The Death of Cone Mills White Oak – Tragedy or Opportunity?

The raw denim community all shed a collective indigo tear last month upon hearing that Cone Mills had announced that it would be shutting down its White Oak plant at the end of 2017. I am sure that that many drank a craft beer, toasted a glass of high end scotch, or sipped a latte in San Francisco to honor the death of the last denim mill in the country that made the fabric famous. There have been multiple posts, threads, announcements, and heritage-themed remorse over the loss of what people still call a legend. I have even heard some say that this is a sign of the decline of the raw denim revival.

On the other hand, there were those like myself who frankly were not bothered as you can probably tell from the sarcasm that dripped from that first paragraph like the repressed homosexuality at a monster truck rally. I’ll be perfectly honest. This was neither surprising nor heartbreaking. As far as I am concerned, the only sad part about this is the fact that a large number of skilled workers lost their jobs. This is of course quite unfortunate and I really do hope that there are opportunities for those men and women to continue to their line of work, however unlikely that seems. What really ticks me off about the whole situation is that the company that owns White Oak is still going to be using the looms, but they’re just going to ship them off to some other country and use them there instead of employing the works in North Carolina who have become skilled craftspeople.

However, this was not why most people were upset. In fact, the reason I care so little for the death of White Oak in terms of the world of raw denim is the fact that people are upset over the idea of what they think Cone Mills represents rather than the actual fact that a textile plant is shutting down. For so many in the raw denim and heritage workwear community, White Oak represented…. Well, raw denim and heritage workwear. It represented ‘Made in the USA’. The problem is that all of these sentiments are wrong.

CTHJg7iRoy jeans made from Cone Mills denim

The whole mythos of ‘Made in the USA’ is just a tad over exaggerated at times. Yes, denim is steeped in American history and sure, the 5 pocket jean was invented in this country, but do people forget that denim itself has its roots in Italy and France rather than the US? I am sure that many of you reading this did know that, but it is certainly a fact that is not brought up often. To make matters worse, Levi Strauss and Co. moved production out of the US years ago and while they have been able to claim some street cred back with their more recent ‘Murrican made LVC line, the company is hardly worthy of being held up as a true American brand (or they are a perfect example of a corporate brand who outsources to make a profit depending on your view).

Let us also not forget that this whole heritage workwear and raw denim movement that we are still enjoying was started many years ago in Japan and that is the country that is truly responsible for all of us having the privilege of wasting money on this hobby. Not only that, but one could argue that many of the best workwear products are not made in the United States. On average, Japanese denim brands are considered superior to American ones and why shouldn’t they be? At this point they have been in the industry longer (again, Levi’s does not count). Many consider Good Wear Leather to be the best leather jacket maker in the world and I certainly won’t argue that and Vanson and Lost Worlds make incredible jackets in the US as well, but Himel Bros, The Flat Head, The Real McCoys, Buzz Rickson, Freewheelers, Rainbow Country, Aero, and Thedi are all superior to every other US leather jacket brand and yes, that absolutely includes Schott.

vFJPdZ7RHmmlzJMy Roy All Ducks made from some excellent Cone Mills duck fabric

Our native land does score well for boots, but even here, we are not alone on top of the mountain. Red Wing, Whites, Nicks, and Alden are all solid brands, Wesco and Julian are exceptional, and Role Club is one of the best there is, but don’t forget that Trickers, John Lofgren, Rolling Dub Trio, Viberg, Attractions, and Clinch all come from elsewhere. The best boots I have ever handled in my life are from White Kloud which are made by a single master in Japan, not the US.

I am well aware that it feels like I am taking a dump on my own country right now, but I do own and love a vast amount of American made items. My point is simply that the meaning of ‘Made in The USA’ is not as powerful as many think that it is. Raw denim and heritage workwear brands exist all across the world at this point. There are British, Italian, Spanish, Canadian, Indonesian, and even Chinese brands that are producing well made, rugged garments with all the passion that the same type of clothing receives in the US.

Over the last several years, this heritage and raw denim trend has exploded all over the world which means that there are more options than ever for us to choose from. Red Cloud is making high quality jeans in China, Sagara is making incredible boots in Indonesia, Tender makes high quality… well, they make a lot of great stuff in the UK and this is only scratching the surface. Whether you think that Japanese or Italian denim is superior to Cone or not is actually relevant because even without denim made in North Carolina, we still have more denim to choose from than ever.

In fact, in the year leading up to Cone’s announced closure, there were two announcements of possible new denim mills right here in the United States. On Superdenim, a company calling themselves True Loom Textiles said that they had recently brought 8 shuttle looms to San Diego County in California to start making denim. Even more exciting and promising, Huston Textile has confirmed that they are going to be producing denim soon as well. They have been producing cotton fabric for some time now with stunning results. I actually own a few shirts made with their fabrics and I have to say that their material is breathtaking. If they can match that with their denim, then we are in for a treat.

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tsze9j5One of my Masterson’s shirts made from Huston chambray fabric

This means that there are two chances for domestic denim fabric to continue after Cone’s demise and while some brands who rely on being American rather than simply being good may be in trouble, most Made in the USA jean companies should be fine. The two biggest, 3Sixteen and Rogue Territory have been using Japanese denim for years, Roy confirmed that he will get his fabric from elsewhere after he runs out of his Cone surplus, and Left Field has started using some fantastic, high quality Chinese denim made from long staple Xinjiang cotton recently.

This is why in many ways, Cone Mills closing has me far more excited than sad or regretful. For the denim industry, this could actually lead to innovation and an expansion of the denim industry as a whole. With two possible new US denim mills, the chance for US-made denim fabric still lives. In addition, US brands will have to find new and exciting fabrics from all over the world that we have yet to experience. Companies that make jeans outside of the states may even get some more exposure as a result of the fact that entry level raw denim will be slightly redefined. Yes, in some ways, it is sad that Cone is going the way of manual transmission cars and good rock music, but in more ways, there are a great many opportunities as a result and I for one am quite excited for them. At the very least, it certainly does not have me worried for the future of denim.

EpddtEBAnother of my Masterson’s shirts made from Huston duck fabric

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