Huston Textile Co. is making rare fabric in Sacramento
The little known textile company producing some of the only selvage fabric made in the U.S.
Their clacking can be heard in the silk villages of Vietnam and China, wood slamming against metal, a cacophonous metronome that weaves the past into the future and threads into fabric. In sweatshops in Bangladesh and the Philippines, industrial versions unfurl the polyester florals that become dresses, leaking toxic dyes into nearby rivers, then lasting all of a week on the floors of fast fashion shops at the mall.
They echo from the past, too, with a whisper: Two hands in ancient Egypt gingerly thread flax in a dance of over and under, over and under. In The Odyssey, Penelope deflects sexual advances by pretending to weave Odysseus’ burial shroud. Even her name is woven: “Pene” means “weft,” the name of the threads that nimbly move left to right, in and out. Weaving is cunning, is storytelling, “to weave a tale.” The etymology of weaving comes from the 14th century: “to combine into a whole.”
After years of steady thrumming, the machines started screeching to a halt on the East Coast decades ago. In Oakland, one of the country’s largest cotton fabric manufacturers, California Cotton Mills, shut down in 1954 after the 880 highway bisected it. Today, the two halves of the mill are bricked up, and one part has been converted into studio lofts (of course).
In October, Cone Denim White Oak Plant, the last major U.S. manufacturer of top-quality selvage denim, shut down its plant in Greensboro, N.C., after 112 years.
Now, in the unlikeliest of turns, they’re revving to life here. Looms are producing cotton and wool fabric, even denim, in Sacramento County.
On the Mather Airport runway sits a large, drafty warehouse that formerly housed airplane parts. Engineer, army vet and fabric enthusiast Ryan Huston has taken over the space to restore more grounded machines: almost a dozen vintage textile looms from the ’50s and ’60s. His company Huston Textile Co. uses California wool and West Texas cotton to produce cotton duck, canvas, chambray, shirting, wool-and-cotton blends and denim, tightly woven to a degree that I—a sewist who fondles every bit of fabric I can snatch—have never felt.
Pinching the finished selvage on a bolt of denim, Huston says, “It’s something you can only get on vintage looms or handwoven. Modern technology can’t reproduce that.” The selvage is the edge of fabric, sometimes peeking from the cuff of designer jeans in the form of a white stripe. Modern industrial looms produce a messy, weak version that frays because they’re made of cut strands of thread. Huston’s uses sturdy, continuous threads and a cheeky red racer stripe called a ticker. It’s neat, complete, “combined into a whole.”
Though the mantle of “Made in the U.S.A.” has been passed from rock-ribbed ’60s conservatives to twee Brooklynites to anti-NAFTA Trump supporters, its most passionate advocates share at least one similar end goal: more American jobs. In California, employees of textile mills decreased by half—from 12,000 to 6,000—over the past decade, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Most of those jobs are in Southern California. Meanwhile, Northern California’s heritage denim brand, Levi’s of San Francisco, has 528 factories from Cambodia to Colombia, according to its website. Only 10 of them are located stateside. None appear to specialize in textile manufacturing, and none are near Levi’s home in Northern California. Levi’s declined my request for an interview.
Apart from its habit of outsourcing, fashion also has a nasty environmental problem: The industry is cited as one of the world’s largest sources of pollution because of harsh chemical dyes, the pesticides required to grow cotton and the petroleum needed to make polyester. To feed the ravenous maw of fast fashion, the global industry produced 50 million tons of polyester in 2015, according to industry analysts Tecnon OrbiChem. Then, the fabric must be shipped on oil-guzzling barges from factory to factory, country to country, for dying, laundering, buttons, zippers.
Huston says he’s in this business to combat these very problems. He uses negative-carbon-footprint wool from Lani’s Lana in Eagleville, California; his Texas cotton is organic. He’s trying to use cotton from nearby sources like Bowles Farming Company, but the infrastructure for growing clothes locally doesn’t yet exist in the Central Valley. For all of Sacramento’s farm-to-fork righteousness when it comes to food, we can’t say the same about our clothes.
Huston hopes to change that and plant an industry in the process.
“There’s a good, strong workforce in Sacramento that can be employed in many different ways—there just has to be an opportunity or a sector for them,” Huston says. “I think I’m the only manufacturer in Rancho.”
When I met him, Huston looked as sturdy and serious as an oak tree, his wiry beard an accumulation of mossy wisdom at the age of 32. (He recently shaved it all off so it wouldn’t get stuck in the looms.) Inside his factory, he bounds with boyish excitement and talks about his collection of seven (soon to be 11) vintage looms with a bashful smile, hesitantly proud. He’s scooped them up from Georgia, Montana, North Carolina, South Carolina, Connecticut. The latter he excavated from a barn, literally carving through a wall.
“It took me two years to find my first power loom,” Huston says. “After that, they kind of just find me.”
In the power loom community, Huston has become a known entity, and folks with a loom to offload reach out to him, he says. Most of his are emblazoned with the brand Draper, a power loom maker in Massachusetts for 130 years that has been out of business since the ’70s.
A computer scientist and electrical engineer by trade, Huston has always loved machines. He once entered a robotics competition at the Maker Faire in New York, where he was a lone contestant up against teams with multiple scientists. He won.
Today, Huston uses his engineering knowhow to retrofit the dusty looms with microprocessing chips to measure and regulate the speed of the shuttle, a type of bobbin that holds the thread and weaves back and forth 170 times per minute. A cable connects 1950s equipment to a modern laptop, and through Huston’s electrical sorcery, the two eras are able to speak the same language.
“Draper: They say it’s the most unmechanical mechanical machine,” he explains. “There’s so much going on with a loom that’s really scientific, but also a lot of it that’s kind of just… it just happens. We don’t really know.”
To avoid any mysterious hiccups, Huston babysits each project, sometimes logging 16 hour days, he says, “till what comes on comes off”—until the hundreds of individual threads become completed fabric.
The first time Huston was surrounded by canvas was in 2006-07, when he served in the U.S. Army in Iraq. The Things They Carried were carried by canvas duffel bags. Originally assigned to be a driver, the military reassigned him once Huston couldn’t fit behind the wheel in full battle rattle because he’s 6’1”. So he became a gunner with a .50-caliber machine gun on convoy security, transporting high value targets from one base to the next in Northern Iraq.
“So generally we were the ones getting blown up,” he says. He was bombed in a vehicle eight times during his course of duty. “Most of my experience was like a mouse in a tin can, getting shook.”
Once while riding in a humvee, a bullet ricocheted off his chest plate.
He had a flashback on the Fourth of July 2017 when a firework exploded next to his car. “It was really close the ground and close to us and the car shook, it was very similar to what you’d have in Iraq.”
Kat interjects: “It’s scarier hearing him say that when he’s driving.”
Huston’s parents tell him that he’s become kinder since his time of duty. The Army was a humbling experience, Huston admits. He was troubled by what he saw on the ground in Iraq, doing what he thought was the right thing: He dropped off medical staff to administer vaccines or officials to distribute school supplies. “You go to places and you think you’re helping them, and then you leave and come back, and a bunch of people are killed or murdered because we helped them.”
Still, Huston says he doesn’t regret it. “I was old enough and a capable person, and my country was in a time of war so I felt it was my duty to do something—even though I may not have agreed with the war, that’s not really my point of going. My point of going and being in the service was because I had no excuse not to.”
This national devotion is evident on the warehouse walls, where local muralist Ted Weldon painted looms and an undulating American flag in the style of Diego Rivera and New Deal artwork that romanticizes the laborer.
Kat explains that, apart from the machines, her husband’s driven to add more jobs for Sacramentans that they would actually enjoy, ideally as much as Ryan Huston appreciates his.
“He’s passionate about working with these machines, like when he gets something working that hasn’t been working, you can see it on his face how excited he is,” she says, then looks at him. “You probably won’t shut up for three or four days about it, and [hiring] other people—sewing and machinery people would enjoy it probably more than their day jobs.”
Weaving a family
Kat and Ryan met in their teens, after Ryan had moved from Sacramento to Utah. Back then, Ryan helped his mother with the family business of reupholstering cars, a crash course in fabrics that would serve him later. Kat and Ryan dated for a spell, then separated, “because that’s what kids in school do,” Kat explains. Ryan went off to war, but unlike Penelope, Kat didn’t weave any burial shrouds. Ryan’s the weaver in the family. He’s even sewn a few quilts and made his daughter a dress.
For a macho vet, what’s it like working with fiber arts and sewing—the proverbial “women’s work”?
“I’m the kind of person that never really cared what people thought, so if they did think anything, I wouldn’t have noticed,” Ryan says.
Kat adds, “He hasn’t really experienced a stigma, more of an excitement.” Ryan’s mother entered his quilt into a contest, she says. “There’s not a lot of men that quilt. So they were all really excited to hear that ’Oh her son did this!’ … Even in the making of the fabric it’s like, ’Oh my gosh, you make fabric? You’re amazing.’”
When he moved back home from the army, Ryan and Kat started dating again in 2008. They were up one morning around 2:30 a.m., watching Tom Hanks in 1984’s Bachelor Party, when the nuptial themes inspired Ryan to turn to Kat and ask: Want to book it to Vegas and get married?
“I thought he was joking because of the show, and of course he wasn’t,” Kat remembers.
So they did, right then. They trekked all the way to a drive-through wedding chapel with a gift shop at the cash register, drove back to Utah, packed up all their things and made their way to Sacramento, where Ryan wanted to live again.
With the same can-do impulsiveness, the couple launched a business inspired by their first child. They bought what they assumed was a locally made baby carrier, but later realized it was made in Taiwan.
“It made us redefine our definition of what local means,” Huston says.
They ultimately couldn’t find affordable, American-made baby carriers, so they decided to make their own and sell them. It led them down a vortex that started with the whole family weaving on hand looms in 2013, then progressed to Ryan buying and fixing power looms. They realized that they didn’t want to maintain a baby-focused brand, so they pivoted to producing fabric as Huston Textile Co. in 2016.
So far, they’ve received loans totaling $100,000 from organizations such as Fibershed, a Marin County nonprofit that builds environmentally friendly textile processes. They’ve also invested considerable personal debt. Kat and Ryan sold their house for the business and now live with Ryan’s mother. To buy more yarn to sell fabric, they’re gunning to raise an additional $400,000 in investments from organizations that care about building a local, organic, sustainable fashion industry.
Rebecca Burgess, executive director of Fibershed, says that she decided to support Huston once she realized how rare his skills are and how his presence could create even more farm jobs and infrastructure around textiles.
“I was happy to support Ryan however we could,” Burgess says. “He’s super talented, he’s an Army veteran, he’s been through hell and shot in the chest. This man is trying to do well by his community. He thought he was serving his community by going into armed services, but what he’s doing now is such a win-win for local service, and I want to support what he’s doing for his local community.”
It’s not just that he’s well-intentioned. Huston’s skills and equipment are vanishingly rare. After Cone Mills White Oak Plant closed down in North Carolina, Huston Textile Co. is possibly the last remaining American manufacturer of selvage denim at its scale and potential capability. There are a few smaller upstarts, True Loom Textiles in San Diego and Pacific Blue Denim in Los Angeles. Huston knows about a few of them because they’ve called him to ask how he’s repaired the vintage looms—the only machines capable of making selvage fabric.
Huston will tell them how to fix the looms, but he won’t share how he’s used those machines to make not just denim, but also chambray, canvas, pincheck, army duck. At least in the United States, he might be the only one who does it.
“Ryan is a built-in factory, a repairman and a technician all in one,” Burgess says. “It’s the talent. It’s very, very rare.”
Fashion designer Victor Kali says he wasn’t planning on making and selling shirts until he happened upon Huston Textile Co.’s fabric. Now he sells dapper Huston chambray button-down shirts under the Oakland label Kali Made Garments.
“It is the best fabric I’ve ever seen,” Kali says. “You just don’t see fabric like that in the world anymore. It was testing off the charts for water abrasion and durability. Did that come from the source, or what makes this machine so special? There’s something that comes off these machines that can’t be replicated with other machinery and inputs.”
So he bought 20-25 yards, an amount that most mills—with their 1,000-5,000 yard minimums—would never offer to scrappy independent designers.
The crafting supply store A Verb for Keeping Warm, known internationally for promoting and teaching natural dying, now sells Huston’s fabric in its Oakland shop. Owner Kristine Vejar made herself a jacket out of Huston’s wool-cotton blend that she recently wore throughout a trip to Japan. Businesses normally have to buy “a kajillion yards of fabric,” she says.
“That’s what’s made it hard for smaller designers to buy fabric and enter the market because the minimums are so huge,” she says. “At fabric shows they have stacks and stacks of swatches, and you have no idea where it was manufactured or what it was manufactured from. It’ll say 100 percent cotton and it’s definitely not. That’s the majority of fabric. It’s been extremely challenging.”
Vejar said she grew up during the food revolution, when food stylists would release gorgeous cookbooks that romanticized the provenance of food. Meanwhile, she hadn’t thought as much about how her clothes were made until studying abroad.
“In India, I began seeing people growing cotton and growing wool and picking it and spinning it and seeing all the different ways, personal weaving to factory weaving. It was very easy to see, it surrounded me, I didn’t have to seek it out. It was mind blowing and just going: Oh my god, someone does this. You don’t grow up seeing it the way you see your mom cooking.”
The fashion industry, unlike the restaurant one, is very secretive about where its clothes are woven, dyed and finished, guarding trade secrets lest another brand steal its trustworthy manufacturers. So it’s hard to know if Huston is the only one doing what he’s doing in the states, Vejar says.
However: “From my view right now, he’s the only person I can see doing it, using vintage looms to make fabric at a scale that’s 100 yard minimum or manufacturing fashion fabric. I don’t know anyone else—and I feel like I know a lot of people.”
Though it might seem like a nostalgic affectation to use vintage shuttle looms, they serve a real purpose. These old machines are slower than modern ones, yes, but that’s because they use a continuous piece of yarn instead of cut threads shot from an air compressor. As a result, the fabric is sturdier.
“We’ve done durability tests and it blew doors on any modern textile,” Burgess says. “This is the stuff you used to give to your grandchildren. Clothes used to be inherited, and they were mended until they fell apart.”
In Los Angeles, Blue Star Selvedge creates durable jeans and previously relied on Cone Mills Denim White Oak until the plant closed. Now, owner Mik Serfontein says he’ll have to source from abroad because an upstart like Huston couldn’t yet handle the amount of selvage denim he requires—tens of thousands of yards on a regular basis.
Still, Serfontein remains devoted to selvage denim because of its high quality.
“The jeans today are lightweight and they fall apart,” Serfontein says about fast fashion. “Denim jeans became the opposite of what they were invented for. It really is a utility garment.”
Today, a devoted cult of selvage jeans wearers—Serfontein calls them “denimheads”—have sprung up on Instagram because they’ve discovered fabric that’s so unlike the fake faded, whiskered jeans at the mall. Instead, they’re all about that raw denim indigo fade. They even have a hashtag: #fadefriday.
“It has this mystique to it—it’s really not easy to find—and once you start going down the rabbit hole, there’s a whole community of people that live the blue life in a sense,” Serfontein says. “It becomes kind of like this addiction because of the color indigo and how the indigo will fade on the jean. … Raw denim straight off the loom in its natural state, it’s a beautiful thing to behold. When the denim starts aging from the way you wear it, and not from some template, it gives it uniqueness and character. It’s like having a custom piece of clothing.”
Huston Textile Co. could fill the hole left by Cone Mills, but it depends on their execution and the quality of their fabric, he says. For his part, Serfontein is partial to the quality of European and Japanese looms. However, Cone Mills White Oak previously ran the made-in-Massachusetts Draper looms that Huston uses. Serfontein questions whether these few selvage denim makers in the U.S. can get their prices down. He says Japan’s price and quality are hard to beat.
“Would I rather buy that or buy at one of the most storied mills in the world for $6.50 [per yard]? That’s going to be a challenge for them. But these are normal startup challenges, whether you’re building bikes or food trucks or weaving fabric, it’s just economies of scale. Are they businessmen or are they makers?”
Huston says he thinks of himself as a mechanic, first and foremost—hold the artisan and the maker. To manage the business side of things, Scott Ragsdale was brought on. They hope to gather enough investment and orders to lower the price from its current approximate point: $12-$55 per yard, depending on the fabric and the size of the order.
Regardless, Huston says the goal is not to become a large corporation with thousands of looms.
“I don’t want to just produce and be like Cone Mills and have a massive factory where if I lose a couple of contracts, I go out of business,” he says. “I want to be able to source from people here in the area, in the Valley, and make stuff out of their fiber and their yarn and sell it to other people in the Valley. And I want other people in other businesses to open up and do the same thing.”
He and Burgess imagine Huston Textile Co. as a self-sustaining model that can be replicated in cities all over the United States. Huston says he only wants “20ish” looms making high quality fabric, and to inspire a wave of “mom-and-pop shop weaving businesses” all spooling made-in-your-city fabric.
“The Sacramento area, people talk about it and refer to the farm-to-fork movement,” he says. “I don’t want to say that’s what I’m trying to do but… sort of. My goal is for people to buy things that are made in the country where they live. For us to produce or buy things from other countries doesn’t make sense. We need to produce stuff in our country and consume stuff from our country. That’s the big umbrella. The more localized it gets, the better.”
If you listen closely at the Mather Airport, you can hear the shuttle rattle and the yarn unfurl, that ancient sound of threads combined into a whole.