Denim legends: Meet the people behind Cone Denim’s White Oak – America’s oldest mill
By Samuel Trotman

The dedication, loyalty and community spirit of the workers at Cone Denim’s iconic plant are part of its legend. WGSN Denim Editor Samuel Trotman puts the spotlight on the incredible team

Jul 31, 2015
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18 photos
Photo by Farhard Samari
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Since the Cone brothers first set up the White Oak plant in North Carolina back in 1905, the mill has served as a manufacturing hub for the local Greenboro community.

At the turn of the century, few people in the area had cars, so the company provided housing for workers who had moved from the surrounding areas. The Cone family built built five self-sufficient villages to serve its Greensboro factories. These villages included churches, schools, baseball fields, community centers, and company stores in addition to houses that were leased to mill workers. At their peak, the Cone mill villages covered 450 acres (1.8 km2) and housed 2,675 workers in about 1,500 houses.

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With such a huge infrastructure in place and facilities housing some of the most advanced machinery, educating their employees with technical expertise was one of the Cone brother’s highest priorities.

Their iconic status as denim leader for the past 110 years didn’t just happen after all. The strength of the Cone organization is the result of a skilled workforce and its policy to nurture its staff and develop leadership from within.

All of the supervisors, weavers, technicians and operators of White Oak Plants have worked their way up through the ranks, some of which have been working at the mill for 50+ years.

These skilled hands are responsible for the entire denim production process, from the yarn loading in the creels, to dye overhauling and the monitoring operating, maintaining and restoring – the mills infamous Draper X3 shuttle looms. Masters in their own right, these Cone legends have perfected the delicate balance of denim art and science.

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George Westmoreland, known as “Red”, loads yarn packages in the creel of a modern day warper at White Oak Mill. Photo by Farhard Samari

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Photo by Farhard Samari

 

Last year, one of Cone’s most tenured employees – Elbert “Frank” William – celebrated an unprecedented six decades at the company. Meanwhile legendary weaver Mildred “Mickey” Bolen, just retired after 55 years.

The career longevity of these dedicated employees mirrors the fortitude of the 200-year-old tree after which the mill was named. They have lived through layoffs, factory closures and changing fashions— from the denim for blue-collar workwear they originally created to the bellbottom era to the skinny and distressed looks that prevail today.

As Roy Slaper put it in our post yesterday, “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.”

Here, we highlight some of these legends doing what they do best…

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Photo by Farhard Samari

 

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Photo by Farhard Samari

 

http://shanederuise.com

X3 technician Mike Robertson understands the intricacies of maintaining the American Draper X3 shuttle looms at White Oak Mill. Photo by Shane Deruise

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Experienced hands feel the warp to check for tension and harness heights. Photo by Farhard Samari

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Photo by Farhard Samari

 

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Photo by Farhard Samari

 

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Photo by Farhard Samari

 

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Photo by Farhard Samari

 

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X3 shuttle looms sit on original wood floors, allowing the loom’s naturall rocking motion to create unique character and weave within the selvage denim. Photo by Farhard Samari

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Photo by Farhard Samari

 

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Photo by Farhard Samari

 

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Photo by Farhard Samari

 

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Waves of narrow loom selvage denim fall gracefully as it moves through the finishing process. Photo by Farhard Samari

http://shanederuise.com

Technicians constantly check and assess the settings on the machines to ensure Cone’s quality gold standard denim. Photo by Shane Deruise

All photo’s courtesy of Farhard Samari and Shane Deruise

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

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