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Lee, Levi's, Benjamins? Crane Turns Jeans Into Cash

Money in a pants pocket
Flickr/Mike Schmid

While people are usually worried about putting money in their pants pockets, what about putting your pants into money?

“It was a good product while it lasted,” said Jerry Rudd.

Rudd is the general manager of global sourcing for Crane. Headquartered in Dalton, Mass., the paper manufacturer has been the sole supplier of U.S. currency paper since 1964, something it started doing in 1879. Rudd explains how a trademark of American fashion was also part of another American cornerstone, our money.

“Denim was used as a raw material here at Crane because of the lower cost,”
Rudd explained. “It’s a scrap that in many cases went to landfills at one point. So we were able to take this material and we were able to process it and use it in U.S. currency. It started back in the 1950s.”

After nearly half a century of turning blue jeans into green paper, the fashion world threw Crane a curveball. Lycra, or spandex, was invented in the 1960s mainly for use in women’s lingerie. But by the 1990s and certainly come the turn of the century, the stretchy material found its way into denim, and therefore Crane’s material pipeline.

“So we ended up with Lycra becoming more and more prevalent,” Rudd said. “People were looking at the tight-fitting and form-fitting jeans. It was something we couldn’t use. It became a contaminant in our paper.  So we ended up looking at other materials that are in the cotton waste streams and we moved to plan B, C, and D.”

Rudd says Crane saw the whole thing coming; it was just a matter of how soon and if the company would be able to separate out the contaminated denim by shifting to suppliers who weren’t using spandex. That proved to be too much of a stretch. Now the company uses a unique blend that’s 25 percent linen, or flax, and 75 percent cotton from sources across the globe. Since 1801, Rudd says, Crane has constantly been adapting to the textile industry and always has backup plans.

“The demise of the textile industry in the United States unfortunately affected us a great deal,” he said. “As an example, in this year about 13 million bales of cotton are grown in the United States.  Of that amount roughly 10 million bales will be exported and only 3.6 million bales will be consumed in the states. If you look back 12 years ago it was the opposite.”

Peter Hopkins is Crane’s historian, and he’s been busy since a Washington Post piece about the jeans-cash connection went viral in December. Hopkins tells museum visitors that what they’re wearing caused the company to be elastic in its manufacturing process.

“When I tell folks that we can’t use denim anymore I always check beforehand to see who’s wearing those skinny jeans and stretchy jeans and make sure I tell them it’s their fault,” Hopkins said laughing. “You ruined everything.”

Hopkins says the source of the world’s most treasured currency and the company’s other paper products have always had humble beginnings.

“The Crane museum was the rag room for Crane’s old stone mill which was built in 1844,” Hopkins pointed out. “This is where the ladies of the day would spend their day in front of these windows with a large scythe blade cutting large pieces cotton and linen rags into small pieces of cotton and linen rags getting ready to have them literally beaten into a pulp. Before we had those rags, rags were rags. Your shirt wore out you’d use it as a rag. Rag wore out you’d sell it to the rag man. Rag man sells it to the paper maker and we make paper out of it. That’s been happening forever.”

Jim is WAMC’s Assistant News Director and hosts WAMC's flagship news programs: Midday Magazine, Northeast Report and Northeast Report Late Edition. Email: jlevulis@wamc.org
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