November 01, 2017 0 Comments

Nearly 112 years after opening, Cone Denim® is shuttering the last selvedge denim mill in the United States. 

Parent company International Textile Group® (ITG) announced in October that operations at the Cone Mills White Oak Plant in Greensboro, North Carolina will come to a quiet stop on December 31, 2017.

“We truly regret having to take this action to close the mill, and we deeply appreciate the loyalty and dedication of all current and former employees of the White Oak mill.’  said Kenneth T. Kunberger, President & CEO of Cone Denim and ITG. ‘Their talent, effort, innovation, dedication, and customer focus all combined to create a White Oak brand, heritage, and legacy that will forever be the heart of the Cone Denim business.”

The news comes just a year after the acquisition by private equity firm, Platinum Equity, LLC, and just under two from announcing the opening of its consumer direct White Oak® Shop. The Shop offers Cone products as well as resources to educate designers and consumers alike about the unique characteristics of selvedge denim -shuttle-loomed fabric, woven on Cone’s vintage Draper X-3 looms.

The series of moves, highlighted by the fact ITG has operated at a loss for nearly a decade having never really recovered from the 2008 economic recession, show a company attempting to pivot in an industry wrought with changing and large scale market dynamics. Globalization has impacted demand as customers and retailors sought cheaper and exotic fabrics from overseas.

The mill was founded in 1905 and has operated continuously ever since. White Oak, named for a 200-year old tree that stood on the property, is Cone Denim’s only mill in the United States -the other two are in Mexico and China.

Originally established in 1891, Cone Denim has been a leading supplier of denim for over 125 years. Formed by wholesale grocer and tobacconist brothers Moses and Ceasar Cone as a textile manufacturer primarily focused on flannels and grounded in American heritage. The Cones saw potential in textile production and a need for a better product than the loosely woven fabrics of the time. They bought interests in cotton mills in Asheville, Salisbury, and Gibsonville and obtained a New Jersey charter for the Cone Export and Commission Company, which was first headquartered in New York City but later moved to Greensboro for proximity to production.

In 1905, the Cone Brothers purchased the White Oak plant in Greensboro, North Carolina and began building their famous denim shuttle looms. Those still in use are set to be shut down, finally, in December.

By 1908, Cone Mills was the largest denim producer in the world. Perhaps best known for supplying Levi Strauss and Co. with their fabrics from 1915 until Levi’s moved production overseas. With a nod to tradition -and perhaps to capture attention in the high-end selvedge marketplace, Levi’s has begun to source some denim from Cone Mills once again. 

No stranger to hard times, the company saved many mills from going under in the 1890s and helped manufacturers improve product quality. The corporation remained profitable, even throughout the Great Depression.

Cone Mills produced denim of varied styles for numerous brands throughout the century. A 2003 bankruptcy was followed by a 2004 acquisition by billionaire Wilbur Ross and others, resulting in the formation of the International Textile Group.

By crafting authentic, vintage styles and innovating new technologies, Cone has continued to influence the art of denim production in the global marketplace. They’ve matched their passion with industry knowledge and technical expertise to create beautiful denim fabrics, admired by both manufacturers and enthusiasts.

Cotton textiles are a looming part of the history of the American South. Denim in particular is linked to Greensboro, lovingly called Jeansboro. The home of ITG and global apparel giant VF® -parent company of Lee®, Wrangler®, Timberland®, Nautica®, The North Face ®, and others, murals and sculptures of jeans clothe the it’s downtown streets.

“We are saddened by (the) announcement,”  says Greensboro Mayor Nancy Vaughan, “Cone Denim has long been an important part of our City’s history and heritage. That will not change, especially as International Textile Group will retain its headquarters, community involvement, product development and other corporate and division activities in Greensboro.”

With operations to continue in the Mexico and China, Cone will focus on serving the worldwide market, supplying fabrics to top denim apparel brands from its remaining plants outside of the U.S. However, many companies are inextricably tied to Cone and their denim as they were the last large-scale, selvedge denim producer in the United States.

Perhaps, there is still a vision for American selvedge denim. After all, it’s history and birthplace are here. Remember those famous Cone Brothers looms? Perhaps an inspired individual or company, intent to preserve the legacy, will buy them to continue the work; to cultivate American heritage, transformed for a contemporary denim marketplace.