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What Cone Mills Closing White Oak Means to the World….and Me

Mostly me though.

Cone Mills Closing

It’s not exaggeration to say that I owe my career, modest though it may be, to denim. Obviously there have been innumerable teachers, friends, peers, mentors, two parents and luck to help me along the way, but it wasn’t until I started writing about jeans that the whole thing clicked into place and I felt like I might actually be OK.

I was a 30-something in my fourth year of a graduate writing program trying to figure out what hell I was doing when denim up and slapped me in the face. I walked into Old North in Asheville, geeked out over some Mister Freedoms and pitched Heddels (nee Rawr) and Denimhunters a piece about this hidden gem in a mountain town.

That led to more blogging. I started pitching magazines. I met some of the most wonderful people making pants and doing stuff they were passionate about. Eventually a mentor, Dave Madden, passed along a nonfiction piece about dove hunting for the Oxford American. He was busy and he gave the editor my name and I went on the dove hunt.

Shooting guns at little birds was the most fun and the possibility of publishing a piece in the Oxford American scared the bejesus out of me. The OA is a good, good magazine.

I wrote the thing and submitted it. It was basically “doofus goes dove hunting and finds out that shooting guns at little birds is the most fun.” It wasn’t the most original piece, but I was happy with it. Turns out I wasn’t the only one who thought “doofus goes dove hunting” was a nice hook. One of their regular writers wrote a piece along the same lines (his was, admittedly, much better written than mine) and my piece was killed.

cone mills closing

My big shot at the Oxford American went away.

But I stayed in contact with the editor and I pitched and pitched and pitched. My editor left. A new editor started. The new one finally bit on a piece about Cone Mills. I pitched two pieces. One was about Cone and their history and reach and the other, “using cone Mills and their product as a framework to explore the landscape of fashion entrepreneurs in the south from the established to those just starting out.”

Woof, what a mess. But they wanted it. I was going to tour Cone Mills…and get paid the princely sum of $100. Whatever, I was gonna tour Cone Mills.

I called the White Oak plant and left a few messages for Delores. I emailed. I waited. Delores finally got back to me and we set up a tour for the first week of March.

I drove my Volvo 240 station wagon north. I spent more on gas and hotels than I was getting paid to write the piece. I sat outside Cone Mills on a dreary day, wasting time, sucking down cigarettes, always 15 minutes too early to anything that matters and I forgot all my questions the second I stepped inside.

cone mills denim

I’m reaching for some revelation or impact or something that happened inside those walls that I didn’t write about in the piece. I’m failing. It was a factory tour. It was a tour of a factory that made something I cared about deeply. I saw things in real life I’d seen in photos. I walked on wooden floors that creaked, I heard tell of the old days when they had to start the looms in shifts so the floor wouldn’t collapse from the vibration, I saw the process from start to finish.

I walked out and I talked some more and I wrote a piece called “the Return of Cone Mills.” Which seems like a really dumb title right now because I just read this morning about Cone Mills closing the White Oak Plant. The last selvedge denim mill in the US is closing.

Cone, I think, will carry on with plants in China & Mexico, but the rows of Draper looms in Greensboro will be shuttered in December.

I feel like an asshole for every time I thought how boring it was for another Kickstarter brand to be using 12 Oz. Cone Mills for their jeans made with authenticity. I feel like an asshole for scoffing at Cone’s professionalism, their refusal to mess with tensions and weights and try to emulate some of the Japanese stuff and instead sticking to their spectacular product time and time and time again.

Now I’m just sad another piece of something I love is going away, which is, I suppose, what getting older is all about. Another factory is closing and come December every ounce of Cone Mills selvedge denim will be deadstock. I’m going to buy one last pair—WH Ranch Dungarees, my grails for a while now. And I’m going to wear them till the seams disintegrate (or I get too fat, whichever comes first.)

Hopefully someone will come along and scoop up the looms or buy that one building and keep the Drapers running.

cone mills selvedge closed