Monday, 2 January 2017

Toyoda and the Japanese industrial revolution

Toyoda Model G loom, Science Museum, London

In previous posts I've discussed Toyoda looms in relation to the silly myth that Japanese denim mills somehow acquired "old Levi's looms", a claim that was first used in relation to Evisu.

But Toyoda looms are fascinating for many reasons. Not only are they still weaving some of the world's finest denim today, at Kurabo, Nihon Menpu and many other mills, they also mark the birth of Japanese industry.

In Japan, the career of Sakichi Toyoda is justly celebrated. Sakichi first developed a power loom around 1897; this design was further developed by  Kiichiro Toyoda, with Rizo Suzuki and Risaburo Oshimo, who eventually perfected the design as the Toyoda Model G loom, in July 1924. "Automatic" means that the loom changes shuttles - the large bobbins which carry the white, 'fill' yarn for denim - automatically, which allows a single operator to supervise 12 or 20 looms, rather than one or two.

Toyoda Model G looms at the Kurabo mill, Kurashiki
Toyoda looms at the Kurabo Mill, Kurashiki
Other manufacturers, including the Draper Corporation, had already developed Automatic Looms, notably the Draper Northrop, produced as early as 1897 but which seems to have only become widespread after 1915 or so. But the Toyoda G apparently allowed for bobbin change with the loom still running, it was reputedly more reliable and physically compact than its rivals, and included a failsafe mechanism, which meant the operator couldn't insert the bobbin in the wrong configuration. Consequently, it became one of the first Japanese industrial designs to be widely exported, thanks to a partnership with Britain's Pratt Brothers, a huge producer of textiles machinery, who licensed the design.

The profits generated by the Model G helped finance the development of a motor car, and the creation of what we know today as the Toyota industrial corporation. The Model G's significance is marked by the inclusion of an early model in a prominent location at London's Science Museum. The Model G loom shown here is the one in London.

It's hard to know how many Model G looms are still in operation; I know they are still in use at Nihon Menpu (a historic photo here shows them in the mill in the 1920s). Toyoda shuttle looms are in use at most of the well-known Japanese mills, most of which will have a combination of older and newer machinery. The growth of Kurabo, once of Japan's biggest textiles producers, was powered by Toyoda; period photos show dozens of Model G looms in the factory, alongside imported machinery, by Pratt Brothers and others. We know that the fabric for the first Evisu jeans was made on Toyoda looms at Kurabo - so as well as helping launch the industrial revolution in Japan, powering one of the country's key export successes, the Toyoda Model G was crucial to today's fascination with selvedge denim.

Automatic Bobbin Change mechanism
Toyoda looms at Nihon Menpu, circa 1920s.

The exterior of Kurabo Mill in Kurasghiki, an industrial giant powered by Toyoda.

The Platt Toyoda-licensed loom, built in Oldham.