Thursday, 26 January 2012

LVC preview, spring-summer 2012

I had a quick run-through of the new LVC season in their London showroom, which included a couple of the nicest items they've produced in years.

The short version of what I heard is that recent tales that XX is being watered down, or absorbed into the corporate behemoth, seem to be a gross exaggeration. There will be a distribution change, but XX will remain in Amsterdam - and, better still, there's more intriguing stuff on the way. Judging by some of the items I saw here - particularly the one I'll detail last of all. - they're roaring back with a vengeance.

I've presented some of the items that caught my eyes below. The two themes are 1960s Ivy League, and 1920s.

These Ivy League-theme items include:

• 50s-style Navy smock, inspired by photos of a student wearing something similar in T.Hayashida's recent Ivy League reprint
• Varsity cardigan
• some lovely 60s striped Tees
• 60s Hawaiian shirts
• a 605 skinny orange tab repro. It's great to see those back - I've seen complaints because these include elastane, but the denim looks great in the flesh, pretty close to the original, very flecky, Open End denim of the original jeans. You also have those lovely, hokey shallow pockets and pale stitching People always bang on about the 501, but this is a distinctive, classic silhouette - I have a real soft spot for these rivet-less cheapies...
• 60s tote based on a recently-found deadstock original.
The originals were designed for LS&Co by a San Francisco design house called Now - they came up with hats, aprons, and this bag, all with Cone denim and a bright red handle or binding. There's something very cheery (or is it cheesy) about these items - which the repro manages to capture. 

I also spotted a pretty impressive wash: Rumble, a 1944 jean:

The 1920s items looked good too. The Lot 66 bib overalls are back in the range, in a wash named Chapel Hill, as are the Balloon Pants - turns out that pair I spotted earlier are for this season - the finish is named Found. I might have liked these, were I not in mourning for the raw version. The third item is a pair of 1960 cinchback Chinos.

Apart from that one special edition I mentioned earlier, my favourite earlier item was the Sunset Shirt with Bow Tie. Very Oh Brother Where Art Thou...

Some of these items are in stores already, others will follow.

And now, tada, my favourite item. This is a limited edition, and weighs in at a hefty price - but considering what you pay for some RRL items, and how some of the Limited Edition prices of rare items like the original Nevada, hold up, they are still impressive.

The Triple Pleated Blouse is a repro of the oldest-known Levi's denim jacket. Like all these early pre-San Francisco Earthquake items, historical info on the original is sketchy. Levi's Archives obtained the jacket from a collector in early 2010 - hopefully at some point I can feature photos of the original. Compared to, say, the early 206 jacket in the archives, I love the combination of the complex pleats and the simple, large pockets. My guess is that, like all the pre-1915 style fabrics, which mimic the original Amoskeag denim, that the slightly black-green denim comes from Kurabo. I believe RRP on this is £350 - and there are only roughly 100 being produced. Both this, and the washed version, are made in the USA. I wish I'd had more time to examine this, but it is a magnificent piece.

There was more good news in the form of the Autumn list for the US - which for the first time in ages includes a wide range of dry items. In terms of the 501, there will be an 1890, the 1922, 1933, 1944, 1947, 1954 (the skinny one) and 1955, 1966, and 1978. Better still, the Pantaloon reappears, in both raw and a wash I believe, plus the return of the much-missed 201. The 201 was the cheaper alternative to the 501, and the LVC version - with a very greencast fabric made by Kurabo - has always been one of their finest repros, as long as you have the confidence to pull off something so baggy and old-skool.

Finally, not enough space here, but LVC for women is back. Will update when I can. 

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Bud Strickland, Cone, and the magnetic appeal of 60s denim

The White Oak Weave Room, Cone, 1925

I've been wanting to track down Bud Strickland for some time - but as the new Denim Director, Product Development, of Cone, he's a busy man. He has a significant historical legacy to uphold - and to keep profitable! Cone resuscitated all their Draper selvage looms in 1992; at first, their selvage denim was produced exclusively for Levi's, with whom Cone have a relationship that stretches back a few years shy of a century, but in recent years Levi's have allowed Cone to keep the looms busy by producing denim for other companies, too (although the Levi's-style Shrink To Fit fabric remains exclusive to them). Thus, Cone now produce denim and cotton duck for jeans manufacturers including Raleigh, Left Field and Barney's and their White Oak plant is busier than ever: hence, Bud would like still more Draper looms. It's not just about business, though - any denim old hand would agree with him when he says: "There is something about them. They are special."

 The factory floor, White Oak, Greensboro

I've seen a lot of people, including Left Field and Roy Slaper, picking up on your indigo canvas recently. Is it becoming a bigger part of your output?
It's just one of many nice looking fabrics we have coming off the old looms. We figured out a way to actually get an indigo dyed rope transfer onto the packages that could be used as fill yarn. I don't say it's been a huge volume item because it’s not inexpensive but it does make a beautiful fabric.

A friend who works for a major jeans company said he'd been having problems with one department who were worried that indigo duck pants might rub off on furniture and attract legal problems! That the legal department fantasise of getting people to sign a disclaimer before they wear dark raw denim and especially the duck.
Absolutely. It's amazing.  The designers want the denim as dark and saturated as we possibly as we can get it. And indigo, I'm sorry, is just indigo! It's going to crock! As I'm sure you're aware, Levi's is coming up with what they're calling their International Fabric standard, so they can sell any fabric in any country.  One of the specs is really good crocking performance. You talk to the designers, and they want it darker, and you talk to the business side and they say, we can't get it past crocking! That's something that's going to have to be resolved.

 Cone indigo duck fabric

But what they say is good crocking, I might say is bad crocking - in that I might want it to crock!
Exactly. Of course we have heard stories about people with white leather seats in automobiles getting caught in the rain and having their dark jeans crock . But if the customer is knowledgeable they know how to handle it.

I know that Cone's various fabrics for the LVC replicas are very different from each other; the 47 fades in a very different way to the 55, likewise the 1915 and the 1933 denims look very different to each other. A lot of that is down to the warp yarn and how that's made, but I wondered how much is down to the looming. For instance, do you have the Draper looms set up differently for the 47 and 55 - although they're the same configuration, is there any difference in tension or other parameters?

The looms do tend to be set up the same way as far as tension goes.  You can play with the whip roll and tension, but by and large we like to keep it where we can reproduce it from day to day, that's the important thing, being able to get a look and reproduce it.

Obviously a lot of that specific character is in the yarn. And I know that when you repro'd the 60s denim you spent a lot of time trying to replicate that slight extra slubbiness from that period, which was the effect of Cone introducing a new spinning technique, Magnadraft. Can you tell me about Magnadraft and what it was?
Magnadaraft was touted to be the latest and greatest technology in its day. What it was, rather than having a lever hold tension on the rolls in the  the drafting zone where the roving is elongated in making the desired yarn size, weighted rolls were used.  The weighted rolls were magnetized and held in place by magnetic force.. So that's how Magnadraft came about.

Over time magnets can lose some of their power unless they're re-magnetised. You didn't really didn't know which rolls were providing a little more tension than other rolls, so you're starting to get all these variations within the yarn, just due to the the strength of the magnet changing over time. And of course, people didn't realize exactly what was happening until after the fact. And that 's where a lot of the yarn character came from.  It was a little bit more pronounced than the older technology, which from a technical standpoint turned out to be better. But from an aesthetic standpoint, of course, Magnadraft gave a look that everyone came to love.

Fantastic, thank you for that. This is superb geek information!
And that's still a look that we strive to match now. I don't know the exact dates when Magnadraft came in and out, I know it was used in the '60s, but by the time I arrived in the '80s it was long gone.

An original pair of late 60s Levi's 302, using yarn spun with the Magnadraft technique. This was as slubby as original Levi's fabric gets; it fades in a very subtle way compared to some current takes on vintage denim. 

We always hear that in the late 70s Cone started putting more sulphur in the dye, partly because people wanted the colour to wash out more quickly. But do you think there were any major changes in the indigo, and the dyeing process, in the 50s and 60s?

I don't think there were. You hear a lot of stories about why sulphur started being used in the dye shade. The one I hear most often is that when we had the 1973 oil embargo, the price of anything petroleum based - including, of course, synthetic indigo - sky rocketed. So they started using sulphur as a way to stretch the indigo.  There were also shortages of indigo, because that was also the time denim started being really popular as an every day fabric – a lot more people started getting into the business and the supply got tight. So the price of indigo went up, supply got limited, and sulphurs were being used as an extender to the shade. Back then of course everything was being sold rigid.. Then when people started washing, I think the laundries figured early on out they could get different effects because the sulphur was there. And that to me is the interesting part of it, that by chance you make a change and down the road someone figures out how to take advantage of the change. That to me is what happened with sulphurs.

How it used to be done: ring spinning at Cone, circa 1907.

Nowadays, of course, you're simulating the Magnadraft spinning inconsistencies, by programming the yarns with a computerised spinning system. What is the system and how does it work?
Yes, it is programmed.. We use a computerised system that can make slubs, we can control the number of slubs, the thickness of slubs, the length of the slubs, the frequency of the slubs, and combine different slubs in one yarn. The system we use is made by Amsler. It's a Swiss-made system. There are others on the market but that's the one we use - it allows us to engineer the yarns to reproduce those looks.

You mentioned before that your sources for cotton in the old days were likely much the same as they are today. And where does your cotton come from today?

It is American cotton, primarily from the Delta region. Which is the Mississippi river states, and then of course there's Texas cotton.

Recently we've seen people push, say, Texas cotton as having a particular look, is it different, or is that marketing speak?
I think it is, in that there's so much variation anyway. Cotton varies from field to field, region to region, year to year. Every year we buy and cotton and do what we call lay-downs, we open a large number of bales at one time, we put them down in a way we average same attributes of length, and strength from the beginning of the cotton season to the end so we have consistency over that year. That's not to say it doesn't change the next year, because growing conditions change, it might have been a dry year, it might have been a wet year.

Some people associate hairy cotton with being higher quality. But isn't it true that in the old days, hairy cotton was seen as being poorer quality, because it was shorter staple?
The shorter the staple, the hairier you'll see it, that's true. And we do have requests on shuttle fabric from customer, not to be singed, because they want that hairy look.

I've been reading a wonderful book by Richard Porcher on the history of Sea Island cotton, this fabled, lost stuff from the 20s. Do you think any of this long-staple cotton made it into Cone denim at that time?
My guess would be probably not – because even in those times it was a premium cotton and you don't make denim out of premium cotton, you save that for your fine yarns, that need long fibres and a lot of strength. They may have but I have no way of knowing.

What are your plans for shuttle fabric from the White Oak plant over the coming year?
Basically, we're here to serve our customers, whatever looks they're trying to recreate or match form old jeans or old fabrics. we will continue to work with them any way we can. Right now our shuttle loom business is very, very strong, it's one of those situations where I wish we had a few more shuttle looms right now. We're very proud of the fabrics we've got coming off right now.

I've seen a lot more interest in cotton duck aka canvas over the last few years, are you seeing more demand for more?
We've been making it on a fairly steady basis for quite a few years now. I don't see that changing.

Do you define duck and canvas as being the same fabric?
I look at them as being one and the same. It's just a matter of definition. Some people they get all hot and bothered about it, but it's one and the same. For other end users, duck may have been set up to make it more waterproof - if you were making outer wear, you might have might have a much higher sley, ends per inch. But what was coming out of a denim mill was going in to workwear, and there was not any difference.

What new projects do Cone have coming up?
This does not apply to the shuttle looms but there's a lot of press, a lot of excitement, about recycled content in fabrics. And we are planning something in that area, I can't reveal exactly what right now.

What a great example of What goes around, Comes around. Because in the 1920s there was a recession, cotton prices went through the roof, and Levi's introduced the 333, which used a lot of recycled fibres in the yarns.
Right. I like going on along those lines.

You mentioned that you with the demand for more shuttle fabrics, you don't have enough looms to meet denim. So if anyone has any Draper looms knocking around, they should give you a call?


All period shots are courtesy of Cone Denim, a division of International Textile Group, Inc, and are their copyright. Used with thanks.

Monday, 16 January 2012

Lotus Veldtschoen, guaranteed waterproof!

I've been noticing boots like these - which I'd once call officers' boots - for years, but it is only fairly recently that I've managed to find out exactly what they are, and snaffle a pair for myself.
The short definition is that these are a Lotus Veldtschoen Derby boot; Lotus are the makers, at one time one of the UK's leading shoe manufacturers, and Veldtschoen was one of their key construction. Levi's used to boast "a new pair free if they rip".  Lotus, in much the same non-nonsense vein, were always "guaranteed waterproof."

Popular initially for use in golfing, hiking and hunting, Lotus Veldtschoen were first marketed as officers' boots around 1915, and remained in production until, approximately, the 1980s. They still promote coos and sighs of recognition from old-school shoe salesmen, who often cite the pair in the windows of Cordings (the wonderful tweedy huntingear shop, now apparently owned by Eric Clapton). This particular pair sat in a bucket of water, for many years, with the "guaranteed waterproof" banner above them.

With the aid of Rebecca Shawcross, Shoe Resources Officer at Northampton Museum, I've found out more of the history of these boots. Veldtschoen was a construction always linked with Lotus,  who claimed to have their own distinct variation, shown below, but in fact it's an ancient configuration, dating back to the 15th and 16th century. It was also known as American Stitch Down, and first appears on the documentation trail as Veldtschoen in the mid 19th century, according to Rebecca: "There were British patents taken out for that type of construction in 1843, 1856 and 1860. We believe the term Veldtschoen comes out of the Boer war; Africaans were wearing shoes with hide turned out, and one chap who worked here thinks it's possible that type of construction was taken to South Africa by the Dutch."

Vledtschoen boots didn't arrive as mainstream footwear until World War 1. It appears that one manufacturer, Manfield, had Veldtschoen items in their catalogue by around 1890 but without a doubt the best-known brand for Veldtschoen was Lotus, produced by the company Bostock and Son . The Bostocks were one of the oldest-established footwear families in the Midlands; there are records of the indentures of William Bostock who was apprenticed to Matthew Morell, in 1759; Thomas, his son, was in turn apprenticed to William, and eventually moved to the town of Stafford in 1814, where he worked with his own son and established the business, Bostock and Son. This was the site of the family's factory, shown circa 1930. The company was renamed Lotus Ltd in 1919.

Lotus produced a wide range of footwear - their Delta brand was a popular make of women's shoes - but Lotus Veldtschoen would become their flagship line. They were probably launched around 1912, but they were being heavily advertised by 1915, and were aimed at officers' families - the idea being that their son would withstand the rigours of the trenches better in a pair of waterproof boots. The initial model seems to have been a Derby Boot (shown bottom right in the illustration below) with an apron front and stitching down the toe, a shape most of us know from the Alden Indie boot. Before (and after) marketing them as officers' boots, Lotus also advertised them as suitable for golf, and hunting.

The distinctive aspect of Veldtschoen is, of course, the construction. It is indeed reckoned to be more waterproof than a standard Goodyear Welt, and Lotus's own schematic, below, gives a good idea of how the boots were put together. The definition of a Veldtschoen is that the upper turns outwards, rather than inwards, as it's stitched on to the sole. On the Lotus construction, there is a welt underneath the turned-out upper. You can generally recognise a Veldtschoen pretty easily, by the absence of the visible welt, and the fact the leather, where the welt would generally be, is the same as that of the uppers. The boot on the bottom right seems to have been the first Lotus Veldtschoen design; it was joined by the more familiar Derby boot fairly soon afterwards, perhaps by the 1920s.

Over time, the popular Veldtschoen boot style seemed to become the Durham, shown here, from the 1962 price list; a Derby, with a 'fake" toe cap (two lines of stitching), and that distinctive horizontal stitching at the side. The shoe version is much the same configuration but has moustache-shaped stitching. As you can see, there is no seam that reaches the sole on the side of the boot, presumably to minimise water ingress; the boot features a bellows tongue, designed not to let water in, shown below.

Other manufacturers seem to follow much the same model for their own Veldtschoen, although some have a true toe cap, and differently-shaped stitching down the side. Nearly all Veldt boots seem to feature Zug grain - an especially waterpoof leather, with an applied pebble grain, produced by the Martins tannery, and then later Bridge Of Weir, I believe.

 Bellows tongue:

Lotus golf shoes, in the export catalogue, 1952. Again, you can see the Indy-style construction of the other variant, which is a similar shape to the very first boot.

Here is my example of the Stirling Shoes. These were purportedly 1940s, although I reckon they're slightly later. Still totally waterproof, as are the boots at the top. I've had these resoled recently.

Toe caps, and the distinctive veldt look, on the Durham:

 THese two zug styles, the Stirling and the Durham, were produced  essentially unchanged, from the 1920s right through to the 1980s. A friend of mine knows a serviceman from the 1950s with a pair of the Stirling Shoes, still perfectly buffed, which continued to be de rigueur for officers in the 1960s and beyond. There are a variety of other makers who produced similar styles, including Joseph Cheaney and Crocket and Jones.

This is a nice pair of Veldtschoen Officer Boots I saw today in the RRL showroom on Mount Street, priced at £550. There's no maker's name, but these look similar to Crockett and Jones designs of the 1950s. Coincidentally, RRL have collaborated with C&J for Veldtschoen boots in the recent past, and even these newer boots seem to have acquired significant collectors' value, too.

Prices for Veldt footwear seem to have shot up recently; I aim to do a piece on available models later, but some of the best, affordable boots in this coniguration were the Alfred Sargent Selkirk and Kelso. These have gone out of production following the recent AS changes, although I know retailers are trying to organise a new run. As for Lotus themselves, the company continued to grow in the post World War II period; Lotus employed over 2,000 people in 1950, while the factory also supported many other local industries. There are factory shots here and here.

The company seemed to start losing its way after the last of its founding family, James Bostock, retired in 1970. Ownership changed hands several times - as cheaply-made, disposable footwear started to become  the norm. Most Lotus production was switched to Bridgend in Wales in 1996, and the factory was finally bulldozed in 1998. Deadstock pairs of Stirling Shoes do pop up, as before mentioned they were still in production in the 1980s, although in its final days Louts apparently survived by producing footwear for Marks and Spencer ( in the days when they proudly boasted of the British origins of most of their footwear and clothing). Nowadays, the Lotus name survives as a kind of zombie brand, applied to shoes made in India and elsewhere. Recentlly, I've seen supposedly deadstock brogues appearing on eBay and I suspect these, despite their British look, originated overseas.

Despite the demise of Lotus, there's still a reasonable supply of well-made, new British Veldtschoen and similar boots. You can still go hiking or camping and keep your feet dry. I'll cover these soonish, and will also update on good places to get your own Veldtschoen shoes and boots resoled.

Thanks to Ben L, and Rebecca Shawcross of  Northampton Museums and Art Gallery.

Thursday, 12 January 2012

Drapers in the Field

This was the title of a sad photo that was sent to me last year by a gentleman named Robert. But it also has an upbeat message.

The photo is of a Draper loom (an X-2?) rusting quietly away in a field somewhere in the USA. This, and a couple of companions, is one of perhaps 100, 000 shuttle looms in use in the country, which were scrapped or otherwise disposed of, in favour of more efficient projectile looms. Cone, the last surviving US mill producing shuttle denim, decommissioned most of its looms in 1985, but retained a good number of the X-3 version, which produced 42 inch fabric (they were converted to produce 28 inch when brought back into use around 1992).

According to Ralph Tharpe, previously head of technical development at Cone, "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." So this sad wreck might well be from Cone, a loom used to produce fabric for some of the most fabled denim of all time. 

Why is there an upbeat message to this sad story? It's contained in Robert's second photo: 

These are two more Drapers, X-3 I believe, which were rescued by Robert. Because there are other companies making selvage fabric in the USA still - but not denim.

Robert works for a high-tech company in New England which produces materials for the aerospace industry. These looms have found a new home weaving kevlar - because they are gentle on the yarn, imposing little tension, and don't chop it at the selvage point, these 70-year old looms are the most efficient technical solution to a very modern technical problem. They also show how, even as old industries disappear, new industries can spring up to replace them.

The fabric woven by these looms could well be life-saving. One of its prime uses is to shroud aircraft engines; if there's a turbine failure the containment ring made up of this fabric is designed to prevent the high-velocity turbine debris from damaging the aircraft.

These looms were made in Hopedale, Massachusetts, by the Draper Corporation, which in itself made a major contribution to sweeping economic changes across the USA - by making more efficient looms, and funding mills in the South, Draper contributed to the move of fabric production out of New England. (One consequence of this was that Levi's changed their denim supplier, from Amoskeag in New Hampshire to Cone in North Carolina). Now, as another result of sweeping economic changes, these looms have come home.

Thanks to Robert for the photos and the story.

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.