A Return to the Golden Age of Manufacturing

Words by Kate Patton

Photos by Geoff Wood

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In the summer of 2008, Victor Lytvinenko and Sarah Yarborough were standing outside  Barneys, a luxury department store in New York City. The minivan they had borrowed the night before from Victor’s father sat in a parking garage a few blocks away, hissing and settling in the heat of a New York summer, its back seats packed with denim and designs. They knew that in the next few hours either something very good or very bad would happen. They knew this because, unlike the thousands of shoppers who would darken the doors of Barneys that day, Victor and Sarah were not there to shop. They were there to sell. And this wasn’t just any sell. This would be their first real sell—and they had no idea what they were doing.

Victor and Sarah where both raised in Raleigh, North Carolina, each with a love of making things with their hands. This love had led Victor into an incredibly diverse list of hobbies he would pick up from year to year. This list included everything from cooking to furniture making to vinification (winemaking). It was while he was studying the growth of grapes in the North Carolina mountains with a professor from Wake Forest that he met former textile workers who had filled the sewing factories of the area before production was moved overseas. Victor had no experience making clothing, but that day inspiration struck and he decided he was going to make a pair of dress pants.

After buying the material, cutting a pattern, and sewing each stitch, he thought, Why am I making these? I don’t wear dress pants; I wear jeans. Victor grabbed a pair of jeans from his dresser, tore them apart, and put them back together. Then he made his own pair. His new hobby quickly became an obsession, and Sarah joined in. “We made a pair a day every single day for six months,” he says. They were deconstructing, reconstructing, and tweaking their work as the days progressed. Victor used all of the supplies of past hobbies to fuel this new venture, selling a bicycle and a video camera to buy their first old industrial sewing machine. With this, they moved their small hobby from Victor’s garage to their apartment floor. “Making jeans by hand was an exploration that took a long time, but it also allowed us to learn more,” he says. “We had to do everything wrong a thousand times to learn what was right, because no one was telling us how to do it; we were figuring it out.”

Wearing these custom made jeans around Raleigh, it wasn’t long before people took notice and wanted to buy them. Stitch by stitch, they realized that their denim obsession might just be their future. “Sarah was still in school at North Carolina State University, and I was coaching a soccer team, so we had nothing to lose,” says Victor. Deciding to go for it, they got a small loan from their local credit union, moved into a little warehouse, and went to work.    

They connected with retired factory workers and sewing machine mechanics, becoming informal apprentices. They taught them the old, traditional ways of assembling denim on machines that are no longer being produced. Everyone they met was excited to share wisdom from a different era in manufacturing with a younger generation.

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Old machines were all they could afford, but they came to realize there was a beauty to them. Made in America during the golden age of manufacturing, a time that was all about quality, these machines were still capable of producing that same level of craft. “The older machines move a little slower, but they make more interesting and beautiful stitches,” Victor says. “They helped us make the most well-made jeans that we could.”

A local news station took notice of Sarah and Victor and ran a small piece called “Raleigh Denim.” The story caught the ear of a local businessman who called Sarah and Victor and asked where they wanted to take their business. Victor replied with a dream: “In five years, we’d love to sell in stores like Barneys.” The man called them back two weeks later saying he had talked to a buyer at Barneys in New York City on their behalf and she had agreed to see them.

The meeting went well, they thought. Sarah and Victor left Barneys and began walking down Madison Avenue, unsure but hopeful. Two hours later, they received a phone call. Barneys placed an order. A big order. Their first account.

Victor and Sarah cut and sewed every single pair of jeans for that first order. They delivered spring 2009. Barneys sold out in two weeks, and it wanted more in more stores.

North Carolina has a long history of textile production.  When America began to send its work overseas, stateside factories stateside closed—and North Carolina wasn’t spared.  “American Made” is making a slow comeback, and Sarah and Victor are making their mark in the revitalization of their home state.

During his winemaking days, Victor learned that you can try to copy someone’s wine, but you can’t. You don’t have those grapes; you don’t have the exact magic that happens on their vineyard with their hands. “By hand means never the same—there is only one,” Victor says. “We loved the idea of making things ourselves, but if we were going to do it, we were going to define it in a way that is so pure and true that the idea of knocking off our product isn’t possible. We wanted to make something that is of our hearts and minds and of North Carolina.”