As one of the oldest textile mills in the U.S., Mount Vernon Mills, based in Georgia, is also one of the few domestic denim fabric manufacturers left. The mill has a long and storied history, having produced textile products in the location since 1845.
“One story we always share with customers making their first visit to our plant in Trion, Ga., was that General Sherman spent the night in our town as he was beginning his mission to burn to the sea during the Civil War,” Dale McCollum, vice president of merchandising denim fabrics for the Apparel Fabrics division of Mount Vernon Mills, said. “General Sherman agreed not to burn the mill down if operations were stopped until the end of the war.”
From enduring Civil War, to the current price wars plaguing U.S. textiles, McCollum discusses the company’s place in the market and how product development and the right partnerships have contributed to to its long-term success.
Rivet: What are the main product areas for the company and which are the most important right now?
Dale McCollum: Our main products are apparel fabrics. We produce about 800,000 yards weekly of denim fabrics and we produce about 1,200,000 yards weekly of non-denim piece dyed fabrics. So about 2 million yards of fabric flows out of our facility each week.
Right now, all of the fabrics that we make that go into work-related industries, which is doing very well. This would include our poly-cotton uniform business and all denims that are going into workwear end uses. Our FR [flame-resistant] business is doing very well right now, as well, in both denim and piece dyed fabrics.
Mount Vernon Mills is mostly known as a fabric mill, however, we are quite diversified. We have a chemical division that produces chemicals for the textile industry, as well as personal care and other non-textile uses. We have a transportation division that provides internal trucking services for our plants, as well as outside customers. We also have a consumer products division that sells products to the hospitality industry and other commercial markets.
Rivet: Who are the key customers for Mount Vernon today?
DM: Needless to say, all of our customers are key. We pride ourselves in having the best customer service team in the textile industry. Our customer list includes…VF (Wrangler, Lee, Vans), Dickie, Levi’s and Carhartt. As I mentioned earlier, denim is a key workwear fabric and that customer list includes Cintas, Ariat and Unifirst.
Recently, we have been taking orders for companies that produce U.S.-made denim jeans. These customers include American Giant, Dearborn Denim, Texas Jeans and Diamond Gusset.
Rivet: How has Mount Vernon been able to survive making denim in the U.S. while many others have not?
DM: That is really a tough question. We focus on keeping our cost structure as low as possible in order to compete with the Mexican denim mills. We are at a logistical disadvantage due to all of the cut and sew being south of our border, so the price of our fabric must be attractive to our customers.
We also pride ourselves on our product development. It is imperative that we offer freshness to the marketplace so that we can be on the cutting edge for what is new and exciting at retail. We have made great partnerships over the years with our customers who own their own manufacturing plants. These partnerships have contributed to our success as the only manufacturer of denim fabrics in the U.S.
Rivet: How has the company been able to contain costs as a vertical manufacturer?
DM: Being vertical from the bale of cotton to the finished fabric is one way to stay competitive and control costs, and has been a key to our success. We constantly monitor our manufacturing processes in order to find better and more efficient ways to make our fabrics. We are evaluating new looms so we are always on the lookout for new technology that could help us make top quality fabrics at affordable prices.
Rivet: How important is sustainability to and how does the company approach it?
DM: We considered sustainability and being eco-friendly as an important part of manufacturing way before it became a necessity. We look at every possible avenue that we can use to save water, save energy and to reduce waste. One example of this is that our company actually owns its own water source, However, we don’t take advantage of this by wasting water. We have programs in place to recycle and reuse water where possible. We even provide water to the local municipality so they can have a reliable and affordable source.
Rivet: What new materials and technologies are you working on?
DM: We are constantly looking at new fibers that can add value to our denim products. A short list of these would include denim fabrics with thermal regulation properties, denim fabrics with fibers that give added abrasion resistance qualities, denim fabrics with fibers that give additional strength properties so you can have fabrics with lighter weights but durability equivalent of heavy weigh denims and denim fabrics made with fibers from recycled material such as water bottles.
Of course, we have a wide range of denim fabrics with stretch properties. We are making denims with stretch for the retail market, as well as the industrial laundry market.
We are also in the process of evaluating the newest generation of air jet looms. This is being done to improve efficiencies and lower costs.