It took a photographer, Farhad Samari, to express it best: the yarns are the foundation on which denim is built.
This second part of my interview with Allen Little, who designed many of Cone's finest yarns, covers some fairly esoteric subjects; in particular the hairiness of denim, and where that comes from, and the folk tales about "unbleached" fill yarns. Odd bits didn't make the edit; we did speak about Zimbabwe cotton, about which he was complimentary - although we didn't have time to discuss whether it's really long staple (it isn't, in the strict sense). My apologies that I have no more photos of the spinning process; you'll have to look at the previous Q&A for those. Instead, here are my photos of the loom floor, from January 2009.
There's a tendency from many companies, who produce selvage denim, to over-do the slubbiness, isn't there?
I think so, I think there is a lot of mechanically programmed denim that people call vintage that is very far away. You have to remember, people tried to make the best quality they could at the time. When they over-exaggerate the unevenness of the yarn, it becomes something else.
What're your thoughts on hairiness? A lot of people prefer almost an early '80s style denim, which is very hairy, and that's become associated with a vintage look. Hence there's this belief that the only good denim is hairy. What's your take on that?
The old yarns were ring spun and therefore [somewhat] hairy, but hairiness a lot of time comes from speed, and the newer machinery tends to run a lot faster. For some of our vintage fabric we have different levels of how much hair we leave on in its finished state. I don't agree it's all gotta be hairy, it all wasn't hairy. I think it's a mixture.
How much did the original cotton vary? For instance, today in terms of staple lengths, you average your cotton stock,for consistency. But we'd be talking about massive variability in the early days, what effect did that have?
It had a major impact. In the old days the goal was to make the yarns the same, as best they could. But they couldn't. Our family were farmers as well as spinners... you have to think about many conditions…seed, soil type, climate conditions, there was no (or little) irrigation and various farming techniques. all these things came into effect from year to year, crop to crop. They had little control. Think about various machinery though the years, and the different geographic regions, the effect of insects, the poorer quality of fertilisers, exposure to sunlight and rainfall and all this affected the cotton. The mills were trying their best to create the same product but mother nature and climate affected everything, and I think the denim changed because of that.
Mills would in general use longer cultivars of short staple cotton. Did that stay the same or vary?
The staple length of the cotton has a lot do to with climate and the length of the year they grew in. Cottons today are designed for the region that they grow in, for instance to cope with lower rainfall. Back then, the length of the fibre and the thickness of the fibre had a lot to do with mother nature. Even today, with all the techniques, irrigations, the same farmer can plant one field one year, and the next year [the staple length] can be significantly longer. Back then, cotton properties were evaluated by a cotton classer which was a person measuring by hand. In today's world, we have automated testing equipment so we know more about the cotton that we purchase. Transportation is also easier and more accessible; in the old days you would take cotton that was geographically closer.
Some people like Texas cotton, because it's hairier, shorter staple, associated with that '70s look. Did Cone move to Texas at any point, did the source change?
Cone started with cotton that was close in proximity to the mills. As transportation was became more accessible, I think there was a move into the Texas cotton... and I think the Texas cotton can be typically shorter [staple length] because of lack of rainfall, in the state as a whole and other factors. It's very good cotton for denim. Then of course North Carolina used to [provide] a lot of cotton, South Carolina and the states across the Mississippi valley, we call that Delta cotton , that Delta cotton is good cotton.[But] Texas cotton per se... the cotton is not hairy it's the properties of the cotton, the yarn's hairier because the cotton is a tad shorter with more short fibre content. [But] it's a generalisation that Texas cotton is more hairy, it is due to the properties of the spinning that makes the yarns more hairy.
What about shades of cotton – does that vary a lot?
It does.just another challenge of cotton milling. Cotton comes in various shades of yellow up to cream, you see denim in different shades just due to the colour of the cotton and climate which make it difficult [to reproduce]. But we try to address that in our vintage denim, we try to address those issues also.. we take other techniques to try and generate the variability in the cotton colour, we try to address that more on a yarn construction and can control some of that in dyeing.
I've heard talk of 'unbleached' cotton - was fill yarn ever bleached?
Bleach and cotton don't like each other, that's just a function of.. a particular year crop.. a particular geographic region. We mention the 1915 fabric. Some cotton tends to be much more yellow. If you've seen that piece of denim we have addressed that in the fill yarn to make it look like one of the more yellowish cottons. We do that using different techniques... I have to be careful. There's a variety of ways, you can pick a certain colour cotton, there are ways to colour the cotton to create a certain look and you can definitely buy different cotton varieties that have different colour, different regions and different varieties have different colours.
Is there a yarn you're particularly proud of?
Proud? I really like the XX15, that's a special one, what you call the 1915 fabric. I like them all but that's a favourite, I like the 1960… and then we have another vintage, similar to the 1915 it's a little different, rougher - the 1950s one which has our special yarn almost like the 1915. I'm a textural person, I like more character and uneven-ness.
Sometimes I'm staggered by the depth of knowledge, and love, of fabric from people who've been in the industry for a long time, like you or Ralph Tharpe.
That's called, being born in a doff box as I was once told when I was a boy. A doff box is a box where, on the old spinning machines, you put the bobbins of yarn in. As far as the people I meet that have that... the knowledge they bring to the table is pure magic.