5/06/2013

Denim Mills: White Oak Cone Denim




White Oak Cone is widely regarded as the highest quality American made denim, and it has been for over 100 years. Based out of Greensboro, North Carolina, it was founded in 1891 by brothers Moses and Ceasar Cone. Their father, a Jewish-German immigrant named Herman Kahn moved his family from Bavaria, Germany to Tennessee in 1845. He changed his family's name to "Cone" upon arriving to become more American. The brothers grew up in a post Civil War south where money was scarce, and barter transactions were more common than cash. In their early 20's the brothers took over their father's grocery business and were often paid in cloth. They quickly realized that the demand for textiles and ready-made clothing was on the rise, and moved to take advantage of the cloth being produced out of North Carolina. However, as they began their research on the various mills in the area they found that the fabrics were lacking in quality. In order to up the ante for the whole market they built two textile mills of their own: one for denim and one for flannels.
In the 1890's denim was a fabric that was uniquely produced in a relatively small area of America, and the Cone brothers foresaw that the rise of industrialization would spike demand for the cheap, durable fabric. To supply for this growth in demand the brothers built another mill in 1905, which still stands today: The White Oak Mill, named for the nearby 200 year old white oak tree that stood as a meeting place for townspeople and travelers. The Cone brother's prediction was spot on and by 1910, just five years later, one third of the world's denim was being produced out of their mills.

Levi Strauss began buying from them in 1915, and the 1930's Cone denim created the red selvedge line that became iconic of Levi's 501 jean. After World War II the television and the emergence of rock and roll culture influenced younger generations, who began wearing denim as a fashion statement rather than functional work wear, which again increased the demand and production of White Oak's fabric. However, during the 60's and 70's a surge for convenient, easy to wear sports clothes began. Stretch denim and synthetic fabrics began to be more popular and shuttle looms were replaced with ones designed for high speed and mass production. The vintage looms collected dust and the company began to decline until the early 1990's when a vintage revival sparked the need for selvedge fabrics once again. The White Oak mill took their looms out of storage, and every year since has increased their production.


The company has long been known as an innovator and an outstanding member of the community. Since its conception they have funded public sports leagues, the local YMCA, schools, and hospitals. According to company lore the bleached jean craze started in their mills when, in 1969, flooding soiled a finished denim production and the workers inadvertently created the fabric while cleaning it. Recently they have begun production of an environmentally friendly collection using recycled cotton and yarn. They are still considered to have the most effective sanforization process, which leads to the least shrinking after the first wash of a raw denim.


Today White Oak continues to use their American Draper X3 fly shuttle looms from the 1940's for its selvedge fabric. The entirely American quality of the denim is highly regarded even by denim revivalists in Japan. They are considered the highest quality, most consistent, and friendliest-to-work-with denim manufacturer in America, which is why they are the company of choice for two brands we stock: Tellason and Baldwin.