North Carolina’s Handcrafted Denim Comeback

The history of the once‑booming denim industry looms large in the state, and in new workrooms salvaged sewing machines are churning out blue jeans once again.

Denim might just be the most universal of fabrics. The hardy cotton twill has its origins in France – it was originally called “serge de Nîmes,” named for the town where it was developed – but the textile’s star has become quintessentially American. Blue jeans go along with the mindset of America; of freedom and rule breaking. They’re casual and cool, functional and tough, at home in a farmer’s field, on a rock stage and on a catwalk. While Bruce Springsteen dons denim on an album cover, Meghan Markle wears fashionably ripped blue jeans on outings with Prince Harry.

Despite the fabric’s French roots, North Carolina has mastered the denim craft. Beginning in the late 18th century, the state’s cash crops of indigo and cotton, combined with easy railroad access, meant that the denim industry flourished here. In 1890, Greensboro had so many trains coming in and out of it that it was nicknamed the Gate City. Six years later, brothers Moses and Ceasar Cone (Americanized from Kahn) came to Greensboro on one of those very trains and opened the textile manufacturer that would eventually become Cone Mills. Another man, C.C. Hudson, arrived in 1897 to work in a factory that made overalls. When it closed, Hudson and a few colleagues set up their own small shop, which would evolve into Wrangler. Up until the late 20th century, it’s a safe bet that nearly every pair of jeans in the United States had fingerprints on it from someone in North Carolina.

August 26, 2019
Victor Lytvinenko examines a roll of raw denim
Raleigh Denim Workshop’s Victor Lytvinenko examines a roll of raw denim.
A pile of completed jeans
Raleigh Denim Workshop’s Victor Lytvinenko examines a roll of raw denim.
Piles of completed jeans are ready for inspection at Raleigh Denim Workshop.

Things started to change in 1994, when the North American Free Trade Agreement was signed. An overwhelming number of American textile producers pulled up stakes and moved production to Mexico in search of cheaper labour; later, it was China. Throughout the 1990s, North Carolina became a hub of new industries, specifically technology and pharmaceuticals, much of which was centred in the Research Triangle Park region outside of Raleigh. But while industry in the state has diversified and the huge textile mills are gone, there’s still denim production – albeit on a smaller, more thoughtful scale. And the history is everywhere, as long as you know where to look.

“We’re trying to make the best pair of jeans on earth.”

In some ways, Victor Lytvinenko is a pretty traditional North Carolinian. He lives in the same town where he grew up, is married to his high-school sweetheart and spends his days in a denim factory.

Inside that factory, needles on vintage sewing machines feverishly bob up and down. The occasional “Behind you!” rings out as employees – or jeansmiths – pull rolls of raw denim off shelves. Those jeansmiths are jamming to music as they work. In a cup, there is a handful of Sharpies and black pencils – one of them has “Raleigh Denim Workshop” printed on it in gold letters; another one says “Love What You Do.”

Durham’s Golden Belt has been transformed into a complex of apartments, galleries, studios and event spaces
The American flag hangs in a shop door
Formerly a textile mill, Durham’s Golden Belt has been transformed into a LEED-certified complex of apartments, galleries, studios and event spaces.
An American flag on a shop door in downtown Greensboro.

Lytvinenko and his wife Sarah Yarborough run Raleigh Denim Workshop, a small-scale company that’s been featured in Vogue and GQ and whose handcrafted denim products are sold at high-end stores like Saks Fifth Avenue, in addition to their adjacent storefront, the Curatory. Located on downtown’s West Martin Street, Raleigh Denim is around the corner from the newly revamped Amtrak train station and the American Institute of Architects award-winning contemporary art museum, CAM Raleigh. In the era of fast fashion, when trends change constantly and mass-market companies put out a new line every week, Raleigh Denim’s slow-is-better ethos feels both like a throwback to the past and a shockingly modern concept. “We’re trying to make the best pair of jeans on earth,” says Lytvinenko.

A jean-smith at her sewing machine
A Raleigh Denim Workshop jean-smith at her sewing machine.

Lytvinenko and Yarborough started making jeans in their Raleigh apartment in 2007. Lytvinenko had recently taken up winemaking as a hobby, using grapes from North Carolina’s Pilot Mountain. “I really liked the elements of winemaking that were about a craft product,” he says. “It was quality over quantity.” At the same time, he began meeting people who used to work in the state’s denim industry. 

“I realized that some of the philosophy behind winemaking could be applied to denim. The industry had become so commodity driven, and it was all from overseas,” he says. “I thought, ‘We can make a thing here that’s of this place, that’s singular, of here and of us – of our heads and hearts and minds and hands.’”

For the first five years Lytvinenko and Yarborough were the sewing-floor managers, designers, pattern makers, marketing and sales people. They salvaged machines from old factories and attics, and Lytvinenko refurbished them himself.

Bolts of denim
Bolts of denim await their blue-jean fate at Raleigh Denim Workshop.
A textile exhibit featuring spools of thread
Bolts of denim await their blue-jean fate at Raleigh Denim Workshop.
A textile exhibit at Revolution Mill in Greensboro.

As Raleigh Denim grew, they eventually branched out with a few hires, including their master pattern maker, Chris Ellsberg, now 86, who worked for Levi’s in the 1960s and ’70s, and came out of retirement to teach her craft to their makers. “On our labels, it says, ‘Handcrafted by non-automated jeansmiths. We take our time, and we love what we do,’” says Lytvinenko.

Raleigh Denim’s workroom is a good place to witness maker buzzwords like “handcrafted” and “artisanal” in practice. Altogether, the company employs about 35 people, and nearly every product they make – from jeans and jackets to a denim tote bag or quilt – comes out of a single room. Seventeen pairs of hands touch each pair of jeans as it travels through steps like pattern making, fabric testing, cutting, sewing, adding buttons and rivets, inspection and packing. Eagle-eyed locals will notice that the various jeans styles are named for different North Carolina counties such as Jones, Surry and Haywood.

“Our number-one job here, when we train people in the shop, is education – about denim, fabric, threads, weaving, cutting, sewing, washing, history,” Lytvinenko says. “We get groups of 25 people almost every day that want to see a real working factory, because there aren’t any [anymore].”

A denim shirt on a mannequin torso
A denim shirt awaits alterations, upstairs at Hudson’s Hill in Greensboro.

In January, Greensboro’s White Oak plant, the last of the Cone Mills factories, was demolished after closing in 2017 – its 112 years of operation made it the last and oldest operating selvedge-denim mill in the U.S. While the site may be in ruin, artifacts were salvaged from the factory and are on display throughout Greensboro, including the 100-year-old Draper loom now in the lobby at the Grandover, an upscale resort just outside the city. It sits on a square of the plant’s original wood flooring, with a yard of denim from the final run still hanging from it. In the hotel’s new two-floor Cone Denim suite, a pair of well-worn 1920s-era “Big Winston” overalls are shown off in a large glass case.

Other textile factories have taken on interesting new lives. The 109,000-square-foot Gateway Building, formerly the Blue Bell factory, which made denim overalls, is being converted into office space for design and creative brands. And Revolution Mill, which the Cones established as the first flannel mill in the American South, is now a vibrant multi-use building – a mix of loft apartments with floor-to-ceiling windows and offices housing doctors’ practices, restaurants, graphic-design companies and textile specialist and North Carolina native Evan Morrison.

An antelope head hangs on the wall
A pair of denim overalls on display in a frame on the wall
An antelope hangs in the dining room at Kau, a restaurant, butcher and bar in Revolution Mill.
A pair of tattered denim overalls on display in the Cone Denim suite at Greensboro’s Grandover resort.

For Morrison, who also co-owns Hudson’s Hill, a store in downtown Greensboro that sells a variety of denim brands – including their own house label, made on vintage sewing machines – denim history isn’t solely in the past. In fact, most of the locals he meets are “half a degree to a quarter degree of separation removed from the industry.” In 2012, he began contacting people who had worked in the Cone Mills and Burlington Industries plants, afraid that as people passed away, these histories might be lost.

“Lots of them had a box of old things that they saved, hoping that someone would have interest in it,” says Morrison. Often it was a jacket or an apron or a scrap of cloth; sometimes it was photos or a newspaper clipping. When the American Textile History Museum in Lowell, Massachusetts, declared bankruptcy in 2016, Morrison and a partner were able to acquire the entire machinery and equipment collection. Much of this is in a climate-controlled storage facility, but some of it is on display in the hallways of Revolution Mill, alongside the objects he’s collected from former textile-plant workers and their families. The collection has become such a point of interest that he and Revolution Mill are working on a self-guided tour.

A handful of jean fasteners

A handful of blue-jean fasteners at Raleigh Denim Workshop.

“It’s fascinating to live in a day and age where a pair of destroyed jeans can cost 100 times the price of regular jeans,” Morrison says. “When a celebrity is wearing jeans, people feel like they can relate. Denim is obtainable by everyone. It’s democratic.”

Just a few minutes’ walk from Hudson’s Hill, on downtown Greensboro’s South Elm Street, is the newly opened Lee + Wrangler Hometown Studio store. (Kontoor, the company that now owns brands Wrangler, Lee and Rock & Republic, is headquartered in Greensboro, their offices just north on Elm Street.) Inside, racks hold pairs of jeans in every shade, and a bright neon “W” lights up the store. There’s a stage near the front windows where local bands play throughout the year, and on the annual Greensboro-wide, Wrangler-sponsored “Jeansboro Day.”

Prepping the sewing machine to complete a hem
Lytvinenko prepares a sewing machine to hem a pair of jeans.
A pile of cotton pays hommage to the buildings original purpose
Lytvinenko prepares a sewing machine to hem a pair of jeans.
An exhibit at Revolution Mill pays homage to the building’s former life as a cotton mill.

This year, Wrangler launched Rooted, a heritage-denim collection of five styles of jeans, made using cotton from the family farms of five Southern states. In North Carolina, that farm belongs to Donny Lassiter, near a town called Conway, 260 kilometres northeast of Greensboro. There are small winks to Lassiter on the North Carolina style of jeans, including his signature on the inside front pocket.

Back in Raleigh, Lytvinenko smiles as a pair of Jones jeans reaches the final stages of production at Raleigh Denim, button and rivets in place. It’s customary at the workshop to have a team member sign every pair – their jeansmiths’ signatures are scrawled in Sharpie on the inside front pockets; a personal stamp of approval and pride. “We’re not just a brand, we’re real humans doing this,” Lytvinenko says. “And we wake up every morning thinking, how do we make this even better?”

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