Wednesday, 29 February 2012

If it quacks, is it canvas?

Duck is denim's obscure older brother. When Jacob Davis first had the idea of riveting workpants, his first production run was not in denim – it was in white duck. Then when Jacob teamed up with Levi Strauss, the first work overalls – probably made by home-workers, earning a piece-rate – came in either cotton duck, or denim. Pretty soon it turned out that the first Levi's-wearers preferred denim due to how it wore in, but cotton duck was an integral part of Levi's product line for at least 20 years.

Today, thanks to people like Rising Sun, Ooe-Yofokuten, Left Field and Carhartt, cotton duck is back in fashion. Yet the origins of the fabric are still less understood than denim. For instance, are duck and canvas the same fabric? In some accounts, it was said that Levi's or Jacob Davis used canvas for their first pants because it was available in large quantities for use as sailcloth or tent-cloth. A decade ago, I was told by Levi's researchers that this story was incorrect and that they used duck, a different fabric.

Now, thanks to the work of fabrics guru Ralph Tharpe, it turns out it could well be true. Just over a year ago Ralph told me how LVC had ordered some duck for their new repros, and specified an unusual selvage – with a wide gap between the edge of the fabric and the black selvage line. This gives a distinctive look to early Levi's duck pants, where the selvage line is visible on the leg, outside the busted seam. Ralph started looking for information on this distinctive selvage: “I was doing research, in the Callaway Textile Dictionary and elsewhere, looking up the particular weaves and it referred me to sailcloths. I looked at the sail cloth definition and it said, in the UK the stuff was 24 inches wide, in the US 22 inches wide, and then they were 10 oz per linear yard - and it said there was a line in the fabric that was the guide for sewing the pieces together when making sails. The further the line is from the edge, the heavier the product. So without any question, things made from cotton duck with the line further away are Sail Fabrics!It is beautiful! I want to do more research on sailcloth, the dyeing et cetera. But can you imagine, in San Francisco in the 1870s, how there would be tons and tons of sailcloth around?”

 The suggestion that the black line in duck selvage is a guide for sewing sails is indeed a beautiful one. So I sent Ralph a bunch more questions about the origins of cotton duck, and here is his reply.(Incidentally, I didn't ask if he saw canvas and duck as being the same, as Bud Strickland answered that question in the affirmative a couple weeks ago.) There's lots of new information here: note also, Ralph's point that weights for earlier fabrics were based on linear yards, and that some of them were probably heavier than we'd think.

 How duck got its name
 Early flax sail cloth from England or Scotland came with 2 trade marks.  The raven mark was stenciled on the lighter fabrics, while the heavier ones bore the trademark picturing a duck.  This is according to Fairchild's Dictionary of Textiles.  Wikipedia says "cotton duck" is from the Dutch word "doek" meaning, linen canvas.  Probably there is some truth to both references.  Later the name "duck" was associated with heavy cotton fabrics in the USA.  Usually the word canvas and duck are used interchangeably.   However, there are many different end uses for "duck" from tents to fire hoses.  The fabrics come in a variety of different weights and yarn constructions.  Many have plied yarns in the construction and/or two singles yarns weaving side by side.  

Why that unusual selvage line?
The selvage line on some ducks, according to the textile dictionaries I am using, serves as a guide to the sewer when joining the narrow widths together to make sails, covered wagon covers, or tents.  The farther this colored thread is from the edge of the fabric, the heavier the duck.  In the pant examples from "late 1800s" that Mike Harris has sent me, the line is exposed on the outside of the pant near the "busted" out seam.  I did a punch weight on one of the garment fragments (brand is not known) and it weighed 14 oz.  Of course this is the washed weight and based on square yard ounce weight.  The sold weights at the time sometimes appeared in the catalogues or on the garments tags.  These weights were based on the weight of a linear yard of narrow fabric.  They are NOT square yard weights as we use the term today.   Eight, nine, and ten ounce weights were commonly quoted on the tags and in the catalogues, but the actual square yard and fully shrunk weights were much heavier.

 What's the typical weave for a duck or canvas?
OK, so you asked about the weave.  In general, duck and canvas weaves are based on the plain weave.  They don't have a twill line.  The weave is balanced so there is no leg twist common in vintage jeans.  The fragment mentioned above has two warp yarns weaving together and two weft yarns weaving together, which technically makes a basket weave.  Most often when someone says "duck" I generally think of two ends of warp weaving side by side with one weft yarn across.  But the basket weave one is also technically a "duck".  Among the fragments Mike has sent to me one can find only two ends weaving side by side in warp, but weft can be one yarn or two in the same shed.

 Was that duck originally destined for sails?
Based on the fact the selvage line is so far from the edge and the line is showing on the outside of the pant leg, can we assume that the fabric was not originally made for pants?  Did the "lap seam" line later become designed into the pant?  Or did they eliminate it at some point?  I would  dearly love to know.  I am also curious about the color of the fabrics used for sails and tents, etc.   However, based on the distance the selvage line is off the edge, it seems safe to assume that the early duck pants were made of fabric that were either dual purpose or not originally intended for pants.
Special thanks to Ralph Tharpe for sharing his insights.


This 1890s duck jumper repro, like the original, and other early duck items, is festooned with black selvage lines. We believe these betray the fabric's origins as sailcloth. 

Monday, 20 February 2012

King Cotton

Someone reminded me about the Cushman Archive at the University of Chicago. A peaen to Kodachrome. With lots of denim and, in Pima county and around Tucson, cotton. Cushman was an amateur photographer who amassed 14,000 slides and left them to the university. It's a fantastic resource.

Juan Lopez, leading a gang picking cotton 27 miles south of Tucson, January 1952.
Taken just a few days later, a group of children on the way to Sonoita, Sonora.

Friday, 10 February 2012

Veldtschoen Variations

I mentioned I'd do a roundup of Veldtschoen boots available today. Here's a quick and dirty summary, which I'll update as I find more information.

Alfred Sargent Selkirk and Kelso

The boots that came in from the cold: Alfred Sargent Kelso, fresh from a tramp through the Medway snow.

These were the classic recent Veldtschoens - note the distinctive 'moustache' shape of the vamp, which doesn't extend to the sole. The Selkirk is the leather sole version. These were discontinued last year, but larger sizes are still available from Tredders and others, and have recently shot up in price to around £200-£250. A pair of Kelso are my Go-to boots, completely waterproof in the recent snow. I have heard there are plans to resuscitate this model: I'll update if and when this happens.

Cheaney Pennine

Again a true Veldtschoen. These cost £270 from RObinson Shoes. This Commando sole is common for military use, and is called the Itshide; sadly, Itshide have ceased production, although Corinium still produce a UK Commando equivalent. These are fine boots, although that's a Country Grain, not a Zug Grain, and most shops that previously sold Sargent seem to have switched.

Shipton & Henneage Pennine

Are these the same boots as the Cheaney? Look it. They don't state they're Veldtschoen, although my guess is that they are. Shipton And Henneage are an old brand, they've never made their own boots as far as I know, but I've seen S&H Veldtschoen from the 1950s. Not sure who makes these, but I've read that Sargent used to supply - but proved too unreliable. They cost £249 from Shipton & Henneage. Note that, like the Cheaneys, these have a different construction to the Selkirk, and the vamp reaches the sole, more like a normal boot. If you like the look of these, subscribe to the S&H mailing list, they regularly have 15% off sales.

Herring Windermere

Again, a true Veldtschoen. Around £250 retail. Made by Joseph Cheaney. Like the Cheaney, these are country grain I believe, not zug - a little smoother. Website is here.

Hoggs Rannoch

Veldtschoen, Commando sole. I like the speed hooks, too; I believe the earlier version, without the speed hooks, is made by Alfred Sargent, while off-the-record reports indicate that this version is made by Cheaney. These seem to come in at the old Sargents price, under £200, from various retailers including SD Workwear; although they're reportedly not as nicely-made as the Sargent, that's a good price.

T Jackson

This comes from a retailer which is active on eBay. Made by Sanders, around £160. Link. Conventional storm welt, not a veldtschoen. They claim these use the same zug grain leathers as the Trickers, presumably from Horween. Note these have a different shape from both the Sargent and the Cheaney/S&H/Windermere.

Crockett & Jones Snowdon

Veldtschoen construction, but conventional waxed hide uppers. Again, you can see the military-influenced shape of the vamp, which has that 'moustache' shape like the Selkirks but sits higher on the boot. Lovely boots, which retail at around £385 from retailers like Pediwear

Trickers Lyndhurst
Lastly (yes), the Trickers. Photobucket
Tricker's have produced classic Veldtschoen in the past - there is a lovely pair in a showcase in their factory shops - see in the comments below for more information; it appears that in the past the Skipton was their Veldtschoen Zug boot, although they've also produced other variants for retailers. The Lyndhurst has much the same shape as the Grasmere, but it appears to be a Veldtschoen construction (the Grasmere has a conventional storm welt) with a full length bellows tongue. It appears similar to the Skipton, but for the latter's false toecap. The range is now discontinued - which makes the stock at Pediwear all the more attractive, at £285, with the old Tricker's quality. They appear to have Size 8 in stock - grab 'em while you can, and remove the temptation, please.

This is an older Tricker's model, with some of the familiar look; at first I was told they were available Special Order, but it now appears they're too busy with standard construction to mess around with Veldtschoen. Grrr.

The Bureau Grasmere Special

Not a Veldtschoen, but a beautiful zug boot. Like many of the Bureau specials, these are pretty keenly priced at £320. The Bureau

Thursday, 2 February 2012

On the waterfront: Totectors

I dropped in on Spitalfields stallholder and fellow boot fetishist Steve Sorrell this morning and indulged in a quick spot of mutual footwear appreciation. These Totector boots probably date from the 1950s and have the no-nonsense, sit-up-and-beg look of William Lennon; although the company seems to have used a Blake construction, these look a more conventional Goodyear style. Steve found them in Southampton and was told these were popular with dockers. When we still had dockers. And when we still had a wide variety of boot manufacturers. Totectors were steel toe-cap boots made by the Denton company, based in Rushden, home of many shoe and boot manufacturers; a website about the town has more information on them. Denton prospered throughout both world wars, but finally succumbed to cheap imports in 2004; the Totectors name was bought by a company which now produces safety footwear in India.

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Make mine a triple: the Levi's 1874 Triple Pleat Blouse

The Levi's 1874 Triple Pleat Blouse, as found by Michael Harris. 

Denim, that venerable, hip fabric, has a way of throwing up the most contradictory resonances. It's a fact I can remember hitting me, almost forcefully, when I happened to be at Levi's San Francisco HQ the day that the venerable Nevada jeans – the ur-Levi's – were being shown for the first time to the company's employees. This antique, Victorian-era clothing, with its distinctive fading and age-worn rips, looked hip. You could have walked onto the street wearing them.

LVC's 'new' Three Pleat jacket embodies the same contradictions: beautifully simple, and given the current profusion of workmanlike, Edwardian-influenced clothing coming from Nigel Cabourn, Heritage Research, Ralph Lauren and others, it looks distinctly contemporary. But it came to us via a 140 year old rubbish dump.

We can thank writer and researcher Mike Harris, who's completely rewritten the history of early denim and workwear in his book Jeans Of The Old West, for discovering what is almost certainly the most ancient example of a Levi's jacket found to date. It was found in an undisclosed location on Nevada, “In a a trash pile that we had been working for the last four or five years. We had walked away from [the pile] a few times, it was so frustrating; you might find pockets of things that were thrown away, then go for another five trips and find nothing. It took years to realise you need to bounce around in this pile.”

“Then in 2008, we went to the top of this pile – which is massive, on a hillside, about 100 feet tall and 200 feet wide, you can see where we've been digging for years. My mom's husband was with me and said, Where shall I dig; he started digging down and got a layer of gunny sacks, burlap bags. I was 10 feet away watching him. Then he walked away to a different spot. I jumped up, went over there, and under the gunny sacks I saw denim. Then I saw duck. You can tell, by the level, and the way it's laying, whether it's a whole piece of denim or cut up. And I could see there were at least two pieces that were going to be whole. So I took the gunny sacks off the thing, and carefully pulled it out: the Triple Pleat jacket was there, the Greenbaum pants and the Greenbaum 2-pocket duck jacket that are in the book.”

This venerable trio is one of Mike's many significant finds , which have shed a huge amount of light on the history of early workwear; I hope to detail these at a later date. The three-pleat jacket, alone, approaches the Nevada jeans in importance. The Triple Pleat, with the characteristic pleating, box stitches, and round-bottom pocket without arcuates, is itself very different to any known early Levi's jackets. Michael Harris believes this little stash of items were thrown away in December 1876; hence the triple pleat “could easily be from 1876, 1875 or 1874” - which is, of course, very near to May 1873, the date of Levi Strauss and Jacob Davis's patent for riveted clothing.

The Indiana Jones of denim: Michael Harris, who has revolutionised our understanding of early denim. He also wears a mean pair of Roy x Cone.

Miles Johnson, head of design at LVC, has been responsible for many intriguing Levi's recreations, including my personal faves, the cotton duck Closed Front Jumper and 1878 Pantaloons. He got to see a photo of the jacket soon after its discovery: “we could see how beautiful it was. It was a great surprise – a really exciting find.”
On investigation, it turned out that there was an artist's rendering of the same jacket in the archives – the jacket was in a catalog listing from 1874. Finally, when the jacket was acquired by the Levi's archives, Miles got to examine the real thing, alongside his pattern maker, who recorded every element of the cut, stitch lengths and other details. The jacket abounded in beautiful details, says Miles: “The leather patch is not positioned centre back as you'd expect – that was really nice.The fit is a gem and doesn't need to be adjusted in any way whatsoever. And, from memory, the construction generally was incredibly simplified.The waistband has a little bit of tilt, if I remember right, shorter in back than in the front. It's one of those jackets that really fits. If you look back, you'll see these described as a blouse – it's something in a jacket weight fabric that's made to fit like a shirt. That's a nice feature. Also I love the sew-on buttons, with incredibly thick, chunky thread.”

The final feature is, of course, those round-bottom pockets, similar to those of the Duck Closed Front Jumper, with the wide top hem characteristic of very early Levi's, but no arcuates (although artwork in the Levi's archives implies the arcuates were featured on later versions). It's more than likely that this early jacket was sewn by a home-worker, like many early Levi's items. If so, they knew what they were doing: “that pocket shape is more work on the back and requires more skill [than square pockets] – it would have been helpful that the fabric is 9 ounce, anything over 10 would have been difficult.” As for the distinctive detail of the triple pleats, the original inspiration could have come from many sources, but one possibility is the aversion to waste: “we weren't wasting fabric then – so we would have folded it in, rather than cutting it off and throwing it away.”

Some details of the reissue can only evoke, rather than replicate the original; for instance, it's not certain what writing would have been on the original, pre-2 horse brand patch. The shape of the sew-on buttons was replicated, but Levi's are not allowed to use nickel plating in their new hardware! The reissue uses poly cotton in place of the original linen thread - “which is a frustration, but linen is impossible to work with” - while the 9oz denim is made by Kurabo, designed to get as close as possible to the early Levi's fabric, much, but not necessarily all of which, came from the Amoskeag factory in New Hampshire. (This particular Kurabo fabric uses synthetic indigo, but given the multitude of other variables, it probably gives a better approximation than that natural indigo Kurabo LVC has used occasionally in the past). The short stitch length and style of stitching is one of the most characteristic, distinctive aspects of early workwear, and it looks beautiful on this jacket. I was pleased to see the correct, chunky, flat-top rivets  – they're very evocative of early Levi's  (and now, thanks to Mike Harris, we know there are two versions, with different size type).

Of course, we know that early Levi's workwear was sold at a premium, compared to the company's now-forgotten rivals, and this reissue, at €350, perpetuates that! Yet there are only 120 of the raw version being produced, and we have seen the best LVC replicas, notably the first, limited edition Nevada replica, have actually fetched more than the original retail on eBay. It's a magical piece of clothing and it's great to see LVC produce such unique, esoteric items. I shall be saving my pennies, in hope of a version in cotton duck.