Diving Into Selvedge Denim – An In-Depth Look

Original Red-Line Selvedge Denim

Original Red-Line Selvedge Denim

Though we’ve previously covered selvedge denim, there is so much disparity between different types, colours, etc. that’s it worth exploring in much more granular detail.

The History

However, before we embark onto some of the specifics of selvedge denim, it only makes sense to start off by exploring its interesting history and roots. It all began with old styled looms in the late 1800′s, when the looms were able to produce tightly woven, heavy denim in narrow and long strips.

Because the denim was so long, in order to maximize the use of the denim, the manufacturer had to weave the fabric all the way to the bound edges of the denim. This was deemed a ‘self-edge’ and it would be done in various colours (particularly red) to differentiate between different fabrics.

Traditional Red Selvedge With Single Needle Hem

Traditional Red Selvedge With Single Needle Hem

The Present Day

Fast forward a hundred years or so to present day and now brands are using the colours of their selvedge stitching as a sort of brand differentiator. Levi’s for example use a red selvedge stitching, Lee a yellow, Unbranded a blue, Momotaro often a peach thread, Samurai a silver, and Edwin have set themselves apart by utilizing  a rainbow coloured stitching. Thus, the purpose of the selvedge’s color has moved from a former indicator of different fabrics to become something of a brand trademark.

The use of these side edges in the denim still saves cutting away fabric, thereby minimizing a good deal of waste denim and diminishing the fabric that would be lost in the crafting process. Furthermore, compared its non-selvedge cousin, the self-edge has a much stronger edge since its less likely to wear out or pull away under the stresses of working conditions (particularly in workwear).

Rainbow Selvedge via Edwin

Rainbow Selvedge via Edwin

Raw Denim ≠ Selvedge Denim

Here it’s also important to make one thing clear: raw denim ≠ selvedge denim. Many people confuse the two in thinking they are essentially the same and interchangeable, however there is a difference.  ”Raw denim” refers to the wash (or lack thereof) while “Selvedge” is the edge.

While it’s not always the case, I’ve found that most raw denim is “selvedge” and not all selvedge denim is raw. This means the edge of a non-selvedge raw denim can pull and come apart much easier than the edges on a selvedge denim will.

An unknown brand's Blue-Yellow Selvedge line

An unknown brand’s Blue-Yellow Selvedge line

Selvedge Denim Doesn’t Always Mean Higher Quality

Despite the apparent quality indicator, it’s also important to bear in mind that while selvedge denim is becoming more and more popular, it does not always equate to higher calibre of denim or craftsmanship, nor justify a higher price tag. To justify paying a premium for denim you’ll want to also be assured of the weight, whether or not the denim is sanforized, of course whether or not the denim is raw, and other factors.

One of the perks around selvedge denim is the tighter, denser weave compared to non-selvedge denims; the density gives the denim a desirable and more authentic feel. The older looms also create subtle variations and imperfections on a jean-to-jean level; more variations make the denim more unique in the eyes of some of the more discerning denim-heads.

Jean Shop's Orange Selvedge

Jean Shop’s Orange Selvedge

In the modern denim market, the Japanese are arguably the world-leaders in high-quality raw denim, especially selvedge denim. The story goes that when American denim mills were modernizing in the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s, the Japanese bought up all of their old selvedge denim looms and shipped them back to Japan. The craftsmen there learned to master the machines, and the rest is denim history.

Connor

Based in Vancouver, BC, Canada, Connor grew an interest in raw denim thanks to the process, maturation, patience and craft that goes into each individual pair. He also writes at REPOSITORY which he started alongside Rawr founder Nick Coe.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100003326974874 Kyle Brooks Robinson

    Good article. What would be really interesting is if some enterprising individual in North America bought some old looms and actually made a new selvage denim mill in America. Cone makes nice fabrics, but so many companies use the exact same stuff. It would be cool if there was another American selvage denim option.

    • Kretek

      I’ll work on it Kyle. Anyone got a credit card?

      • WTRD

        Tell Obama & Co. to significantly lower the offensive corporate tax rate in this country (35%) and this idea has a chance.

        • Kretek

          Yea. What really stops me is my finances. I’m in a lot of student debt, so I need to get out from under that bombshell first. It’s seriously my dream to one day make denim.

  • MikeC

    FYI, most Japanese mills use antique Japanese looms (Toyoda, etc), not old American looms.

    • Cabbage

      The article says they bought back their old looms and shipped them back to Japan

      • http://www.facebook.com/devan.prithipaul Devan Prithipaul

        That is a good story, but it is innacurate. Many of the looms were made by japanese companies i.e. toyoDA, and even today toyoTA makes carbon fiber looms for the world.

        • asdfghk

          is that so? please enlighten us with your accurate story then.

          • http://www.facebook.com/devan.prithipaul Devan Prithipaul

            There have been numerous weaving mills in the US over the last centuries. The undisputedly best known is Cone Mills, which opened in 1896 in North Carolina and today it’s one of the world’s largest mills that manufactures denim for brands like Levi’s Vintage Clothing at its White Oak plant. For comparison, contemporary Japanese weaving history also stretches more than 100 years back in time, nonetheless, only in the beginning of the 1970s did Kurabo, one of the most famous and leading Japanese weaving mills, set up denim production in Japan. Today the company produces Japanese denim for more than 200 jean manufacturers from around the world.

            In 1972, Kurabo initiated a collaboration with the Japanese denim brand Big John, which to many Europeans is quite unknown brand. Additionally, like most of the early Japanese denim brand, before Big John established the cooperation with Kurabo they got their denim from Cone Mills. Another well known Japanese weaving mill, Kaihara, did not begin their production of selvage denim before 1994.

            Taking the facts above into consideration, one questions how the Japanese in a few decades has gained “patent” on production of high quality selvage denim, and how all the stories and myths that they bought old looms and sewing machines from the US, and even from Levi’s, were coined? It only takes a few clicks online to realise that Levi’s never owned a loom, and even selvage denim, which is often associated with Japanese denim is not necessarily high quality denim. Even more importantly, using an old weave or sewing machine does not necessarily imply that the end result will be superior, as it is not the machines but those who operate them that have the greatest impact on the quality of the final result.

            Supporting this argument with findings and knowledge of Paul Trynka, denim history expert and co-author of the book “Denim: From Cowboys to Catwalks,” it becomes even more clear that there’s truth in the claim of this article. The renowned Japanese automobile manufacturer, Toyota Motor Corporation actually began as a manufacturer of textile machinery. In 1924, Sakichi Toyoda invented the Model G automatic selvage loom, a techical wonder of its time that overshadowed the American equivalents like the Draper looms.

            The loom has been described as, “a landmark achievement that advanced the global textile industry and laid the foundation for the development of the Toyota Group,” and the design of loom was exported to Europe, and produced under licence in the UK. Toyoda shuttle looms were still in widespread use in the 1970s, in particular at the Kurabo mill that produced the first fabric used by Evis (later known as Evisu), who’s founder allegedly is the instigator of the tale that “the Japanese” imported old American machinery. Kurabo have actually confirmed to Trynka that their shuttle looms were made by Toyoda.

            And it doesn’t really make sense. Why would the Japanese import used American looms that are extremely heavy, and expensive and difficult to move around, when you consider that they had a large number of high-quality domestically produced selvage looms at their disposal? Additionally, according to Trynka most old Draper looms that Cone Mill discarded of in 1980s went off for scrap, not for export.All of that being said, the Japanese are generally very meticulous and thorough, and there’s no doubt that they make some of the world’s best denim jeans. I know of something like 40 Japanese denim brands, which all make great jeans, but most of them never get outside of the boarders of Japan because their designs are either in violation of patent rights (especially from Levi’s) or simply because they are too expensive, especially on the European market.

            Perhaps these are some of the main reasons that I – a little conservatively – mostly choose from the old American jeans manufacturers for my shop. Levi’s for instance produces jeans all over the world and uses denim from China, Turkey, America and Japan, which consequently are sold in a price range from around the equivalent to 200 Danish Kroner ($35) and up to several thousand Danish Kroner ($200+), depending on the denim quality and production place. Price and quality basically go hand in hand.

            We are desperately in need of a more nuanced approach to the jeans rather than the excessive focus on the marketing scheme of “Japanese” or “sewn on an old machine.” Seemingly basic information about production sites of both fabric and the final jeans, not even asking for cotton qualities or its origins are often very difficult to obtain. I dream of detailed descriptions and product declarations – like you know them from groceries – on all jeans that would make you able to easily distinguish good from bad, as I’m confident that denim from Turkey, Italy and the US in most cases are just of as high qualities as Japanese denim.

          • ALTR

            Who’d you shamelessly plagiarize this from?

          • http://www.facebook.com/devan.prithipaul Devan Prithipaul

            i got it from Denim Hunter, i tried posting a link, but rawr deleted it. i give them full credit for all of my answer, although i think its pretty obvious that i didnt write it myself

          • http://www.rawrdenim.com Rawr Denim

            Devan – We didn’t delete it. Links are automatically moderated (in case of pesky spammers).

          • http://www.facebook.com/devan.prithipaul Devan Prithipaul

            Ah I see, sorry for the misunderstanding.

          • http://www.facebook.com/devan.prithipaul Devan Prithipaul

            why cant i comment on the MR. 18 article about Noble denim

          • http://www.facebook.com/devan.prithipaul Devan Prithipaul

            Did i answer your question?

  • http://www.facebook.com/devan.prithipaul Devan Prithipaul

    yeah that legend about Japan buying looms from America is not true. interesting article, i didnt learn a lot, but still its good to have it.

    • Kyle

      I think most of the confusion resulting from this is because Japan DID import old American sewing machines (Singer, Union Special) and other equipment, just not the looms.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=680619357 Perry Goh

    Thanks Rawr Denim & Devan for the knowledge feeding.

  • Tiffany Rose

    Hey, that’s my pic of the Jean Shop’s orange selvedge! Found this while doing research for another post. Interesting, I never understood until now why all the selvedge denim seems to come from Japan.

  • Pingback: Crossing The Line - Fake Selvedge Denim

  • USA made

    Hello World:

    As I am sure you are aware, the denim world if confusing to say the least. Everyone claims to be an expert. The guys at Self edge, the dork who makes sixteen denim, the list goes on. The only truth is that Americans created the jean and denim fabric as we know it. The Japs can love it, and copy it; but again they are coping an American invention. To put the shoe on the other foot think of us the USA taking the Kimono and then saying that we do it better and are more authentic. BULLSHIT. Bottom line is the world copies Americana and then they diss us and explain everything we do wrong and how things really are.
    We are Americans and we have created the new global fashion look, you can use old looms , 14kt. gold thread but at the end of the day you are all copy cats of our true fuck the world american ideal and style. We left the crown of england to start a new world and while it great to have followers it sucks when they imitate. Look at evisu, they copies levi’s logo so hard they had to change it and the name. Go into any upscale denim store and 9 times out of 10 the foreign line will use imagery identical to the mules pulling a pair of denim apart, weather its 2 motorcycles or two pigs etc..

    The point is- stop buying into these dorks product lines, they think they are cooler than you and will waste not a moment to tell you. I take great offense to these types and will in the most direct American way challenge them to a fair fist fight, and should they win 2%-5% chance I will fight them again until they bow however long it takes. True American spirit. See you around Andrew Chen