Inside Cone Denim’s White Oak vaults: A window to denim history
By Samuel Trotman

The vaults at Cone Denim’s White Oak mill document the company’s history – and the history of denim making in America. WGSN Denim Editor Samuel Trotman gets an exclusive tour

Aug 03, 2015


So far in the exclusive WGSN Cone White Oak 110 series, we’ve looked back at the legacy of the iconic mill, the incredible people behind it and also talked to the pro-Cone brands of today on why the American denim producer is still number one.

With such amazing stories behind the mill, it was only right we put a spotlight the fabrics that have helped carve not only Cone’s incredible heritage but also the shape and form American culture. Like its long-time partner Levi’s, Cone has also established its own treasured archive of vintage Cone fabrics and garments in its “Found” collection.


Inside Cone’s infamous “Found” collection archive and design studio

Located behind the huge oak doors of the White Oak Mill wing in Greensboro, North Carolina, the archive and design studio space houses over 40 pieces, some of which date back to the turn of the century with original Cone co-branded labels.

The collection offers the Cone design team – and lucky visitors – inspiration and a glimpse into Cone Denim’s longstanding history. Open since 2005, the room is a labyrinth of original vintage Cone memorabilia, housing everything from old fabric constructions, ledgers and swatch books through to the original set of “1909 Mill Tour” stereographs capturing the original denim manufacturing process.

Scattered throughout these relics, you’ll find everything from men’s and women’s patched overalls and sun-bleached chambray shirts to homemade “waist highs” as well as priceless artifacts like the first bobbin of yarn sun at White Oak in 1905 along with the run of selvage woven from the first month.


Relics from the vault, an original sample of the very first selvedge run at White Oak which illustrate the mill’s long history and heritage.

In the image above you’ll also notice the Cone Denim Book. This is a special compilation the company put together to showcase a complete visual history of their famous White Oak plant including some never-before-seen Stereograph images. We featured a special piece on the book a while back you can see here, as well as an incredible video showing life at White Oak in Greensboro back in 1930s during the depression era. You can watch it in full below…

Of particular interest are several garments which still had labels reading “Made of CONE Deeptone® DENIM”. Introduced in 1936, CONE Deeptone® DENIM was produced from a new method developed by Cone. It’s primary attribute is a rich, deep shade not previously seen in a denim. This new brand was advertised directly to consumers in magazines like Progressive Farmer and Country Gentleman, each with the tagline, “Improves your overall appearance”.


Big Red Found garment made of Cone Deeptone Denim woven label detail

For Cone’s continued year-long anniversary celebration, they have been showcasing these archive pieces alongside their new rage, the archive-inspired 110 collection. Anyone who has attended the international fabric trade fairs like Kingpins and Denim Premiere Vision would have had a chance to browse through these amazing replicas.

Most notable was the unveiling of its Natural Indigo Selvage Denim, produced from US farmed indigo and woven at White Oak to create a 100% American made denim – the first time this has been done in over 100 years. Below you can see a selection of images that showcase the archive-inspired 110 collection as well as an exclusive interview with Kara Nicholas, Vice President of Product Development and Marketing at Cone.

WGSN: What makes White Oak stand out above any other textile operation?
It’s simply amazing! You can’t fully appreciate the White Oak mill unless you visit. From the time you first enter the mill, you instantly feel connected to its unique blend of heritage and innovation. In some areas you feel like you’ve stepped back to the early 1900s and in others you sense the anticipation of the next denim innovation and think “wow”. In many respects, the legacy of White Oak is the quintessential American Story. A Bavarian immigrant came to America for opportunity and laid the groundwork for what would become the oldest American mill producing denim fabric. The Cone brothers started the White Oak operation 110 years ago to meet the growing demand for denim, a favored work wear.   The history of American denim is intertwined within the White Oak legacy – its innovations, marketing and styling of the iconic fabric.


Cone’s Natural Indigo Collection produced from US-Farmed Indigo and woven at White Oak to create 100% American made denim, the first in over 100 years


Indigo plants that were grown in partnership with Stony Creek Colors works to further scalable production of bio-based dyes including indigo, using natural colorants from a trusted US-based farmer supply chain

WGSN: What does 110 years of White Oak mean to Cone?
The milestone celebration  is very exciting and a testament to all of the hard work and commitment of our employees. In many ways, White Oak is the heart and soul of Cone and has a unique position as both the R&D center for new denim innovations as well as the location of the only continuously running American Draper X3 selvage denim looms in the United States.

With R&D at its core, many of Cone Denim’s new fabric innovations begin at White Oak and then are expanded onto Cone’s other global platforms. The Archive & Design studio at White Oak offers tremendous inspiration and technical references of constructions dating back to the early 1900s. This year we developed an anniversary collection of specialty weaves from our archives what included corded ribs, pin dots, and floral weaves.


Cone archive fabric inspiration


Corded indigo rigid shirt as part of the archive-inspired 110 Collection


Pin dot shirt as part of the archive-inspired 110 Collection


White Oak Pine Selvage as part of the archive-inspired 110 Collection

WGSN: How does the heritage of White Oak live on in Greensboro today?
The growth of the company fueled growth within Greensboro for much of the early to mid-1900s. That influence is still seen today as multiple generations work at the White Oak plant, many who remember growing up in the surrounding mill villages provided by the company. The legacy of Cone Denim and White Oak has put Greensboro on the map for many denim enthusiasts across the world that come to visit or simply read about the town and its denim roots.

WGSN: Why do brands continue to look to Cone as a go-to-fabric?
They come for different reasons. The offering from Cone Denim is very diverse including sustainable design as well as some of the most innovative performance denims on the market. On the other hand we are experts in denim heritage. White Oak has American X-3 Draper selvage looms dating from the 1940s that still operate on original wood flooring and produce the most iconic authentic denim fabrics.  We’ve focused on denim exclusively for 110 years. Our customers understand and value the expertise know-how of our employees, many who have worked at White Oak for more than 25 years (and it’s not unusual to find someone who’s worked for more than 40 years).  But its more than our heritage, our value today also comes with our innovative business practices, new product R&D and offerings of advanced performance and sustainable denims.

WGSN: You recently unearthed a sample of the first run selvage from White Oak. Can you tell us a little about that?
We kept, tucked away in our archive, an original swatch of denim fabric produced during White Oak’s first month of operation in 1905. This is a prized possession of our heritage and we thought the 110 anniversary was a great time to share with a broader audience. In researching the fabric further, we took some high resolution photos that allowed us to view some amazing images of the indigo ring dye, as well as discover a faint “pink” selvage ID yarn. Perhaps it originated as a red color and faded to pink?

WGSN: What other particularly special relics do you have in the Cone archive?
Found Garment – a collection of garments discovered several years ago which were opened by a sharecropper family. Many pieces have the Cone Deeptone label and date back to the 1930s and 1940s.

A stereograph image tour of our White Oak mill dating back to the early 1900s documenting all of the denim processes used at that time, including the famous image “Women in the Weave Room”.

A superintendent’s book, dating back to 1917, which includes original constructions that have served as both inspiration and instruction in re-creating these vintage styles.

An original swatch produced at Cone’s first denim plant, Proximity, in 1896 as well as swatch of one of the first denims produced at White Oak in 1905.

King of Denim swatchbooks containing archival swatches dating from the 1950’s and 1960’s. Ledgers dating from the late 1800’s.

A slab from the White Oak tree for which the plant was named. The tree was downed in a storm in 1930.

WGSN: Have you noticed a change over the past five years of America made product and now do you see this to change in the future?

We are seeing a renewed interest in Made in USA product, both domestically from consumers who are proud to support US made products as well as foreign buyers who are drawn to the heritage of American denim. Additionally, consumers are more educated and engaged leading to an increased desire for sustainable fabrics and transparency in supply chains.


Chambray shirt with hickory stripe lining from the Cone Archive circa 1940


Found garment circa 1940s patch detail


Big Winston overall made with Cone Deeptone Denim. The original color was a deep blue, so you can see how far this pair has come.


A prized possession is our White Oak Superintendent’s book, dating back to 1917, which includes original constructions that have served as both inspiration and instruction in re-creating vintage styles.


A prized possession is our White Oak Superintendent’s book, dating back to 1917, which includes original constructions that have served as both inspiration and instruction in re-creating vintage styles.


Stereograph images of the ‘Opening’ process, where bales of cotton are fed in to machines that loosen and open the fibers of the cotton, even out lumps and remove debris such as leaves or stems.


Below we see the ‘Slashing‘ process, where the now spun cotton indigo warp yarns are stiffened to strengthen them during the weaving process on the looms.



Bleu Bell overall with anvil suspenders circa 1940


Cone Deeptone Denim Ad in Country Gentleman 1950


Cone Invincible Denim 1928


After a warehouse flooded and damaged denim they ran the goods through a bleach bath to remove dye and created a “Pinto Wash” denim. A fashion trend was begun which continued for years with specialty denims.

Like what you just read? Follow Samuel on Instagram for the latest indigo inspiration and denim news. 

DENIM HEAD? Our team of experts are at every trade show, determine tomorrow’s trends and know which looks are going to have a huge impact on your business. Sound good? Join WGSN.

Inside Cone Denim's White Oak vaults: A window to denim history

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