Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Bud Strickland, Cone, and the magnetic appeal of 60s denim

The White Oak Weave Room, Cone, 1925

I've been wanting to track down Bud Strickland for some time - but as the new Denim Director, Product Development, of Cone, he's a busy man. He has a significant historical legacy to uphold - and to keep profitable! Cone resuscitated all their Draper selvage looms in 1992; at first, their selvage denim was produced exclusively for Levi's, with whom Cone have a relationship that stretches back a few years shy of a century, but in recent years Levi's have allowed Cone to keep the looms busy by producing denim for other companies, too (although the Levi's-style Shrink To Fit fabric remains exclusive to them). Thus, Cone now produce denim and cotton duck for jeans manufacturers including Raleigh, Left Field and Barney's and their White Oak plant is busier than ever: hence, Bud would like still more Draper looms. It's not just about business, though - any denim old hand would agree with him when he says: "There is something about them. They are special."

 The factory floor, White Oak, Greensboro

I've seen a lot of people, including Left Field and Roy Slaper, picking up on your indigo canvas recently. Is it becoming a bigger part of your output?
It's just one of many nice looking fabrics we have coming off the old looms. We figured out a way to actually get an indigo dyed rope transfer onto the packages that could be used as fill yarn. I don't say it's been a huge volume item because it’s not inexpensive but it does make a beautiful fabric.

A friend who works for a major jeans company said he'd been having problems with one department who were worried that indigo duck pants might rub off on furniture and attract legal problems! That the legal department fantasise of getting people to sign a disclaimer before they wear dark raw denim and especially the duck.
Absolutely. It's amazing.  The designers want the denim as dark and saturated as we possibly as we can get it. And indigo, I'm sorry, is just indigo! It's going to crock! As I'm sure you're aware, Levi's is coming up with what they're calling their International Fabric standard, so they can sell any fabric in any country.  One of the specs is really good crocking performance. You talk to the designers, and they want it darker, and you talk to the business side and they say, we can't get it past crocking! That's something that's going to have to be resolved.

 Cone indigo duck fabric

But what they say is good crocking, I might say is bad crocking - in that I might want it to crock!
Exactly. Of course we have heard stories about people with white leather seats in automobiles getting caught in the rain and having their dark jeans crock . But if the customer is knowledgeable they know how to handle it.

I know that Cone's various fabrics for the LVC replicas are very different from each other; the 47 fades in a very different way to the 55, likewise the 1915 and the 1933 denims look very different to each other. A lot of that is down to the warp yarn and how that's made, but I wondered how much is down to the looming. For instance, do you have the Draper looms set up differently for the 47 and 55 - although they're the same configuration, is there any difference in tension or other parameters?

The looms do tend to be set up the same way as far as tension goes.  You can play with the whip roll and tension, but by and large we like to keep it where we can reproduce it from day to day, that's the important thing, being able to get a look and reproduce it.

Obviously a lot of that specific character is in the yarn. And I know that when you repro'd the 60s denim you spent a lot of time trying to replicate that slight extra slubbiness from that period, which was the effect of Cone introducing a new spinning technique, Magnadraft. Can you tell me about Magnadraft and what it was?
Magnadaraft was touted to be the latest and greatest technology in its day. What it was, rather than having a lever hold tension on the rolls in the  the drafting zone where the roving is elongated in making the desired yarn size, weighted rolls were used.  The weighted rolls were magnetized and held in place by magnetic force.. So that's how Magnadraft came about.

Over time magnets can lose some of their power unless they're re-magnetised. You didn't really didn't know which rolls were providing a little more tension than other rolls, so you're starting to get all these variations within the yarn, just due to the the strength of the magnet changing over time. And of course, people didn't realize exactly what was happening until after the fact. And that 's where a lot of the yarn character came from.  It was a little bit more pronounced than the older technology, which from a technical standpoint turned out to be better. But from an aesthetic standpoint, of course, Magnadraft gave a look that everyone came to love.

Fantastic, thank you for that. This is superb geek information!
And that's still a look that we strive to match now. I don't know the exact dates when Magnadraft came in and out, I know it was used in the '60s, but by the time I arrived in the '80s it was long gone.

An original pair of late 60s Levi's 302, using yarn spun with the Magnadraft technique. This was as slubby as original Levi's fabric gets; it fades in a very subtle way compared to some current takes on vintage denim. 

We always hear that in the late 70s Cone started putting more sulphur in the dye, partly because people wanted the colour to wash out more quickly. But do you think there were any major changes in the indigo, and the dyeing process, in the 50s and 60s?

I don't think there were. You hear a lot of stories about why sulphur started being used in the dye shade. The one I hear most often is that when we had the 1973 oil embargo, the price of anything petroleum based - including, of course, synthetic indigo - sky rocketed. So they started using sulphur as a way to stretch the indigo.  There were also shortages of indigo, because that was also the time denim started being really popular as an every day fabric – a lot more people started getting into the business and the supply got tight. So the price of indigo went up, supply got limited, and sulphurs were being used as an extender to the shade. Back then of course everything was being sold rigid.. Then when people started washing, I think the laundries figured early on out they could get different effects because the sulphur was there. And that to me is the interesting part of it, that by chance you make a change and down the road someone figures out how to take advantage of the change. That to me is what happened with sulphurs.

How it used to be done: ring spinning at Cone, circa 1907.

Nowadays, of course, you're simulating the Magnadraft spinning inconsistencies, by programming the yarns with a computerised spinning system. What is the system and how does it work?
Yes, it is programmed.. We use a computerised system that can make slubs, we can control the number of slubs, the thickness of slubs, the length of the slubs, the frequency of the slubs, and combine different slubs in one yarn. The system we use is made by Amsler. It's a Swiss-made system. There are others on the market but that's the one we use - it allows us to engineer the yarns to reproduce those looks.

You mentioned before that your sources for cotton in the old days were likely much the same as they are today. And where does your cotton come from today?

It is American cotton, primarily from the Delta region. Which is the Mississippi river states, and then of course there's Texas cotton.

Recently we've seen people push, say, Texas cotton as having a particular look, is it different, or is that marketing speak?
I think it is, in that there's so much variation anyway. Cotton varies from field to field, region to region, year to year. Every year we buy and cotton and do what we call lay-downs, we open a large number of bales at one time, we put them down in a way we average same attributes of length, and strength from the beginning of the cotton season to the end so we have consistency over that year. That's not to say it doesn't change the next year, because growing conditions change, it might have been a dry year, it might have been a wet year.

Some people associate hairy cotton with being higher quality. But isn't it true that in the old days, hairy cotton was seen as being poorer quality, because it was shorter staple?
The shorter the staple, the hairier you'll see it, that's true. And we do have requests on shuttle fabric from customer, not to be singed, because they want that hairy look.

I've been reading a wonderful book by Richard Porcher on the history of Sea Island cotton, this fabled, lost stuff from the 20s. Do you think any of this long-staple cotton made it into Cone denim at that time?
My guess would be probably not – because even in those times it was a premium cotton and you don't make denim out of premium cotton, you save that for your fine yarns, that need long fibres and a lot of strength. They may have but I have no way of knowing.

What are your plans for shuttle fabric from the White Oak plant over the coming year?
Basically, we're here to serve our customers, whatever looks they're trying to recreate or match form old jeans or old fabrics. we will continue to work with them any way we can. Right now our shuttle loom business is very, very strong, it's one of those situations where I wish we had a few more shuttle looms right now. We're very proud of the fabrics we've got coming off right now.

I've seen a lot more interest in cotton duck aka canvas over the last few years, are you seeing more demand for more?
We've been making it on a fairly steady basis for quite a few years now. I don't see that changing.

Do you define duck and canvas as being the same fabric?
I look at them as being one and the same. It's just a matter of definition. Some people they get all hot and bothered about it, but it's one and the same. For other end users, duck may have been set up to make it more waterproof - if you were making outer wear, you might have might have a much higher sley, ends per inch. But what was coming out of a denim mill was going in to workwear, and there was not any difference.

What new projects do Cone have coming up?
This does not apply to the shuttle looms but there's a lot of press, a lot of excitement, about recycled content in fabrics. And we are planning something in that area, I can't reveal exactly what right now.

What a great example of What goes around, Comes around. Because in the 1920s there was a recession, cotton prices went through the roof, and Levi's introduced the 333, which used a lot of recycled fibres in the yarns.
Right. I like going on along those lines.

You mentioned that you with the demand for more shuttle fabrics, you don't have enough looms to meet denim. So if anyone has any Draper looms knocking around, they should give you a call?


All period shots are courtesy of Cone Denim, a division of International Textile Group, Inc, and are their copyright. Used with thanks.


  1. I'm going to have to read that one a few more times. Too much information in one sitting.

  2. I love the information Paul. As far as the technical terms go, some parts need a bit of research on my end to understand what is going on but definitely a great piece as usual with a lot of information (and spoilers heh).

    This site is definitely the first item I check on when I see it come up on my RSS feed.

    Might I ask what was that Cone Indigo Duck Fabric used on? Not the leftfield pants I suppose? Looks interesting... You got to keep this going. Cheers.

  3. Yup, the Left Field Chinos I believe, and Roy Slaper did a run in Indigo Duck I recall.

    Let me know which terms are confusing or too jargony, i want to have new info but keep it accessible, very happy to start adding definitions or clarifications in brackets!

  4. A very informative article. I enjoyed reading that, thank you.

  5. Great questions, great answers. I found the article very interesting, thanks.