Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Toyoda Looms, and Coals to Newcastle

I though it was a folk-tale that had been laid to rest, but even recently I've noticed writers in Mens File, The Daily Telegraph , various retailers and other places perpetuate the myth that the Japanese premium denim industry started out weaving denim using looms from America. The reason for this canard is pretty simple: I believe it was a tale initially spun by Hidehiko Yamane, founder of Evis, aka Evisu, as a nice story. Around 2000, he told me he'd brought an old Levi's loom back to Japan to produce denim; when I pointed out that Levi's had never owned any looms, he corrected his story (via a British PR) to say he "brought back a loom from an American mill." It was a nice story, since copied by others like PRPS, of how a Japanese craft industry had picked up an American tradition, but I don't believe it's true. I don't believe any significant amount of Japanese selvage denim was made on American looms. Because selvage denim is very much a Japanese tradition. This video explains why:

Toyoda, the predecessors of the Toyota car company, were a leading producer of shuttle looms from 1924, when Sakichi Toyoda developed the Model G Automatic loom. This invention is a crucial part of Japan's industrial heritage. It was such a good design that it was exported widely, and produced under licence in the UK. Toyoda shuttle looms were still in widespread use in the 1970s, in particular at the Kurabo mill. And it was, one of Evis's early backers told me, Kurabo who produced the first Evis fabric. If Hidehiko Yamane did own a "Levi's loom" it was a conversation piece.

Looms are very heavy and complex items. Why, when you have a large number of high-quality selvage looms in Japanese mills, would you ship over and use an American loom? Kurabo have stated to me that their shuttle looms were made by Toyoda. And Cone, who made denim for Levi's, reckon any of their Draper looms rendered surplus to requirements in the 1980s went off for scrap, not for export. Some disused Draper looms have gone on to fascinating destinations, as I will detail at some other time, but I don't believe that any were used for quantity production in Japan. With a huge base of efficient Japanese looms already in situ that would be, as the saying goes, taking Coals To Newcastle.

Incidentally, although I've not had verification, I've been told that the later Toyoda and Sakamoto looms could be configured to produce fabrics in variable widths. This is perhaps a reason why more survived - several US mills scrapped their narrow 28 inch looms, but retained the 1950s shuttle models, like the Draper X-2, which produced fabric in the more efficient 42 inch width (that's one of the reason later Lee jeans have only one selvage line on the busted seam).  One denim luminary recently accused me of being a loom geek. It's true. Send me your photos of looms in situ, or abandoned, American or Japanese. Check out photos of "American looms" that turn out to be Sakamoto, here. And if you have photos of American looms in Japan, please prove me wrong!

Toyoda have a rich history, it's silly to credit the Americans with their achievements, so let's drop this silly marketing myth.


  1. Thanks for putting that up. The video was easily the best 14 minutes i've spent on the Internet in months -- much to my employers annoyance.

  2. theres a picture of a toyoda loom in indonesia in the middle of this page http://www.darahkubiru.com/forum/viewtopic.php?f=16&t=157&start=7545#wrap

  3. Best working loom explanation online ever! Thanks!

    They sold their loom tech patents to build vehicles and invaded my country in WW2, then they lost the war, return home, built more vehicles and invaded my country again. This time selling more vehicles than any brand here.

    Strange thing is, i drive a Toyota and i also own Jap denim - they have'nt lost the war here it seem...

  4. Thanks Paul for confirming what I always suspected.

    It's great to have something to set the record straight, though I think this myth is so widespread it won't be going anywhere fast.

    Let's brace ourselves for more conversations beginning 'Levi's aren't what they used to be - they sold all their looms to Japan in the 80s...'

  5. I feel like i've been living under a rock? How Im reading this blog for the first time is beyond me, please keep this going Sir...Great work!!! Mike