Paul T’s interview with Ralph of Cone Denim

A sinful thing: Q&A with Ralph Tharpe

(by Paul Trynka)

Photo courtesy eltopo


How do you think the fabric came out?
I love it. Roy sent me a pair way before for testing. Mine has the big ROY patch on the back.. his conventional jeans, but made with the loomstate fabric. And I tell you I am really liking them. And the hand is incredible because of the properties of the G. barbadense cotton in the weft.


Where is the cotton in the warp yarns from?
Probably Carolinas cotton – I’m not 100% sure. I know Texas cotton is a big thing in Japan at the moment and some of the best cotton in the world is grown in that state – but it depends on what you buy, there is a huge diversity, and there are real problems with some Texas cotton at the moment, due to the weather the tops of the plants were damaged, and much of the available fiber is rather coarse, opposite of what we need for nice ring spun yarns.


And the Pima cotton for the fill yarn?
That’s probably grown in California or possibly Arizona. G. barbadense is a different species than regular upland cotton. The first successful variety was known as Sea Island Cotton which was grown on the coast of Georgia –*and the Carolinas. The seed migrated to Egypt to become Egyptian long staple, and then back to the US to become pima (named for the Pima indians of Arizona). Upland cotton was not really very successful until the invention of the cotton gin. THis fiber is longer, stronger, and finer than regular cotton, highly prized today for fine yarns. Cone just went back to this cotton with the thought that perhaps some early denims were made with Sea Island. It sure makes a great denim yarn!


Tell me about the dyeing.
It’s traditional rope dyeing.. but there is a special secret technique applied that puts a little bit more dye on some of the yarn than others; it really simulates the ways that old fabrics looked from when they were dyeing in the old vats. In the old vat you don’t have a consistent feed of the dye so it has a little more on one end of the rope than the other end. Then they do the second dip in the opposite direction so it evens out – but that never is completely the case, so in a lot of vintage denim you get that streaky appearance which is the dye and yarn in combination. Most people use twist of the yarn and mixing of yarns to replicate this differential dye uptake but Cone have a special technique they use – it’s a secret I’m forbidden to pass on!


When you were putting the fabric on the loom you told me you were wondering whether to add a couple of picks. What effect would that have?
I wanted to make sure we got the right tightness of construction. Too many weft yarns per inch, the fabric can become too cardboard, too stiff. If you don’t put enough then the fabric feels too open and too floppy. Although that floppy look is very popular right now. But the softness in this fabric is coming from the properties of that Pima.


There’s a slight flame or variation to the fabric, tell me about that.
This is an effect you get on vintage fabrics but we don’t get see that too much – because after they’re worn it more or less disappears. Whenever you have a break on the spinning frame you would have what is called a lap; the cotton would begin to lap around a roll and at some point it could even damage the setting on the machine, even bend the roller and that would cause this heavy light, heavy light streakiness. And this fabric has some of that in there. We were trying to make the appearance as authentic as possible, not too even, not too slubby.


So you were aiming for an authentic look, without the exaggerated slubbiness you’ll see on some selvage denim?
Exactly. When you see some of that exaggerated slubbiness – it’s the difference between listening to a very fine recording on vinyl, and listening to the cell phone. You can tell this thing’s not making the sound the way it should be. The same is true with the computer slubbiness. Slub that comes from a computer is only as good as the guy that designs it. Cone has the very best guy in the whole world in that field and his name is Allen Little. He’s the one designed the yarn that went into this fabric. His picture can be found in the piece on Cone that was in Lightning Magazine.


Was this fabric all milled on one single Draper loom or several?
The ROY fabric was all from one loom; I didn’t record the number of the loom – I should have!


You know there’s some Cone cotton duck in the detailing of these jeans. Have you learned much about that fabric since Cone started reproducing it?
That duck was developed some time ago with Levi’s. I was asking Neil [Bell, of Levi’s], why do I have to put the selvage line so far from the edge, and he was simply saying, That’s the way I want it. Then Michael Harris sent me a scrap he’d found of the old yarn fabric from the turn of the century or before. The damn thing was made exactly like Neil wanted me to make. Brown duck with a black selvage line.. and the selvage line is away and on the outside of the garment. And this is in a scrap from the late 1800’s.. it’s unbelievable.


I was doing research, in the Callaway Textile Dictionary and elsewhere, looking up the particular weaves and it referred me to sailcloths. So I looked at the sail cloth definition and it said, in the UK the stuff was 24 inches wide, in the US 22 inches wide, and then they were 10 oz per linear yard – and it said there was a line in the fabric that was the guide for sewing the pieces together when making sails. The further the line is from the edge, the heavier the product. So without any question, things made from cotton duck with the line further away are Sail Fabrics!It is beautiful! I want to do more research on sailcloth, the dyeing et cetera. But can you imagine, in San Francisco in the 1870s, how there would be tons and tons of sailcloth around?


Was Cone making duck at the turn of the century?
Probably, i sure wish the sample book from 1896 had not been lost – I don’t know if they kept the selvage further away like that.


Did you enjoy working with ROY?
He was great. He has always been so… insistent that he use the CONE fabric he wanted to. I hope he enjoys making these jeans out of loom state.


Tell me more about the Pima fill; how does that affect the feel?
The other thing about that yarn is that it has a very low twist. It makes the fabric look smoother. In that way it’s like the exact opposite of the 1980s XX. The old XX marbles and gets the orange peel because of all the internal tensions as it’s washed. The lower the twist, the smoother the fabric – and the more authentic. Fabrics today are made with very high level of internal energy – they’re very nervous, uptight, so when you throw them in the water they go nuts, crinkle up, produce that orange peel effect. Fabrics made in the old way were woven more gently on the slower looms, with less tension.The Japanese call it gentle weaving. Cone looms are making gentle weaving every day.


That’s poetry!
I know! And the weft yarn in the old days was spun directly on the the bobbin that goes into the shuttle. Because of that it was done at a very low twist. So that fabric was a lot more relaxed, it didn’t have a lot of nervous energy. If you wore it in the normal way it would be both smoother and softer than anything we see today. That’s why the pima fabric is so authentic, and soft, because of the twist and the cotton.


You mentioned this might be the last project that uses that particular yarn?
I don’t believe there’s any left now, and I’m not sure we could make any more because the price on the Pima now is about double what it was when we bought it. It’s a very expensive proposition to make a heavy denim yarn out of that really nice cotton. It’s probably a sin! That fibre is supposed to be used in yarns that are 80, 90, 100, 150, really fine shirting. To make a plain, old coarse denim yarn from it is probably a sinful thing. But we did it anyway.


© Paul Trynka

Note: taken from SuperFuture, reblogged with permission of Paul Trynka (i.e. don’t copy and paste please).


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