The Secret to Vintage Jeans
On December 31, 2017, the doors closed on North Carolina’s White Oak plant—the first, and now 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.
By BRIAN HOWE
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.
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.
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.
Nowhere in America is the old-school approach on more vivid display than at Cone Denim’s White Oak plant in Greensboro, North Carolina. Founded in 1895, Cone Denim has long served as the primary source of fabric for legendary American jeans makers such as Lee, Wrangler, and of course the granddaddy of them all: Levi Strauss. Cone’s plant 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.
To satisfy our rapidly expanding appetite for denim clothes, in 1905 Cone opened the White Oak plant. To mark the history he hoped to make, Moses Cone named the plant after a 200-year-old great white oak that stood on the property, long serving as a local meeting spot.
Today, as you walk through White Oak’s cavernous weave room, where technicians and robotic arms rove among long rows of electronic looms, long-chain dye units, “slashers,” and other modern textile machinery, at a certain point you see the flooring change from concrete to old wooden planks. Resting on those planks are 51 mechanical power looms, all made in the 1940s and all painted green, loudly clacking away like oversize manual typewriters.
These machines were made by the now defunct Draper Corporation of Hopedale, Massachussetts, and this particular model, the Draper X3, represents the last generation of “fly shuttle” looms that America ever made. The period authenticity in this 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.
In October of 2017, the International Textile Group (ITG), which now owns Cone Denim (after nearly a century of Cone family ownership), announced that the White Oak plant would close at year’s end. In its press release, ITG wasn’t vague about its reasons. As clothing manufacturers have turned to “fabric sourcing outside the U.S.,” it said, orders at White Oak have dropped too low to sustain the plant’s high capacity.
In addition to eliminating roughly 200 jobs, ITG’s move shutters the last major factory making vintage-style denim—that is, the last one on American soil. Between the lines of ITG’s announcement was a hidden aspect to this trend: A lot of that fabric coming from overseas represents foreigners’ attempts 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 has kept generations of American ranch hands warm ever since? Could it be even better?
Brad Johnson, the group manager for Cone’s White Oak plant and two others in Mexico (the company also has a plant in China), has been on the job here for 29 years. “I got fascinated by the weaving part first,” Johnson says, as he walks off the weave room floor, down an abruptly quiet hall, and into the plant’s archive room. Here, the same wooden planks, glowing like amber, cover the floor, and historical garments made from White Oak denim are on display, from weather-beaten overalls, circa 1940, sealed behind glass cases to pristine, vintage-style Levi’s on racks.
White Oak devotes significant resources to recreating historical fabrics on the same weave room floor where they were originally made. “You’ve got that history that gets woven into that fabric,” Johnson says. “If you appreciate the cracks and pops from vinyl records, you probably appreciate selvage jeans.”
One of denim’s many unique qualities is that 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.
White Oak’s dyeing process is unique to the application of indigo—a convention of style and convenience, not of necessity. “Indigo was cheap,” Johnson says, “though it is not a very good dye stuff for cotton. It washes down.” 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. “That’s one reason people love jeans, in my opinion.” Pointing to his own Levi’s, Johnson says “These are not as old as they look, but they have these whiskers like I’ve worn them for years.”
The vibrations that give selvage denim its signature look turn out to have several layers. Those caused by the flexing floorboards compound another set emanating from within the loom itself. These come from 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 zig-zags literally gives the X3 the shudders, what denim makers call “loom chatter.”
“As Japanese 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.
“That’s the thing those looms do best,” says 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 as to render 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.
The old-fashioned shuttles serve another purpose as well—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.”
Before they stood for rebellion, then mainstream fashion, jeans were nothing more than workwear, designed to be both strong and affordable—the perfect material for the laboring class. The selvage process fit this niche perfectly because it didn’t waste fabric; and, for the comparatively meager number of trousers needed in the old days, there were plenty of indigo plants around to give jeans their signature blue color. (Before long, of course, the jeans market grew too large to cover with natural dyes—a challenge that gave birth, in the early 1900s, to synthetic indigo, which is made from petroleum.)
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, newer, faster looms were entering the market, and the Draper Corporation’s fortunes started to dwindle; its 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. 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 today’s fleet 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. Some were surprisingly clever about how they did it.
Victor Lytvinenko’s selvage workshop, Raleigh Denim, sits no more than an hour’s drive from the White Oak plant. For that reason alone, he has always bought most of his selvage denim from White Oak. “It was super important to us that it was local,” he says. 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 throughout the 10 years he’s been in business, 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 dye other than indigo. Today, Lytvinenko says, Italy and Japan “are making some of the most beautiful fabrics I’ve ever seen.”
This observation puts an entirely new spin on the popular perception of how business is done in the U.S. vs. Japan. We’re supposed to be the master innovators, the Japanese the master copiers. But in this case, who is the daring one?
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 look and feel very different,” says Babzani. As Lytvinenko sees it, today’s Japanese denim is “paying respect to the past but has a modern bent.”
When Babzani looks at White Oak’s role in American heritage, he also sees its flipside, which is American stagnation and complacence. “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,” says Babzani. “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 has earned some measure of respect. “The range of fabrics Cone makes is focused,” says Lytvinenko. “What they do they do really well.”
Babzani believes the companies that will be most affected by White Oak’s closure will be American clothiers marketing themselves as symbols of U.S.-made pride. Once their last, home-grown selvage factory is gone, he says, “that flips everything you’ve built your company on upside down. You’re going to use Italian denim now?”
One company that now may need to get particularly creative with its messaging will be Levi Strauss. For years, the company has been quietly sourcing its vintage-style denim from Turkey, where the art of textile manufacture is deep, and highly 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.”
Luckily for Babzani, his interests avoid a marketing challenge like Levi’s. Long ago, Self Edge started sourcing its selvage denim almost exclusively from Japan, and the company makes no bones about it. In fact, Babzani’s relationship to Japan has given him an illuminating perspective on the mythology built around the Draper X3, and American denim manufacturing. 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 glad to play up that American mystique in their pursuit of 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 (which still manufactures parts for Toyoda looms—even though its looms, too, are now out of production). “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.”
“Everybody’s asking, ‘Where are the looms in Greensboro going?’” says Kiya Barbzani. “Who really cares where they’re going, outside of sentimental value? You can buy newer looms that can be engineered to make fabric just like those Drapers, which we’ve already seen if we go to Japan and see the Toyoda looms. Many of the Japanese, I think, would like them purely for historical value, but the Turkish don’t need Drapers to make selvedge denim.”
Barbzani undoubtedly speaks for many in the selvage trade, but at least one denim maker thinks otherwise, and he’s an American.
Five years ago, a young man named Ryan Huston started a small textile manufacturing plant—not in the South, nor in any other American locale with a textile heritage, but in Sacramento, the state capital of California. Huston currently has four X3s and is buying three more this month, scavenging them out of barns and warehouses across the country. These old Drapers represent the foundation of the Huston Textile Co., which began when he and his wife started making handwoven baby carriers.
Cone Denim is not yet talking about what it plans to do with its collection of X3s, but Huston believes the old workhorses are likely to wind up in the hands of smaller American producers like himself, who might now be able to divide and conquer the Made-in-USA selvage market that Cone just abandoned. For an operation of his small scale, Huston has found that the old Drapers still have advantages over modern looms—including the handful of mechanical shuttle looms from overseas manufacturers—if you know how to work with them.
“We went to the X3 because it can recreate a handwoven feel on a more industrial, automated scale,” he says. Since the X3 was the last weaving machine the Draper Corporation made, Huston says, “all the nice features and ease of maintenance are in that one machine.” This may explain why the X3s have become such prizes. “It took a long time to find the looms, about two years of searching,” he 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.”
If you can find a Draper X3, there is still the matter of learning to operate and maintain it, which apparently can take years. “There are a couple people I’m aware of trying to do what I’m doing, having a smaller production facility and doing similar things to Cone Denim,” Huston says. “I don’t know any that have produced any fabric. They’re still in that learning start-up phase.”
Part of the problem, somewhat ironically, is that the old Drapers automate a few functions that modern shuttle looms usually don’t. Huston thinks there’s a reason that more recent shuttle-loom makers haven’t bothered to build those functions: adjusting and maintaining their mechanisms require skills that are long gone—or at least the loom manufacturers fear they might be. “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.” That fact creates yet another irony: despite their simplicity, the newer shuttle looms are often more trouble to operate than the old Drapers. “They’re more work,” Huston says. They “require somebody to sit there and baby them.”
As I picture Huston working with these iconic shuttle looms, I wonder if his operation might be missing an important ingredient: the flexing planks on White Oak’s revered, antique, wooden floor. Sure enough, when I ask what kind of floor Huston’s plant has, he says cement. Isn’t that a problem? Isn’t wooden flooring needed to add to the Draper’s “loom chatter,” so crucial for inscribing depth and character into a pair of selvage jeans?
Apparently, not at all. To mimic the old planks’ bounce, Huston attaches his looms to the cement with rubber suction cups, which allow the looms to shuck and jive all they want. Other denim makers with Drapers have used felt and tar, adding a special glue that allows the adhesions to move. So much for White Oak’s terroir, at least in a literal sense.
American jeans set the global template for premium denim, and if young entrepreneurs like Huston persevere, that history may never completely fade. But it seems that, in the selvage world as in every sphere of today’s globalized culture, the dream of American exceptionalism is ending. And the closure of White Oak is just another wake-up call.
Wherever Cone’s Draper X3s go, they will keep making beautiful, heritage-rich fabric for somebody; the question is whether this loom will ever be seen for what it is: a mechanical, inanimate object caught somewhere between life and death. “It’s an iconic machine, an important machine,” Babzani says. “I think we tie a lot of the romantic history of denim to that machine because it’s been operating for such a long time at White Oak. But I believe that we’ve attached this emotion to it.” The soul we see in it, the one we celebrate and mourn, is our own.