Thursday, 6 June 2013

Fantastic 1880s photo of a miner in a 3-pleat jacket

I just noticed this lovely photo that came through to my spam folder, sent to me by JDW. Thanks, JD! He writes," I found a photo held by the Library of Congress (USA) of miners taking a break after dinner at a mine in Atlanta, Idaho taken in the 1880s, and one gnarly miner appears to be wearing an iteration of the three pleat jacket. I found the picture to contain great character and thought that you might like to see it as well (if you haven't already)."

 The jacket indeed looks very similar to the Levi's 3-pleat - but for the higher pocket positioning, and the fact there appears to be just the one pocket. It's possible it could be made by Levi's nonetheless -  Levi's items were home-sewn, contracted out to individuals around San Francisco, and there are often significant constructional differences between similar models. One fascinating aspect of early workwear is that many designs were generic - was one manufacturer copying another, or were they all basing their designs on previous items?  So many makers were recent immigrants, these were quite possibly based on European originals.

Take a look at the original photo; I have written to the Library of Congress asking to reproduce it on this blog.

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

The Cone Factory

I was delighted to see my story for Inventory on Cone finally in print (admittedly, this was a few weeks ago, but I've been busy, putting some heavy wear on my jeans... by sitting typing). The wonderful photos are by Farhad Samari. 

I did several interviews with some intriguing people for this story; I planned to add one with Allen Little, the yarns expert, to this blog, but I've been too busy to edit it properly - it's so chock-full with valuable information that there's a lot to check and I want to follow up a couple of questions with Allen.

So, for those of you who want to find out more about Cone, here's a repost of my interview with Raloh Tharpe, who oversaw many of Cone's finest denims, from my personal website. Ralph has now moved on from Cone, but there's still a lot of valuable information here, which complements the Inventory story.  I'll follow up with Allen when I can...

1: You recently uncovered a cache of stereo photos of life and work at Cone circa 1907. Did they reveal anything new in terms of how the production process was organised in those days? 

 Yes! These photos gave a close up tour of the plant processes in 3D! Moses Cone appears in the background of the dye house photo. Since he died in 1908, we know the pictures were taken between then and the White Oak start up in 1905. The dye house picture shows the old vats used before continuous long chain dyeing was invented. The ropes of yarn (it took four ropes to make a 28"selvage denim) were passed through the vats several times to build the shade, then they were washed and dried. In 2005, we discovered the lost patent granted to White Oak employees in 1921 for the invention of the continuous rope range. This is the same technology used today in every corner of the denim world. This patent is a treasured possession in the White Oak archive. The process of applying starch (slashing) protects the blue lengthwise yarns during weaving. The photo shows the selvage yarns being added to each side of the warp. In the photo we can clearly see 12 spools of white yarn being added. This confirms that the colored selvage came later, and that 12 was the “official” number of ends typically used in the selvage design. In the weaving stereographs we can see the details of the Whitin looms. They were driven by belts coming up through the floor from a line shaft below. Each motor was driving multiple looms. From the Amoskeag book we learned that this type of loom was referred to as a “hand loom”. The term showed up in more than one place in the book. One person explained that the weavers could only work 4 to 6 looms with any efficiency. They were called “hand looms” because the weaver had to stop the loom and replace the empty shuttle with one containing a full bobbin of yarn by hand. The automatic loom was available in 1905 but for reasons that are unclear today, Cone elected not to buy the automatic features. It was interesting to see that the photos included no wet process finishing. The small loom rolls were unrolled across a table for inspection then sent to a folder. The folded cuts of fabric were then doubled over and the outer layers stitched together so that the cut would stay folded properly. Several of these were stacked together, covered with a wrap, and strapped for shipping. We showed you a copy of the “head ticket” that was affixed to top of the “bale” on one end. On the other end a “foot ticket” was placed. The head ticket showed the mill, at that time either Proximity or White Oak, and the foot ticket noted the fabric. The Shipping Manager who retired in the late 1970’s told me the orders would come in for “White Oak head, 2.20 foot” and everyone would know what to do from there. He also told me the story of the customer in Latin America somewhere who wanted to return a shipment because the head ticket was different than what he had been getting. It was just fascinating to see documentation that all the fabric of that very early time was shipped straight off the loom (loom state).

 2: The now-celebrated photo of women standing by their looms features an earlier design, the Whitin loom. How did that differ in operation from the Draper? And when did Cone acquire Draper looms (please say which model if you know)? Did Cone use the same model Draper looms from, say, the 40s to the 70s? Which model ? 

 The technology was essentially the same for the Whitin as for the Draper. We located the documentation that says the Whitin loom was purchased for Proximity and we are fairly sure White Oak started with them as well. Pictures from circa 1907 show no automation for the bobbin change in the shuttle and no warp stop motion. Pictures from 1925 show a battery for automated bobbin changing on the side of the loom. Those looms were probably the Draper E Model (Hopedale) in the narrow configuration for 28" selvage denim. White Oak still had some of these looms in 1985 when the shuttle looms were stopped, but most of the 400 plus shuttle looms at the time were Draper X-2 Model. While the narrow shuttle looms and the White Oak plant design were modern for their time, the American technology fell behind the shuttle loom technology of the 1960s and 1970s. For example, in 1975 Picanol 60+ inch shuttle looms made in Belgium were installed in the new American Cotton Growers denim plant in Littlefield, Texas. German and Japanese loom technology was also better. The American Draper technology just produced a lot of variation that gave character to the product. The lack of precision in the cast iron cams andin the harness motion (springs) contribute to the beautiful character of the denim. these looms on a second level wooden floor alsoproduced subtle variations in the evenness of the fabric. is why we refurbished old Draper X-3 looms and put them back on the same wooden weave room floor where the oldE Models were before. With the same location and the same loom technology we are gently weaving our way into the hearts of many a denim aficionados.

 3: Where did Cone's cotton come from in the early days.? And where does it come from now, for your premium denim?
 Proximity was so named for its proximity to the cotton fields. White Oak used the same cotton. Much of the cotton we used in the 1970's came from West Texas. Today we are back on Carolina cotton for the most part. A small amount of Californian American Pima extra long staple cotton is used for our Black Seed Denim(tm) collection.

4 : In your museum there's a lovely bolt of fabric produced in, I believe, 1905. How would you describe it, technically? 
 Well, it is really beautiful. It was also located in 2005 when we searched through our archives. Technically, it has no finish, that is to say it is loom state. The weave is 2 over 1, right hand twill. This weave is common for lighter weight denim used for farmers' overalls. We would guess it is a "6 dip" indigo shade.

 5: Cone started supplying Levi's around 1915, and was the exclusive supplier from circa 1922. Who else might Cone have been supplying with denim in the 1920s? Do you have a feel for roughly what share of the denim market Cone might have had in the 30s and thereafter? 
 We need to do some research on the customer list of the 1920s. We suspect just about everyone using denim bought from Cone at one time or the other. One figure we saw on market share in the 1930s was 33%. Old brands like Stronghold are documented. We supplied Lee with "Jelt" denim, our style 818. However, the mill in Erwin, North Carolina may have sold the Jelt before Cone. It is another question we need to research.

 6: From the '50s on, Levi's production of the 501 increased hugely, as must Cone's production of denim. What were some of the key changes in the next 20 years, in terms of spinning, dyeing and weaving the denim? From the late '60s, Levi's don't seem to retain their indigo so well, is there a reason for this? 
 The answer to this one could fill a book. The quest for lower cost pushed up the speeds of everything including dyeing. The cost of indigo increased dramatically, and so logically one would expect the mill to conserve all the dye they could. Then in 1975 everything changed forever as Cone introduced sulfur dye to replace part of the indigo. From that point, the colour loss accelerated. Around that same time, stone washing began and the accelerated colour loss became a serendipitous advantage to the jean manufacturer. In the late 1960's and early 1970's open end spinning was introduced. The process was a lot cheaper than the traditional ring spinning, but it changed the look and strength of the denim. Because of the high yarn twist needed and the lack of fiber alignment, the denim produced has a lot more tension to release when it is washed. The denim sort of crinkles during the wash process which results in differential abrasion or color loss. This is referred to by those in the trade as "marbled" or "orange peel" effect. We believe the change to wider shuttle looms started in the 1930's. By the 1950's, much of the styling was done on 42" or wider looms. The selvage all but disappears in the vintage garment trail. Sometimes we find a piece with two of the main four panels with a selvage, but these are pretty rare. The one constant was the 501(r) which remained exclusively XX(r) selvage denim until the early 1980s. The transition to wide shuttle looms was quickly followed by the transition to the high speed shuttle less looms made by Draper and Sulzer. In 1978 Cone began skewing the narrow XX(r) fabric for the purpose of eliminating the leg seam twist that occurs naturally due to the twill weave. If you examine the celebrity pictures in your book closely you can see this problem. It is easy to understand why LS&CO wanted Cone to fix the issue. That was the birth of the "shrink to fit" finish.

 7: Levi's 501 production famously changed from narrow to wide looms around 1983. What were the new looms? Projectile looms? 
 The wide 501® fabric was called XXX. The denim was made on Sulzer projectile looms.

 8: Evisu, and others, famously claim to have bought "Levi's old looms", despite the fact that most of their early jeans were made on Toyoda looms at the Kurabo mill. You investigated what happened to the old looms, what's your description? 
 We are close with our agents in Japan who well know the denim market there. To their knowledge, none of our looms, or any American Drapers ended up in Japan for the purpose of making denim. We have visited a couple of mills and seen photos of others without noticing any American Draper looms. The executive in charge of disposing of the looms in 1985 told me they ended up in a field and as far as he knew they were scrapped for the metal.

 9: Cone reintroduced narrow selvage denim for, I guess, Levi's Capital E reissues in 1992, and later for LVC in 1996. Was it difficult getting the old looms up and running, and what had happened to them in the meantime? 
The looms are modified American Draper X-3 Model. While they are newer than the X-2 or the E Model looms, the technology is nearly the same. They sit on the old wooden floor and beat the heart and soul of White Oak into the denim. It is not for lack of attention that we have almost twice the amount of defects as do Japanese selvage denim. These looms are exceedingly difficult to run efficiently. While you or I may love the defects and wear them as a badge of honour, many of our colleagues who work in the quality area don't feel the same way.

 10: I saw some lovely specialist denims at White Oak, including a selvage broken twill, and the Black Seed denim. What premium selvage denims have Cone produced in the last few years? 
 We are producing both wide denim on shuttle less looms and narrow selvage denim for the premium market. Since 2005 we have been making significant quantities of selvage product in limited runs. We were adding many new things to the selvage line every year and quickly taking them away creating rare and unique product. Lately, we are searching for more volume products for selvage, having found the small runs to be too expensive to support. We were pleased to find our selvage fabrics in jeans sold in Japan and that some mills had even copied our indigo selvage which we used in place of the more common red line. Black Seed Denim(tm) styles are available in both wide and selvage. These are extra soft and extra strong due to the properties of the American Pima cotton used to make them. We are currently working on a brown duck. Our stretch selvage uses a new stretch technology invented at Cone Denim called SGene™. It improves the shape retention properties as well as the strength of the denim. We hope to add another patent to that box in the archive.

Sunday, 3 February 2013

Ducks, miners and secret agents: LVC preview, Spring/Summer 2013

A few years ago, the LVC range was suffering from a simple lack of TLC; there was inconsistent supply, and the clothing itself was often repetitive and occasionall uninspired. In the last few years, though, I think they've got their groove back. 

LVC's relatively new policy of supplying a much wider range of clothing has annoyed some diehards, principally because of the "reissue" of fictitious items such as, say, last season's Navy Smock - an item never produced by Levi's. In contrast, though, we've recently seen some of the most accurate, intriguing reissues of LVC's history, like last year's beautiful Triple-Pleat Blouse. I think this year's Spring Summer collection is every bit as intriguing, and I particularly love the emphasis on non-denim items. So, here's a quick run-through of what I reckon are some of the highlights. 

While I'm personally not a devotee of washed items, this range includes some shirts which I think take washed finishes to a new level. In particular, I loved this 1910s Pullover Sunset Gingham Shirt

Gingham was a hugely popular fabric in late 1800s USA -  it was also, incidentally, very popular in Japan. I don't know if this is a reissue of a specific shirt from the archives, somehow I doubt it, but it's a beautiful shirt which resonates with many vintage items I've looked at. The wash is one of the nicest I've seen on a repro shirt, and gives a great impression of being bleached by an unrelenting sun. 

Several items are straightforward reintroductions of items we've seen in previous LVC ranges, like this pair of Lot 66 1920s Bib Overalls. I'm not sure of the source of 2 by 1 denim; Cone have supplied similar fabrics to LVC in the past. These are quirky items with beautiful detailing, in particular the bib straps. It's good too see these back in a raw version. Click for a bigger version of the picture. 

One major new step for LVC is the reintroduction of the women's range. For a brief period around 2003, LVC produced some beautiful customised, womens' items - what we have here is in a similar vein, such as this pair of Koveralls, in a customised cut and finish, called Gravel Bank

Along the same lines is the women's cropped Type 1 jacket, with three quarter sleeves and a customised A line shape. 

This is a new wash, named Bodie, of the original XX or Nevada jean - once thought to be an alternate version of what became the 501, it's now believed to be the precursor, with more workwear-style detailing, such as the pliers pocket on the left hip, and more widely-spaced stitching on the back pocket. It's a good wash, although to my mind now quite up to the level of some of the landmark LVC by the (mysteriously disappeared) Bart Sights. 

The 1874 Closed-Top Cotton Duck Jumper was one of the most historically-significant recent LVC repros; this is a similar one-pocket version, which IIRC was at one point repro'd by Levi's Japan. This version uses a Cone 2x1 9oz denim in a distinctive wash (if you can call a process that makes fabric dirtier a wash). Like the duck version, this will be a baggy fit, good for layering over other shirts. 

I'm not certain of this, but I believe there is a revision to the details of the raw 1966 501. On the left is the rinsed version, on the right is the raw. The raw had a new arcuate shape, not as shallow of the old one, which to my mind exaggerated the flatness of the original. 1960s arcuates did vary widely in shape, as the tooling used to make them was worn, hence we can't say there's on definitive shape, but I find this one more convincing than the previous version. It's this 1966 jean, of course, which features Cone's evocation of the original slubbier 60s denim, caused by the Magnadraft process

New Rinses

In addition, I'm told there's a new, simpler wash to replace the old Rough Rinse. Rough Rinse 501 used Cone fabric but were sewn in Turkey, and given a tinted wash. The new version, Rough Rinse, applies to the 1947 and 1954, and loses the tinted wash - which is a big improvement. 

Other nice items; a White Tag pants and 507 jacket (note the absence of rivets), in a paler Sky Blue denim, a late '60s (or early 70s) Laundry Bag (with oversized pocket) and, going rather further back in time, a Shield Front Henley.

I'm told that 2012 was a high watermark year for LVC, partly due to the James Bond effect; Daniel Craig wore a Menlo jacket in Skyfall, which caused a massive spike in sales (as did Bond's wearing a beautiful pair of Crocket and Jones Islay). It appears that only recently did a Levi's employee notice that one Menlo jacket in their archives is actually fully reversible. Hence this new version.

Now for more of my personal favourites, followed by a quick peek at the fall look.

Anyone who follows this blog will know that I'm intrigued by Levi's early cotton duck items. The very first riveted pants ever made by Jacob Davis were sewn from white duck; and recent research has brought new insights into the fabric used on early Levi's duck items - the wide selvage line suggests the fabric was probably made for ship sails.

Now it appears that Levi's and Cone have developed a new shade of the tan cotton duck, to try and provide a better match to some early samples (it is of course impossible to be completely definitive about fabric colours, due to the ageing process). There is a Youth's Waist Overall in the Levi's archive in a more brick-coloured tan; a second variant of this fabric, it appears, was in a more mustard shade. This is used in a new version of the Single Pocket Duck Waist overalls. Note that this pair feature a double stitched yoke (some early examples had only single stitching or, in some examples, no yoke whatsoever). Note the wide selvage, visible either side of the busted seam. These are very nicely-made items, sewn in LA I believe.

Secondly, we have two beautiful variants of the Triple Pleat Jacket I featured last year. This is one of the simplest, most attractive and indeed earliest Levi's jackets; I was hoping they'd introduce a duck version, and here we have it, in the new Cone fabric. The unadorned, low, riveted pockets give it a very different look from most other blouses; plainer, more utilitarian and to my mind, drop-dead gorgeous.

It's not as abounding in selvage lines as the Duck Jumper, but they're still a beautiful part of the detailing:

This second version was comparatively unexpected; a Triple Pleat in a lighter, indigo gingham. It's like  cross between a jacket and a shirt and would probably work best over a simple T. I'm wondering if this might be a Nihon Menpu gingham - I know they're worked on similar fabrics and supply some shirting fabrics to LVC - but whoever made it, it's unusual and, like the closed top shirt earlier, the wash complements the indigo-and-ecru fabric.

We know from Mike Harris's discoveries that workwear makers often used fabrics they had to hand, such as ticking, so there's historical precedents for this, and I'm told that there are indications Levi's produced early items in ginghams. So this is an interpretation of what might have been available. It's an extremely quirky item - and hence, like a couple of items here, it's possible it will only be stocked at Levi's own XX stores, like Cinch.


FInally, a sneak peek at the Fall range. The big news here will be the re-appearance of Orange Tab, all made in the USA.

Orange Tab items were priced slightly lower than the 501, and often came in more fashion-oriented cuts. They also tended to use Open End yarns - this gave a very different look. From the 90s onwards, Rin Ring yarns have become so popular that the Open End versions, once cheaper and hence more mass-market, are consequently becoming more esoteric. Open End yarns can give great fades - not necessarily worse than the classic 50s look, just different. The "new" fabric comes from Cone, and  I believe the new range will include, for men, the 606 Super Slim (Ramones jeans), 605 regular fit, and 607 bootleg. The women's jeans comprise a customised skinny 606, and a bell bottom 648.

The samples I saw are a brilliant evocation of the little e Levi's era, and they come at a time when the originals are prohibitively rare and pricey.

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Shawl Thing

There was one lovely piece of workwear I only just restrained myself from buying at Ueno market; Buzz Rickson's Shawl Collar navy deck jacket. I figured that shawls are maybe too omnipresent at the moment. I think I was wrong...

When I trekked into town in mid December to pick up my scarily expensive Stones ticket, I saw David White of Ragtop had the real thing.

The wider stitching configuration alongside the buttons indicates that this jacket dates from the 1930s, David told me. The workmanship is beautifully plain; no chainstitch, flat seams, and that lovely 2 by 1 denim. This is the coastguard variation, with the appropriate buttons. Yours for less than the lady next to me paid for a Stones ticket.

Thursday, 17 January 2013

The Twisted Truth: Leg Twist

Superfuture reader maxbit posted the following questionI just bought my first pair of vintage Levi's 501 jeans. They fit perfectly, with one caveat: The jeans seam twists on one side. So much so that the side sam is in the front at the bottom of the right side. I'm just curious what causes this and more importantly, are there any fixes?

Although maxit doesn't like the look, many do. 
AS the look of vintage jeans has become more prized, so has the phenomenon of leg twist - a property of older twill fabrics that was originally seen as a drawback or irritation. 

Pre -70s jeans suffer from Leg Twist, to differing degrees. Leg Twist is simply a natural adjustment of the fabric, which tends to follow the direction of the weave as the fabric moves or shrinks after washing. Stefano Aldighieri, who was Director of Fabric & Finishing at LS&Co. explains it thus: “Levi’s denim were mostly right hand twills; the twill line rises to the right. During the weaving process you basically ‘force’ the fabric to be straight, perpendicular to the selvage, but at the same time you give it this direction in the construction. You lay and cut the fabric; in the early days LS&Co. patterns were cut straight along the selvage. When you wash the garments, the fabric will try to follow the direction of the weave and will pull in that direction.... hence the twisted legs, the result of the movement of the fabric. Because Lee started to use left hand weave denims, their legs would twist the other way.” 

As Stefano points out, Leg Twist is much more noticeable on jeans than on other fabrics because of the construction, with the selvage edge used on the outseam. 

Leg Twist was eliminated in the 1970s by skewing (which contorts denim to its after-wash shape) - and later revived with Levi’s Red and Engineered twisted seams jeans!

What's intriguing abut Leg Twist is that is seems to vary so much between different examples of vintage jeans. I've seen it more often on early 1970s Levi's - although, of course, I've worn more original '70s Levi's and, sadly, only one original pair of '50s. Some vintage jeans have marginal leg twist, but on the odd example, you can have the seam on the left leg rotate so it's almost on the front of the jean. So what are the variables that would cause leg twist, some but not all of the time? I asked Ralph Tharpe, who oversaw the development of many of Cone's finest fabrics and now oversees the Artistic Fabric Mills in the US, what causes so much variation in leg twist. 

"That's a good question. I think partly it has to do with the type of seam that's sewn on the inside. I think the way the jean is sewn when the operator is sewing the jean, when she sews up the right leg and down the left, if she's pulling too hard coming down the left, then she's accentuating what the fabric want to do and making the skew worse. It can be really, really bad. 

"I also have another theory, which I've never been able to prove. When I started working at White Oak I was in the quality area, and we were grading loomstate denm. They had a defect they call long sides. Long sided means one side of the denim was stretching out or was longer than the other. Maybe this was something wrong with the loom, maybe the crank arms weren't adjusted exactly the same on both sides, so the pick is going in slightly at an angle. If that were the case, and again this is totally theory, than if that were the case the skew the fabric wants to move to would be really accentuated. On the other hand, if the pick is in the opposite direction it would be reducing the skew. Anyway - it's just a theory."

So, leg twist is a product both of fabric movement, and the garment construction. 

I didn't ask Ralph whether it's possible to alter jeans after they're sewn to eliminate the leg twist as, in practical terms, it's impossible. You just have to live with it, taking comfort from the fact it's a mark of cool, old jeans. 

When my LVC '47, both pairs, started showing heavy leg twist  after their first wash, I was pleased. But plenty of people will comment that I'm twisted already.