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In Defense of Cone Mills – Hems and Haws

Roy Slaper’s latest release, the RT1002, had all the bells and whistles we’ve come to expect from the true One Man Brand–scallop-stitched fly, “Roy” embroidered into the pocket bags, tucked belt loops, etc. It’s also made from his proprietary “Black Seed” fabric that he developed personally with Cone Mills, down to sourcing a specific thread for the selvedge id from a third party just so he could have the perfect textile for this project.

royrt1002_5

But the fabric didn’t get much much praise from some of our commenters, who quickly wrote off the jean as “I just can’t imagine paying that much for Cone Mills denim, no offense to Roy. I can get Tellason’s for over $100 less” and “Enough with cone mills. It’s like buying a pair of jeans from the Gap.” Cone Mills White Oak denim gets a lot of shit and it’s not limited to our comments. America’s last selvedge mill has a stigma of “boring”, “overpriced”, and “unimaginative” denim with a good portion of raw enthusiasts.

Cone Mills has produced some of the finest denim in the world for the past 125 years and by no means should they be dismissed in such short manner by anyone in the denim community. So let’s break down where these sentiments are coming from: overexposure and a misinterpretation of the product.

Cone has spent an awful lot of time in the limelight these past few years. There has been an explosion in the number of new selvedge denim companies. From Kickstarter to Urban Outfitters, everyone wants a piece of the raw selvedge denim pie and and most of them are doing so with Cone Mills fabric. Y’know, made in USA, bringing jobs back, etc., etc. But why exactly are they all using Cone?

If you’re a new company, your first run of jeans is also likely to be your smallest. Let’s say it’s 100 pieces, that means you need roughly 300 yards of fabric to go into production. Where do you go to buy mass quantities of selvedge denim, you might ask? You really have four options: 1. Develop your own custom denim, 2. Buy stock fabric from a foreign mill, 3. Try to find an imported fabric from a jobber, or 4. Buy from a domestic mill (i.e. Cone).

Johan Lam surveying a custom run of 3sixteen fabric at Kuroki Mills in Japan.

Johan Lam surveying a custom run of 3sixteen fabric at Kuroki Mills in Japan.

Say you want to go the 3sixteen route and make your own fabric. If you have a great relationship with the mill, they might give you a minimum of 10,000 yards for a custom fabric for $10/yard and if they really, REALLY like you, they’ll make it within the year. In which case, you better have $100,000 and a year to sit tight, otherwise you have to buy something off the roll.

Stock fabric minimums are usually around 500 yards, which is doable, but good luck getting a mill’s attention with such a tiny order (if they haven’t already sold all that year’s production to Uniqlo). Let’s say you got lucky and your friend who speaks Japanese got on the phone with the right person at Kuroki and you have 500 yards of 14oz. denim heading your way. But you’re not done yet! Now you have to pay tariffs, import fees, and shipping, so your $10/yard fabric actually cost over $15/yard and you don’t even need all of it. Your bill comes to $7,500 for what has a face value of $5,000 and you only really need $3,000 worth of it. Of course this would be cheaper if you were buying more fabric, but screw you, it’s your first production run!

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Maybe you don’t have money to spend on importing, but you know a guy who knows a guy and he claims to have all selvedge hookups–Kaihara, Nihon Menpu, Collect, Kurabo, and it’s already in the States and it’s cheaper than the wholesale price from the mill itself! This guy is known as a jobber, and jobbers flip the excess yardage from bigger companies’ production runs. The catch is he only has 50 yards of each, you have no idea if it actually came from where he claims, and some of it might have been garment-dyed pink. If you can Frankenstein 300 quality yards together from what he has on hand, more power to you, otherwise your only other option is…

Cone Mills selvedge denim from their White Oak Plant! It’s pretty much always in stock, has an insanely low minimum, and since it’s made in the USA there are no import fees or customs. You only have to buy as much fabric as you need so that $10/yard is what you actually end up paying and the product is still very high quality. The drawback here is that every single other denim brand has reached the same conclusion and they’re also placing an order for 300 yards of 13oz. redline selvedge.

Your design really has to really be something cool or you’re just making the same jean as everybody else with a different patch. This also isn’t to say that all the brands using Cone are making bland jeans. I currently have Cone pairs from LVCRising Sun, and Jack/Knife and they all have well defined identities and some crazy design details.

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Rising Sun & Co. Cone Mills jeans.

Many of these new “brands”, however, don’t step up to the plate and make really boring products. This is no fault of Cone’s, it’s with the companies that are using their fabrics. Cone is still making excellent denim–always have and probably always will–but many of the brands using it aren’t making excellent jeans. The common thread between all of this subpar product is Cone Mills, but as anyone who’s slept through at least one stats class will tell you: correlation does not imply causation.

You might say Cone should make itself more exclusive and not sell to these guys, but I think they should never reduce the availability of their fabrics just because a few brands have pissed the pool. They provide an extremely valuable service to the denim community by giving newcomers an affordable fabric option beyond the jobbers. Without that availability, we might not have brands like Raleigh, Rogue Territory, or Railcar that needed a tiny amount of Cone fabric to get their start.

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The regular weave of Cone denim on a pair of Norman Russell jeans.

So now we know why it’s overexposed, let’s look at the claims lobbed against it. Many call Cone denim “boring” because its weave is clean and regular, they don’t go super heavy, and none of their fabrics have much slub or nep. But that’s not a problem in the Cone Mills school of thought, that’s what they’re trying to achieve. To understand the difference between American and Japanese denim you have to first see their underlying philosophies.

Cone Mills has produced textiles for serious American workwear companies since the 1890s. Their ethos has been to produce the highest-quality, hardest wearing option, which is a denim that’s clean, even, and has a regular weave. But they’ve had to work very hard to get their fabric to that level. The majority of weaving at the White Oak plant has been done on Draper X3 looms, which aren’t the most scientific of machines.

In the early days, their denim could have loom chatter irregularities like slub and nep. To a traditional weaver, those are manufacturing defects and something Cone has all but eliminated in the denim they produce today. Cone denim also tops out at 17oz., pretty much the heaviest denim any worker would need before it became too restrictive.

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The brands of the Osaka 5: Studio D’Artisan, Evisu, Denime, Fullcount, and Warehouse.

Premium Japanese denim mills, however, don’t come from this workwear lineage. The Osaka 5, the original Japanese denim brands, began as rote reproductions of American jeans from the 40s, 50s, and 60s–the era when Cone denim still had those imperfections.

Japanese Toyoda looms in the late 70s/early 80s could produce fabric as clean and even as modern Cone, but instead they romantically “built-in” the imperfections of those early jeans to produce a more exact copy of the early Levi’s, Wrangler, and Lee jeans. Japanese denim mills began to exaggerate those imperfections until we have denim now that’s practically all slub, so neppy you could mistake it for tweed, and so heavy that it’s basically a piece of carpet.

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Naked & Famous 32oz. Japanese denim jeans besides regular weight denim.

Cone came from a lineage of tough-as-nails workwear whereas Japanese denim comes from novelty and romanticizing the past. It’s pointless to argue which of those ideologies is more “authentic”, but to call Cone denim boring is to completely misunderstand their product.