In her 50 years as a denim weaver at Cone Denim’s White Oak factory in Greensboro, N.C., Mildred “Mickey” Bolen has lived through layoffs, factory closures, and changing fashions—from the denim for blue-collar workwear she helped weave in the 1950s through the bell bottom era to the skinny and distressed looks that prevail today. Now, in a twist that belies the decades-long slide in U.S. manufacturing, Bolen, 77, finds her skills in hot demand.
Her employer has retrieved from storage old-school Draper looms that were retired in the 1980s when denim mills moved en masse to equipment that wove fabric more quickly and cheaply. Today’s denim connoisseurs are demanding jeans like the ones their grandfathers wore, with character and imperfections. And they’re willing to pay up to $350 for them. The most authentic of those jeans can be made only on vintage fly-shuttle looms, so-called because a wooden shuttle hurls the yarn across the width of the cloth.