Denim nerds love talking about selvage edges, and looms. But really when we're do so, we're overlooking something more vital: the yarns. Different looms do have a different effect - but really, it's the yarns that contribute more to the character of denim and how it wears in.
That's why I was excited to spend hours on the phone with Allen Little, who's undoubtedly one of the world's leading yarn experts. Allen works for Cone, a company that is currently celebrating its 125th anniversary. Cone produce an incredible variety of vintage-style denims, all made on their old Draper looms. But each of those individual denims, will have a specific yarn. Cone are unusual in this respect; although we often think of Japanese mills as boutique operations, they usually buy in their yarns from outside suppliers. Cone, in contrast, design their own.
Most of us know that many denim manufacturers turned to Open End spinning in the 1980s, and this lost us a lot of character, because the denim was simply too smooth and even. Hence, from the late 1980s onwards, there was a return to Ring Spun yarn. But beyond the use of Ring Spun yarn, there is almost an infinite variety in the look of what's available. Here Allen gives us an overview of how he reproduces specific yarns of specific eras.
As there's so much information to absorb, I'm running this Q&A in two sections. I will run the second part - which cover hairiness, cotton staple length, and the fiction of 'unbleached cotton' next week.
The main photos here are from Farhad Samari , from the Inventory story we did together.
Tell me about your background - I know your roots in the fabrics industry go deep.
I grew up in Wadesboro, North Carolina, and my family had spinning plants, spinning mills, way before I was born, a mill called Little Cotton Manufacturing . So I grew up in that environment – as a boy they allowed me to sweep the floors, I was surrounded by Whitin Spinning Frames. I went on to a textile career and decided to go more into the machinery and design side. So I joined Amsler Tech in Switzerland, a machinery company which make fancy yarn attachments and devices which are primarily aimed at denim; I spent around 10 years travelling round the world, teaching people how to use the machines and how to design the look they were aiming for. Then I came to Cone, which was a very big customer of this company - so finally I came back home, around  years ago.
Amsler software and controls are a very modern way of making yarns that look old-fashioned. How has the potential of their systems changed over the years?
It all developed over time. It started as a very crude technology and slub spinning was not really highly regarded. Denim and upholstery were the first things that went into it. Then as denim went from workwear into fashion there was an explosion of the demand. Everything became more complicated, the computer controlling other machines became more complex, the programming became more complex.
It used to be slub spinning was very simple; you just put a thick place in the yarn, and there was not much designing behind it. Then in the '80s the designing became more important. At the beginning, there weren't many people who knew how to design the yarn to give a certain aesthetic for a fabric. So that's what I was fascinated with.. and wondered if I could figure out how to design something that looked really nice and vintage-like, as I was training people how to use the machine. You had to learn how they operated, you also had to learn about also what old denim looked like, and I guess from there the software, and the controls of the slub devices kept advancing until now we've reached the point where it's highly computerised, and some of the designs for software packages that go with the machines are really quite amazing.
Tell me how you'd go about mimicking the yarn on a vintage-style denim. For instance, on LVC most of the denim is loomed in essentially the same way, so it's the yarn and the dyeing that defines the different fabrics. One of my favourite denims you've produced is the LVC 1915; a fabric that's authentic, vintage-looking but subtle. I assume that's one of your yarns - how did you go about developing it?
Yes, I designed that yarn. We were looking at [old] garments… we couldn't cut them apart 'cos they were quite valuable, but we know where the fabric comes from. You had to go back and think about the lack of control we had in the old day. So you're trying to take a computerised system to replicate a lack of control. The uneven-ness that came with the old type of spinning, this unevenness was random. You had many types of problems with the old spinning. Sometimes you had very long uneven sections of the yarn, sometimes you had very short uneven sections. Sometimes you have yarns that are more hairy than other ones. So we had to design yarn to replicate all of that. This particular yarn, we focused on three or four elements we had to reproduce, for each part of the aesthetic value we were looking for.
Looking specifically at LVC which has a wide variety of denim. We have 1915, then for instance, the early '30s, then we're on to wartime denim... was there a different yarn for every one?
We have some that are just different in proportion. They have different arrangements, there are one or two yarns common to some constructions, you learn in the old spinning what your main unevenness factor is, [and] that becomes a staple for some. Depending on where the yarns were made, it really depends on the time era and quality of cotton for a particular build at that time. So each one is unique in its design, but there is some overlapping.
Was recreating a duck fabric hard?
The denim is much more complex. The duck fabric, we did a few tricks to design that but no, from our perspective it was a simpler fabric. We took the same approach, as with anything else you try and mimic, thinking about how it was made originally. Trying to get the colour correct and some natural character to the duck fabric took some work, but it wasn't as difficult as the denim. We've been doing vintage for so long we have the arsenal of tools to do that, and that was more about coming up with a construction, using our existing tools.
In the pre-war Levi's, how radically was the spinning technology changing? If we take, say, the 1915 and the 1937, is there much difference?
There's not so much between them. The bigger advances in spinning were made later.. but back in the very early days things were produced very slowly. As you move from one era to another the yarns are getting a little bit better - but when I say better I don't mean good. The oldest denim is going to be the most uneven, with the most character but they're the hardest denim to reproduce, due to a variety of things. You've got to think about how a mill was powered, for instance if you're running water power, speed and things like that can change. So the denim got better as the years went along – but it wasn't good, technically
In 1940 vs 1915 there are differences in the denim, the ones from 1940 will be better, for instance the dyeing – they learned more about dyeing techniques as time moved on. It presents a challenge, but I think we've done a good job. You just have to try to put yourself back in time, read books about how things used to be done, plus there are old records from Cone, in our archives, and you have make interpretations of all of that.
Obviously the spinning technology was constantly improving. But in the late '50s and '60s you would have introduced Magnadraft spinning, and on that the magnets would have deteriorated over time. How did that affect the look of the denim?
When Magnadraft was working well, with magnets having all the power, it was much better The older denim, the cotton was not prepared as well, it has issues with neps and and parts of cotton left into the yearn, and that all changed during the Magnadraft era as the carding machines did a better job. We created a special yarn to simulate the issues with the Magnadraft, as the magnets lose their power - they don't have as much grip and it creates some unevenness. And that was a random effect. You've got to think a warp of denim is made from many different yarns, obviously we can't reproduce a 1000 different yarns to reproduce the different strengths of the magnets, but we can program it where it looks like it has. And that's a very special unevenness. Because of course this Magnadraft look is a nice look if you're into vintage.