If you're in the sewing world and have even thought about sewing a pair of jeans in the last few years, chances are you've heard of Cone Mills denim...specifically that from their White Oak plant in Greensboro, North Carolina. So when the company announced last year that the historic plant would be closing, a shiver ran through the sewing community and people started frantically trying to get their hands on as much of this beloved denim as possible.
But what's so special about White Oak denim? Is it really worth the hype? In short, yes. While there are definitely other quality denims out there, White Oak will always hold a special place in denim history...
Cone Mills was founded by two brothers, who opened their first plant in 1896. Seeing success by focusing on quality, workwear denim during a period of so much industrial development, the brothers opened the White Oak plant in 1905, naming after a 200-year-old oak tree that stood near the site. In a time when many people couldn't afford more than one pair of jeans in a year, Cone Mills set out to produce the highest quality, most hard-wearing denim they could. And for decades, Cone Mills has been known for quality, dependable denim.
Their hard work paid off. In 1915, Cone Mills struck an agreement that the White Oak plant would be the exclusive producer of selvedge denim for Levi's 501 jeans - a deal which has since gone down in denim history as the "Golden Handshake". Levi's continued to use White Oak denim until the mill closed - a gentleman's agreement that was upheld for over 100 years.
The denim production itself was something special at White Oak. Since the 1940's, White Oak produced selvedge denim on Draper X3 looms. In their day, the looms were the most advanced machines available. As the years went on and technologies evolved, newer machines became available that allowed for mass-production of nearly flawless denim. However, White Oak continued to use the Draper X3 looms for a majority of its production. Rumored to bounce on the hardwood floors of the plant, the low-tech approach sometimes created small irregularities in the fabric and, while technically defects, these imperfections give the denim its personality and sense of character.
Cone Mills has seen its fair share of up's and down's throughout the years, ultimately leading to the closure of the White Oak plant last year. The decline started in the 1980's, when the popularity of selvedge denim started to wane. Once an industry standard, selvedge denim was being traded in for non-selvedge, pre-washed (and cheaper) denim.
Then, when NAFTA was passed in 1994, effectively removing the tariffs for textiles and apparel between the US, Canada, and Mexico, many companies started moving their production to our southern neighbor - where production and labor costs were much cheaper than those in the United States. In 2005, the World Trade Organization put an end to textile and apparel quotas, meaning that countries could now import (or export) as much as the industry called for. Because of this, many larger brands started buying their materials from mills in China or Mexico.
In 2004, Wilbur Ross (the current U.S. Secretary of Commerce) purchased Cone Mills through his company International Textile Group, saving them from bankruptcy and hoping to turn the industry around by eventually moving a majority of production overseas. However, according to workers at the mill, Ross had said that he would keep the White Oak plant open, as long as it was making some sort of profit. There was then a boom in the "American Made" sentiment in men's fashion and the mill saw a boost in sales as companies such as Wrangler's and J. Crew placed orders and created lines boasting the White Oak name. For years, the plant was running strong.
Then, in 2016, a year before Ross was picked as the Secretary of Commerce by Donald Trump, Ross sold International Textile Group to a private equity firm in order to follow his political ambitions. Almost exactly a year later, it was announced that the plant was closing. Which just seems ironic to me...that the Secretary of Commerce for a president who ran on the campaign "Make America Great Again", ended up causing the closure of the last selvedge denim manufacturer. There is nothing more "American" than a pair of blue jeans, and now, you can't even get a pair that's truly been made in the United States.
All of that to say, that we're jumping on the denim bandwagon. I've been looking for a quality denim for the shop for quite some time and Cone Mills feels like the obvious choice. While I know we will eventually need to carry Cone Mills that has been produced from one of their mills in China or Mexico, I am committing to bringing in their White Oak denim for as long as I possibly can.
All three of the denims that we are bringing into the shop were produced at the White Oak plant before its closure at the end of last year, guaranteeing a high-quality, US-made fabric. While we didn't get any of the selvedge denim that White Oak is famous for, these denims are amazing to work with and I can't wait to share them with you! Stay tuned for more details later this week.