The Unraveling of White Oak: Why The Last American Selvedge Manufacturer is Closing Its Doors
- Words Daniel Penny
- Date October 24, 2017
You’ve probably seen those ads paid for by America’s Cotton Producers and Importers: Smiling couples and families are pictured roaming the great American outdoors with that ubiquitous slogan: “Cotton, the fabric of our lives.” Of course, that line is a misnomer—cotton is a fiber, like wool or flax—not a fabric. If there were a fabric of our lives, however, most people would agree that it’s denim. So the recent announcement that Cone Mills will be closing its White Oak plant in Greensboro North Carolina comes as a particularly unwelcome shock—what is American fashion without selvedge denim? After December 31, 2017, when the last American producer of selvedge denim closes its doors, manufacturers and consumers of American jeans will be left to answer that question for themselves.
Denim is synonymous with the California gold-rush and the American west. Say the words “blue jeans” and images of miners and cowboys are liable to appear in your mind’s eye: rugged, hard-working, independent men and women. According to FIT Associate Curator Emma McClendon, the appeal of selvedge denim is intimately tied up in the revival of heritage and Americana brands. “Jeans became associated with America because of Hollywood and cowboy movies, and because of World War II, with GIs wearing them off-duty all around the world,” says McClendon. “And then of course in the ‘50s, jeans become associated with juvenile delinquency and this figure of the biker and all that.” Amidst a broader return to artisanal craftsmanship, the past decade has seen a renewed interest in these historical American figures and symbols. For many consumers, wearing American denim is a way to signal a broader philosophy defined by buying locally and reinvesting in American manufacturing and tradition. “Denim has definitely gotten swept up in this slow food, slow fashion movement of the early 21st century,” McClendon says.
At the Cone Mills White Oak plant, this manufacturing tradition stretches back to 1905. In its 117 years of operation, the mill has produced thousands of different runs of the cotton fabric in all kinds of indigos, browns, greens, railroad stripes and any number of other variations. Aficionados can spend days comparing the various grains of their favorite obscure blends, but what Cone has historically done best is make straight-forward selvedge in a crisp blue and white. If you own a pair of American-made jeans, like Levi’s Vintage, Raleigh, Tellason, Leftfield, Baldwin or 3x1, the denim comes from Cone. The reason people still buy from Cone Mills is simple: the fabrics at their White Oak plant are woven on the same Draper X3 shuttles the company bought in the 1940s, which gives the denim a stiffer hand and slubbier texture compared to more modern manufacturing techniques.
Jeans in America were still made with selvedge looms into the 1970s, when two economic trends conspired to undermine American denim manufacturing. The first was advancements in production processes, which made selvedge looms outmoded—companies could churn out more fabric at a faster rate for less money with the newer, automated, looms. Second, to maximize profits, companies like Levi’s began to offshore production to Mexico and Puerto Rico (and later to Southeast Asia) in search of cheaper labor. During this period of globalization, a few American mills managed to modernize and survive, but most closed. Some Japanese brands, like Evisu, claim to have acquired shuttle looms from this selloff period, but as detailed in David Marx’s Ametora, it’s more likely that the Japanese looms are replications hacked together from intensive scrutiny of American jeans and production processes, rather than authentic originals. The old machines more likely went to the junkyard. Despite these economic forces, Cone’s White Oak facility managed to hang on, using their traditional techniques and looms, eventually becoming the sole manufacturer of selvedge denim in the US.
The White Oak mill is one of Greensboro’s largest employers, and with its closure, hundreds of workers will be laid off, many of whom have been with the company for decades. However, the White Oak plant is one of many owned by Cone Mills’ parent company, International Textile Group, who have factories in China, Mexico and elsewhere. Despite the seemingly large demand for their product, ITG blamed economies of scale, writing in their press release, “...The plant’s large size provides much more capacity than is needed resulting in a significantly higher manufacturing cost that cannot be supported in a sustainable business going forward.” Basically, they’re saying the factory is too big and the overhead is too high to support such a low volume of production. Instead, the company plans to put more money into other plants, and developing new production processes and fabric blends—because we all want another pair of 10oz jeans made of spandex.
Larger high-end denim brands will be able to adjust to the closure and buy selvedge from Japan, but the demise of White Oak will have significant consequences for smaller American companies, whose identities are tied to the notion of a product made entirely in the US. Furthermore, prices are expected to increase on the selvedge market, which may put smaller makers out of business. “Relatively speaking, Cone Mill was roughly 30% cheaper than Japanese denim,” says Luke Cho, buyer and owner of Chicago’s Mildblend. Because Cone Mills denim has historically been produced domestically, “the material was generally accessible for weekend crafters. There’s gonna be a lot of small companies who are not gonna be able to make things anymore,” says Cho. Once the factory closes, Cho expects the value of White Oak jeans to skyrocket. “The price is going to go up because of the scarcity. It’s a really sad situation because the factory is going to close and they’re going to do the most production they’ve probably done in a long time.” Years from now, he imagines collectors will one day be coveting jeans made from White Oak selvedge, which will likely be cut and sewn in Japan, and then sold back to US consumers at a very hefty price.
Beyond the immediate and long-term economic effects of the closure, FIT Associate Curator Emma McClendon laments the symbolic loss of White Oak. “There’s the broader impact, this historical heritage impact. What does it mean to have no American selvedge mill? I don’t know the answer to it. It’s unfortunate,” she says. However, there may still be hope for American selvedge denim lovers. Presumably, Cone Mills will sell off the looms they no longer need, raising the possibility that somebody else could buy them up and open a smaller-scale factory more suited to the volumes of the contemporary denim market. Ultimately, it is up to consumers and makers to preserve this legacy, or let another part of American textile heritage fall into the dustbin of history.
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