Wednesday, 22 May 2013

The Cone Factory

 photo Conespread1small_zps83065d69.jpg  photo Conespread3small_zps4cfe3c1c.jpg

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.


  1. Great piece in vol.8 of Inventory.

    I find myself reading the article over and over. I feel I can read endlessly on anything to do with Cone Mills Denim stories and facts.

    Farhad's photos really bring everything together nicely.


  2. thanks Clayton… indeed, they are beautiful photos.