Evan Morrison pulls out four denim jackets, from the ’40s, ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s — the collars get longer decade by decade. The Uncle Sam-brand denim shirt from the ’40s has a special pocket to keep your cigarettes dry.
Dozens of pairs of overalls hang in the hallway, in varying shades of indigo, except for an atrocious pair from the ’80s with cartoons from the television show Hee Haw covering nearly every square inch.
Morrison’s collection hangs upstairs, in a spot where the customers in his store, below, can’t see. When he’s looking for inspiration, he’ll sift through it all, like turning pages in a book, trying to find the right passage. He’s got this knack, he says, for looking at old denim and figuring out its life story.
“You can look at a pair of overalls from the early 20th century,” he says. “You can tell if a person was a farmhand, or a mechanic, or if they worked in a factory, or if they ever welded, or what exactly they farmed, even.”
“Some work shirts and overalls I’ve found have a brown stain under the arm,” he says, “and it’s from …”
“Carrying tobacco,” says his colleague, William Clayton, interrupting.
“… people plucking tobacco and shoving it under their arm until they’ve got enough to turn around and throw it on the sled,” Morrison says.
Overalls with patched knees? Field hand. Oil spots? Shopworker. Small burn marks? Welder. Or, possibly, auto mechanic. Stitches and patches, over and over, all over the place? Hand-me-downs.
Morrison and Clayton, along with Clayton’s father, Tinker Clayton, own Hudson’s Hill, a small, narrow store on South Elm Street just across the train tracks from the rest of downtown Greensboro. It’s full of locally sourced stuff: Gate City license plates, handbags, dog treats, sunglasses, and ball caps. But you know what’s at the heart of the place once you walk through the door and the smell of newly folded, never-worn denim hits you: The soul of Hudson’s Hill is in that cotton twill.
Their buddy Chris Plott is hanging out in the back, talking about the time when he ripped his jeans by, uh, “rolling down the highway.” That’s shorthand for “I wrecked my bike.”
Plott brought the jeans to Hudson’s Hill, and Morrison patched them, free of charge. That’s the deal you get when you buy something here: a lifetime warranty. Levi’s used to offer the same thing. They used to dare people to see if they could rip their pants. Usually, they couldn’t.
That patch on Plott’s jeans tells a story, and that’s what Morrison loves about denim. It’s a blank sheet when you buy it new. “The fabric is raw. It’s unblemished. It’s rigid. It’s never been worn by anyone else,” he says. “You put it on, and it stretches because of you. It shrinks because of you. And it stains because of you, and it fades because of you. And at the end of its lifespan, you’ve essentially created a piece of art that represents who you are.”
Levi Strauss started making jeans in the mid-19th century, and denim became the fabric of farmers and a symbol of protection. If you wore it, you worked. In the ’20s and ’30s, artists wore jeans as a fashion that symbolized workingmen and the Wild West. By the ’40s, World War II made denim into a mainstream fabric. With millions going to work in munitions plants and factories, all needed something tough to wear. Rosie the Riveter wore denim. Levi’s asserts that 1962 was the breakout year for jeans, with sales doubling in three years’ time. They’d quintuple between 1965 and 1970. Jeans were, as Charles Reich wrote in The Greening of America, a way to reject what he called the “artificial plastic-coated look” of consumerism. Denim had blurred the line between work and play. All were one.
For a while, anyway. In the 1980s, high-end designers began to morph denim from an everyday, everything material into the realm of couture. Now, jeans have chic names. Lucky Brand. 7 For All Mankind. True Religion. Rock & Republic. Citizens of Humanity. You can buy skinny jeans. Prewashed. Acid-washed. Stone-washed. There’s probably a picture of you wearing Jordache that you probably wish didn’t exist. You have working-in-the-yard jeans. Maybe a denim jacket for going out. Maybe another one for going out with your high-class friends. You have one pair of jeans for each occasion, instead of one pair of jeans for all occasions.
Denim comes pre-worn. Pre-worn. Once, the only way you could get jeans, or overalls, or a jacket, to look lived-in was to actually live in them. Now, a pair of pants that’s had 70 percent of the fabric’s durability and effectiveness beaten, sandblasted, and airbrushed out of it can cost hundreds of dollars. Denim conveys a sense of work. Of toiling. Labor. People who haven’t put in the hours can now look like they have by putting in the cash.
If that’s you, Clayton and Morrison are on to your game. They know when the wear patterns on pre-worn jeans don’t match where the wear should actually be, implying that the knees are too high on the thigh or too low on the shin.
Morrison, wearing a denim apron and dark jeans, retro-rimmed glasses and long hair, decides to make an example of himself. “I’ve worn these for two years now,” he says, pulling at his pants. “The waistband stretches out occasionally. I have to hot-soak them to get the waistband to shrink up. But once I do that, they fit like brand new again in the waist, but they’re already still broken in.”
People come in and try on some of the thicker denim jeans, dark, stiff, and solid-hued. They think the jeans are uncomfortable, like putting on cardboard. “You’re probably going to rub the hair off your legs the first time you wear them,” Morrison says.
But give it time, and the denim slowly becomes yours. Go up steps, and the fabric will give in the thigh. Sit, and the denim will give in the seat. The more you bend over, the more the waistband stretches to accommodate you. And if you really love them, you’ll put up with the holes and shredded threads, or get them patched. It’s hard to part with a pair of jeans. Denim will do that to you, because, in a way, it is you. “Like a thumbprint,” Clayton says.
People used to make things in Greensboro. Tobacco came from the barns to be made into cigarettes. Turpentine came from the pine trees to be made into Vicks VapoRub. Cotton came from the fields to be made into Blue Bell overalls. Insurance companies popped up to protect all of the things and the people who made the things. Trains arrived to take the things all over the country. Greensboro grew.
About those overalls, though. The Hudson brothers, C.C. and Homer, opened a store on South Elm Street in 1904, a few storefronts down from where Hudson’s Hill is today. Soon, their company started making Blue Bell-brand overalls, and grew, and grew, and the garment became the go-to uniform of moonshiners, farmers, mechanics, and more. If you were a workingman, you wore Blue Bell when you worked, when you played, and maybe even to church.
That all started to change. The rise of China meant the fall of American factories, many of which closed. The textile industry once provided a paycheck to 40 percent of North Carolina’s workforce. Today, it’s closer to 2 percent. Two out of every five textile factories closed during the past 20 years. The story’s been repeated all over North Carolina, but it hit especially hard in Greensboro. VF Corporation, a megacompany that bought up all sorts of old-school jean brands like Lee and Wrangler and Blue Bell, is still headquartered in town, but has long since moved the making of its jeans overseas. When low prices became one of Americans’ highest priorities, things that were once American-made had to be made somewhere else.
Morrison tugs on a big roll of selvage from Cone Denim and explains the math. The cheapest jeans use something called open fray denim, which comes in 15-foot-wide sheets that are cut at the edges and then sewed back on themselves to keep the whole thing from unraveling. See for yourself: Turn your jeans inside out and check whether the seams are frayed on the inside. Only about $2 worth of fabric constitutes a pair of Wranglers.
But selvage, the denim that’s made at Cone Mills, is shot back and forth across a loom, hitting one edge and then turning back and going to the other side. A piece of fabric is actually one long piece of cotton, going back, forth, and back again — over and over. It’s stronger, and it’s exponentially more expensive. It takes close to $36 worth of selvage to make a pair of Left Field jeans. Wranglers cost about $20 in a store. Left Field? $220.
So it would seem that Morrison and Clayton and Hudson’s Hill are fighting a losing battle. Sometimes people will come in and grumble about the price at first. These jeans must be made of gold, they say. But — and this is the big thing — once people know about selvage, and how tough it is, and how it’ll last, they’ll pay. It doesn’t seem as expensive once you know the story. “I feel as though we are the storytellers,” Clayton says.
This is slow fashion. The Slow Food movement encouraged people to skip the drive-through and spend time making a meal, or enjoying it in a restaurant. Slow fashion is the same way. Today, H&M can make a T-shirt at a factory in Bangladesh in less than 49 seconds. The more you wash and dry it, the more quickly the life is pulled out of it. Pretty soon, it’ll be unwearable, and you’ll have to buy a new one. This cycle of “buy cheap, wear out soon, and buy again,” uses a lot.
A $20 pair of Wranglers might last a year. But a good pair of jeans might cost 10 times as much, and last 10 times as long, if you treat them right. That means spot cleaning more and laundering less. “Without a dryer, you’re not beating fiber out of the fabric,” Morrison says. “Without a washing machine, you’re not beating the color out.” You really only need to wash your jeans every 30 to 90 days, with some spot cleaning. Wash them all the time, and they quickly lose that deep indigo hue. Of course, some people never wash them, and the bacteria, sweat, and amino acids can turn the blue to brown and gray, especially in the summer.
If your jeans rot, rip, or require repair, Morrison will take them upstairs into a small room that looks out over South Elm Street. He’s got a dozen sewing machines up there. The oldest is from around 1918. The newest is at least 60 years old. They’re all heavy black Singers. A little hand-crank machine is perfect for a quick fix.
Morrison and Clayton need two more machines — a bar tack and a keyhole machine — to be able to hand-make a pair of pants to sell along with their other stock, which is what they ultimately want to do. In a city where denim is still bringing in money, they’d be the only people in town actually turning it into jeans.
In the workshop, Morrison talks about rivets, chain stitching, and frayed edges, and about the thickness of denim, and soon he’s going from machine to machine, pushing foot pedals and cutting holes in bits and pieces of found fabric, until he sidles up to a felling machine, which makes two lines of stitching that run from the underside of your cuff, down the side of your shirt, all the way to the bottom. He realizes that in demonstrating how it works, he’s caused it to come unthreaded. You can see the instant oh no on his face.
“Oh my God, these machines are miserable to rethread,” he says. The process will take 45 minutes. “I can’t tell you how much I’m not looking forward to having to do this.”
So he slowly goes back to work, up and down and around and through, putting everything back in place. He’s meticulous. If you work with denim, you have to be. A tough fabric still requires a gentle touch.
Local jean connoisseurs have opened a pop-up museum to showcase the history of denim and Greensboro’s textile manufacturing roots for three weeks in September. The exhibit honors the history of “Jeansboro,” the city where the denim was first popularized more than a century ago and that continues to manufacture the fabric for high-end clothing designers across the globe. Learn more below.
Denim at the Depot: A Pop-Up Textile Museum
Douglas Galyon Depot, 236 E. Washington Street, Greensboro
Sept. 18 & 25: 5 p.m.-9 p.m.
Learn more at denimatthedepot.com