Monday, 7 July 2014

Magic number: Mikiharu Tsujita and the Full Count 1108


I've always considered Full Count jeans, in particular their 1108 model, some of the finest vintage-stlyle jeans to come out of Japan. Perhaps there have been periods when they've been overshadowed by some other makers, who promise heavier slub, or super-heavyweight fabric, or denim that starts to show wear within the first few weeks; yet Full Count seem to have mastered two very difficult arts, of finding fabric that ages beautifully, to give the look of the denim from the 40s and 50s, and to design unique, distinctive and flattering cuts.

 I happened upon one of Full Count's classic designs when I was looking for a classic 60s cut; I wanted something carrot-shaped, with a distinctive taper, that I could wear short, well proud of of shoes. A friend turned me on to the 1108; a brilliant interpretation of that classic shape.   The 1108 has that distinctive '60s carrot shape, but it's combined with other brilliantly subtle touches; expecially the back pockets, which I'd describe as a '40s splayed shape, with a unique, very subtle concave curve at the top. It's combined with other quite amazingly subtle touches; the stitch length on the pockets and fly is extremely short, almost like turn of the century jeans, while on the arcuate it's longer, like '60s Levi's. Some stitching, I believe, is poly cotton, for more strength, yet some is regular cotton, which wears more quickly. The fabric, too, is beautiful; only very subtle, fine irregularities which take time to come through. It captures the feel of late 40s or early 50s levi's denim perfectly, in its subtle graininess.

 For all these reasons, I happened to take my own 1108, bought from Full Count's store in Harjuku, out for a walk when I wandered around Columbia Road and Brick Lane on Sunday. When I dropped in on Son of a Stag, they clocked my well-worn arse and informed me that the designer of the jeans, Mikiharu Tsujita was in town.

 Miki-san is one of the key visionaries of the Osaka 5, the group of Japanese companies who revived the art of vintage denim. Staying around to ask him some questions meant that I'd be late for the Transformers movie that evening. It was a sacrifice I was prepared to make. There are a million questions I'd have liked to ask Mikiharu, but he had a busy schedule; for that reason, I thought I'd keep the questions specific to the 1108 in particular. In their own way, these lovely jeans embody the whole story of the Osaka Five.

 I'd like to ask you about your 1108, which I believe is a classic design. What was the inspiratiion? Did you come from a 60s starting point, or a '40s one? 
 The cut is '60s. The details is 1940s, but the shape is 1960s.

 Tell me about the shape of the pockets - it's curved at the top, very subtly, where did the inspiration for that come from? 
 My collection of vintage jeans, I noticed sometimes the shape is a bit like that, from people putting their hands in the pockets many, many times. It's not cut that way, it's the wear. It's just a small difference, not too much.

 The fabric is very subtle, too; fine slubs, not too irregular. Which mill produced it? 
 This mill is, in Okayama, is named Shinya, a very old company, which was making denim in the 1960s. They were making fabric for Levi's in the 1960s. I found them, with my friend [Yoshiyui] Tayashi from Denime, in the early 1990s, we found them and we asked them to make denim, with the old way.

 Obviously in Okayama there are a lot of the old 1920s G series Toyoda looms, then there are post war selvage looms by Toyoda and Sakamoto. How old were Shinya's looms?
 It depends. One [type of loom] is for heavy fabric only. The other can make only up to 10 ounce. The [main] point is whether the person can use the machine properly or not.

 So the skill of the operator is more important than which particular old loom? 

 A lot of the look of the denim comes from the yarns; was that hard to get right, both for these jeans and your other early models? 
I wanted to make original American 40s style fabric… and Zimbabwe cotton happened to have a similar structure to American cotton in the 1940s. American cotton then was more a long staple cotton boll. [More] recently, it's one year, two [crops] so the boll is smaller. These days when they make the yarn from the cotton is much easier, it's a different technique.

 Do you use Taisshobo for the yarns or is it all different spinning companies? 
Different ones.

 What year did you introduce the 1108? 
1995. I started making [jeans] in 1992, and the 1108, the 66 model, came in 1995.

 You had so many challenges to get those early jeans right. What's the next big challenge that you're working on? 
 Ha ha. My challenge is, other Japanese brands are making thick and strong fabric. I am still continuing this good-feeling and comfortable and nice fit jeans, it's a continuing challenge.

I'd initially misunderstood Miki-San's final answer, so I didn't quite realise that he is making a point about not producing super-heavyweight denim. We chatted while I took his photo, and he asked me what I thought about super-heavy designs. Time was short, so I compared super-heavy, super-slubby denim to Marshall amps that go up to 11. They don't actually wear any better. From his laughs, I got the impression you won't be seeing 23 ounce denim from Full Count any time soon.

Many thanks to Rudy, Max and Linda at sonofastag, which has been stocking Full Count for several years now, as part of their terrific selection of purist denim and workwear.  Thanks also to Kotaro Tanaka of Full Count for his help. 

Monday, 30 June 2014

You've been rumbled! How to spot counterfeit Levi's part 2...

My post on How To Spot Counterfeit Levi's turns out to be one of the most popular items on this site.
Having informed customers doesn't seem to stem the flow of the dodgy denim, though.

Today someone alerted me to this pair on eBay. They have just about every warning sign indicated in my previous post; extra selvage, a dodgy, shiny, coffee-coloured leather patch, and some of my favourite spelling mistakes: don't rumble-dry these jeans! More subtle is the basic constructional error on the yoke, which differs across different Levi's… I've seen this error on some LVC jeans, too.

Thanks to the seller, madness79, for the entertainment. I've used their photos for the purposes of education - especially regarding spelling.

Saturday, 7 June 2014

Sukumo secrets: Nihon Menpu and Edo Ai

I thought I'd follow up the Nihon Menpu story with a more detailed look at one of the most fascinating aspect of their craft; their Edo Ai denim. the Sugar Cane jeans made with this fabric represent a mind-boggling mix of Japanese and American heritage. 

The Edo period, from 1600 to 1868, is well known in Japanese history; it represented a time of great growth and change, including the establishment of a significant fabrics industry, and the production of indigo - Ai. Nihon Menpu's Edo Ai fabric is dyed using the traditional technique, of natural indigo produced using the Japanese sukumo method. 

Sukumo is very different from the Indian method of extracting indigo. Producution is based primarily on Shikoku Island, just offshore from Okayama. Japanese natural indigo is extracted form the Polygonum tinctorium plant. Seeds are planted in late winter, transpolanted into fields in April, and harvested twicer in the summer. Sukumo is a composting process much like that used for making woad, but doesn't rely in milling the leaves; instead they are shredded, and separated from the stems, then spread into large beds, where they are composted; every few days the huge stack of leaves is sprayed with water and turned overto aid the fermentation or composting process. After around three months, the mass will have solidified and darkened. Traditionally it was pounded up and shaped into balls, named  ai-dama. The resulting dye stuff is more concentrated than that of woad, and would be used to dye many popular indigo items, especially sashiko, the quilted working jackets. 

For more information about natural indigo dyeing, I recommend Jenny Balfour Paul's wonderful book, Indigo.  

Nihon Menpu's Edo Ai indigo is used in a traditional hank dyeing bath, controlled by Koji Nomiya. He hangs the large hanks of fabric onto large hooks, which are lowered into the bath; the forks rotate, twisting the hanks in different directions, so that the indigo is spread evenly onto the yarn; of course, being a manuall controlled process, the indigo is more variegated than a modern rope-dyeing system. In some of the photos here, you can see the yarns look green as they emerge from the bath, then turn blue as the indigo oxidises. 

I'm not certain exactly what Sugar Cane jeans are currently made with Edo Ai indigo; I know my old pair, an approximately 1880s style jean rather like the old Nevada, were priced only slightly higher than their other jeans; a steal, considering the artistry and effort that goes into the dyeing and milling process. 

I've also added some period photos of Nihon Menpu that further emphasise the company's amazing heritage. These shots date from 1917-1920 or so. I believe the looms shown are made by Toyoda, although there's a chance they were manufactured by the British company, Platt Brothers. More on both companies soon…

Koji Nomiya hangs the hanks on the dipping machine.

 The end result:

And, for a heritage overload, here are photos of Nihon Menpu, circa 1918

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Naturally beautiful: a trip to Nihon Menpu

Photos from top: Kase dyeing with natural indigo; working on the warp; Mr Kawai (left) with Teiji Kakutani

The story of Japanese denim is filled with magic and mystery. Many people know the story of the Osaka Five, the brands who spearheaded the revival of premium selvage denim in the 1990s. In comparison, the story of the mills who actually produced that denim is shrouded in mystery. Of all those mills, Nihon Menpu tends to inspire the greatest reverence among denim cognoscenti. When you've admired that kooky Mr Freedom wabash, the beautiful streaky Sugar Cane Edo Ai, the deep natural indigo of SDA's 103XX, or the authentic evocation of '70s Levi's produced by Denime, you've actually been looking at the work of this venerable mill in the heart of Okayama.

Okayama is a beguiling, rural location; the nearest town, Kurashiki, is famous as the centre of Japan's textile production, with many beautiful, low, wooden houses dating from the historic Edo period. Several famous mills – including Kurabo and Kuroki – sprung up around here, while the nearby island of Shuikoki is a last centre of natural indigo production. Nihon Menpu itself was established in 1917 by Jiroichi Kawai, around 20 miles out of Kurashiki. Reached by a rural train line winding alongside the Oda River, the factory nestles just out of sight of the Sanyo Highway. The workmanlike exterior belies a magical place, now overseen by Shinji Kawai.

Shinji-san is tall, grey-haired, somewhat refined, yet engaging and practical; he's worked with the family firm from 1980, and took over as president in 1996. Towards the end of a sweltering afternoon, we take tea in the upstairs boardroom, under the watchful eyes of photos of his Kawai forebears and the company's longest-serving workers. Together we study 1920s American denim pullovers, or other scraps which Shinji-san and his yarn experts have deconstructed and analysed. Yet the soul of Nihon Menpu comes from its distinctly Japanese heritage. The factory has made indigo-dyed fabric for most of the near-century it's existed; the room is filled with vintage fabrics loomed here: cotton ginghams, patterned Bingo Kaguri kimono fabrics and various Sashiko, the heavy, working kimono jacket.

This heritage explains why Nihon Menpu was one of the first Japanese mills to produce denim. Early investigations into the fabric derived from the Kawais' close relationships with Edwin, who started making jeans around 1961, and, from 1971, Studio D'Artisan (NM made their selvage denim from 1988). SDA's Shigeru Tagaki was an early collaborator with Mr Kawai and, he says “a very important person in the history of denim – he was a big influence.” Other crucial people in the complex web of Nihon Menpu's relationships include Mr Kondo, from the Taishobo Spinning Company, who make many of the yarns, and Mr Ryoichi Kobayashi of Toyo/Sugar Cane.

Although compact, Nihon Menpu is crammed with fascinating machinery; doubtless, the two key processes that define its finest fabrics are the 1920s Toyoda G10 Shuttle looms, and the indigo dyeing vat.

Toyoda looms are a key part of Japan's industrial heritage, and are the workhorses of Japan's revival of selvage denim (the story that the Osaka 5 used American looms is a persistent, but silly myth). Most of Japan's selvage denim is made on Toyoda looms dating from the 1950s or 60s. Nihon Menpu have over 70 of these looms, pictured here. They're historic items, but more historic still are the 20 Model G from the 1920s, the loom that helped launch Toyoda (later Toyota) as an industrial giant. Proud as he is of these machines, Mr Kawai doesn't allow photos; I believe they were customised, different from others I've seen. These produce the finest denim – the machines weave more slowly than the later Toyodas, hence the fabric is “very relaxed”. With low internal tensions, it's softer and smoother - the epitome of what the Japanese call “gentle weaving.”

Although Kawai-San wanted his own G10 looms to bask in romantic anonymity, I have found an almost identical model rather closer to home, and I'll post the photos here soon.

The elderly hank-dyeing apparatus, controlled by Koji Nomiya, represents the same, slow-food philosophy. The hanks, short loops of yarn, are twisted by the machinery and repeatedly dipped in the vat; and the vat's contents are, again, unique, for Nihon Menpu are champions of the Ai method. This ancient technique uses “Sukumo” - the composted leaves of the Japanese Polygonum Tinctorum plant, grown nearby on Shikoku Island – Kawai-san has visited the island many times, harvested the indigo leaves and studied under Dr Osamu Ni, one of the leading experts and researchers in this ancient art. Often, this Edo Ai method is combined with dyeing via natural indigo cake, from Indigofera Tinctorum, a more efficient, but still, unthinkably old-fashioned technique. Hence there are some Nihon Menpu denims, like the Edo Ai, made for Sugar Cane, which feature a combination of dyeing techniques from the 16th, 18th and 20th centuries.

I knew Nihon Menpu produced many fine denims, principally for Sugar Cane and Mr Freedom, but I was surprised to discover that several other of my favourite fabrics originate from this tiny mill. There is, however, no typical Nihon Menpu denim. The Edo Ai, with its flamed indigo effect and slubby yarns (which contain tiny sugar grains at their core, to soften the fabric) is extrovert, obviously different - most of us will know if from several beautiful Flagship Mr Freedom items. Others, are extremely subtle. Over the last couple of years, I've been wearing a 2 by 1 Buzz Rickson armourers top; it's plain, with a utilitarian beauty all of its own, and the fabric comes from Nihon Menpu. Another landmark fabric is that made for Denime; I'm not sure how many models, but NM seem to be responsible for their late '60s or '70s style fabrics – one of Mr Kawai's own favourite jeans, shown in the photo. Over the last half dozen years, I've found my Studio D'Artisan SDA 103XX to have some of the most intriguing denim; it's natural indigo, which is dark and black when new, then fades to a baby blue with absolutely minimal crocking and a far more subtle slub than most Japanese 40s and 50s interpretations. Again, this unique denim is a flagship Nihon Menpu design; I believe in this case, the dye used is Indian natural indigo cake, rather than the Sukumo method. Finally, to give an idea of the breadth of their denims, I believe NM also produce the distinctive dark chambray for LVCs lovely sunset two pocket shirt.

My head was reeling after the day I spent looking around the factory, a combination of information overflow, and of course disorientation; technical terms don't always translate from one language to another, which left intriguing mysteries. But even that one day helped dispel many myths and unlock many secrets. It is really a magical place.

Thanks to Mens' Style magazine, who commissioned my original story on Nihon Menpu.  

Thursday, 6 June 2013

Fantastic 1880s photo of a miner in a 3-pleat jacket

I just noticed this lovely photo that came through to my spam folder, sent to me by JDW. Thanks, JD! He writes," I found a photo held by the Library of Congress (USA) of miners taking a break after dinner at a mine in Atlanta, Idaho taken in the 1880s, and one gnarly miner appears to be wearing an iteration of the three pleat jacket. I found the picture to contain great character and thought that you might like to see it as well (if you haven't already)."

 The jacket indeed looks very similar to the Levi's 3-pleat - but for the higher pocket positioning, and the fact there appears to be just the one pocket. It's possible it could be made by Levi's nonetheless -  Levi's items were home-sewn, contracted out to individuals around San Francisco, and there are often significant constructional differences between similar models. One fascinating aspect of early workwear is that many designs were generic - was one manufacturer copying another, or were they all basing their designs on previous items?  So many makers were recent immigrants, these were quite possibly based on European originals.

Take a look at the original photo; I have written to the Library of Congress asking to reproduce it on this blog.

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

The Cone Factory

 photo Conespread1small_zps83065d69.jpg  photo Conespread3small_zps4cfe3c1c.jpg

I was delighted to see my story for Inventory on Cone finally in print (admittedly, this was a few weeks ago, but I've been busy, putting some heavy wear on my jeans... by sitting typing). The wonderful photos are by Farhad Samari. 

I did several interviews with some intriguing people for this story; I planned to add one with Allen Little, the yarns expert, to this blog, but I've been too busy to edit it properly - it's so chock-full with valuable information that there's a lot to check and I want to follow up a couple of questions with Allen.

So, for those of you who want to find out more about Cone, here's a repost of my interview with Raloh Tharpe, who oversaw many of Cone's finest denims, from my personal website. Ralph has now moved on from Cone, but there's still a lot of valuable information here, which complements the Inventory story.  I'll follow up with Allen when I can...

1: You recently uncovered a cache of stereo photos of life and work at Cone circa 1907. Did they reveal anything new in terms of how the production process was organised in those days? 

 Yes! These photos gave a close up tour of the plant processes in 3D! Moses Cone appears in the background of the dye house photo. Since he died in 1908, we know the pictures were taken between then and the White Oak start up in 1905. The dye house picture shows the old vats used before continuous long chain dyeing was invented. The ropes of yarn (it took four ropes to make a 28"selvage denim) were passed through the vats several times to build the shade, then they were washed and dried. In 2005, we discovered the lost patent granted to White Oak employees in 1921 for the invention of the continuous rope range. This is the same technology used today in every corner of the denim world. This patent is a treasured possession in the White Oak archive. The process of applying starch (slashing) protects the blue lengthwise yarns during weaving. The photo shows the selvage yarns being added to each side of the warp. In the photo we can clearly see 12 spools of white yarn being added. This confirms that the colored selvage came later, and that 12 was the “official” number of ends typically used in the selvage design. In the weaving stereographs we can see the details of the Whitin looms. They were driven by belts coming up through the floor from a line shaft below. Each motor was driving multiple looms. From the Amoskeag book we learned that this type of loom was referred to as a “hand loom”. The term showed up in more than one place in the book. One person explained that the weavers could only work 4 to 6 looms with any efficiency. They were called “hand looms” because the weaver had to stop the loom and replace the empty shuttle with one containing a full bobbin of yarn by hand. The automatic loom was available in 1905 but for reasons that are unclear today, Cone elected not to buy the automatic features. It was interesting to see that the photos included no wet process finishing. The small loom rolls were unrolled across a table for inspection then sent to a folder. The folded cuts of fabric were then doubled over and the outer layers stitched together so that the cut would stay folded properly. Several of these were stacked together, covered with a wrap, and strapped for shipping. We showed you a copy of the “head ticket” that was affixed to top of the “bale” on one end. On the other end a “foot ticket” was placed. The head ticket showed the mill, at that time either Proximity or White Oak, and the foot ticket noted the fabric. The Shipping Manager who retired in the late 1970’s told me the orders would come in for “White Oak head, 2.20 foot” and everyone would know what to do from there. He also told me the story of the customer in Latin America somewhere who wanted to return a shipment because the head ticket was different than what he had been getting. It was just fascinating to see documentation that all the fabric of that very early time was shipped straight off the loom (loom state).

 2: The now-celebrated photo of women standing by their looms features an earlier design, the Whitin loom. How did that differ in operation from the Draper? And when did Cone acquire Draper looms (please say which model if you know)? Did Cone use the same model Draper looms from, say, the 40s to the 70s? Which model ? 

 The technology was essentially the same for the Whitin as for the Draper. We located the documentation that says the Whitin loom was purchased for Proximity and we are fairly sure White Oak started with them as well. Pictures from circa 1907 show no automation for the bobbin change in the shuttle and no warp stop motion. Pictures from 1925 show a battery for automated bobbin changing on the side of the loom. Those looms were probably the Draper E Model (Hopedale) in the narrow configuration for 28" selvage denim. White Oak still had some of these looms in 1985 when the shuttle looms were stopped, but most of the 400 plus shuttle looms at the time were Draper X-2 Model. While the narrow shuttle looms and the White Oak plant design were modern for their time, the American technology fell behind the shuttle loom technology of the 1960s and 1970s. For example, in 1975 Picanol 60+ inch shuttle looms made in Belgium were installed in the new American Cotton Growers denim plant in Littlefield, Texas. German and Japanese loom technology was also better. The American Draper technology just produced a lot of variation that gave character to the product. The lack of precision in the cast iron cams andin the harness motion (springs) contribute to the beautiful character of the denim. these looms on a second level wooden floor alsoproduced subtle variations in the evenness of the fabric. is why we refurbished old Draper X-3 looms and put them back on the same wooden weave room floor where the oldE Models were before. With the same location and the same loom technology we are gently weaving our way into the hearts of many a denim aficionados.

 3: Where did Cone's cotton come from in the early days.? And where does it come from now, for your premium denim?
 Proximity was so named for its proximity to the cotton fields. White Oak used the same cotton. Much of the cotton we used in the 1970's came from West Texas. Today we are back on Carolina cotton for the most part. A small amount of Californian American Pima extra long staple cotton is used for our Black Seed Denim(tm) collection.

4 : In your museum there's a lovely bolt of fabric produced in, I believe, 1905. How would you describe it, technically? 
 Well, it is really beautiful. It was also located in 2005 when we searched through our archives. Technically, it has no finish, that is to say it is loom state. The weave is 2 over 1, right hand twill. This weave is common for lighter weight denim used for farmers' overalls. We would guess it is a "6 dip" indigo shade.

 5: Cone started supplying Levi's around 1915, and was the exclusive supplier from circa 1922. Who else might Cone have been supplying with denim in the 1920s? Do you have a feel for roughly what share of the denim market Cone might have had in the 30s and thereafter? 
 We need to do some research on the customer list of the 1920s. We suspect just about everyone using denim bought from Cone at one time or the other. One figure we saw on market share in the 1930s was 33%. Old brands like Stronghold are documented. We supplied Lee with "Jelt" denim, our style 818. However, the mill in Erwin, North Carolina may have sold the Jelt before Cone. It is another question we need to research.

 6: From the '50s on, Levi's production of the 501 increased hugely, as must Cone's production of denim. What were some of the key changes in the next 20 years, in terms of spinning, dyeing and weaving the denim? From the late '60s, Levi's don't seem to retain their indigo so well, is there a reason for this? 
 The answer to this one could fill a book. The quest for lower cost pushed up the speeds of everything including dyeing. The cost of indigo increased dramatically, and so logically one would expect the mill to conserve all the dye they could. Then in 1975 everything changed forever as Cone introduced sulfur dye to replace part of the indigo. From that point, the colour loss accelerated. Around that same time, stone washing began and the accelerated colour loss became a serendipitous advantage to the jean manufacturer. In the late 1960's and early 1970's open end spinning was introduced. The process was a lot cheaper than the traditional ring spinning, but it changed the look and strength of the denim. Because of the high yarn twist needed and the lack of fiber alignment, the denim produced has a lot more tension to release when it is washed. The denim sort of crinkles during the wash process which results in differential abrasion or color loss. This is referred to by those in the trade as "marbled" or "orange peel" effect. We believe the change to wider shuttle looms started in the 1930's. By the 1950's, much of the styling was done on 42" or wider looms. The selvage all but disappears in the vintage garment trail. Sometimes we find a piece with two of the main four panels with a selvage, but these are pretty rare. The one constant was the 501(r) which remained exclusively XX(r) selvage denim until the early 1980s. The transition to wide shuttle looms was quickly followed by the transition to the high speed shuttle less looms made by Draper and Sulzer. In 1978 Cone began skewing the narrow XX(r) fabric for the purpose of eliminating the leg seam twist that occurs naturally due to the twill weave. If you examine the celebrity pictures in your book closely you can see this problem. It is easy to understand why LS&CO wanted Cone to fix the issue. That was the birth of the "shrink to fit" finish.

 7: Levi's 501 production famously changed from narrow to wide looms around 1983. What were the new looms? Projectile looms? 
 The wide 501® fabric was called XXX. The denim was made on Sulzer projectile looms.

 8: Evisu, and others, famously claim to have bought "Levi's old looms", despite the fact that most of their early jeans were made on Toyoda looms at the Kurabo mill. You investigated what happened to the old looms, what's your description? 
 We are close with our agents in Japan who well know the denim market there. To their knowledge, none of our looms, or any American Drapers ended up in Japan for the purpose of making denim. We have visited a couple of mills and seen photos of others without noticing any American Draper looms. The executive in charge of disposing of the looms in 1985 told me they ended up in a field and as far as he knew they were scrapped for the metal.

 9: Cone reintroduced narrow selvage denim for, I guess, Levi's Capital E reissues in 1992, and later for LVC in 1996. Was it difficult getting the old looms up and running, and what had happened to them in the meantime? 
The looms are modified American Draper X-3 Model. While they are newer than the X-2 or the E Model looms, the technology is nearly the same. They sit on the old wooden floor and beat the heart and soul of White Oak into the denim. It is not for lack of attention that we have almost twice the amount of defects as do Japanese selvage denim. These looms are exceedingly difficult to run efficiently. While you or I may love the defects and wear them as a badge of honour, many of our colleagues who work in the quality area don't feel the same way.

 10: I saw some lovely specialist denims at White Oak, including a selvage broken twill, and the Black Seed denim. What premium selvage denims have Cone produced in the last few years? 
 We are producing both wide denim on shuttle less looms and narrow selvage denim for the premium market. Since 2005 we have been making significant quantities of selvage product in limited runs. We were adding many new things to the selvage line every year and quickly taking them away creating rare and unique product. Lately, we are searching for more volume products for selvage, having found the small runs to be too expensive to support. We were pleased to find our selvage fabrics in jeans sold in Japan and that some mills had even copied our indigo selvage which we used in place of the more common red line. Black Seed Denim(tm) styles are available in both wide and selvage. These are extra soft and extra strong due to the properties of the American Pima cotton used to make them. We are currently working on a brown duck. Our stretch selvage uses a new stretch technology invented at Cone Denim called SGene™. It improves the shape retention properties as well as the strength of the denim. We hope to add another patent to that box in the archive.

Sunday, 3 February 2013

Ducks, miners and secret agents: LVC preview, Spring/Summer 2013

A few years ago, the LVC range was suffering from a simple lack of TLC; there was inconsistent supply, and the clothing itself was often repetitive and occasionall uninspired. In the last few years, though, I think they've got their groove back. 

LVC's relatively new policy of supplying a much wider range of clothing has annoyed some diehards, principally because of the "reissue" of fictitious items such as, say, last season's Navy Smock - an item never produced by Levi's. In contrast, though, we've recently seen some of the most accurate, intriguing reissues of LVC's history, like last year's beautiful Triple-Pleat Blouse. I think this year's Spring Summer collection is every bit as intriguing, and I particularly love the emphasis on non-denim items. So, here's a quick run-through of what I reckon are some of the highlights. 

While I'm personally not a devotee of washed items, this range includes some shirts which I think take washed finishes to a new level. In particular, I loved this 1910s Pullover Sunset Gingham Shirt

Gingham was a hugely popular fabric in late 1800s USA -  it was also, incidentally, very popular in Japan. I don't know if this is a reissue of a specific shirt from the archives, somehow I doubt it, but it's a beautiful shirt which resonates with many vintage items I've looked at. The wash is one of the nicest I've seen on a repro shirt, and gives a great impression of being bleached by an unrelenting sun. 

Several items are straightforward reintroductions of items we've seen in previous LVC ranges, like this pair of Lot 66 1920s Bib Overalls. I'm not sure of the source of 2 by 1 denim; Cone have supplied similar fabrics to LVC in the past. These are quirky items with beautiful detailing, in particular the bib straps. It's good too see these back in a raw version. Click for a bigger version of the picture. 

One major new step for LVC is the reintroduction of the women's range. For a brief period around 2003, LVC produced some beautiful customised, womens' items - what we have here is in a similar vein, such as this pair of Koveralls, in a customised cut and finish, called Gravel Bank

Along the same lines is the women's cropped Type 1 jacket, with three quarter sleeves and a customised A line shape. 

This is a new wash, named Bodie, of the original XX or Nevada jean - once thought to be an alternate version of what became the 501, it's now believed to be the precursor, with more workwear-style detailing, such as the pliers pocket on the left hip, and more widely-spaced stitching on the back pocket. It's a good wash, although to my mind now quite up to the level of some of the landmark LVC by the (mysteriously disappeared) Bart Sights. 

The 1874 Closed-Top Cotton Duck Jumper was one of the most historically-significant recent LVC repros; this is a similar one-pocket version, which IIRC was at one point repro'd by Levi's Japan. This version uses a Cone 2x1 9oz denim in a distinctive wash (if you can call a process that makes fabric dirtier a wash). Like the duck version, this will be a baggy fit, good for layering over other shirts. 

I'm not certain of this, but I believe there is a revision to the details of the raw 1966 501. On the left is the rinsed version, on the right is the raw. The raw had a new arcuate shape, not as shallow of the old one, which to my mind exaggerated the flatness of the original. 1960s arcuates did vary widely in shape, as the tooling used to make them was worn, hence we can't say there's on definitive shape, but I find this one more convincing than the previous version. It's this 1966 jean, of course, which features Cone's evocation of the original slubbier 60s denim, caused by the Magnadraft process

New Rinses

In addition, I'm told there's a new, simpler wash to replace the old Rough Rinse. Rough Rinse 501 used Cone fabric but were sewn in Turkey, and given a tinted wash. The new version, Rough Rinse, applies to the 1947 and 1954, and loses the tinted wash - which is a big improvement. 

Other nice items; a White Tag pants and 507 jacket (note the absence of rivets), in a paler Sky Blue denim, a late '60s (or early 70s) Laundry Bag (with oversized pocket) and, going rather further back in time, a Shield Front Henley.

I'm told that 2012 was a high watermark year for LVC, partly due to the James Bond effect; Daniel Craig wore a Menlo jacket in Skyfall, which caused a massive spike in sales (as did Bond's wearing a beautiful pair of Crocket and Jones Islay). It appears that only recently did a Levi's employee notice that one Menlo jacket in their archives is actually fully reversible. Hence this new version.

Now for more of my personal favourites, followed by a quick peek at the fall look.

Anyone who follows this blog will know that I'm intrigued by Levi's early cotton duck items. The very first riveted pants ever made by Jacob Davis were sewn from white duck; and recent research has brought new insights into the fabric used on early Levi's duck items - the wide selvage line suggests the fabric was probably made for ship sails.

Now it appears that Levi's and Cone have developed a new shade of the tan cotton duck, to try and provide a better match to some early samples (it is of course impossible to be completely definitive about fabric colours, due to the ageing process). There is a Youth's Waist Overall in the Levi's archive in a more brick-coloured tan; a second variant of this fabric, it appears, was in a more mustard shade. This is used in a new version of the Single Pocket Duck Waist overalls. Note that this pair feature a double stitched yoke (some early examples had only single stitching or, in some examples, no yoke whatsoever). Note the wide selvage, visible either side of the busted seam. These are very nicely-made items, sewn in LA I believe.

Secondly, we have two beautiful variants of the Triple Pleat Jacket I featured last year. This is one of the simplest, most attractive and indeed earliest Levi's jackets; I was hoping they'd introduce a duck version, and here we have it, in the new Cone fabric. The unadorned, low, riveted pockets give it a very different look from most other blouses; plainer, more utilitarian and to my mind, drop-dead gorgeous.

It's not as abounding in selvage lines as the Duck Jumper, but they're still a beautiful part of the detailing:

This second version was comparatively unexpected; a Triple Pleat in a lighter, indigo gingham. It's like  cross between a jacket and a shirt and would probably work best over a simple T. I'm wondering if this might be a Nihon Menpu gingham - I know they're worked on similar fabrics and supply some shirting fabrics to LVC - but whoever made it, it's unusual and, like the closed top shirt earlier, the wash complements the indigo-and-ecru fabric.

We know from Mike Harris's discoveries that workwear makers often used fabrics they had to hand, such as ticking, so there's historical precedents for this, and I'm told that there are indications Levi's produced early items in ginghams. So this is an interpretation of what might have been available. It's an extremely quirky item - and hence, like a couple of items here, it's possible it will only be stocked at Levi's own XX stores, like Cinch.


FInally, a sneak peek at the Fall range. The big news here will be the re-appearance of Orange Tab, all made in the USA.

Orange Tab items were priced slightly lower than the 501, and often came in more fashion-oriented cuts. They also tended to use Open End yarns - this gave a very different look. From the 90s onwards, Rin Ring yarns have become so popular that the Open End versions, once cheaper and hence more mass-market, are consequently becoming more esoteric. Open End yarns can give great fades - not necessarily worse than the classic 50s look, just different. The "new" fabric comes from Cone, and  I believe the new range will include, for men, the 606 Super Slim (Ramones jeans), 605 regular fit, and 607 bootleg. The women's jeans comprise a customised skinny 606, and a bell bottom 648.

The samples I saw are a brilliant evocation of the little e Levi's era, and they come at a time when the originals are prohibitively rare and pricey.