Draper Looms at Work in 2012
Thanks to Giancarlo BonTempo for sending this article
from Bloomberg Businessweek, May 21 - 27, 2012.
A Draper loom at work in Pennsylvania
Draper Menu Hopedale, North Carolina HOME
I’m standing just outside the weaving room at Cone Denim Mills in Greensboro, North Carolina, with the plant
production manager, Ed Cox, and we’re looking at an antique Draper loom behind plexiglass. It stands about five feet
high with a wide front and is painted a deep green with yellow accents on the safety guards, like a squat tractor. At
one time, some 2,300 of these mechanical looms weaved all the Cone Mills denim in the room next door. “Because of
the harmonics in the room,” Cox tells me, “there was an old wives’ tale that said if they started all those looms at the
same time and they were all rocking at the same time that the floor would collapse.” I try to imagine it, the wooden
shuttles dragging the cross threads across and the gears and belts of so many machines churning in violent unison.
“I don’t know if that’s true,” he adds, “but you used to hear that a lot.”
Today, the bulk of Cone Mills denim is made on modern air jet looms, which weave the fabric by shooting the cross
thread (weft) through the vertical threads (warp). The newer machines are faster and cheaper, but Cone still has
forty looms from the ’40s and ’50s in production. Cox is a second-generation garment industry worker and has been
at Cone since graduating from North Carolina State with a degree in textile management in 1986. He explains that
when the vintage looms were brought out of storage in the ’90s, to meet a new demand for old-style jeans, Cone had
to reinstall wood floors to get the denim just right, such are the temperament of these early machines. “Levi’s came
back to us and wanted vintage denim. We originally set one of the old looms on the cement floor and wove some.
They said it didn’t look like the same denim. One of the keys is that that loom has to sit on a wood floor to have that
flexibility. You can’t duplicate that on a modern loom.” It’s this flexibility that gives the product its unique look; vintage
denim is inherently flawed, with textures and properties not found in fabric woven on modern looms.
Selvedge, or selvage, denim—so called because of the clean edge on the out seam of an assembled pair of jeans—
takes longer to produce. A vintage loom can weave about ten feet of denim, anywhere from 28 to 31 inches wide, in
about an hour. Modern looms produce wider swaths about ten times faster. The vintage looms at Cone Mills are
expensive to maintain because the Draper Corporation drastically cut operations in the mid 1970s, with the final
employee leaving the plant in 1980. Jeans made from this fabric are pricey—usually upwards of $150 a pair—and,
more often than not, they will also come unwashed and stiff, ready to be broken in, the way your grandparents
bought jeans. The unwashed aspect allows wearers to create individual wear patterns, unlike regular jeans, which
get belt sanded. Right now, Cone is the only manufacturer of selvedge denim in the United States.
I’m instructed to wear earplugs, then Cox opens the door to the weaving room and we go in. We are greeted by
controlled chaos, a cacophony, the floor shaking beneath us. The tall ceiling meets in a peak, giving the impression
of a large barn. In front of me sits the collection of forty green and yellow mechanical Draper looms on an
incongruous square of maple flooring set down on top of the old cement. A few weavers—the shock of crimson hair
belonging to Mildred, who’s worked at Cone for more than fifty years—move along the rows, tending the machines.
To the right of the older looms are their modern cousins, sleek and gray, which sound more like electric typewriters
next to the satisfying whir and chunk of the old Drapers. It’s the old looms I’m here to see because the denim woven
on them, here in this room at Cone Mills in Greensboro, is spurring a rebirth of garment manufacturing across the