saw the flooring change from concrete to old wooden planks. Resting on those planks were 51 mechanical power looms, all made in the 1940s and all painted green, loudly clacking away like oversized manual typewriters.

These machines were made by the now-defunct Draper Corporation of Hopedale, Mass., and this particular model, the Draper X3, represented the last generation of “fly shuttle” looms that America ever made. The period authenticity in this room was more than aesthetic; the vibrations of the Drapers bouncing on the wooden floor provided White Oak denim’s unique terroir. The plant’s signature was in every swath of denim it made, like cursive vibrations written in weft yarn.

When the International Textile Group (ITG), which bought Cone Denim, announced that the White Oak plant (then the last American factory to make selvage denim) would soon close, eliminating 200 jobs, the corporation wasn’t vague about its reasons. Orders at White Oak had dropped too low to sustain the plant’s high capacity.

One reason for the drop in Cone’s business was that, over the years, most denim brands had started buying their fabric from foreign manufacturers, who have tried to replicate, and even improve upon, old-fashioned American denim. Could their work be as authentic as the un-killable material that clothed California’s 19th-century gold miners and generations of American ranch hands? Could it be even better?

The weave room at White Oak, circa 1909, marked a sense of history that still lives beyond Cone Denim’s walls. “I wove for a guy who does Confederate uniforms,” says William Barefoot, the manager of North Carolina State University’s weaving lab. To mimic the imprecise old stuff, the customer would ask Barefoot to insert defects. “They’d pay extra for it,” he says. “One guy told me, ‘Hey, every now and again, stop it and put a mis-pick in it.’” Photo courtesy of Cone Denim, LLC, a division of International Textile Group. 
An early 20th century ad for Cone’s “Deeptone Denim,” one of its first signature lines of clothing material. Photo courtesy of Cone Denim, LLC, a division of International Textile Group.

THE SELVAGE SECRET

Brad Johnson, the group manager for Cone’s White Oak plant and two others in Mexico, was on the job in North Carolina for 29 years. “I got fascinated by the weaving part first,” he says. When I first visited White Oak, back in 2017, Johnson walked me past the weave room floor, down an abruptly quiet hall, and into Cone Mills’ archive room. Here, the same wooden planks, glowing like amber, covered the floor, and historical garments made from White Oak denim were on display, from weather-beaten overalls, circa 1940, sealed behind glass cases to pristine, vintage-style Levi’s on racks.

When it was still in operation, White Oak went to a lot of effort to recreate these historical fabrics, making use of the same weave-room floor where the old denim was originally made. “You’ve got that history that gets woven into that fabric,” Johnson said. “If you appreciate the cracks and pops from vinyl records, you probably appreciate selvage jeans.”

One of vintage denim’s many unique qualities lies in how it’s dyed. When done authentically, you only dye the yarn that goes on the outside of the fabric, called the “warp yarn”; the yarn that goes inside, called the “weft yarn,” is typically plain white cotton (although it shows up inside your pants or jacket as a pale blue). To make selvage-style denim, the dyed warp yarn is stretched out vertically while a small shuttle pulls the weft across the loom horizontally, filling the fabric with the uncolored cotton.

Back in the day, White Oak denim’s signature blue was derived from indigo—a convention of style and convenience, not of necessity. “Indigo was cheap,” Johnson said, “and it doesn’t stain.” It also didn’t hold its color particularly well. As Johnson put it, “It washes down.” But this also created a lot of vintage denim’s beauty. When the impermanence of the indigo dye on the warp is interlaced with the white weft, it gives jeans their saturated depths of color and texture.

A MACHINE’S FINGERPRINTS

Beyond the variations of color, and the vibrations that come from White Oak’s flexing floorboards, vintage denim’s unique look derives from another layer of movement that emanates from within the loom itself. This is caused by the shuttle shooting back and forth across the loom at a rate of three times per second. The force generated to fire those high-speed zigzags literally gives the Draper X3 the shudders, what denim makers call “loom chatter.”

“That’s the thing those looms do best,” said Lytvinenko. “A lot of it comes from the loom being so big and heavy and clunky and old. It shakes the fabric, and you get these teeny-tiny things that, in other fabrics, look like flaws. But in denim, it looks like total beauty.” In other words, if the modern loom is designed to work so flawlessly that it renders itself invisible, the shuttle loom is a machine with fingerprints, mood swings, a soul. Throw in yarn with irregular thickness—called “slub” in the trade—and you get even more variation, more depth, more character.

Those old-fashioned shuttles serve another purpose: They finish rolls of fabric with a particularly sturdy edge, which modern looms cannot replicate. Because the newer machines are so large, and weave such wide flats of fabric, they have to fire long strings of yarn from one end and then cut them at the other, leaving a vulnerable edge that must be trimmed and stitched. On the smaller mechanical looms, like the Draper, the shuttle never has to break the thread. That allows the loom to sew a smooth, finished edge as it goes.

Those edges, typically highlighted by a kind of internal racing stripe of red or blue, give fabric extra strength and longevity. To celebrate the easy way they were finished, these fabrics were originally called “self-edge,” a term that led to the now legendary descriptor, “selvage denim.”

The White Oak weave room in the early 20th century—some of Cone Denim’s peak years. Photo courtesy of Cone Denim, LLC, a division of International Textile Group.

Before they stood for rebellion, then mainstream fashion, jeans were nothing more than strong, affordable workwear—the perfect material for the laboring class. The selvage process fit this niche perfectly because it didn’t waste fabric. Before long, of course, the jeans market grew far too large to cover with natural plant dyes—a challenge that gave birth, in the early 1900s, to synthetic indigo, which is made from petroleum.

“As Japanese brands progressed, they experimented with techniques that pushed the limits of what denim is,” said Kiya Babzani, founder of Self Edge, the country’s leading high-end selvage retailer.

As denim jeans solidified their position as the symbol of American casual, the mythology of White Oak grew, entwining along the way with the mythology of Draper looms. In the middle of the 20th century, however, newer, faster looms entered the market, and the Draper Corporation’s fortunes started to dwindle; its beloved X3 model was the last mechanical shuttle loom the company ever produced.

By the 1980s, the X3, and the funky denim it made, all looked tired. Vintage denim, it seemed, wasn’t yet vintage enough. So all of White Oak’s Drapers, which were no longer in production anyway, were replaced. Out of sentimentality, or perhaps optimism, a Cone Denim VP stored a small collection of the old X3s. Then, a mere decade later, “premium denim” started trending and White Oak brought the Drapers back into service. By 2013, the demand for selvage was such that Cone had to search out even more old Drapers, which it refurbished to bring up to a fleet, just before the plant closed, of 51.

In the meantime, the rest of the world fell in love with denim too; by the 1990s, foreign manufacturers had figured out their own ways to make sheets of blue gold in vintage, selvage form. And some were surprisingly clever about how they did it.

Some of Cone Denim’s modern looms operated with electronically controlled air-jets, which produce at least 12 times as much denim in an hour as the old mechanical shuttle looms. Photo courtesy of Cone Denim, LLC, a division of International Textile Group.

PUSHING DENIM’S LIMITS

Victor Lytvinenko’s selvage workshop, Raleigh Denim, sits no more than an hour’s drive from the now-shuttered White Oak plant. For that reason alone, he had always bought most of his selvage denim from White Oak. In fact, his proximity to the plant at first felt serendipitous—“like, wow, one of the best mills ever in America is right down the road.” Yet, Lytvinenko has always bought selvage from overseas sources, too.

For its part, Cone Denim has stood by the idea that tradition is as powerful as novelty. The company never found reason to make anything other than classic, selvage denim at its White Oak plant—an approach that has earned Cone some measure of respect.

By all indications, cost-saving is not the main reason. To Lytvinenko and others, foreign manufacturers aren’t just replicating traditional American denim, they’re building on it.

In the 1970s and ‘80s, a number of Japanese travelled through the U.S. buying vintage Lee, Wrangler, and Levi’s jeans to resell for much higher prices back home. “As these brands progressed, they experimented with techniques that pushed the limits of what denim is,” says Kiya Babzani, founder of Self Edge, the country’s leading high-end selvage retailer. The Japanese started producing heavier, more abrasive denim than American manufacturers like Cone have been making; they used ancient Japanese methods of applying natural dyes other than indigo. Today, Lytvinenko says, Italy and Japan “are making some of the most beautiful fabrics I’ve ever seen.”

THE SHACKLES OF LEGACY

Much of the quality in Japanese denim, selvage experts believe, comes from the attention to detail the Japanese are famous for, starting with how carefully they spin yarn. When it comes to the weaving, the Japanese have launched a few lines of denim that are thicker, and even more “slubby” than Cone’s. “Even to somebody who has no idea about denim at all, a pair of jeans made from Cone Denim and a pair of super-slub, 17-ounce Japanese selvage jeans look and feel very different,” said Babzani. Today’s Japanese denim is “paying respect to the past but has a modern bent,” according to Lytvinenko.

For a select line of premium denim, White Oak made yarn dyed with natural coloring from the indigo plant. Today, the vast majority of denim is dyed with synthetic indigo, a petroleum product. Photo courtesy of Cone Denim, LLC, a division of International Textile Group.

When Babzani looks at White Oak’s role in American heritage, he also sees its flipside, which is American stagnation and complacency. “You can buy selvage denim from Italy or Turkey or Pakistan and get it to the U.S., after shipping and customs, and pay about the same as what Cone was charging,” Babzani told me just before White Oak closed. “I think this plays a huge part into why the holding company that purchased Cone is shutting down White Oak. The Turkish mills are putting out amazing fabric, and it’s cheap. It’s hard competing with that.”

Cone’s approach to that challenge, Babzani believes, helped to dig White Oak’s grave. “To my knowledge, Cone never tried to make the really interesting, boundary-pushing styles coming out of Asia and Turkey and Pakistan,” he says. “This is a problem in legacy businesses of any kind, when you become too attached to the past. Imagine if a company like Nike just stuck with its heritage of the ‘60s and ‘70s. It would have been a disaster. The company wouldn’t be around anymore.”

In fairness, Cone Denim has stood by the idea that tradition is as powerful as novelty. The company never found a good reason to make anything other than classic, selvage denim at the White Oak plant, so it never did. For that alone, Cone—which still produces non-selvage denim in Mexico and China—has earned some measure of respect. “The range of fabrics Cone makes is focused,” says Lytvinenko. “What they do, they do really well.”

When White Oak was preparing to close, the fate of its Draper X3s remained unknown, since few, if any, other mills were set up to match White Oak’s capacity. “People are saying the Japanese are going to line up to buy them, but the reality is the mills in Japan are hurting, because retail in Japan is in the gutter,” said Kiya Babzani of Self Edge, back in 2017. Photo courtesy of Cone Denim, LLC, a division of International Textile Group.

THE MYTH OF THE LOST LOOMS

As White Oak’s closure approached, Babzani thought the companies that would be most affected would be American clothiers marketing themselves as symbols of U.S.-made pride. Once their last, home-grown selvage factory was gone, he said, “that flips everything you’ve built your company on upside down. You’re going to use Italian denim now?”

One company that may have had to get particularly creative with its messaging was Levi Strauss. In 1915, soon after the White Oak plant opened, Jacob Strauss (Levi’s nephew) famously made a handshake deal with Cone to use White Oak denim exclusively. For more than a century, this agreement held—mostly. For years, it turns out, Levi Strauss had been quietly sourcing its vintage-style denim from Turkey, where the art of textile manufacture is deep, and is now quite refined. One former Levi’s manager, who could only speak confidentially, believes that Levi’s turn to overseas sources, and away from Cone Denim—the mill that Levi’s historical literature prominently celebrates as the brand’s original supplier—“may have put the final nail in White Oak’s coffin.”

At Self Edge, Babzani has long used selvage denim from Japan, making no bones about it. This has given Babzani an illuminating perspective on the mythology built around the Draper X3, and American denim manufacturing in general. Within the selvage world, it’s a truism that Japan scooped up many of the old Drapers when U.S. plants re-automated. And the Japanese have been happy to play up their link to the American mystique as they have pursued the premium denim market.

“It’s a myth,” Babzani says. “I’ve been to every major mill and some non-major in Japan, and I’ve never seen a Draper loom operating.” What you do see are mechanical shuttle looms made by Toyoda Automatic Loom Works, the progenitor of Toyota Motor Corporation. “The only Draper loom I’ve seen outside the States is on display at the Evisu store in Tokyo, which is owned by Hidehiko Yamane, the guy who created the myth to romanticize the idea of American-style denim and sell jeans.”

WHERE WILL ALL THOSE DRAPERS GO?

Back in 2017, as White Oak’s closure approached, denim aficionados from coast to coast were worrying that authentic, American-made, selvage denim had finally come to an end. “Everyone’s asking, ‘Where are the looms in Greensboro going?’” Babzani said. Some thought the Japanese would buy them all, but at that time the Japanese consumer economy was in a downturn, and no smart executive was making big purchases.

One of the unusual aspects to making denim is that the yarn is dyed before the fabric is made. First, a “long-chain dye unit” processes the “warp” yarn through a series of dye boxes. Between them, the ropes are oxidized in the air, which is called “skying.” After the first indigo dip, the yarns are green, but they turn blue upon exposure to oxygen. Photo courtesy of Cone Denim, LLC, a division of International Textile Group.

Others thought Turkish textile manufacturers would scoop up the old Drapers; but the Turkish mills were doing perfectly well with their own machinery. So when White Oak finally shut down, ITG consigned the old looms to the junkyard. Aside from a piece of the facility that Walmart took over, for use as a distribution center, the once sprawling operation sat unattended, a decaying shell of its proud former self.

Meanwhile, more and more consumers were becoming savvy about the value of selvage denim; many were now happily paying anywhere from $250 to $400 or more for a pair of what are essentially yesteryear’s work pants. (As one might imagine, theories about the perfect way to wear, wash, and break in selvage jeans only grew in number, and complexity.) As demand grew, cottage manufacturers started springing up to meet the growing market. One of these was Huston Textile Co.—a small mom-and-pop operation near Sacramento, California, run by Ryan and Kathryn Huston. And what was one of the first things the Hustons tried to do? Find some Draper looms.

“It took about two years of searching,” Ryan says. “When I had just about given up and was thinking about India, Pakistan, China, which still make shuttle looms but not as good, I haphazardly found the person who knew somebody who knew somebody who had it in a warehouse in South Carolina. A lot of this old equipment, if you don’t know the right people, you can’t get it anywhere.”

Huston finally found a few Drapers, trucked them to his northern California warehouse, spent months fixing them up and learning how they work, then started weaving new sheets of selvage denim. Before long, Ryan and Kathryn had built a promising relationship with Fibershed, a rapidly growing nonprofit that is reviving local textile economies—and rebuilding depleted farmland in the process—in both in the U.S. and abroad.

While refurbishing his old looms, Huston discovered, somewhat ironically, that these machines included a few functions, which Draper had mechanically automated, that aren’t even built into modern shuttle looms. The reason those features got phased out, Huston believes, is that adjusting and maintaining the mechanisms behind their functions require skills that have largely disappeared. “Any loom you can get to make cloth,” Huston says. “What’s hard is to get it to make quality cloth with minimal input and downtime.” Adding to the irony is the fact that the newer shuttle looms, despite their relative simplicity, are often more trouble to operate than the old Drapers. “They require somebody to sit there and baby them,” he says. Nonetheless, the Hustons forged ahead, slowly building a small, boutique customer base.

Meanwhile, back in the American South, a few denim manufacturing veterans started dreaming about reviving America’s selvage tradition on a larger scale. With the support of a major investor, the team took over a long-shuttered warehouse in Vidalia, Louisiana, once operated by Fruit of the Loom. One day in 2019, while in the midst of planning what would become Vidalia Mills, Robert Antoshak, Vidalia’s senior advisor, got a surprising call from Eric Goldstein, a Vidalia principal who had long been an influential player in the denim world. “The Draper looms are still in Greensboro!” Goldstein said. “They haven’t been touched!” Antoshak was stunned: “Everyone thought the only place you could find those old looms now was on top of some coral reef.”

Harnesses on the loom open vertical strings of yarn (the warp), so the horizontal strings (weft), can pass through the shed to make the weave. The shuttle, seen here loaded with a quill, passes back and forth through the shed, three times every second, weaving continuously so that the yarn is never cut. This is still the only way to make selvage  denim. Photo by Brian Howe.

It turned out that the man who bought the White Oak plant—Will Dellinger, CEO of JW Demolition, which specializes in mill decommissions—couldn’t bring himself to scrap the old relics. So his demolition team just covered the looms with plastic and let them sit, hoping someone who understood their value would come along and offer Dellinger a fair price. Which Vidalia Mills promptly did. Within weeks, 46 of White Oak’s 51 Draper X3s had been shipped to Louisiana, along with a substantial supply of spare parts and repair manuals. To preserve every trick and quirk of Cone’s old weaving operation, Vidalia even imported White Oak’s wooden floor (a finishing touch its weavers didn’t ultimately need, because they found that placing rubber footings under the looms preserved their quirky shudders and shakes just fine).

To give their operation the market niche they thought the mill’s selvage line deserved, the Vidalia team made three gutsy decisions. First, they arranged for almost every step of Vidalia’s production process—from growing their cotton to spinning and dying their thread, to weaving and shipping sheets of denim—to be done right in Louisiana. “Our supply chain is about 400 miles long,” Antoshak says. This allows Vidalia—and the brands that buy the company’s denim—to brag that their products are 100 percent made in the U.S.A, a rare and increasingly valuable badge of honor for any manufacturer, especially in the clothing world.

Second, Vidalia made sure that any cotton farmer it worked with abided by a strict set of environmental and energy-use standards, called e3, framed by a consortium of cotton growers called BASF. In Louisiana, it turns out, that isn’t as difficult as it is in other regions of the country. Just to begin with, consider the heavy amount of water it takes to grow cotton. “All our cotton is rain-fed,” Antoshak says. “There’s no irrigation. You don’t need it down here.” OK, how about textile manufacturing’s notorious energy demands? “We have a built-in advantage over most of our competitors,” Antoshak added. “We run 100 percent on hydro power, and that’s cheap here. Really cheap.” Say what one will about the South’s mixed history with cotton farming, but there’s obviously a reason this plant was king here for centuries.

Third, Vidalia committed to paying good wages. In a state where the minimum wage is $7.25 an hour, Vidalia pays factory workers two or three times that much: about $18 an hour, with benefits. “We are in one of the poorest rural sections of one of the poorest states in the country,” Antoshak says. “You can support a family of four here on those wages.” The company also tries to give its workers a durable set of skills. “Once they come in,” Antoshak says, “they are trained as craftspeople.” These prospects so delighted textile factory workers in North Carolina who had lost their jobs over the years, Antoshak says, that “they literally moved here with the looms.”

One of these days, of course, those 80-year-old Drapers are going to start giving out. What then? When I put that question to Antoshak, he didn’t even blink. When it acquired Cone’s old looms, it not only bought all the spare parts on hand, it also got  White Oak’s entire supply of manuals, technical specifications, and schematics. Now, he said, “we can remanufacture anything that breaks.” The gold mine that Vidalia stumbled on has the Vidalia team so charged up that they’re starting to dream of adding a shop that would make clothes as well. “We’d love to get to the point where we bring a bale of cotton in one door and send a pair of jeans out another door.”

The extra measures that Vidalia has taken—for the environment, for their workers, and to make their products entirely home-grown—suggest an unusual argument. The common belief in manufacturing circles is that in the U.S., labor costs and regulations have become too onerous, so it’s easier and cheaper to move manufacturing overseas. First, just on its face, that arithmetic isn’t always correct. (Exhibit A is the growing reshoring movement, amply explained in our article, “Can the U.S. Bring its Supply Chain Back Home?“) But even beyond offshoring’s reality check, it’s curious that industry leaders rarely, if ever, look at the positive side of American labor costs and regulations—focusing on the benefits those added measures bring to people and our environment. Now comes Vidalia Mills, proudly trying to turn these much reviled burdens into advantages.

As might be expected, Vidalia’s formula is being closely watched by veterans of the trade—some of whom are a little skeptical, given Cone’s failure to maintain a market for its selvage denim, which had become almost legendary. So we asked Eric Goldstein, who handles Vidalia’s sales, what firm numbers he could provide—on how much selvage cloth Vidalia is making, and selling; what its prices are; how many brands have signed up as customers; and how its costs and profits are faring. Goldstein mentioned several brands that are already making jeans from Vidalia’s selvage denim) buyers (the biggest being Todd Snyder, Lucky Brand and The Gap). But he did not feel at liberty to release much more than that. Nonetheless, both Goldstein and Antoshak assured us that Vidalia has gotten more denim orders than it can handle. “The interest level was immediate, and intense,” Antoshak said. “It was all about things being made in the U.S.A.”

On September 27, 2019, a small group of selvage denim lovers christened a new factory, called Vidalia Mills, built in an old Fruit of the Loom plant in Vidalia, Louisiana. To commemorate the occasion, the team fired up some of the 46 vintage Draper looms that Vidalia had purchased from the old Cone Denim plant in Greensboro, N.C. As the old machines shuddered back into action, the crowd erupted in cheers. photo courtesy of Vidalia Mills

THE SOUL OF A HERITAGE MACHINE

Back in Greensboro, North Carolina, White Oak may have been abandoned, but from all indications its spirit was too strong to die completely. Shortly after Cone shuttered the factory, a Greensboro community foundation joined forces with a group of local selvage loyalists (which included Victor Lytvinenko and Brad Johnson) to save a scrap of White Oak’s traditions.

After persuading Dellinger to donate a small building and a couple of Draper looms, the group formed a non-profit, the White Oak Legacy Foundation, or WOLF. The organization operates mostly as a museum installation and education center, but it also sells a little selvage denim on the side to specialty brands, under a wonderfully old-fashioned, Levi’s-style, leather label that says “Proximity Manufacturing Co.” Its production levels may be small, but it seems like, one way or another, White Oak just won’t quit making good, old-fashioned denim.

More stories from this issue:

The Secret to Vintage Jeans

The Human Cost of Recycled Cotton

Argentina’s Textile Crusader

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