Cone Mills White Oak Denim Mill

 

Cone Mills White Oak Painting - The End Of American Selvedge

The End Of American Selvedge

At the start of Hawksmill Denim Co, we were fortunate enough to make a visit to the Cone Mills White Oak Plant in Greensboro North Carolina. The company were not only enthused by our project but were very supportive in the early stages of our brand.

Unfortunately, the White Oak plant has now ceased all production, and the last production runs of American selvedge denim rolled off the looms at the end of 2017.

Although Japanese selvedge denim is quite rightly coveted the world over, it’s production has only taken place since the 1970s, with most denim aficionados siting the Kurabo mill with producing the first runs of Japanese selvedge fabric.

American selvedge fabric and specifically the White Oak plant began way back in 1905. With the demand for denim workwear exploding in the US; the Cone Brothers Moses and Ceasar embarked on what would be a truly magical journey. After the formation of the Cone Export & Commission Company in 1891, inspired by a 200-year-old tree that grew in the grounds of their intended site, the brothers established the White Oak mill. By 1908 they had become the largest producers of denim on the planet, and White Oak, which was controlled by Moses, earned him the reputation of being “The King of Denim”.

Then in 1915, an event occurred that would change the course of denim history forever. In need of a reputable denim supplier, Levi Strauss & Co. approached the Cone brothers to become the exclusive manufacturers of their Shrink-to-Fit denim for the Lot 501 Jean. This agreement became known as “The Golden Handshake”. The relationship would endure two World Wars until at the latter part of the twentieth century Levis would move the bulk of its production overseas.

Cone Mill’s longevity was a testimony to its ability to change and adapt to an ever-changing market. The business never lost faith in denim and continued to innovate inventing new applications and innovations. In 1936 they developed the “ Deep Tone” finish, which gave the fabric a richer colour and smoother handle. This gave denim a wider commercial appeal, and moved the fabric away from its denim workwear roots, helping to market jeans to a new post-war teenage consumer. Even when in June 1969 Cone Mills was severely flooded, the company managed to use the catastrophe to its advantage. Millions of yards of selvedge denim stored at their warehouse were damaged, and local high school students were drafted in to help wash and dry the fabric to prevent it from rotting. A young member of Cone’s New York marketing team ingeniously suggested that the fabric was run through a solution to randomly remove the dye. The results were marketed as a brand new fabric named “ Pinto Denim”. The new finish was a huge success for Cone, and is often sited as the first commercially sold washed denim jean.

In spite of the company’s constant ability to push the boundaries of denim manufacturing, it’s for the production of selvedge denim on its 3x1 Draper looms for which it became most famous. Despite the majority of these looms being replaced in 1985 with the more efficient Swiss Sulzer Looms, a small collection of the original Draper machines were kept and stored on the White Oak site, with the remainder being sold off for scrap. With the evident growing popularity amongst denim connoisseurs of Japanese selvedge denim manufactured on Toyoda looms, the employees of Cone resurrected the x3 Drapers. Utilizing their lifetime of experience, they brought the shuttle looms back to life, and the mill began to manufacture selvedge denim once again. The machines were placed in their in their own special area of the plant, and it’s said that an important factor in the character of Cone selvedge denim was the cherry wood flooring they were placed on. The movement of the looms on the antique floor created a unique depth and dimension to the selvedge fabric, which couldn’t be replicated by other denim mills. The fabric we used with Hawksmill was made on these very looms, and first produced in 1968.

 

Still Made In America from Cone Denim on Vimeo.

 

Unfortunately, for denim lovers, the world over Cone Denim is now gone forever and no longer producing it's coveted selvedge fabrics. The mills' parent company was bought by the Californian based private equity firm Platinum for $99 million, from a company owned by the now U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross. Declaring the business unprofitable, Platinum took the decision to close the doors on probably the most iconic denim mill in the world.

We have a limited number of Cone Mills White Oak selvedge jeans left, so why not purchase yourself, what is now, a piece of history.

                           Shop Cone Mills White Oak Selvedge

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We recently shot our first look book for Hawksmill. The influence for the shoot came from 1960s British cinema and two films in particular. A Clockwork Orange and Bronco Bullfrog. We used two key locations in South London from each respective film.

Bronco Bullfrog is as an authentic a representation of late 1960s youth culture as you get. Filmed with a totally amateur cast who improvised their roles, the film is a near perfect record of the "Suedehead" movement of the time . One of the films key scenes was shot in the Greenwich Tunnel which we utilised for some of our shots.

Indigo, Denim, Greenwich Tunnel

Another key location used was the Thamesmead Estate from Stanley Kubrick's " A Clockwork Orange" . Originally built as a utopian town for the 21st century many parts of the estate have now been demolished. However, what's left is one of London's finest remaining examples of "Brutalist" architecture.

A Clockwork Orange, Binsey Walk, Thamesmead, 1960s British Cinema, Denim Suedehead, indigo blue, British denim