Last month on the Journal, we published ‘Embarking On Your Denim Journey’ which is the first in a trio of denim-focused pieces. It looks specifically at our raw jeans offering and explains the processes that go into making them. Above all, though, it talks about how from the moment you put them on they’ll document your lifestyle through tears, marks and fades.We also introduced a new character in the TWC story, our friend Hiro, who as co-founder Adam has described, “is a master of all things indigo”. Hiro manages our denim production in Okayama, Japan, and keeps Adam updated via WhatsApp on a daily basis. In this entry, we’re going to dive a little deeper into the production which he oversees plus his artistry when it comes to the different washes he makes for us, such as Vintage, Legacy, and Black Fade.
We source most of our denim from Kuroki Mill, and what we admire about them is they have similar traits to some of our favourite British mills – they were founded in 1950 and are still family-owned. It’s also one of a very small handful of mills in Japan that’s vertically integrated, which means that they have full control of the entire process – from raw material in, to finished product out.
Now, what Kuroki is extremely good at is rope-dyeing. In this early process of making denim fabric, the cotton yarns used to eventually form the warp are bunched together kind of like a pack of spaghetti. They’re then rope-dyed which, in layman terms, means that they are dipped in and out of vats of indigo dye, rather than submerged and soaked in them. This prevents the indigo from penetrating entirely through the yarn.
‘Denim heads’ obsess over the qualities and imperfections that come from this process. “Japanese rope dye process technology creates cotton thread called the Nakajiro effect,” Hiro tells us and adds that “outside of the thread is indigo colour and inside of the thread is the original ecru colour.” Eventually, this off-white base colour is slowly revealed on your jeans as the indigo is stressed through wear and tear.
One of the reasons why the Japanese are lauded for their denim is that they champion the special shuttle looms American manufacturers discarded in the 1980s. They did so in favour of mass-scale production looms and the Japanese didn’t hesitate to snap up their castaways.
Shuttle looms are engineered to make a narrow-width fabric with a selvedge. They create little waste too as you can conveniently map out all the parts needed to make a pair of jeans within the width of the fabric. This is, of course, hugely important as the denim industry is one of the biggest polluters in fashion. Another aspect that makes these looms special are the benefits of the small shuttle device they’re named after. The device is shot along the warp and fills in the weft yarns by passing back and forth between both sides of the loom. This leaves one continuous yarn at all both edges so the fabric self seals without any stray yarns. “They create an excellent vintage look,” Hiro qualifies. These narrow-width looms create selvedge denim, which is usually signified by the red trimming which in Japan, they call akamimi. (It should be noted that the colour of the selvedge can be anything, TWC’s, though, is nearly always red.)
The finished denim is then transported to our sewing plant and this is a short drive away within Okayama. “We are using several vintage Union Special sewing machines from the 1960s,” Hiro tells us and adds that “the craftspeople who control these old machines require a high level of skill and experience.” These Union Special machines are like gold dust as the company stopped producing them in 1989. Therefore, very few people can repair them and we’re fortunate to have our jeans made with them.
It’s at this point in the production where Hiro comes into a world of his own, a bit like a meticulous impressionist artist with a blank canvas. While differing fits are purposefully limited, at The Workers Club we have a handful of different washes for different tastes, and the processes required to achieve these washes require extraordinary amounts of know-how, patience and artistic flair.
For Hiro, though, it’s straightforward and impressively analogue. “For me, washing is the same as cooking. When I’m creating a new wash, the idea is already inside my head. I never use a computer and always draw it on a piece of paper by hand first,” he explains. He then tells us that “there are up to 20 or 30 pages of drawings per wash style and I consider these pages as my recipes when I’m working.”
You’d be forgiven for thinking that the process of washing sounds quick – a bit like washing your darks for an hour at 30 degrees – but it can sometimes take up to 60 days to achieve the perfect wash. The key ingredient is natural water and it’s recycled so that the process is as sustainable and eco-friendly as possible.
With mass-produced denim, the results from washing can be mimicked artificially with a laser. It’s time-efficient but it’s the antithesis of Hiro’s craft. “I don’t want to use robots to wash my denim. Our skin is so sensitive and our jeans are in contact with our bodies at all times. A robot will never be able to understand the delicacy of human skin. People often say that I am too old fashioned. However, this is my art and I don’t want it to be replaced by a robot,” he tells us passionately.
Our Vintage, Legacy and Black Fade jeans all started out as raw denim (Black Fade with black dye, rather than indigo), and have all undergone special washes engineered by Hiro. Not only does that soften the fabric but it reduces the intensity of the dye and the exact alchemy of how is a closely-guarded secret. Hiro then goes one step further, and uses his hands to create more fades and marks around the thighs, bum and back of the knee areas. “When we do hand brushing on the rope dye fabric, the high low effect Nakajiro comes out naturally,” he explains.
Because denim is now produced on such a terrifying scale and is so ubiquitous, the old-school manufacturing techniques, artistic nuances and many hands that go into high-quality denim are often overlooked. It’s for that reason alone that they should be championed. We’re immensely proud to work with Hiro, as we believe that his unique washes elevate our Made in Okayama jeans to something that’s closer to wearable art. Thanks to him and his profound vision for washing denim, this once-upon-a-time workwear staple can be viewed as being a vehicle for artistic expression.
Explore our offering, here.