What Makes Japanese Denim So Special?
Selvedge denim is produced worldwide, but what makes Japanese denim stand out in the minds of so many when compared to American, Italian, or Turkish denim? Is it all just hype, or are there real differences that give Japanese denim a unique edge? The answer is, not necessarily. Not all denim fabric is created equal, so while most Japanese and selvedge denim is high quality, that selvedge line doesn’t automatically mean that it will age in a distinct manner or wear well over time. Denim produced on a Japanese selvedge loom can have radical variations in color, weight, and texture from one fabric to the next. By understanding how different characteristics affect denim’s aging, longevity, and appearance, you’ll be better equipped to find the right kind of denim for you and judge the quality of any particular denim.
Japanese denim is often made on old shuttle looms called Toyoda looms. When the Toyoda Model G was introduced in the 1920s. It created such loyalty that looms that descended from the 1924 models are still used today by the Japanese mills En|Noir uses. Modern looms, in comparison, are very fast and efficient plus make a precise and consistent fabric. The variation and imperfections of the weaving process that lend character to the best Japanese denim. In contrast, selvedge looms set up to weave an even, neat roll of denim can produce a fabric that (aside from the selvedge line) is virtually the same as non-selvedge projectile denim. It’s worth learning as much as you can about the denim on a pair of jeans before you buy in order to determine what the fabric has to offer beyond a selvedge line. Just because a fabric is selvedge or even made in Japan doesn’t mean that it’s better than any other denim.
The dyeing process is traditionally a crucial ingredient in giving the best Japanese fabrics their flavor. Japan has a rich history of textile dyeing, dating back to kimonos from hundreds of years ago, a technique preserved today in techniques like kasuri dyeing. Likewise, Japanese denim is created with a variety of different proprietary dyeing processes. Japanese denims can be dramatically different from one brand to the next. Some fabrics excel in reproducing vintage American-style denim with a lighter overall color. Other fabrics give their denim unique fading properties, such as a gray or brown overcast. Other fabrics undergo a intense dyeing process to create denim that fades to a rich turquoise blue over time. We have to consider all of this when we set out to create a perfect color, fit and fade in the denim we produce and put on the racks of Barneys etc.
Another element of Japanese denim is the weight. Most types of denim weigh between 11 and 14 oz. While weight is largely a matter of personal preference, the added durability of heavyweight denim makes it appealing to many denim enthusiasts. Besides the additional toughness and warmth in cold weather, heavyweight denim tends to give thicker creases, and thus often faster or more defined fading than lighter materials. However, just because denim is heavyweight, doesn’t mean that it will be longer lasting than regular denim. Heavier denim puts more stress on the stitching, which can lead to faster thread breakage in some cases, especially on jeans with all-cotton stitching.
Another important factor in giving denim its character is the post-weaving processing involved – or a lack thereof.
Sanforization - is the most familiar process, by which unwashed denim is already “shrunk.” While unsanforized denim will experience considerable shrinkage from washing. This is a major consideration for us when picking a fabric because we need to adjust every pattern to fit while allowing shrinkage in stone washing process to follow.
Mercerization – This process involves soaking the fabric in a chemical solution, which causes the fiber to swell. Mercerization also gives the denim a smooth sheen. It’s one of the final processes the denim undergoes.
Although many Japanese mills make fabrics with all of these processes, something’s is best to just forgo these processes completely. This is called loomstate denim, and a few Japanese mills are among the only places in the world where true loomstate denim is still commonly produced. The manner of processing can have dramatic ramifications for the feel, durability, and aging potential of a pair of jeans after they go through the washing treatments we put them through.