The debate of Japanese denim quickly becomes heated among denim enthusiasts. In my opinion, the subject ought to be seen in a broader perspective. “Japanese denim” has become the finest endorsement a pair of jeans can have, but the general consensus that Japanese denim automatically is of the highest quality is a misinterpretation. With this article I will attempt to demystify Japanese denim and the of legend of what today is an industry like so much else.
The main argument of this article is that the omnipresent myth that the Japanese imported old American machinery for mass denim production, which apparently still lives on, is nothing but a marketing stunt. The support of this argument is based on numerous valid sources and common sense, and the article will take you through a little history on denim weaving.
Denim as it’s manufactured today is a result of English and American cultural history, and yes, it is generally accepted that the word “denim” originates from the French city of Nîmes. The first known American book on denim describing various weaving methods dates from 1792, and in an advertisement from 1864 a wholesale outlet in the US offers ten different types of denim.
There have been numerous weaving mills in the US over the last centuries. The undisputedly best known is Cone Mills, which opened in 1896 in North Carolina and today it’s one of the world’s largest mills that manufactures denim for brands like Levi’s Vintage Clothing at its White Oak plant. For comparison, contemporary Japanese weaving history also stretches more than 100 years back in time, nonetheless, only in the beginning of the 1970s did Kurabo, one of the most famous and leading Japanese weaving mills, set up denim production in Japan. Today the company produces Japanese denim for more than 200 jean manufacturers from around the world.
In 1972, Kurabo initiated a collaboration with the Japanese denim brand Big John, which to many Europeans is quite unknown brand. Additionally, like most of the early Japanese denim brand, before Big John established the cooperation with Kurabo they got their denim from Cone Mills. Another well known Japanese weaving mill, Kaihara, did not begin their production of selvage denim before 1994.
Big John recently did this collaboration jeans with Canadian Naked & Famous, read more here.
Taking the facts above into consideration, one questions how the Japanese in a few decades has gained “patent” on production of high quality selvage denim, and how all the stories and myths that they bought old looms and sewing machines from the US, and even from Levi’s, were coined? It only takes a few clicks online to realise that Levi’s never owned a loom, and even selvage denim, which is often associated with Japanese denim is not necessarily high quality denim. Even more importantly, using an old weave or sewing machine does not necessarily imply that the end result will be superior, as it is not the machines but those who operate them that have the greatest impact on the quality of the final result.
Supporting this argument with findings and knowledge of Paul Trynka, denim history expert and co-author of the book “Denim: From Cowboys to Catwalks,” it becomes even more clear that there’s truth in the claim of this article. The renowned Japanese automobile manufacturer, Toyota Motor Corporation actually began as a manufacturer of textile machinery. In 1924, Sakichi Toyoda invented the Model G automatic selvage loom, a techical wonder of its time that overshadowed the American equivalents like the Draper looms.
The loom has been described as, “a landmark achievement that advanced the global textile industry and laid the foundation for the development of the Toyota Group,” and the design of loom was exported to Europe, and produced under licence in the UK. Toyoda shuttle looms were still in widespread use in the 1970s, in particular at the Kurabo mill that produced the first fabric used by Evis (later known as Evisu), who’s founder allegedly is the instigator of the tale that “the Japanese” imported old American machinery. Kurabo have actually confirmed to Trynka that their shuttle looms were made by Toyoda.
And it doesn’t really make sense. Why would the Japanese import used American looms that are extremely heavy, and expensive and difficult to move around, when you consider that they had a large number of high-quality domestically produced selvage looms at their disposal? Additionally, according to Trynka most old Draper looms that Cone Mill discarded of in 1980s went off for scrap, not for export.
All of that being said, the Japanese are generally very meticulous and thorough, and there’s no doubt that they make some of the world’s best denim jeans. I know of something like 40 Japanese denim brands, which all make great jeans, but most of them never get outside of the boarders of Japan because their designs are either in violation of patent rights (especially from Levi’s) or simply because they are too expensive, especially on the European market.
Perhaps these are some of the main reasons that I – a little conservatively – mostly choose from the old American jeans manufacturers for my shop. Levi’s for instance produces jeans all over the world and uses denim from China, Turkey, America and Japan, which consequently are sold in a price range from around the equivalent to 200 Danish Kroner ($35) and up to several thousand Danish Kroner ($200+), depending on the denim quality and production place. Price and quality basically go hand in hand.
We are desperately in need of a more nuanced approach to the jeans rather than the excessive focus on the marketing scheme of “Japanese” or “sewn on an old machine.” Seemingly basic information about production sites of both fabric and the final jeans, not even asking for cotton qualities or its origins are often very difficult to obtain. I dream of detailed descriptions and product declarations – like you know them from groceries – on all jeans that would make you able to easily distinguish good from bad, as I’m confident that denim from Turkey, Italy and the US in most cases are just of as high qualities as Japanese denim.
If you want to know more about the Toyoda loom, take 15 minutes to watch this very informative video:
This article was written by Henrik Brund, shoe and denim enthusiast, and edited by Thomas Bojer