Cone Denim White Oak: Inside America’s oldest denim mill
By Samuel Trotman

In the first of WGSN’s exclusive series on the North Carolina mill, which celebrates its 110th birthday this year, WGSN Denim Editor Samuel Trotman looks at the story behind its incredible history

Jul 29, 2015
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From its beginnings in 1891, Cone Denim has been a leading supplier of denim to the top apparel brands for over 124 years. It was founded by two, entrepreneurial brothers – Moses and Caesar Cone – and grounded in American heritage. Cone Denim has been synonymous with authenticity and innovation since the day it began trading.

The turn of the century brought new energy and excitement to America. Denim fabrics gained popularity as the favoured textile for “workwear”, and the Cone brothers embarked on what would become an iconic mill in the denim industry, White Oak.

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The mill was named after the 200-year-old tree that stood nearby and served as a gathering place for people travelling to Greensboro from the surrounding countryside. Construction began in 1902 and the first bobbin of yarn was produced on April 20, 1905. They then began to manufacture their famous denim on shuttle looms, some of which are still used today.

By 1908, they were the largest denim manufacturer in the world and became best known for supplying Levi Strauss and Co. with its denim, something they did from 1915 until Levi’s moved production overseas. However, the company has recently began to source some denim from Cone again and coincidentally, 2015 marks the 100th anniversary of the partnership between Levi Strauss & Cone Denim. For F/W 15 Levi’s Vintage Clothing will be commemorating this with a special tribute collection entitled, “The Golden Handshake”. Watch this space.

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Legacy

Being a denim leader for over 100 years does not just happen by chance. While the brand was lucky it started in the century when a true denim revolution occurred, Cone became a success because of the truly inspiring entrepreneurship. It came from mastering the delicate balance of denim art and science. Inspiration and passion combined with unparalleled industry knowledge and technical expertise, make Cone Denim a true original – and to many “the real McCoy”. In fact, it’s no exaggeration to say for many Cone is denim and denim is Cone.

And its century old success is not just based on a great fabric. Cone became the aorta of the denim industry because the company was progressive and unconventional – even in the most difficult times, surviving wars and economic crises. More importantly, Cone never lost faith in denim. Although the demand for the cloth varied and society changed dramatically, Cone was always ahead of the game with a new application of evolving the fabric.

Until this day, Cone Denim’s White Oak Denim label remains a seal of quality standard for denim brands and fanatics across the world. Patrons and evangelists from the United States such as Tellason, Roy and Raleigh are proud to promote their fits as being built on the foundations of the mill. What’s more, the recent revival of “Made in America” goods – especially denim – has seen a renewed appreciation in Cone and all it has achieved as the country’s premiere indigo yarn weaver.

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Still true to its heritage, the White Oak plant in Greensboro operates today as the denim flagship operation. It serves as the centre for product development and innovation, and the production of Cone Denim’s authentic premium vintage denims. In addition, it uses a combination of the cutting edge equipment and technology, alongside the company’s infamous 1940s American Draper x3 fly shuttle looms for the mill’s signature selvedge denim.

Cone Mill says the fabric woven on these looms has a “depth and dimension” that’s unique its denim. They even claim the turn of the century wood flooring the machines sit on create a unique rhythm that is woven into the fabric. These antiquated machines, combined with loyal and skilled employees – some of whom have been working at the White Oak plant for more than 50 years – all contribute to the old world quality of Cone Mills denim.

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The White Oak Mill 1909

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White Oak weave room circa 1907

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The same White Oak Mill 2015

With such a storied and treasured history, it was no wonder the Cone family wanted to celebrate this milestone. In April, it kicked off its anniversary campaign with the release of a special edition White Oak t-shirt, followed by a run of the special archive-inspired 110 collection, which they premiered at denim fabric fairs across Europe and the US. Below are some shots of the collection. Most notable was the announcement of its US farmed natural indigo denim that it showcased at Kingpins New York last week.

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Cone Denim´s White Oak celebrative t-shirt

Throughout this week we will be running a special run of blog posts on the WGSN Insider to celebrate the mill’s most iconic moments. We’ll be unearthing unseen archive fabrics, meeting the motivational people behind the mill, as well as talking to some of the brands who champion Cone and asking what makes White Oak so special to them.

Today we begin by showcasing the full-length video of Cone Denim’s “Still Made In America” video featuring special footage from their historic White Oak Mill as well as interviews with just a few of the many hard-working individuals who have helped keep it running for the last 110 years and make it what it is today.

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

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