Cone Denim stories: Industry legends on their history with White Oak Mill
By Samuel Trotman

The second feature in our exclusive series on America’s oldest denim mill, WGSN Denim Editor Samuel Trotman talks to influencers about what makes Cone so extraordinary

Jul 30, 2015
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As America’s oldest running denim mill, it’s unsurprising Cone’s White Oak has been the global go-to fabric for denim and workwear brands for the past 110 years. While Japanese denim may have recently become the finest endorsement a pair of jeans can have, its undeniable that Cone is most certainly “the real McCoy”.

White Oak’s XX fabric is probably partially why the 501 – the original pair of jeans – became such an iconic fit for Levi’s, something that has lasted generations and literally become the heartbeat of the denim industry.

We spoke to a select group of contemporary and classic denim brands to share their experiences at White Oak and explain why the North Carolina mill is still so important. These Cone champions represent two generations of denim evangelists from the United States that both incorporate vintage denim and its heritage into their current product lines. Here’s what they had to say:

Paul O’Neil, Design Director of Levi’s Vintage Clothing

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“The first time I visited cone mills was around four years ago. I had been working with their fabrics for several years and had been wearing them for years before that. I had heard these romantic stories about the White Oak mill and how the selvedge denim was produced on the old shuttle looms, so was anticipating this trip for a long time. The trip was a very humbling experience from the get go, for as soon as we arrived when there were people waiting outside the mill to greet us. There was a strange feeling of calm inside even though it was loud – the people working there seemed at harmony with the machinery. Most of them had been working there for a long time. It’s not uncommon for people to be there 30 or 40 years. During our visit we met a technician called Frank who this year (2015) has been working at white oak for 60 years.

“The most impressive part of the tour was seeing our LVC fabrics coming off the draper looms. The factory at one time was full of these looms on a large wooden floor but with the modern wide looms taking over most of the production, the wooden floor had mostly been removed and replaced with concrete to give a flatter more controlled surface. They have kept the original wood floors in the remaining area where the draper looms are. The way the old looms bounce around, they would probably break up the concrete but it’s this bouncing on the wooden floors that gives the unique irregular character to the fabrics. I’ve been back to White Oak several times since then and I still get goose bumps when I walk onto the wooden floors and feel the chatter of the looms.”

Roy Slaper, founder of Roy Jeans

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“For me, Cone is about the people. Don’t get me wrong – the fabrics are top choice and the facility is akin to a historical, magic Wonka-factory of denim. But, without the personal connections I feel with each of the people I work with to get the fabrics I want, it wouldn’t be quite as special as it is.

“As an example: my first awareness of White Oak came in the form of a phone call about the fact that I was to be teaching a class about how to get started making jeans, which was taking place at a collective-type art-class organisation. The call came from, who I found out later, was the woman in charge of denim development for White Oak. She had overheard someone at a party mention the upcoming class and she followed it up to find me. The short version is she not only attended the class, but also arranged for Cone to donate enough denim for all the students to use. It was the beginning of a friendship and would lead to several other friendships within White Oak.

“Eventually, years later, when I was able to visit the Mill in Greensboro, I wasn’t surprised as we walked around and met folks, their names and handshakes were followed by the number of years they’d been at White Oak. It was common to hear 15, 20, 25 years. To my thinking, White Oak fabrics are so genuine because of the personal connections they maintain and I hope they carry on for at least one more century.”

Tony Patella, co-founder Tellason Jeans

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“In 1994, I met a San Francisco jeans maker named Cliff Abbey.  Cliff started a brand in the 1970s called Sticky Fingers which was one of the first non-Western/classic style jeans brands. When I met him, he was just formulating another brand called Sutter’s – based on the California Gold Rush.  For this line, he used Cone Mills denim exclusively.  I became a partner in Sutter’s and learned a lot from Cliff regarding denim fit, fabric and sewing.

“Even though Sutter’s was a non-selvage brand geared toward young men and women, we used beautiful double ring spun denim from White Oak.  I always appreciated the way the fabric aged and responded to all of the crazy washing techniques we would come up with.  As Sutter’s grew and we moved production from San Francisco to Puebla, Mexico, we still used White Oak denim.

“When Pete Searson and I started Tellason in 2009, there was no question we would look to White Oak exclusively for all of our selvage denim.  As I Iearned 15 years prior, their denim represents everything we wanted to associate our brand with – quality, true heritage and an ability to age with great character.  In my opinion, once Levi Strauss shuttered its historic Valencia Street factory in San Francisco in 2002, White Oak was the last remaining “big” historical element of American blue jeans history.”

Mik Serfontaine, founder Brave Star Selvage

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“My first experience with Cone Denim was back in 1999 when I first started manufacturing jeans. The brand I had partnered with were looking to do an authentic American Made selvage jean and obviously Cone was who we wanted to source from.

“They (Cone) had just started opening up to the idea of working with smaller brands and I remember feeling like being let into this cool exclusive club. Accessibility to their denims was quite limited back then and was not available to such a wide range of boutique brands as it is today. With this accessibility, I think, has come a certain familiarity and a sense today that Cone is the ‘lowest common denominator’ especially in selvage denim circles. That’s a massive oversight to the importance that this iconic American mill has played in the evolution of the denim industry to date.

“What makes Cone so essential and relevant is you cannot separate them from the story of the jean. This is an institution that has been around almost since the birth of the jean. In its partnership with Levi’s, Cone’s denim has been a part of almost every important cultural milestone the jean has been associated with. It would be like trying to leave the Fender guitar out of the history of rock ‘n’ roll. Cone is the originator of most of the attributes that make the jean iconic and is why personally I am so partial to using their denim for all of Brave Star’s jeans wear.

“For the consumer to be able to purchase a pair of jeans made from Cone denim is touching authenticity in a way that people crave nowadays. This is not just an interpretation or a reproduction of the original article that most mills churn out – this IS the real thing, made under the same roof in much the same way it has been for the past 100 years.

“Essential. Iconic. American.”

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

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