American Denim With a Focus on Sustainability and Selvedge
Just when everyone thought U.S.-made selvedge denim was a thing of the past, a Louisiana company is getting started on an ambitious plan to build a sustainable denim mill with a fleet of selvedge looms, water-conservation capabilities and foam-dyeing technology — and that’s just in the first year.
Vidalia Mills has big plans to be a made-in-America vertical denim operation. Fortunately they have a big space for it — a 900,000 square foot former Fruit of the Loom distribution center with 40-foot ceilings. The mill is located in Vidalia, La., across the Mississippi from Natchez, Miss., the historic center of cotton production in the South.
The cavernous facility currently houses a small stack of e3 cotton bales. Vidalia has committed to using 100 percent BASF’s e3 cotton, which allows brands, manufacturers and mills to track the cotton back to the farmer.
“The fact that Dan is stepping up to the plate and using sustainable and traceable cotton is exceptional,” said Andrew Olah, founder of Kingpins. (e3 is a sponsor of Kingpins’ Amsterdam show and Olah has been a consultant to the company since 2007.) Olah stressed the importance transparency will wield in the future. “Right now I don’t know of any other mill using 100 percent traceable cotton – but in the future the traceability of all fabric will be non-negotiable.”
On a recent visit, Vidalia unveiled its newest purchase: a suite of vintage Draper selvedge looms, which will be part of the company’s denim offerings.
Vidalia bought 46 vintage selvedge looms from JW Demolition, which acquired the equipment when it purchased Cone Mills’ historic White Oak facility in Greensboro, N.C. Cone Denim spent years acquiring and refurbishing the Draper looms, many of which date back to the 1940s.
“When White Oak closed two years ago, it was a real blow to our industry. The selvedge denim that came out of White Oak was highly recognizable, world-famous and everyone wondered what could potentially happen,” said Roian Atwood,” senior director, Global Sustainable Business for Kontoor, the parent company of Wrangler, Lee and Rock & Republic denim brands.
In addition to the Draper looms, Vidalia has also purchased 25 Picanol selvedge looms, according to Vidalia CEO Dan Feibus, a spinning industry veteran who founded U.S. spinning mill Zagis USA and served as COO of premium denim and yarn spinner Bradmill Australia. Eighty Rapier looms producing an estimated 11 million yards of non-selvedge denim per year will round out Vidalia’s offerings.
A former member of the Cotton Board, Feibus said he saw a disconnect between sustainable cotton farmers’ efforts and consumers looking for sustainable products.
“I felt really frustrated how poorly the inherent sustainability of cotton — particularly U.S. cotton — was being communicated to the apparel consumer,” he said. “I felt that combining sustainable cotton with artisanal denim production with environmentally sensitive systems was a good marketing approach and something that was worth doing.”
The mill plans to ramp up offerings quickly beginning with yarn in November and selvedge denim by December. In January, the next phase of spinning kicks in and by spring, Vidalia will be dyeing denim using an indigo slasher foam and dye system developed by Temsan and Gaston Systems, which uses less water, fewer chemicals and less energy than traditional indigo dyeing.
“We’re incorporating the foam into a zero-discharge system that radically reduces the amount of water across the board,” Feibus said. “The problem with denim manufacturing for ages has been all the dyes and chemicals. We really think it can and should be a clean and water-sensitive process.”
Feibus and other Vidalia team members recently led visitors on a tour of the mill on the last day of BASF’s “Farm to Fashion” program highlighting the agribusiness’ e3 cotton program. A Vidalia Fire Department truck was parked on the loading dock blocking the view of the rest of the factory floor. Just before the truck pulled forward for the big reveal, one person in the crowd was heard to say “what if behind there was all Cone’s Draper looms.”
Talk about a wish come true.
“As iconic a mark that selvedge has on our industry, bringing production back to the States will be an indicator that we as a people are taking pride in the things that represent us and that we want to take back what was originally ours,” said Tim Kaeding, founder of Los Angeles-based Mother Jeans. “Through this, we will be able to expand our opportunities by using our research and development into newer and better fabrications.”
And the transparency aspect Vidalia will bring to domestic denim production is also a welcome change.
“We believe that having USA products increases our economic health and gives us an edge in product integrity,” Kaeding said. “We love the idea of having farm-to-garment visibility all being made-in-America. It’s a step in the right direction.”
VIDALIA MILLS STATS AT A GLANCE
Investment: $50 million
Cotton: 100 percent e3 cotton. BASF’s e3 allows brands, manufacturers and mills track its cotton back to the farmer through the use of FiberMax and Stoneville cotton seed and a certification program to ensure farmers meet a set of sustainability measures regarding water, energy and pesticide usage, as well as greenhouse gas reduction, soil management and worker health and safety programs.
Selvedge denim capabilities: 46 vintage Draper x3 looms, 25 Picanol looms
Non-selvedge denim capabilities: 80 Rapier looms (40 being delivered now, 40 to be delivered in 4th quarter). Once fully-operational, Vidalia will produce 11 million yards of non-selvedge denim, annually.
Planned employment: 600 jobs
November 2019: yarn
December 2019: selvedge denim
April/May 2020:foam dyeing
Future: garment manufacturing (joint venture or co-location) and dyehouse
Indigo: Foam and dye system developed by Temsan and Gaston Systems, which uses less water, fewer and less energy than traditional indigo dyeing.
Water usage: Zero-discharge system