Last Mechanical Loom Mill Making Jeans in US Closing Dec 2017

Cone Denim’s White Oak plant in Greensboro, North Carolina. Unlike most other textile plants in the U.S., White Oak has always produced nothing but denim. In the late 1800s, the plant’s owners, Cone Denim, sold Levi Strauss his first wholesale supplies, soon therafter filing the original patents on selvage denim. photo courtesy of Cone Denim, LLC, a division of International Textile Group

The facility closing at the end of the year is using looms built in the 1940s (!) which uses shuttles like traditional looms.  At 3 passes of through the warp per second they are clearly more technologically savvy than hand powered looms.  They make a sturdier cloth than modern looms because the weft (horizontal fibers that are woven through the warp which are the vertical fibers) is continuous, it goes back and forth across the weft all the way through the cloth.  Modern looms cut the weft at the end of each pass (and use air jets to propel the fiber!) because the width of the loom is too wide to use shuttles.

The other interesting aspect of these older looms is that the motion of the shuttles on a wood floor causes small imperfections in the weave that give the cloth a unique look that isn’t found in cloth produced on a “modern” loom.  In addition, vintage jeans were also dyed with indigo plants (vs synthetic indigo)  and only the warp threads are dyed to give the finished fabric that familiar worn blue color (blue warp, white weft).

Primarily cheaper labor in other countries (Turkey) caused this plant closing.  The looms (Draper X3 manufactured in Hopedale, MA) are being bought up by other small specialty startup mills so there is hope that they will some day be making quality cloth in the US again.



Arctic Air Returns and Thoughts on “Natural” Dying

After 9 hours of snow shoveling I’m ready to sit at the computer and rest!

In between snowstorms I boiled a big batch of black walnuts I collected in the yard during the Fall.   After collecting the nuts the outer shell has to be removed as that is the only part used for dying.  I use a hammer to crack the outer shell, then peel the shell away and dump then into a pillow case and tie it closed.  Next I fill a big pot holding the pillow case full of walnut shells with water and boil for about an hour to make the walnut liquor used for dying.   Since the walnut shells are in a pillow case, the walnut shells are self filtered, I just have to pull the pillow case out of the pot for a clean, filtered walnut liquor.  I then boiled the filtered walnut liquor with about 2 pounds of mohair locks for another hour, then washed them in an old washer.   Washing wool or mohair is really just a series of rinses since you can’t agitate the fiber – unless you want felt!

So if you add up the time to dye 2 pounds of mohair it is at least 3 hours (~an hour to collect the walnuts,  another to crack them, starting the fire, filling the pots, pouring the liquor off and starting a new pot about 30 minutes, and another 30 minutes for washing – most of the time is not continuous, but requires constant checking to see how things are going).  2 pounds of mohair is about all that fits in a big 16 quart pot, so it’s the largest batch I can reasonably do.  Wool has a much greater volume for the same weight as mohair so much less wool will fit in the same sized pot as mohair.  A lot of labor for such a small amount of fiber!

I love dying with walnuts because I have lots of black walnut trees so the out of pocket is cost is excellent (free!) and it requires only one step (boiling to extract the dye) and no mordant (pretreating with another chemical to ensure permanence of the dye) is required as is the case for most “natural” dyes.

Walnut Dyed Mohair Locks Jan 2014 IMG_6398

Black Walnut Dyed Mohair Locks

I often have customers ask me if I dye with natural or chemical dyes.  How to answer?  All dyes, even those derived from natural sources (vs commercially produced industrial chemical dyestuffs) are still chemicals, and there is no way to dye without using a chemical.  Dying is the chemical process of fiber reacting with a chemical (or mix) to alter it’s observed color.  And naturally derived chemicals are not necessarily  safer than commercially produced chemicals either.  Many natural dyes require mordanting (pretreating) with chromium which is very toxic.  Alum can be used as a mordant and it is much safer but it also produces a different effect on the final color than chromium.  Even with black walnuts which can be used without a mordant,  it is well known that black walnuts contain a chemical that suppresses plant growth.  Thus walnuts have a toxic effect on other plants.  Evolutionarily it improves the odds of the walnut growing into a great tree, but at the expense of other plants that might be trying to grow in the same general area.   I heartily agree with philosophy of minimizing impacts to the environment, but which path to choose is not always a straight forward nor clear decision.

Related is the broader concept of ‘nature’, which can be beautiful and soul filling but is also quite brutal and does not think nor care what is destroyed vs saved.  Many people are so far removed from nature that they do not realize how thin an edge life walks and how little impact people have in the short run.   I am reminded of this constantly as it is so  difficult to keep my animals safe and in good health.  It is so hard to survive in nature that I find it amazing that any wildlife exists as sadly I lose animals despite continuous intervention.

Jessie and James in the Snow IMG_6490

Jessie and James