by Brian Clarey
It’s early for the rock stars — 9 a.m. — and the guys from Big Head Todd & the Monsters seem a little cobwebby when they come into the vestibule of the plant.
But here at Cone Mills White Oak denim facility, the day has been going on since night.
It’s a rare thing, to take a tour of this plant, which has ben making the best denim in the world for more than a century. I’ve been trying to get inside for years, and take in the platoon of Draper fly-shuttle looms — dinosaurs of iron and rubber and wood — that have been hauled back into active duty for the vintage selvedge denim they turn out. And I’ve been invited to tag along on the rock-star tour.
“For denim aficionados, this is Mecca,” says Ken Kunberger, president and CEO of International Textile Group, the parent company of Cone Mills. “This is your ’68 Mustang, your old Harley, your Les Paul.”
Frontman Todd Mohr, whose head is actually of a quite reasonable size, gets the picture.
I’m sort of at a loss. Of course, I know who Big Head Todd is, but I took a pass on popular music in the ’90s, unless you count “The Thong Song,” so I’m not as enamored of the guys in the band as, say, Kunberger, who’s giving off the vibe of a serious fanboy — unless he’s always this enthusiastic, a real possibility with these CEO types.
But I’m digging the facility. A room the size of a neighborhood block where 400 individual white, cotton threads cross the space to be gathered in a rope; it looks like a spiderweb factory. A worker deftly separating indigo threads into a comb five feet long. The assembling, dissembling, reassembling of the threads, which can be fed into the modern machines, which put out a loose weave in a wide swath, or those magnificent Draper looms.
A TV-crew scrum occupies the aisle on the factory floor that separates the old machines from the new ones, that go about their milling with relative placidity in relation to the vintage jobbers, 51 of them set in a grid, that give a slight trampoline bounce to the wooden factory floor.
The denim spools out a yard wide, three strands of indigo to one of white cotton, held in place with a red selvedge stitch. The only other place I’ve seen one of these is in the Greensboro Historical Museum.
Big Head Todd’s bassist, Rob Squires, is suitably impressed with the denim museum upstairs, another fascinating piece of local history closed off to the public. And he, along with the other members of the band, accept pairs of bespoke jeans made with Cone Mills Denim and with the band’s logo stamped onto the inside of the pockets. But still.
“We’ve got some fans in NASA,” he tells me. “We got to like, look inside the space shuttle.”