North Carolina’s Raleigh Denim Workshop is a love story between its founders, couple Sarah Yarborough and Victor Lytvinenko, and the perfect pair of jeans. In 2007, Sarah and Victor set out to create the ideal pair of jeans, the kind you wear every day (and they do). This began as many great romance stories do — with a little fear, a lot of passion and the determination to build something extraordinary.
Sarah and Victor first tore old jeans apart to meticulously study stitching and form, and then they learned how to rebuild them. Next, they looked to the past to pull machines out of old factories and storage units and spoke with the men and women who understood how to use them in order to bring the machines back to life. One of these is the Union Special 43200G machine, which is a treasured partner in Raleigh Denim Workshop’s story.
The Union Special was originally a bag-sealing machine, which was later adapted to hem jeans. In the early 1950s, most jeans were hemmed with the clean stitch made by this machine. When the faster and more efficient “lock stitch” was introduced, Union Specials were tossed aside. Similar to record players and typewriters, the Union Specials’ charm was undervalued in the face of faster, more advanced technology, but good things take time, and good jeans are no exception. To Sarah and Victor’s knowledge, there are 40 to 50 Union Special machines working today, and Raleigh Denim Workshop owns four of them.
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Once the right machines were ready to use, it was time to shift focus to materials. “We have high standards when it comes to quality and durability,” says Sarah. “We make jeans that last, and the materials are the foundation of that.” They design their own fabrics, which are milled 60 miles from their location on looms from the 1940s. Each material is made exclusively for them. Their Original Indigo Denim is made with buttery soft colored weft yarns (the back of the denim fabric) that are built to fade into the perfect vintage blue shade with wear. As the fabric wears down, the weft yarns show through and the indigo shade transforms into a soft, lived-in vintage hue.
Of course, fit is of the utmost importance to the Raleigh Denim Workshop team. Over the years, they have drafted and revised hundreds of patterns for jackets, shirts and denim to create pieces that are equally comfortable and flattering. Their shirts and jackets are intentionally tailored with an added pleat to allow room for comfort and movement. Each shirt and jacket has to pass what they call “the ping pong test,” because being able to play in the denim is high priority.
As denim trends change, so do the fits. Cropped wide-leg cuts, mid-rise, and high-waisted options are a few best-sellers as well as the classic everyday skinny jean. And because each pair is its own work of art, the “jeansmiths,” who personally cut and sew each pair, sign the inside pocket with a Sharpie that the entire team shares.
You can visit these denim artists in person at The Curatory, a mashup of a laboratory, where the team tests new products, and a curation, where Raleigh Denim Workshop’s stock lives along with the collection of goods Sarah and Victor have found while traveling and from small brands they love. The couple describes The Curatory as a place that makes you curious as soon as you walk in. “Right away, you hear the sounds of sewing machines, look left and see our ‘jeansmiths’ in action. Then, you look up and realize the ceiling is made of paper airplanes … next, you may wonder how many are there and how the hell we got them up there (there are about 7,000),” says Sarah. “If you’re lucky, you may be there when one of our talented customers is playing a serenade on our shop piano. It is a magical place unlike any other shop in the world.”
Sarah and Victor have an array of inspirations — winemaking, hip-hop duo Outkast and old-world European fashion houses to name a few. “Wines made next door from the same grape varietal by a different winemaker will taste different. I have always loved this, so we wanted to do the same thing with denim,” says Sarah. She also shares that Outkast created a new voice for hip hop in Atlanta when most hip hop revolved around the East and West Coast. The Raleigh Denim Workshop owners have had many tell them fashion cannot live outside New York, London, Paris, or L.A., but similar to Outkast they say, Raleigh Denim Workshop has something to say and came out swinging for the fences. Lastly, they admire old-world European fashion houses for their top-quality designers and craftspeople working without limits. No one could replicate what they were doing, and no one can replicate a Raleigh Denim Workshop pair.
Raleigh Denim Workshop began by tearing things apart, examining what makes them great (and not so great) and rebuilding with individuality in mind. They have created a collection, a space and a brand that can never be mass-manufactured, and they hold a story just as special as the product itself. To us, their journey defines small-business magic.
Thank you Sarah, Victor and the Raleigh Denim Workshop team for sharing your story!
Learn more about Raleigh Denim Workshop and peruse their collection, here.
All photos were taken by Shay Stifelman and appear courtesy of Raleigh Denim Workshop.