Vidalia Mills CEO Dan Feibus

Vidalia Mills CEO Dan Feibus

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The closure of the last US selvedge denim mill two years ago might have marked the end of an era. But thanks to the vision of Daniel Feibus and his team, the original looms have found a new home at Vidalia Mills as part of plans to build a cutting-edge, transparent and sustainable denim manufacturing chain in the United States.

"Denim is the American fabric and we think it's time to make selvedge denim in the United States again," Vidalia Mills CEO Feibus told an invited group of brands, retailers, executives and stakeholders during a tour of the emerging facility last week. 

"We're very confident of our ability to be one of the two or three select selvedge weavers in the world." 

Delivering on this goal is possible after the business acquired all 46 of the 1940s vintage American Draper X3 shuttle looms from the now defunct Cone Denim White Oak facility in Greensboro, North Carolina. The looms produce vintage selvage denim not available anywhere else in the world, and are currently being relocated to the new Vidalia Mills facility in Louisiana – along with the mechanics and engineers who keep the equipment in running order.

But it's not just selvedge denim that will give Vidalia Mills its edge.

Based out of a 900,000 square foot former Fruit of the Loom distribution facility in the heart of the cotton-producing region of the Mississippi Delta, the new $50m denim mill will be the first to open in the US in almost a century.

"It's time to change what the denim industry means to the consumer, and not just with a gimmick but with a real traceable, transparent manufacturing chain" - Dan Feibus

And once full commercial production takes shape next year it will offer a complete 'Made in the USA' vertically integrated package of yarns and fabrics that includes yarn preparation, spinning, weaving – both selvedge and rapier – and potentially cut-and-sew and laundry facilities as well.

Likening the mill to "a craft brewer in terms of size," Feibus explains it will have the flexibility to produce smaller, high quality lots for high-end premium jeans brands. 

Elevating sustainability

But there's also the ambition to set a new standard for sustainability and transparency in the North America denim industry – and offset the negative environmental impact of traditional denim processing.

"We really want to have an impact in terms of the technology that we bring in, the use of e3 [BASF's sustainable cotton that can be traced from the farmer to the retailer], the impact on transparency, sustainability. That's a big part of what we're doing."

Instead of parallel discussions on sustainability and whether it is cost-effective to produce in the US, Feibus believes "those two things are intertwined" and that by raising the bar from the outset "you don't have to have a trade-off between sustainability and the products that people want.

"As the denim industry grows, we're facing more and more challenges from consumers demanding real transparency, real efficiency in water usage, real accountability on cotton, and to make a real case as to why denim should be in people's wardrobes as a sustainable fabric that people want to enjoy wearing long into the future.

"Fabrics come and fabrics go, and at some point denim's going to have to justify why it makes sense."

New paradigm

Vidalia Mills has been conceived from the outset to be the most efficient and environmentally friendly denim mill in North America and provide customers with traceability from the retail shelf all the way back to the farm where the cotton was grown.

In an industry first, it will only use e3 sustainable cotton sourced from across the US farm belt. Farmers enrolled in the e3 programme grow BASF's FiberMax and Stoneville cotton seed, which is certified and verified through independent audits so that it can be traced all the way from the field to the gin and right through to the merchant, mills and retailer.

"We think getting to transparency and sustainability is more than a slogan. To get real transparency and accountability isn't easy, because of how the cotton comes from the field and into the plant. You literally have hundreds of gin points in the United States; mills buy from merchants who aggregate cotton from this massive 20m bale crop, and special orders so you get the right qualities, the right colour tendencies...it's not an easy job.

"It seems to me the biggest way to shrink a carbon footprint is to shrink a carbon footprint. So taking cotton, sending it to Italy to be made into fabric, sending that to China, sending that over to Asia, bringing it back to the United States...that seems to be chewing up a lot of miles" - Dan Feibus 

"That's why we're so excited at what's happening with e3. To do the e3 properly you have to do all e3 runs...and because we're all e3 it doesn't become a massive premium, and really gives us the ability to provide that traceable yarn element reliably through the system."

Another pioneering move will see the mill become the first in North America – and the first in the world – to use a new and environmentally-friendly yarn dyeing technology for denim that uses foam instead of water. The combined indigo slasher foam and dye system from Temsan and Gaston will result in significant water and energy savings, the companies say.

On top of this, more than 50% of Vidalia's energy needs will be met by renewable resources, including the local hydro-dam; and the business is committed to zero waste-water discharge.

It is also teaming up with The Lubrizol Corporation as a preferred supplier of stretch fibres, whose X4zol-J thermoplastic polyurethane (TPU) elastomeric monofilament offers sustainable benefits such as processing at lower temperatures and recyclability.

Other manufacturing details have also been designed into the process that "result in better denim, better cost efficiency, and a better customer experience. It's something that we really want to instil, and we hope we create a ripple effect through the industry with what we do," says Feibus.

For example, the mill will have both open-end and ring spinning featuring air-conditioning systems from Turkish engineering group Temsan that offer better quality and use less energy. "We will be turning the air in our ring about 40 times an hour as opposed to 24-25 which is standard. That translates into less dust in the air, cleaner air, fewer ends down, better quality, better denim."

As well as the selvedge looms, there will also be 40 "latest generation" Picanol rapier weaving machines.

Critical paths

The new plant will employ around 600 workers, and is currently preparing to ramp up its operations ahead of full commercial production by the second quarter of next year – with timelines for yarn production to begin in November, selvedge denim in December, spinning (stage 2 ring spinning) in January 2020, and the Temsan/foam system in March or April.

Alongside this, facilities are also planned for fabric, yarn and product development, testing, cut make and trim production, laundry and third-party logistics (3PL).

Competitive advantage

The Vidalia Mills team believes its efficient cost structure coupled with innovative and energy-saving technologies will make US-made denim an attractive sourcing option for brands and retailers – and one that is globally price competitive.

There's the obvious benefit of speed-to-market (as opposed to Turkey, Italy or Japan), as well as the opportunity for brand and design personnel to operate in the same time zone and language as their production partner. And at a time when trade turmoil is forcing many apparel firms to re-think their sourcing strategies, the onshore option means there are no concerns about tariffs or import costs.

And of course there's sustainability. "It seems to me the biggest way to shrink a carbon footprint is to shrink a carbon footprint," says Feibus. "So taking cotton, sending it to Italy to be made into fabric, sending that to China, sending that over to Asia, bringing it back to the United States...that seems to be chewing up a lot of miles. 

"It's time to change what the denim industry means to the consumer, and not just with a gimmick but with a real traceable, transparent manufacturing chain."

Customers agree. Roian Atwood, senior director of global sustainable business at Kontoor Brands, the owner of iconic denim brands Wrangler and Lee, tells just-style: "Vidalia Mills is ramping up to be the go-to sustainable denim mill in the western hemisphere. By acquiring the selvage looms from White Oak, they are honouring an American denim heritage that many of us thought was lost. And by receiving the first ever Temsan and Gaston foam dye range, they are embracing the technologies of the future that have the ability to transform our industry. 

"This mill is being created with intentional design, and by opening this facility in rural Louisiana they are bringing positive economics back to a place where the people are so very deserving, sincere and kind."