Field Report no 3: A Journey to the Heart of the American Denim

What is selvedge? Hard to point out who said that because it is quite a commonly asked question, but hardly ever satisfactorily answered one!

In my experience most of the people who sell denim don’t even know how to explain it properly. But it’s hard to explain without understanding how denim is made and that requires the knowledge of how fabrics are woven. The guy asking questions usually doesn’t have the slightest idea of either fabrics or weaving. Can’t really blame the guy selling. It was up for me to clear this thing, I needed some answers.

Time for a good thorough research. I bought all the denim issues of jap magazines I could get my hands on and oh boy there were plenty of them. The magazines, a Japanese book of vintage 501's. Another Japanese book about “waist overalls” which was the name they went by before someone invented the name "jeans". After a long and meticulous research period at the work spot I dragged myself out the basement into the daylight.

With bright eyes I knew that selvedge, self edge, selvage, etc., literally just means the edges of the fabric when it is made with a shuttle loom. Shuttle looms are vintage tech, painfully slow, flawed mechanical things that make imperfect cloth creating uneven slubby surfaces! 

So what is a shuttle loom? And what's the big deal about it?

Looms are the machines used to make woven fabrics - to weave them. Most of the looms used nowadays are either airjet looms or projectile looms. Both made to precision, with high tech computers and boring! Mean looking things that make tons of noise and tons of fabric.

I was tipped off about this large facility that housed dozens of those modern space age high tech airjet looms. Owned by one of those big companies whose name sounded like a lousily operated cheap stockings manufacturer from the eastern Europe. In reality, they were highly profitable, making millions. It was time to see how real denim was made.

A small chit-chat with the head of the marketing got me access to the facility. I took note of the atmosphere, which was strict as hell. Maybe they thought I was some serious reporter. There was no laid-back feeling of the American west where the true denim was born, only this uptight corporate marketing goon walking beside me explaining to me how they just cut 0,5 % off their yearly consumption of electricity and how that makes everything sustainable. I expected country songs playing and denim heads working the machines. There was none of that. No whiskey, no cowboys, not even a single pair of cowboy boots, nor old jeans advertising posters, only strict rules for eye and ear protection and even smoking was forbidden! What is this? I wondered and took it all in with an unlit cigarette dangling from the corner of my mouth.

I gazed upon the big hall of machinery. I was in the beasts’ lair with yarns laid by the mile. The marketing dude kept talking: “Air pressure is used to propel the weft yarns through the warp, hence the name airjet, heh, pretty clever if you ask me." The goon laughed nervously and after and awkward pause he continued: "Jet makes you think of an aircraft and actually our CEO owns several, ehhehh." After his unsuccessful follow-up joke the goon cleared his throat and stiffened: "Airjet looms are highly efficient and that is the reason they are now so widely used. Machines are quite noisy, so every employee must wear ear protection. We as a company take workplace security very seriously and we have set our standards accordingly, following the letter of the law to the last letter.”

The machines made a disturbing noise, a fast paced Chaka-chaka-chaka! Tech dudes were inspecting the machines with check-lists. Airjet looms don’t make selvedge, because the method is different. They don’t have a shuttle that takes the weft thread around the warps to create a self finished edge id est selvedge. Instead the yarns are cut after being propelled with air pressure. What a savage way to torture cotton threads! I screamed out loud: “Continuous yarn makes a better fabric!” 

Excuse me? the goon said. I told him that I needed selvedge. “Unfortunately I am not familiar with that protocol, he replied. The machinery was firing up. Chaka-chaka-chaka! I could see the enormous speed, the efficiency, the engineered precision and the profits. These machines made six times wider fabric than a shuttle loom would make.

I began to see it. With every chaka-chaka the airjet loom filled the surroundings with industrial catchphrases such as SPEED, EFFICIENCY, QUANTITY, PROFIT! CHAKA-CHAKA! This was not the American denim I naively though I would find here, this is engineering! I closed in on one of the machines, it was pumping out fabric 4 meters wide. The fabric had elastane on it. My god! These godless men were creating stretch denim! It struck me... it was like in They Live and my vintage Robert La Roche sunglasses revealed the truth. I had entered the halls of corporate greedy capitalism that feeds the hysteric consumerism with fast-fashion. This was the true face of Evil Capitalism that every commie warned me about.. Not only Slavoj Žižek would agree with it, he would also agree with my choice of movie! The marketing goon had transformed into a prune faced alien. He told me that my visiting time was over. 

After staggering out the front door I fell to the ground and passed out. I had dreams about real shuttle looms. An ancient Japanese denim guru appeared in my dream and told me to seek the true denim. The security guard's boot hit my ribs with a dull thud accompanied by a sharp pain. It woke me up alright.. I pulled myself together from the pavement convinced that my only option was to travel to Japan and find this mysterious guru.

Even though Japanese selvedge is heard almost everywhere, selvedge denim is actually pretty rare, and after my abysmal experience of the horrible production of cheap denim I started to really see the value in the things that are made with love and the devotion to the craft.

Beginning at the 1950's the shuttle looms became obsolete and as with all precious things the Japanese bought the unused old machines in great numbers. Modern tech replaced the old vintage looms almost everywhere. They were relics and for a short period of time no-one wanted them, except the Japanese. That is why we have this Japanese Selvedge cult. The obsession for true American clothing, the real stuff that America hardly even produces anymore.

These old shuttle looms also weave a very narrow fabric, good for cutting a pair of jeans or a jean jacket. That also explains why the jean jackets are cut in a certain way, why the seams are positioned like they are. For example denim jackets usually have a three piece back - that all comes down to the narrow fabric.

I began digging info on this mysterious old denim guru from Japan. I went to Styleforum and found nothing. I haunted the local dive bars in search of denim aficionados with some real knowledge. I even tried to call Nick Wooster but he wouldn't pick up the phone. Japanese blogs had some vague info. I digged archives. Finally I was able to narrow my options down to only one possibility. My Japanese sources revealed that there was an old shuttle loom sitting in the back of an old factory in Okayama prefecture, operated by only a single person. Everything checked out. I wanted to believe. I wanted to believe that not all hope for true American denim was lost! I arranged my travel plans and booked a plane ticket to Nippon. Okayama, here I come.

25 hours later....

It didn’t look like much. In fact it didn’t really look like anything. I couldn't tell if this place was even operational. But sometimes looks can be deceptive.

I got closer, an old rustic building with vines all over. Birds singing. The backyard was nicely kept, a hint that there were inhabitants. Then a mysterious figure appeared at the door. Stepping out of the shadow was an old man clad in extremely well worn denim. His jeans were super faded and with mended spots and patches. I noticed the exposed rivet on the crotch and inaccurate double-stitching on the pocket edges which indicated that the pair was a Levi’s from the early 1900s, that time double-stitch machines were not invented yet so double stitching had to be done manually with two rows of single needle stitching. I didn’t do my research in vain!

The old man nodded and I took a deep bow and announced my presence. “I came here to chew bubblegum and search for a proper shuttle loom and I’m all outta bubble gum.” A child appeared behind the Old Man and spoke English: “Welcome, visitor. Master Junichi is the last of the loom operators. Only he has the skillset to operate an ancient shuttle loom. Before we take you there, you must have a look at the master’s archive.

I was brought to a rack filled with old denim jackets, chore coat, truckers, type 1’s, type 2’s, type 3’s… all of them. Everything, all the super rare stuff seen in private collections, denimhead catalogues, magazines, collector books and even in museums. The collection must have been worth millions. The collection was so overwhelming that it dropped my jaw and I couldn’t find it.

The Old Master picked up a denim jacket from one of the racks and started speaking in Japanese. The kid kindly translated: “Junichi-San apologizes for the fact that he only has one of these jackets, there are two of them in existence and he used to own both, but he had to sell the other one to Nigo for 50 000 dollars. Replacing parts to the loom is nearly impossible because spare parts haven’t been manufactured for over a 100 years. It means that every part has to be handcrafted and it is very costly.” Then the master moved on and picked another jacket from the rack: A denim chore coat with a vest attached. Junichi-san explained and the kid translated: “This is a Levi Strauss riveted combination coat that I saved from the San Francisco earthquake in 1906. The earthquake was a devastating catastrophe that destroyed most of San Francisco and with it fire broke out and burned down the Levi Strauss factory with all of its archives and history. I was a young man back then working there as a cutter.” That moment I was absolutely sure that Junichi was the Guru in my dreams. He seemed to know everything about denim.

The kid told me that he was being prepared for the task of the shuttle loom operator and he will take the reins when Junichi retires at the age of 150. There was no hurry, because the kid still had over a decade to prepare and learn everything.

Junichi-San kindly handed my jaw back to me and then we were off see the most prestigious thing, the oldest of them all - the antique shuttle loom. There it was. At the back of the great hall with a spot of natural light glaring from a skylight beautifully illuminating it. The milled steel plate read AMOSKEAG MANUFACTURING COMPANY. It was a semi-automatic shuttle loom from the 1830s in perfect working order, despite of its age. Machine of this sort requires manual operation, making it even slower than a regular vintage shuttle loom.

The Old Master stepped in to operate his machine. I observed him doing his thing. He operated the clunky loom with ease, calm and experience. The old man talked to the machine. The thing with the old machinery is that you need to feel them, you need to know how to talk to them. You are not operating the machine, you are having a conversation with it. You won’t find tutorials for that on YouTube.

I listened to Junichi-san talking to the antique AMOSKEAG machine with a hushed mellow voice, almost whispering. The loom replied with soft clunks. Listening to Junichi relaxed me to the bone. There were no elastic yarns from hell, no LCD-monitors and no engineers with check-lists. Only an old man, his apprentice and the machine. After their conversation was over Junichi rolled out the completed fabric. I snapped out of my meditative stupor to gaze upon its exquisite imperfection. This was finally it! 

I had found the selvedge I was looking for. I had found peace. I had found peace in denim. Junichi's fabric had a rainbow selvedge, a perfect slubby surface and left hand twisting tendencies. The imperfection, the distinctive characteristics of it, the weaver’s handwriting, you could say. It was like a haiku poem written with indigo dyed yarns. A microcosmos of Japanese Wabi-sabi, where imperfection is beautiful. Indeed it was beautiful, with the weight of 18 ounces per meter. A fuzzy warmth went through my body. It relieved all the stress and the anxiety. As I took a deep breath I felt I was in complete harmony with the universe. And then I passed out.

Modern space age projectile- and airjet looms would have made a kilometer of fabric in the time that it took Master Junichi to weave the fabric for a single pair of jeans. Why choose selvedge then? Because it's the real thing.