Historic White Oak Plant To Close

BornemanBy James M. Borneman, Editor In Chief

Sad news comes to the U.S. textile industry as a piece of textile history comes to a close. As announced by parent company International Textile Group (ITG) (see “Textile World News,” this issue), Cone Denim will shutter the famous White Oak Plant in Greensboro, N.C., after a 112 year run.

When Cone celebrated its 125-year anniversary in 2016, the company stated: “The history of Cone Denim dates back 125 years when two brothers, Moses and Ceasar Cone, born to Bavarian immigrants, first set into motion their vision of a marketing-based textile company.

“The Cones purchased more than 2,000 acres in Greensboro and built the first plant, Proximity, named for its close ‘proximity’ to the cotton fields which supplied its denims. The Revolution mill was built in 1899 expanding the company’s offerings with new flannel styles.

“At the turn of the century the brothers embarked on what would become the largest denim plant in the world, and White Oak began operations in April 1905.”

Today, Cone is a global denim producer with plants in Mexico and China. But the White Oak Plant was unique — producing heritage selvage denim on 1940s-era American Draper X3 shuttle looms.

When people think of White Oak Denim, feelings of history, legacy, vintage Levis® and authenticity are evoked. Unfortunately, it appears that today’s demand for White Oak Denim didn’t call for the volume necessary to support the 200-person operation.

One industry observer praised the job Cone did creating and celebrating the White Oak heritage with the White Oak brand, but noted the denim business is an uphill battle on a global scale.

In addition, appreciation for these fabrics is a fashion issue. “Made in the USA” jeans made using White Oak Denim will face some sourcing difficulties as White Oak produces the last selvage denim made in the United States.

The White Oak website states: “In the original shuttle weaving process, a small bobbin of yarn is carried inside a shuttle that travels back and forth across the loom. Since the yarn is not cut after each weft insertion, the tightly bound edge cannot unravel. If used as part of a garment, it will maintain its integrity throughout the life of the garment.”

The selvage also is important to the look of the jeans when worn cuffed and the selvages are exposed on either side of the inside seam.

Some in the industry look for a way to continue the White Oak brand by downsizing the operation, but it would be a very difficult task. It also would be nearly impossible to maintain the 112 years of history that is the foundation of the brand. Global players will be able to source selvage denim from outside the United States, but have to give up the street-cred immediately earned by the White Oak brand.

It is difficult to see some of the rich industrial and textile industry chipped away, and the heritage of White Oak will be missed.

November/December 2017