Each year, Our State’s Made in NC Awards celebrate the talent and creativity of North Carolinians. Meet the state’s winners, honorable mentions, and judges. Check out all of this year’s
Victor Lytvinenko slides a loose-weave denim fabric across the avocado green table that supports a vintage Brother sewing machine in Raleigh Denim Workshop + Curatory, the clothing production facility and boutique that he owns with his wife, Sarah Yarborough. The machine buzzes as the needle cycles up and down, stitching a heavy white thread into the dark blue denim. He’ll spend hours here, just adding the decorative, quilt-like stitch, before cutting and sewing the fabric into a jacket for singer Brandi Carlile.
Before starting Raleigh Denim Workshop in 2008, Lytvinenko had long known that he wanted to be a maker and entrepreneur. As an energetic, curious kid — qualities that he never grew out of — he explored woodworking and building little cars with small engines. While working at a restaurant after college, he developed an interest in wine and started taking trips to western North Carolina to buy grapes to make his own. He was interested in the singularity of wine — how, even with the same grapes, no two vintners could make the exact same product. “Wine comes from a specific piece of dirt,” he says. “From somebody’s head, their heart, their hands, the yeast in the air.”
On those mountain trips, Lytvinenko met people who had worked in clothing factories, and he began learning more about North Carolina’s history of manufacturing clothing and denim. He started to think about how the philosophy of creating a product that can’t be replicated, so prevalent in wine-making, had been lost when it came to clothing. “That happened with the old-school fashion houses; I don’t think it happens now,” he says. “Chanel or Louis Vuitton, way back in the day — they were making things that couldn’t be reproduced.”
“It felt special to say that our clothing has provenance, a story that goes back to a place.”
His maker mindset shifted to denim, and he learned by trial and error, sewing a pair of jeans every day for almost two years and improving on the design and construction with each iteration. At the time, Yarborough was creating clothing in design school at North Carolina State University, and the pair began making jeans together. They wanted to craft garments that were meaningful — jeans that improved with wear and were made with all North Carolina-sourced materials, from the fabric to the thread to the labels. “It felt special to be able to say that our clothing has provenance,” Lytvinenko says. “It has a story that goes back to a place, and this place is our place.’’
Although the couple had to start sourcing fabrics from outside of the state when denim was no longer being made here, Lytvinenko still wants to know the story behind the material he’s buying. He and Yarborough add a new chapter to that story in their workshop. To create their patterns, they worked with Chris Ellsberg, who was a patternmaker for Levi’s in the 1960s. Raleigh Denim’s jeans aren’t made through automated processes; they’re made by people — or “jeansmiths” — who take turns signing their names inside completed garments. The jeans are made on vintage machines, including a Union Special hemming machine, a model used beginning in the 1920s that causes the garments to twist in the hem as they wear. Lytvinenko describes the trait as part of “denim lore.”
Although Raleigh Denim employs a team of jeansmiths, Lytvinenko still makes something every day. He calls it a compulsion. The jacket that he made for Brandi Carlile is part of a collaboration with the Durham Performing Arts Center: He designs and makes clothing and accessories for the performers, and he recently worked with Carolina Ballet to make costumes for a re-envisioned production of The Nutcracker, set in the 1950s. When he’s not in his workshop or on his farm, Lytvinenko can often be seen around Raleigh, wearing something that he’s just sewn.