Denim might just be the most universal of fabrics. The hardy cotton twill has its origins in France – it was originally called “serge de Nîmes,” named for the town where it was developed – but the textile’s star has become quintessentially American. Blue jeans go along with the mindset of America; of freedom and rule breaking. They’re casual and cool, functional and tough, at home in a farmer’s field, on a rock stage and on a catwalk. While Bruce Springsteen dons denim on an album cover, Meghan Markle wears fashionably ripped blue jeans on outings with Prince Harry.
Despite the fabric’s French roots, North Carolina has mastered the denim craft. Beginning in the late 18th century, the state’s cash crops of indigo and cotton, combined with easy railroad access, meant that the denim industry flourished here. In 1890, Greensboro had so many trains coming in and out of it that it was nicknamed the Gate City. Six years later, brothers Moses and Ceasar Cone (Americanized from Kahn) came to Greensboro on one of those very trains and opened the textile manufacturer that would eventually become Cone Mills. Another man, C.C. Hudson, arrived in 1897 to work in a factory that made overalls. When it closed, Hudson and a few colleagues set up their own small shop, which would evolve into Wrangler. Up until the late 20th century, it’s a safe bet that nearly every pair of jeans in the United States had fingerprints on it from someone in North Carolina.
Things started to change in 1994, when the North American Free Trade Agreement was signed. An overwhelming number of American textile producers pulled up stakes and moved production to Mexico in search of cheaper labour; later, it was China. Throughout the 1990s, North Carolina became a hub of new industries, specifically technology and pharmaceuticals, much of which was centred in the Research Triangle Park region outside of Raleigh. But while industry in the state has diversified and the huge textile mills are gone, there’s still denim production – albeit on a smaller, more thoughtful scale. And the history is everywhere, as long as you know where to look.