Saturday, 30 August 2014

The Beautiful Grain: Cheaney's new Veldtschoen

Sometimes I worry I'm the only person mildly obsessed with Veldtschoen boots, but after a trip to Jermyn Street today, I didn't feel quite so lonely.

I've visited Joseph Cheaney's factory before, and while I thought their shoes were very nicely made for the price, I found their looks slightly bland and salary-man, with overdone antiquing; their Pennine Veldtschoen boots also looked slightly too pretty, with what was (to me) a slightly too red and fake-looking country grain. Yet when I visited the company's brand new store on Jermyn Street, I was faced with a Veldstchoen revelation: with a couple of design tweaks, new leathers, and the lovely new design of boot, The Fiennes, these are some of the nicest Veldstchoen boots around. Cheaney's main rival for Veldstchoen is probably Alfred Sargent, which are now getting hard to find. Even if that weren't the case, with these new tweaks I find the current Cheaney range are just as attractive. I'd say they're also more nicely constructed than Tricker's, who seem to be resting on their laurels. When I dropped into Tricker's today, they seemed casual and uninterested in their own product; the Cheaney staff at the new showroom were younger, and distinctly more knowledgeable and enthusiastic.

The Fiennes is a typical veldtschoen, with that distinctive moustache design on the side; I didn't check, but I think the commando soles are Itshide, at any rate they're British-made. The boots are padded at the top, like some of the Crocket and Jones veldt designs, and the new country grain, which comes from a new supplier in Italy, looks terrific. The overall shape is lovely; slightly sleeker than some, without a false teocap, but rugged and purposeful - sorry for the poor photos, as I only had my phone with me, the leather and the actual shape looks even more attractive in person than on these photos.

The Cairngorm, Cheaney's long-established Veldtschoen shoe, looks even better in the new leather; the bumpier finish looks a little more rugged and suits the shape much better. The same applies to the Pennine, the company's standard Veldt boot, which I've featured here before. 

Price on the Fiennes is £345 - very reasonable for the quality, as these boots will last you a lifetime; I'll update with other prices soon. I've also accumulated quite a few more Veldstchoen photos since my last post on the subject, so I promise I'll do a photodump in the next few days.

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.