When Scott Morrison traveled to Japan to check out denim in the ‘90s, he had one question: “Why aren’t we making this type of product in America?” At the time, the premium denim market didn’t exist. American denim producers were focusing on manufacturing large quantities of fabric for big name brands. Morrison consequently immersed himself in the world of denim — first founding Paper Denim & Cloth in 1999, then Earnest Sewn in 2004, and then 3×1 in 2011. He became an integral part of the changing denim market. 20 years ago, denim brands focused mainly on their branding. In the past decade that’s shifted, and now the focus rests with the quality of the denim. This change has helped bring back selvedge denim production to the place that started it over 100 years ago: America.
Selvedge denim’s strongest roots can be traced back over 100 years to Cone Mills in North Carolina. Founded in 1981 by Moses and Caesar Cone, Cone Mills became the largest producer of denim in the world by 1908, and began supplying fabric for Levi’s in 1915. “Cone has the most historical significance of any producer in the world of denim,” Morrison said. Shuttle looms were the principal means of denim production in the US for over 50 years, but then, as denim became more popular, manufacturing changed to meet consumer demands. Newer looms that could produce a wider-width fabric more efficiently phased out the older shuttle looms. By the latter decades of the 20th century, the American consumer was focused on buying cheaper denim, and mills had to cater to brand’s needs.
While the American denim market homogenized to accommodate big brands, the Japanese market focused on smaller artisan brands. The Japanese mills studied historical Levi’s garments and originally based their production on an American model. When American designers traveled to Japan in the ‘90s, they rediscovered the unique qualities of selvedge denim, and wanted to bring it back. In the mid-’90s, fewer than five US brands were sourcing selvedge denim. Today, the American selvedge market supplies over 100 brands. “The thing that’s changed over the last twenty years is that our generations are embracing the idea that old can be cool,” Morrison noted.
“The thing that’s changed over the last twenty years is that our generations are embracing the idea that old can be cool.”
In Greensboro, North Carolina, Cone Mills’ historic White Oak plant is a prime example. First opened in 1905, the plant once had 3,000 Draper shuttle looms producing selvedge denim. The plant is a cradle of denim innovation — their long-chain dye range was patented in 1921, and recent innovations include stretch denim, durable dyneema-blend denim, and fabrics that are breathable, moisture-wicking, water-repellent and stain-repellent. In White Oak’s weave room, there is a stark contrast between old and new. Modern rapier and air-jet looms occupy the same space as a battalion of vintage shuttle looms from the ‘40s.
While the modern machines are producing technically-innovative fabrics, the shuttle looms are creating the denim that made Cone Mills famous a century ago. “If you look at this as opposed to anything else you might see in the world, these machines are truly vintage,” said Brad Johnson, the Group Manufacturing Director of Cone Mills. “In this place that’s one-hundred-eleven years old, on that floor space, you’re looking at fabrics like they’ve been made for a hundred years.” The selvedge denim produced at the White Oak plant has a unique character imparted from the Draper looms and the plant’s wooden floors. “The machine inherently has character built into the way it weaves,” said Johnson, of the Draper’s cast-iron cam and spring-controlled harness. “On top of that, you put it into the White Oak plant on the wooden floors, and those floors give and they move. So you’ve got a movement within the machine and a movement within the floor; all that comes back to produce a character in the fabric.”
By the ‘90s, White Oak’s thousands of Draper looms had waned to just a handful in operation. But as the American premium denim market has grown, the plant has increased their selvedge production. They now operate 51 shuttle looms. “The demand in recent years has been the strongest it has been since my involvement,” said Johnson, who originally started at Cone as an intern in ‘86. The average seniority of workers at the plant is 30 years, but with the increased production, there’s a focus on training a new generation of workers to control and maintain the old machines. “We’re doing more training now than we’ve done in many, many years,” Johnson said.
With Cone celebrating its 125th anniversary this year, Morrison wanted to produce a capsule collection that paid tribute to the brand’s historical significance. “In this case it was all about their vision and what was done in the past,” he said. Exploring White Oak’s records, Morrison found notes on the plant’s earliest denim and worked with the team at Cone Mills to produce a limited run of reproduction fabric, dyed with natural (plant-based) indigo. “Historically what people really appreciate about American denim, especially Cone’s selvedge product, is that beautiful, gorgeous red-cast,” he said. This fabric captures the magic in American denim that was lost through decades of mass manufacturing, and it speaks for itself in 3×1’s new collection. “A certain type of customer appreciates things with real value,” Morrison said. “And value is not just money — it’s a story, a quality, a history or a legacy, or something that doesn’t feel so fast and perishable. I think nothing speaks to that better than a great pair of jeans.”
We’re Throwing a Party in Honor
In honor of the 125th Anniversary 3×1 + Cone Mills selvedge denim, we are co-hosting a party in NYC. Please join us. Full Invitation: Here