Here at Highsnobiety we’re always looking for new ways to package and deliver content in an effort to unite the wide range of topics covered under our lifestyle banner. While we’ve usually connected similar topics through series like Highsnobiety Visits and In My Boyfriend’s Clothes, we wanted to branch out and delve even deeper into specific topics. In an effort not to overwhelm you, the reader, with too much information at once we decided to spread the content out over a week’s time, leading us to our first-ever themed week.
When brainstorming for the first of what will be many, we wanted to focus on a product that is not only universal but revered across the globe. The result of our brainstorm? Denim. Perhaps the single most recognizable piece of clothing on the planet, denim lends itself to nearly any situation, across social classes and from generation to generation. While we’ve touched on the topic in pieces like the history of Japanese denim and a beginner’s guide to raw denim, we’ve never quite given the topic the attention it deserves.
So to kick off Denim Week, Bahzad Trinos of Naked and Famous traveled to the Land of the Rising Sun to learn more about some of the rarest forms of dyeing denim on the planet. Enjoy his explanation of each method below and stay tuned for more.
Featured on some of the rarest and most expensive Japanese denim.
Hank-dyeing is a traditional Japanese method of dyeing yarns and is done in the famous Tokushima prefecture on the island of Shikoku in Japan. The yarns are dyed by hand by a single skilled Japanese artisan. Only a handful of craftsmen are trained in this technique, which has been passed down from generation to generation for hundreds of years.
During the hank-dyeing process, the warp yarns are gathered together in a bunch called the “hank” and then repeatedly dipped by hand into a bath of natural indigo liquid until the dye has penetrated the core of the yarns. Because the process is fully done by hand, every yard of fabric is a unique work of art.
Natural indigo is a very special and rare dye that is created from the leaves of the indigo plant. Most indigo plants are grown in India, but the traditional hank-dye method only allows for the use of natural indigo grown on Japanese soil. This makes the fabric even rarer because very little indigo is grown in Japan each year. In addition, natural indigo dye is one of the oldest dyestuffs in existence and has been produced in Tokushima since the Edo period starting in 1603 A.D. Due to the lengthy fermentation process, it takes about one year to produce a new lot of natural indigo dye.
As a nod to the process’ prestige, the traditional hank-dye process is so much a part of Japanese culture and history that the Japanese government has decreed it the prestigious title of “Tokushima prefecture intangible cultural treasure.”
Image: Asahi Kasei
This method is also extremely rare in Japan. Even companies that use this method don’t produce a lot.
In a single day, a handwoven loom produces one meter of fabric, while a pair of jeans requires 2.5 meters of fabric (from narrow selvedge denim). In other words, it takes two and a half days to make one pair of jeans.
This is an old-fashioned, hand-operated loom – the same type of loom they would use to make fabric before electricity. I was once told that the ones used in Japan were previously used to make Kimono fabric, although I’m not sure of the story’s accuracy. One time, we went hunting for old deadstock Kimono fabric and found someone who used to own a mill and still had tons of deadstock fabric. The problem was the fabric was super narrow, around 30 cm wide. Explaining the fabric’s narrowness, the owner said this was due to Kimono fabric being made as wide as the Kimono’s panels. It’s possible the machine has since been converted, although it’s difficult to say.
While we’ve personally found swatches and mills who claim they have handwoven denim, it’s proven impossible to order – nobody seems to want to make it. Same goes for hank-dyed; it’s so painstaking, few bother. Having said that, Denim House Shiroshita still has a handwoven loom. Oddly enough, we went here and Brandon [Svarc] got to try the machine for himself. Apparently, he was the first non-Japanese person ever to use the loom.
The most famous of all Japanese denim is, of course, Japanese selvedge denim. There are several producers in Japan, some big and some small, although the most common are Kaihara and Kuroki. Rumor has it that the Japanese mills bought up all of the old selvedge denim looms from Levi’s back in the day. Sadly, this is nothing but a fairy tale. I have never seen a non-Japanese shuttle loom in Japan ever and I’ve toured quite a few mills.
The majority of shuttle looms in Japan were made by a company called Toyoda. Later on, that company became the company we now know as Toyota (yes, the car manufacturer).
A dyeing method in which hundreds of yarns are bundled into the shape of a rope and soaked in a large indigo bath. The yarns are then hung to dry and left to oxidize. This process is repeated over and over depending on the desired dye penetration. The cotton is never left in the bath long enough for the indigo to fully penetrate the yarns. Only the surfaces of the yarns are dyed, leaving the interior yarns un-dyed. The result is layer after layer of caked indigo buildup on the exterior surface of the yarns. After prolonged wear, the indigo will fade revealing the layers of contrasting indigo to a white core, creating a unique effect every time.
Stay tuned for more Denim Week features.