Vidalia brings ‘cool’ selvedge looms, denim back to life
“We have a couple of the people who worked at Cone. They are like textile machine whisperers.”
Posted September 3, 2020
By John McCurry
Dan Feibus likens weaving denim on vintage Draper looms to owning a classic car.
“It’s like having a 68 Jaguar in your garage,” said the CEO of Vidalia Mills. “You may have to work on it a lot but it’s going to be worth it.”
The Vidalia, La.-based textile manufacture purchased 46 Draper x3 selvedge looms in September 2019 from JW Demolition of Greensboro, N.C., owner of the contents and bricks and mortar of the Cone Mills White Oak Plant, which closed at the end of 2017.
Of course, operating these historic weaving machines requires a certain degree of expertise.
“We have a couple of the people who worked at Cone,” Feibus explained. “They are like textile machine whisperers.”
Vidalia, founded in 2014, is one of two denim manufacturers still operating in the U.S. –Mount Vernon Mills is the other – and the only one producing selvedge denim. Feibus said the looms make denim with a unique and distinctive visual appearance, notably for the selvedge exposed when you roll up the pant leg. It makes a narrower denim, and because it is weaving at a lower rate than modern looms, the weave is less dense and more gently formed, so as it wears in, you will have a better wearing and better-fitting pair of jeans.
Vidalia began manufacturing operations after moving into a 1 million-square-foot facility that closed in 2016 and was formerly operated by Fruit of the Loom. Vidalia is currently producing 450,000 yards of selvedge denim per month.
“Denim aficionados swear by it,” Feibus said. “Who are we to argue with them? It’s fun, it’s cool. Denim is very satisfying. It’s timeless; it’s the premier American fabric when you think about it.”
Feibus said there is more demand for selvedge denim than Vidalia can supply.
“I am selective about where I am selling,” he said. “I sell to customers who are in it for the long haul. We are focused on doing it correctly. They are not making any more of these looms. The last one was made before I was born.”
Vidalia also produces yarn, primarily for its internal needs. The company considers itself unique in that it uses only sustainably sourced, verified cotton.
“This is absolutely traceable from the source all the way to the shelf,” Feibus said. “We are doing denim and specialty yarns of that grade.”
Vidalia employs about 120 people. The pandemic has slowed the hiring pace, but Feibus said he anticipates that number will grow to 300 by early 2021.
Feibus said he believes the preference for made-in-the-U.S. products bodes well for his young denim operation.
“There is a strong demand for it globally especially for denim,” he said. “What we are doing is like making a very high-quality bourbon. It is a very small share of the entire denim business, but it is a good niche. The American textile industry may get a bum rap but it is run by good people, by and large. We are doing a small batch business. It’s not just patriotic, it’s iconic.”
More additions are planned. Vidalia is developing a water-free garment processing center and is installing sewing operations in order to offer full-package garment services for small- and medium-sized brands. The company is also in the process of starting up high-speed modern loom production of denim.
“We have a lot of stuff on the fire,” Feibus said.
The COVID-19 pandemic provided some hiccups to Vidalia’s ramping up of its denim operations. The company chose to avoid layoffs since it had invested a considerable amount in training. Instead, the company focused on machinery installation during the early weeks of the pandemic.
Vidalia then made the decision to begin production of PPE. In June, the company received the first of four N95 mask machines. Vidalia will produce the masks in a special cleanroom in partnership with Keep It Here, a Los Angeles producer of T-shirts, jeans and other clothing. As part of the partnership, Vidalia is also producing lightweight cotton fabrics for the production of medical gowns and consumer facemasks that are cut and sewn at Keep It Here.
Feibus said he sees PPE production becoming a permanent product line for Vidalia. Customers include medical facilities and government agencies. The company expects to eventually produce 1.5 million masks per week.
“We are not making this investment for a momentary event,” he said. “There will be a significant demand for these things going forward, unfortunately. There is a heightened need for hygiene and personal safety.”