Editor’s Note: This story was originally published in January 2013.
Jeans change. That hole in the knee, torn sliding for the church softball team’s winning run. That worn rectangle, indented by a wallet full of cash made working overtime. The honeycomb at the back of the knee, from bending. The fray on the hem, from walking. Every mark on a pair of jeans says something about the person who’s in them.
Something about breaking in a pair of jeans, putting your own marks on them, feels right. And for more than a century, jeans, perhaps more than any other garment, have seemed right. They’re right for working or relaxing, impressing or playing it cool, dressing up or dressing down. They’re comfortable and stylish.
And if the denim comes from an old-school North Carolina plant and is sewn with care in a North Carolina workshop, then those jeans feel right, perhaps more than any other, because they’re made right here.
• • •
Victor Lytvinenko knows every stitch of the jeans he has on right now, a style called the Jones Original. They’re his, of course. He owns them. But he also owns the name on the label: Raleigh Denim. Inside the front pocket, right against his thigh, these jeans bear his signature. Either Victor or Sarah Lytvinenko, or one of their sewers, signs each pair produced in their workshop at 319 West Martin Street in Raleigh.
“For me, I want to make the best thing,” Victor says. This philosophy reaches beyond denim. The first time he asked Sarah on a date, it happened to be her birthday. So he baked her a cake. That cake led to a marriage that led to a local business that now sells jeans all over the world.
Victor and Sarah started making jeans in their Raleigh apartment in 2007. “It was just a project,” Victor says. Then a friend offered to pay for a pair. So Victor and Sarah sold a bicycle and a video camera to be able to purchase three industrial sewing machines for their apartment. And they started making more jeans. And more people noticed. And in the fall of 2008, when businesses all around were declaring bankruptcy, Victor and Sarah Lytvinenko received an order from Barneys New York for 114 pairs of jeans. They didn’t have enough funds to purchase the materials, but the national stimulus plan went through and somebody at a bank thought this little business in Raleigh should have a chance.
Victor and Sarah sewed every stitch on every pair of that first order. Sarah’s father hand-pressed rivets. Their mothers ironed outseams. And Victor and Sarah sent 114 pairs of handmade jeans to New York City.
“They sold really well,” Victor says, “so the next season they ordered for six stores, and the next season for 10, and the next season 14. We’re in 24 of their stores now, and it really just snowballed from there.”
Raleigh Denim now has numerous styles, fits, and colors for men and women that change every season. But every pair still has a signature inside the front pocket. And every pair has a leather patch with an edition number branded on it — 220 out of 313, for example — to tell the wearer that these jeans are made in small batches, just like prints of a painting.
• • •
Every pair of Raleigh Denim jeans has a patch on the inside, too. That one reveals where the denim came from. The fabric didn’t travel far.
Seventy-seven miles stretch between Raleigh Denim and Cone Denim’s White Oak plant in Greensboro. A few years ago, Victor piled a roll of the plant’s denim into his car and drove home. He had an idea to use this denim from this plant that’s been around since 1905 to make high-end jeans in his apartment in Raleigh. The kind of jeans that cost $250 a pair and sit on shelves in trendy shops in big cities like New York.
He didn’t want cheap denim or perfect denim. He wanted denim made in North Carolina on old shuttle looms from the 1920s and ’30s. These looms leave a finished edge called a selvage — a rare and valued mark of authenticity in fashion today. He saw value in the old weaving style and the slight imperfections it leaves, and he felt others would see it, too.
Back in 1891, two brothers, Moses and Ceasar Cone, saw the value in developing textile manufacturing in the South to use the region’s ample cotton production.
First the brothers formed Cone Export and Commission Company and served as the banker and distributor for 38 textile mills. When the business grew, they built their own mills in Greensboro. The town had plenty of labor, good roads, access to railroads, and proximity to cotton. In 1905, they opened the third of four mills in Greenboro and the only one of the four still operating today. According to the book A Century of Excellence: The History of Cone Mills, by 1910 the White Oak plant was the world’s largest denim mill, producing one-third of the planet’s denim.
The plant has seen jeans change a lot in 108 years. And every time jeans change, the denim produced at White Oak has to keep up. As technology boomed in the ’70s and ’80s, Cone had to emphasize speed to keep pace with competitors. The looms became wider, the process more automated.
But by the late ’80s and early ’90s, Cone realized it couldn’t compete with overseas manufacturers on volume or price, says Brad Johnson, a group manager for Cone Denim who started at the plant as a summer intern in 1987 and never left.
So Cone shifted focus from mass to niche production. Innovation was what Cone had always done best anyway. In the late ’20s and early ’30s, Cone patented chain-dying, a three-story process in which denim is dipped in indigo at the bottom level and raised to the top to oxidize and set the color. In the ’60s, Cone was one of the first to experiment with stretch fabric. So in the late 1980s when mills were trying to make fabric cheaply and quickly, Cone Denim reinstalled 32 of the old shuttle-style looms at the White Oak plant. The company went backward to go forward.
• • •
Mildred Bolen couldn’t have been happier to see those old shuttle looms return. She started cleaning looms for Cone Denim at the White Oak plant on April 27, 1959. Then a weaver showed her how the looms worked.
“I’ll never forget the night they put me on a set of ’em,” Bolen says. “It was third shift, and I didn’t know if I was ready.”
She started working here to make money to raise her children. Now Bolen is 78, her two kids are grown, and her husband died seven years ago, so she works 40 hours a week to keep herself going.
“I can’t imagine not coming to work,” she says, wearing a red beehive hairdo, red lipstick, and big earrings. “I want to do the best job I can. If I can’t do that, I don’t need to be here.”
Bolen weaves what Cone Denim calls premium denim. The old machines she uses jump and wiggle, and their parts are worn down from pulling yarn for decades, so they aren’t quite as precise as the behemoth looms beside them. That’s why the denim Bolen produces is at the top price point. Today’s customers pay big money for slight flaws.
Bolen produces 25 yards a shift. She made up to 100 yards, twice the width, on the big machines in the ’80s, but what she makes now has something that can’t be replicated. Character.
That’s what people like Victor and Sarah Lytvinenko are after. The up-and-coming leaders in fashion now were born in the era of overseas mass production. And when they grew up, they wanted to know why everything had to be the same.
“I feel like there was this golden era of manufacturing in America, like right around and after World War II,” Victor says. “It’s what our grandparents’ generation did to build our country, but we don’t make a whole lot of stuff anymore.”
Victor and Sarah’s generation is fascinated by their grandparents’ skills that no one their age seems to possess. Skills like weaving and cutting and sewing. The skills needed to make something.
• • •
Christel Ellsberg carries a bag with her at all times. Inside are the tools she needs to perform a skill that she does better than almost anyone.
Ellsberg walks through the Raleigh Denim retail storefront on Martin Street, through the back workshop with aisles of sewing machines whirring and singing as they stitch, and into the pattern room. There she opens her bag and spreads out her tools: a 12-inch pair of Wiss scissors, a tape measure, and an assortment of pencils and pens.
“I absolutely go berserk — it gripes the daylights out of me — when I see people who don’t know how to use tools,” Ellsberg says.
Ellsberg is 79. She began as an apprentice for a German tailor at 16. She’s been a citizen of three countries and was one of Levi Strauss & Co.’s first pattern makers. She came to North Carolina to work for a Zebulon company that made clothes for J.C. Penney. Then in 2006, only two months after buying a condo, she lost her job of 18 years.
Her doctor offered her part-time office work. A spa in Cameron Village gave her a job doing laundry. Then one day, her hairdresser mentioned a newspaper story he’d read about a young couple in Raleigh making jeans.
Today, Ellsberg makes jean patterns for Victor and Sarah Lytvinenko. Every pair of jeans contains about 20 separate pieces of denim. Every piece has a pattern. Every style that Raleigh Denim makes has its own set of patterns. And every size in every style also has its own set. All of those patterns require much thinking and measuring and cutting.
When Raleigh Denim started to grow, Victor and Sarah needed someone who could get the patterns correct without a lot of technology to do the work. They needed Ellsberg.
“What they wanted, I knew,” she says. And these days, Ellsberg is one of a few who know. As American companies send more manufacturing overseas, the skills required to do those jobs leave, too. And as machines are built to do those tasks faster and cheaper, the skills disappear altogether.
This void infuriates her. As she talks about her craft’s disappearance, her alarmed blue eyes widen. Her German accent sharpens. She speaks in quick, declarative bursts.
“There’ll be a generation coming who don’t even know what a needle means,” Ellsberg says.
• • •
When Victor and Sarah Lytvinenko started making jeans at home in 2007, they didn’t intend for their hobby to become a business. Sarah didn’t want to work in fashion. “I wanted to be tougher than I thought fashion was,” Sarah says.
But when Victor wanted to learn how to make jeans — how to really make jeans — he visited North Carolina towns where manufacturing plants had once operated. This skinny, city kid, then in his late 20s, with a tattoo around his forearm, walked into diners in hard-hit towns where old men sat over decaf and lamented the great things we once made, and he asked if anyone there used to work in the old factory down the street. People raised their hands. And they showed him into their garages and workshops. And they taught him the skills they practiced for years that were no longer needed around there.
He found men who worked in the country’s last Levi factory in Bakersville. They taught him how to fix the antique machines that now make the trendiest jeans around.
As Victor walks through his workshop in Raleigh today, he points out his favorite piece of equipment: a 1921 Union Special sewing machine made to hem jeans. It reads “Made in the USA” on the side. Someone affixed a miniature American flag on a stick to the machine. The flag waves as Victor passes by.
“We’re using a lot of these machines that are 70 to 90 years old, and they were so well built that we’re using them today,” Victor says. “I think about the people that worked on those machines. I think about the people that built those machines and how much skill it took to do that, and it inspires me.”
Last September, a store opened on Elizabeth Street in New York City. The name out front reads Raleigh. Inside are jeans with style names like Nash, Wilkes, Camden, Davie, Union, and Jones. The New Yorkers who shop there won’t notice the connection between those names.
But there’s someone at a loom in Greensboro and someone cutting patterns in Raleigh and many who once worked North Carolina cotton fields and textile mills who would. They know the history of this industry in those counties, the highlights, and the holes. And they have a lot of respect for a couple who believed that if they could make the best jeans here, they could make somebody somewhere else notice.
319 West Martin Street
Raleigh, N.C. 27601
Leah Hughes is a former associate editor at Our State magazine. Find more of her archived stories here.