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Picture This, May 2012 — Gaining an edge

 Gaining an edge

Cone Denim has found a growing niche market for the old-school selvage it makes at its factory in Greensboro.

Roughly 30 shuttle looms run nonstop on the factory’s polished wooden floors, weaving a quintessential slice of Americana: denim. But not just any denim. Cone Denim LLC’s White Oak Plant in Greensboro produces selvage — once an everyman fabric but now a luxury good used to make upmarket jeans sold at high-end boutiques and department stores.

Shuttle looms were the only way to weave denim until supplanted in the 1970s and 1980s by wider, faster ones. But in the early 1990s, vintage made a comeback, and White Oak Plant removed its shuttle looms from storage. “The basic mechanics of the process really haven’t changed over the last 100 years,” says Delores Sides, a spokeswoman for the Greensboro-based textile maker. “What has changed is the machinery, the speed, the efficiency. But to get that characteristic and the look and feel of the old vintage denim, you really have to go back to that loom.”

Selvage (also spelled selvedge) gets its name from how it’s made. Shuttle looms weave one continuous cross thread to make a natural — or self — edge that doesn’t unravel. Newer looms cut material with scissors, creating a frayed edge that must be secured by stitching. “It has a lot more character as it breaks in. You can’t really mimic it,” says Victor Lytvinenko, co-founder and designer at Raleigh Denim Inc. Since opening in 2007, his company has used Cone Denim exclusively. He says consumers connect with selvage because of its stature in American culture, and rising interest has helped Raleigh Denim, whose jeans retail for nearly $300 at high-end department stores such as Barneys New York, nearly double its revenue each year.

Founded by brothers Moses and Ceasar Cone in 1891 as Cone Export and Commission Co., the company built White Oak Plant, named for a nearby tree, in 1905. Five years later, the factory supplied a third of the world’s denim. San Francisco-based Levi Strauss & Co. started buying denim from Cone in 1915. About 15 years later, Cone developed denim marked by a red thread that became emblematic of the company’s 501 brand, some of which are still made from White Oak Plant material.

The company has had its share of struggles in recent years as textile production went overseas. In 2004, Cone Mills Corp. was bought out of bankruptcy by New York-based investment firm WL Ross & Co. and consolidated with Burlington Industries Inc., maker of apparel and interior furnishings, to form Greensboro-based International Textile Group Inc., which lost $69.6 million last year and $46.3 million in 2010. Results for bottom-weight woven fabrics — materials strong enough for pants — were mixed: Sales rose nearly 16% in 2011, but profit fell 61% to about $6.3 million due in part to an increase in cotton prices. The company doesn’t break out sales numbers for selvage, but Sides says its popularity is growing. “We really can’t make enough of it.”

— Erin Dunn