Friday, 4 November 2016

A Revolutionary Appearance

Just a quick, late note to say I'll be speaking about denim and the Counterculture at the V&A this evening, Friday 4 November, in conversation with fashion historian Amber Butchart. We'll be discussing the years 1966-1970, as well as the roots of the counterculture, and how the story of denim is interwoven with that of music and art. It's free, and is scheduled for 19.30-20.30 in the Tapestry Room.

Tuesday, 19 July 2016

Gripping Yarns part 2: a hairy experience

It took a photographer, Farhad Samari, to express it best: the yarns are the foundation on which denim is built.

This second part of my interview with Allen Little, who designed many of Cone's finest yarns, covers some fairly esoteric subjects; in particular the hairiness of denim, and where that comes from, and the folk tales about "unbleached" fill yarns. Odd bits didn't make the edit; we did speak about Zimbabwe cotton, about which he was complimentary - although we didn't have time to discuss whether it's really long staple (it isn't, in the strict sense). My apologies that I have no more photos of the spinning process; you'll have to look at the previous Q&A for those. Instead, here are my photos of the loom floor, from January 2009.

There's a tendency from many companies, who produce selvage denim, to over-do the slubbiness, isn't there?
I think so, I think there is a lot of mechanically programmed denim that people call vintage that is very far away. You have to remember, people tried to make the best quality they could at the time. When they over-exaggerate the unevenness of the yarn, it becomes something else.

What're your thoughts on hairiness?  A lot of people prefer almost an early '80s style denim, which is very hairy, and that's become associated with a vintage look. Hence there's this belief that the only good denim is hairy. What's your take on that?
The old yarns were ring spun and therefore [somewhat] hairy,  but hairiness a lot of time comes from speed, and the newer machinery tends to run a lot faster. For some of our vintage fabric we have different levels of how much hair we leave on in its finished state. I don't agree it's all gotta be hairy, it all wasn't hairy. I think it's a mixture.

How much did the original cotton vary? For instance, today in terms of staple lengths, you average your cotton stock,for consistency. But we'd be talking about massive variability in the early days, what effect did that have?
It had a major impact. In the old days the goal was to make the yarns the same, as best they could. But they couldn't. Our family were farmers as well as spinners... you have to think about many conditions…seed, soil type, climate conditions,  there was no (or little) irrigation and various farming techniques.  all these things came into effect from year to year, crop to crop. They had little control. Think about various machinery though the years, and the different geographic regions, the effect of insects, the poorer quality of fertilisers, exposure to sunlight and rainfall and all this affected the cotton. The mills were trying their best to create the same product but mother nature and climate affected everything, and I think the denim changed because of that.

Mills would in general use longer cultivars of short staple cotton. Did that stay the same or vary?

The staple length of the cotton has a lot do to with climate and the length of the year they grew in. Cottons today are designed for the region that they grow in, for instance to cope with lower rainfall. Back then, the length of the fibre and the thickness of the fibre had a lot to do with mother nature. Even today, with all the techniques, irrigations, the same farmer can plant one field one year, and the next year [the staple length] can be significantly longer. Back then, cotton properties were evaluated by a cotton classer which was a person measuring by hand.  In today's world, we have automated testing equipment so we know more about the cotton that we purchase. Transportation is also easier and more accessible; in the old days you would take cotton that was geographically closer.

Some people like Texas cotton, because it's hairier, shorter staple, associated with that '70s look. Did Cone move to Texas at any point, did the source change?
Cone started with cotton that was close in proximity to the mills.  As transportation was became more accessible, I think there was a move into the Texas cotton... and I think the Texas cotton can be typically shorter [staple length] because of lack of rainfall, in the state as a whole and other factors. It's very good cotton for denim. Then of course North Carolina used to [provide] a lot of cotton, South Carolina and the  states across the Mississippi valley, we call that Delta cotton , that Delta cotton is good cotton.[But] Texas cotton per se... the cotton is not hairy it's the properties of the cotton,  the yarn's hairier because the cotton is a tad shorter with more short fibre content. [But] it's a generalisation that Texas cotton is more hairy, it is due to the properties of the spinning that makes the yarns more hairy.

What about shades of cotton – does that vary a lot?
It does.just another challenge of cotton milling. Cotton comes in various shades of yellow up to cream, you see denim in different shades just due to the colour of the cotton and climate which make it difficult [to reproduce]. But we try to address that in our vintage denim, we try to address those issues also..  we take other techniques to try and generate the variability in the cotton colour, we try to address that more on a yarn construction and can control some of that in dyeing.

I've heard talk of 'unbleached' cotton - was fill yarn ever bleached?

Bleach and cotton don't like each other, that's just a function of.. a particular year crop.. a particular geographic region. We mention the 1915 fabric. Some cotton tends to be much more yellow. If you've seen that piece of denim we have addressed that in the fill yarn to make it look like one of the more yellowish cottons. We do that using different techniques... I have to be careful. There's a variety of ways, you can pick a certain colour cotton, there are ways to colour the cotton to create a certain look and you can definitely buy different cotton varieties that have different colour, different regions and different varieties have different colours.

Is there a yarn you're particularly proud of?
Proud? I really like the XX15, that's a special one, what you call the 1915 fabric. I like them all but that's a favourite, I like the 1960…   and then we have another vintage, similar to the 1915 it's a little different, rougher - the 1950s one which has our special yarn almost like the 1915. I'm a textural person, I like more character and uneven-ness.

Sometimes I'm staggered by the depth of knowledge, and love, of fabric from people who've been in the industry for a long time, like you or Ralph Tharpe.
That's called, being born in a doff box as I was once told when I was a boy. A doff box is a box where, on the old spinning machines, you put the bobbins of yarn in. As far as the people I meet that have that... the knowledge they bring to the table is pure magic.

Wednesday, 11 May 2016

Gripping yarns: a Q&A with Cone's Allen Little

 Denim nerds love talking about selvage edges, and looms. But really when we're do so, we're overlooking something more vital: the yarns. Different looms do have a different effect - but really, it's the yarns that contribute more to the character of denim and how it wears in. 

That's why I was excited to spend hours on the phone with Allen Little, who's undoubtedly one of the world's leading yarn experts. Allen works for Cone, a company that is currently celebrating its 125th anniversary. Cone produce an incredible variety of vintage-style denims, all made on their old Draper looms. But each of those individual denims, will have a specific yarn. Cone are unusual in this respect; although we often think of Japanese mills as boutique operations, they usually buy in their yarns from outside suppliers. Cone, in contrast, design their own. 

Most of us know that many denim manufacturers turned to Open End spinning in the 1980s, and this lost us a lot of character, because the denim was simply too smooth and even.  Hence, from the late 1980s onwards, there was a return to Ring Spun yarn. But beyond the use of Ring Spun yarn, there is almost an infinite variety in the look of what's available. Here Allen gives us an overview of how he reproduces specific yarns of specific eras.

As there's so much information to absorb, I'm running this Q&A in two sections. I will run the second part - which cover hairiness, cotton staple length, and the fiction of 'unbleached cotton' next week. 

The main photos here are from Farhad Samari , from the Inventory story we did together. 

Tell me about your background - I know your roots in the fabrics industry go deep.
I grew up in Wadesboro, North Carolina, and my family had spinning plants, spinning mills, way before I was born, a mill called Little Cotton Manufacturing . So I grew up in that environment – as a boy they allowed me to sweep the floors, I was surrounded by Whitin Spinning Frames. I went on to a textile career and decided to go more into the machinery and design side. So I joined Amsler Tech in Switzerland, a machinery company which make fancy yarn attachments and devices which are primarily aimed at denim; I spent around 10 years travelling round the world, teaching people how to use the machines and how to design the look they were aiming for. Then I came to Cone, which was a very big customer of this company - so finally I came back home, around [11] years ago.

Amsler software and controls are a very modern way of making yarns that look old-fashioned. How has the potential of their systems changed over the years?
It all developed over time. It started as a very crude technology and slub spinning was not really highly regarded. Denim and upholstery were the first things that went into it. Then as denim went from workwear into fashion there was an explosion of the demand. Everything became more complicated, the computer controlling other machines became more complex, the programming became more complex.

It used to be slub spinning was very simple; you just put a thick place in the yarn, and there was not much designing behind it. Then in the '80s the designing became more important. At the beginning, there weren't many people who knew how to design the yarn to give a certain aesthetic for a fabric. So that's what I was fascinated with.. and wondered if I could figure out how to design something that looked really nice and vintage-like, as I was training people how to use the machine. You had to learn how they operated, you also had to learn about also what old denim looked like, and I guess from there the software, and the controls of the slub devices kept advancing until now we've reached the point where it's highly computerised, and some of the designs for software packages that go with the machines are really quite amazing.

Tell me how you'd go about mimicking the yarn on a vintage-style denim. For instance, on LVC most of the denim is loomed in essentially the same way, so it's the yarn and the dyeing that defines the different fabrics. One of my favourite denims you've produced is the LVC 1915; a fabric that's authentic, vintage-looking but subtle. I assume that's one of your yarns - how did you go about developing it?
Yes, I designed that yarn. We were looking at [old] garments… we couldn't cut them apart 'cos they were quite valuable, but we know where the fabric comes from. You had to go back and think about the lack of control we had in the old day. So you're trying to take a computerised system to replicate a lack of control. The uneven-ness that came with the old type of spinning, this unevenness was random. You had many types of problems with the old spinning. Sometimes you had very long uneven sections of the yarn, sometimes you had very short uneven sections. Sometimes you have yarns that are more hairy than other ones. So we had to design yarn to replicate all of that. This particular yarn, we focused on three or four elements we had to reproduce, for each part of the aesthetic value we were looking for.

Looking specifically at LVC which has a wide variety of denim. We have 1915, then for instance, the early '30s, then we're on to wartime denim... was there a different yarn for every one?
We have some that are just different in proportion. They have different arrangements, there are one or two yarns common to some constructions, you learn in the old spinning what your main unevenness factor is, [and] that becomes a staple for some. Depending on where the yarns were made, it really depends on the time era and quality of cotton for a particular build at that time. So each one is unique in its design, but there is some overlapping.

Was recreating a duck fabric hard?
The denim is much more complex. The duck fabric, we did a few tricks to design that but no, from our perspective it was a simpler fabric. We took the same approach, as with anything else you try and mimic, thinking about how it was made originally. Trying to get the colour correct and some natural character to the duck fabric took some work, but it wasn't as difficult as the denim. We've been doing vintage for so long we have the arsenal of tools to do that, and that was more about coming up with a construction, using our existing tools.

In the pre-war Levi's, how radically was the spinning technology changing? If we take, say, the 1915 and the 1937, is there much difference?
There's not so much between them. The bigger advances in spinning were made later.. but back in the very early days things were produced very slowly. As you move from one era to another the yarns are getting a little bit better - but when I say better I don't mean good. The oldest denim is going to be the most uneven, with the most character but they're the hardest denim to reproduce, due to a variety of things. You've got to think about how a mill was powered, for instance if you're running water power, speed and things like that can change. So the denim got better as the years went along – but it wasn't good, technically

In 1940 vs 1915 there are differences in the denim, the ones from 1940 will be better, for instance the dyeing – they learned more about dyeing techniques as time moved on. It presents a challenge, but I think we've done a good job. You just have to try to put yourself back in time, read books about how things used to be done, plus there are old records from Cone, in our archives, and you have make interpretations of all of that.

Obviously the spinning technology was constantly improving. But in the late '50s and '60s you would have introduced Magnadraft spinning, and on that the magnets would have deteriorated over time. How did that affect the look of the denim?
When Magnadraft was working well, with magnets having all the power, it was much better The older denim, the cotton was not prepared as well, it has issues with neps and and parts of cotton left into the yearn, and that all changed during the Magnadraft era as the carding machines did a better job. We created a special yarn to simulate the issues with the Magnadraft, as the magnets lose their power - they don't have as much grip and it creates some unevenness. And that was a random effect. You've got to think a warp of denim is made from many different yarns, obviously we can't reproduce a 1000 different yarns to reproduce the different strengths of the magnets, but we can program it where it looks like it has. And that's a very special unevenness. Because of course this Magnadraft look is a nice look if you're into vintage.

Friday, 25 March 2016

Levi's fakes: the Amerrican deam

Thanks to Aria for sending me an entertaining email this morning, asking if these "Levi's selvedge made in the USA" were genuine.

A lot of such emails are of cheap Levi's that aren't counterfeited quite so often; sometimes, they're ugly Canadian Levi's that are quite as horrendous as fakes. But I especially like this pair, as they contain some of my favourite pointers.

The fabric isn't too awful. ID tag is vaguely convincing, albeit nothing like anything you'd see on old example, or LVC.

The view from the back shows nicely-shaped pockets, which have a vaguely convincing look - even though many details aren't correct, like the two-horse patch. Of course, we have the trademark 'extra selvage' on the belt loop that denote fakes. But that isn't the best bit.

My favourite fake tell-tales are always the grammatical ones. And this is a new one. Here we go: a tribute to Levi's, the All-Amerricon Icon!

Monday, 14 March 2016

Taking Care of Business: TCB jeans

I'm lucky enough, and of course old enough, to have worn dozens of beautiful selvage jeans. I've worn in original Levi's from the 50s and 60s, and from the early '90s on, many brands including Evisu, Lee, Levi's Capital E, LVC, Samurai, Full Count, Mr Freedom, Sugarcane, SDA, Roy Slaper and many more.

For many people, jeans that come close to the classic pairs of the 1950s are the ultimate holy grail. Yet this is a search that can have no final destination; the original jeans varied hugely, depending on the cotton used in a particular year, and there were countless other variables, even before we think about how a pair of jeans is worn and washed. All we can expect, in modern jeans, is an interpretation of that aesthetic; and in terms of '50s homage jeans, very different interpretations can still be very convincing.

Over recent years, the fashion for super-fast-crocking, high-contrast denim, as popularised by companies like Samurai and Ironheart, has arguably subsided in favour of more subtle, slow-wearing interpretations that evoke more closely the feel of 1950s jeans. One small maker in the forefront of this move is undoubtedly TCB.

I first heard about the brand early in 2013; I believe the company, founded by Hajime Inoue, was founded in 2012. I was lucky enough to be asked to participate in a contest to wear-in a pair of 1950s models, at the beginning of 2014. Here are some photos of my pair, and how they've worn in, plus an interview with the main man himself.

This '50s pair undoubtedly rank as some of my favourite Japanese jeans; they take a long time to wear in, just like the originals, have many gradations to their fading, have some slubbing, but not too much, and via subtle features like the puckering and crinkling which is revealed as they age, just had a certain 'rightness' to them. Rock fans will know that TCB was a motto for Elvis Presley and his musicians: taking care of business. Inoue-san has done exactly that.

The' 50s pair embodies much of the TCB aesthetic – all their designs are workwear-oriented, and my favourite items include their Navy shawl-collar jacket, and the new cotton duck vest. You can check out more at TCB's blog, which more than most companies, focuses on how the jeans evolve with wear. Note these are jeans designed to be worn the old way - lots of wear, lots of washing.

My particular pair is on its home straight; the Superfuture contest concludes at the end of the month. Four out of five pockets on mine have worn through, although the knees are holding together, just. They feel like old friends, and I will miss wearing them every day. 

This interview was conducted aid of Google translate; it adds a certain enigmatic, dreamy quality, but I think the sense is still there. I will add the dates later.  I started wearing the jeans in September 2014.

A brief Q&A with Hajime Inoue

 When did you first become interested in vintage jeans? 
It was affected by a lot of people, so I can't decide on one person.
I was affected by the old clothes man's shop assistant who passed in school days and the superiors who met after I moved to Kojima, and American old movies, a Japanese drama in '90s. I think it's quite blessed with an encounter after jeans are produced.

What did you do before starting TCB? 
When I was in [my] teens, I was working as a salesperson at a tailor's shop.
I was handing wonderful of the person who makes jeans (craftsman) down to a customer. I was to do daily service repeatedly, and charm to a craftsman and admiration were full. In 2000, I have begun to move to Kojima of Okayama-ken at twenty years old and work for a sewing factory.

What's your favourite 501 style? 1940s? 1950s? 1960s? 
From the late 40's to '50s jeans. 
Because there is still an atmosphere of work clothes. Dyed fabric is darker. A thick sewing thread.

Your jeans seem to wear in like originals  – traintracks on the outer seam, and the way the yoke seam crinkles when it's washed. Was that hard to achieve? 
The first characteristic of TCB jeans is puckering. Please compare the [result] after having done the first wash because I set a sewing machine for cotton yarn.

Which aspects of your jeans are you proudest of? 
I think that it is the most important to work at the distance that is the nearest to a craftsman.

Tell me about your workshop. Do you have many old machines? 
Our products are we're good at vintage style sewing(sewing machine, Union Special.....etc). A total of about 40 units.

How do you choose the fabrics? Are they unique to TCB? 
Well, that Zimbabwean cotton was used had not been decided at first. Cotton close to '50s Levi's was chosen by what I have in mind. And if the producer was checked after that, it was revealed to be a Zimbabwe [cotton]. That's the first trigger. I think the feel of a material peculiar to Zimbabwe charms a wearer.

Do you live in Kurashiki? It's a beautiful town, you're very lucky!
I'm not born in Kurashiki. I wanted to make and [the opportunity] to make jeans came in Kurashiki.

Thanks to Inoue-San for sparing some time to talk to me - and for making such beautiful workwear!