A Tour of Kojima, Okayama’s Projectile Looms And Vintage Shuttle Looms

Only slightly more than two months after my first visit to Kojima, Okayama, I had the opportunity to return to the heart of Japanese denim production. This time around, I got to see firsthand how denim is woven, getting a better understanding of both modern projectile looms and vintage shuttle looms.

Our trip to see the looms took us outside of Kurashiki and Kojima, to a smaller city surrounded by mountains and greenery.  We arrived at a small office adjacent to a factory, where most of the weaving company’s looms were located.

A Closer Look At Modern Projectile Looms And Vintage Shuttle Looms

I was rather surprised when I stepped into the factory and saw large, new-looking machinery weaving fabrics! It looked quite different from what little I’d seen about shuttle looms from pictures and reports online.

These machines were quickly weaving roughly two meters wide rolls of fabric and there was only one worker in the factory when I visited – most of the machines seemed to be running quite well on their own. The floor was covered in wisps of indigo thread that were leftovers from denim weaving.

A projectile loom.  Notice the width of the denim being woven.

A projectile loom – notice the width of the denim being woven.

At this factory, the raw materials were delivered as large spools which we saw sitting at the far end of the room. This obviously made weaving a fabric much easier as all the workers would need to do is load a spool into the top of a loom, and it could be quickly set up to begin weaving. The new fabric would then be wound around another spool for easy transportation. It was easy to see why this would be the preferred method of creating fabrics.

Spools of thread, waiting to be woven into fabric.

Spools of thread, waiting to be woven into fabric.

The spools are easily loaded into the top of the loom.

The spools are easily loaded into the top of the loom.

The looms were all computer-operated and seemed to run well without much assistance. Weft threads were drawn from several metal spools into the machine at high speeds and the machines even cut off the rough edge of the fabric in order to make sewing faster and easier. Remember that on these projectile looms, there is no selvedge, so the frayed ends of a fabric must be dealt with before the fabric can be properly used for a garment.

A modern projectile loom.

A modern projectile loom.

These feed the thread into the loom.

These feed the thread into the loom.

Cutting off the unfinished ends of the textile.

Cutting off the unfinished ends of the textile.

This visit to a clean, efficient, and modern factory was interesting but somewhat unsatisfying. None of The Flat Head‘s products are made on these kinds of modern machinery as their jeans, shirts, and many other items are made with selvedge fabrics that are very different from the sort of textiles produced by today’s machinery.

Fortunately, our tour wasn’t nearly over yet.  We drove across town, arriving at a small factory beside an ordinary house, on a narrow road surrounded by rice paddies and trees. This was where we found machinery of the sort that The Flat Head uses in creating their denim and other fabrics.

Our second factory stop

Entering this factory was like stepping back in time and it was filled with about ten shuttle looms which were dramatically louder than the machinery in the previous factory. In fact, the shuttle looms made so much noise that conversing inside the building was virtually impossible and all workers wore earplugs to protect their hearing while in the building. There were several workers present, two keeping a close eye on the machines, and another working on folding up the fabric by hand.

Inside the shuttle loom factory.

Inside the shuttle loom factory.

Similar to the modern looms I saw in the first factory, these looms were also manufactured by Toyoda, but looked very, very old. They had obviously been repaired and modified over and over again with parts that weren’t in the original machine.

As I was told by our guides, many of the necessary parts were difficult or impossible to find, which sometimes required creative modification of the machines.  As you can see, the original looms have been upgraded and jury-rigged with other parts.

A Toyoda shuttle loom. Note the narrow width of the fabric.

A Toyoda shuttle loom. Note the narrow width of the fabric – only about 2.5 feet.

Though these machines wove fabric at a much slower speed than the projectile looms, they were far more animated. The array of wheels and shafts look strange in motion; the looms looked more like they belonged in a museum.

They looked almost dangerous and compared to modern machines that are mostly self-contained, there is a considerably greater risk of injuring yourself on one of these old shuttle looms. A wooden arm violently blasts the shuttle back and forth at high speed; I would be rather uncomfortable standing next to one of these machines all day, worrying that something might snap off and hit me in the face.

The wooden part is the "hammer" that sends the shuttle back and forth.

The wooden part is the “hammer” that sends the shuttle back and forth.

Smaller, simpler spools of thread.

Smaller, simpler spools of thread.

Weaving in action.

Weaving in action.

Seeing the projectile looms beforehand gave me a much greater appreciation for the differences offered by the shuttle loom. The fabric is very narrow, only about half the size of what the projectile looms were weaving, and in most cases, they were weaving much more slowly. Seeing the projectile looms made it clear that such fabrics weren’t inferior to selvedge materials from a quality standpoint – the fabric being woven at the first factory was obviously a very high quality.

However, the real difference is that these old machines create their fabrics much more slowly, in smaller quantities. The unique quirks of the weaving process gives the fabric a distinct texture. There’s a lot more to a good shuttle-loomed fabric than the selvedge line at the end.

Vintage shuttle loom

Among other fabrics being woven, I saw the 12 oz. denim used in Flat Head‘s sawtooth western shirts, denim vests, and K0011 jeans.  When I asked if the Pioneer denim used in jeans such as the legendary 3001 and 3005 was made here, I was told that this denim was woven elsewhere. The exact weaving technique and dyeing processes are such a closely-guarded secret that barely anyone besides the workers and the president of the company have ever seen it.

Once the tour came to an end, I emerged from the factory with my ears ringing and a deepened appreciation for the care that goes into the creation of Japan’s best jeans. It was obvious from attitude of the weaving company’s president that the unpredictable shuttle looms are a bit of a headache for him. It almost seemed as if he wanted to say, “why would you want to see those noisy, rickety old things when we have newer, better machines right here next door?”.

The key takeaway here is that these shuttle looms don’t necessarily make a higher-quality fabric than the new machines. In fact, it’s probably much more difficult to ensure quality control with shuttle looms in comparison to the automated, self-sufficient projectile looms. However, the shuttle looms do make a fabric with the flavor of a bygone era of manufacturing.

Time has an interesting way of changing our perceptions, and while in the 1950’s denim makers considered the speed and idiosyncrasies of shuttle looms as an obstacle to be overcome, the Japanese makers appreciate the unique qualities of the fabric. What these methods lack in speed or efficiency, they compensate for it through the character imbued through old machinery and the personal touch of workers who cut and sew the jeans using traditional techniques.

Ultimately, this is the defining difference between a mass-produced jean made with high-tech machinery and small-scale artisan brands that use machines and methods dependent on the human element.

Kyle

Kyle lived in Japan for several years and has worked in the denim industry. He likes writing, playing electric guitar, and listening to Japanese indie rock bands.

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  • Somar

    Nice article Kyle!

  • Grandier

    great article! although unfortunately for most of the denim fans, this ‘tour’ article is a bit hard to understand especially for those who are never involved in the production scene. it’s a bit hard to imagine what’s going on, and i’m sure it feels different than just reading the article.

    another place to visit when i’m going to japan for vacation, thanks kyle!

  • Jun

    I just jizzed my (coincidentally) Japanese selvedge denim looking at the photos

  • Pierre

    It’s not large spools you talk about. A spool is smaller and usually used on a sewing machine. Those you mentioned are called warp beams. They call it warp and weft for a reason ;-) After dyeing the yarns they roll all warp threads up on these in a certain pattern. Often even mixing up different yarns and thickness/slubbyness so in the end that also creates a pattern in the fabric after weaving: slub, crosshatch etc. They get fixed in a knot at the end so finally when one warp beam finishes they easily can attach another one by knotting all threads (which must be one hell of a job) in the same structure as the previous one and continue weaving.

    • Kyle

      Thanks for the insight, I should’ve written “spool” in quotes to indicate that I wasn’t sure what these were called in English.

      • Pierre

        No problem, I just like to name things by their correct name ;-)

  • SirReal

    Best article in a long time, great job!

  • Johnson Benjamin

    So, one day, 5, 6, 7 years from now. Will we all look back on our current fascination with shuttle loomed, selvedge denim, and just kind of roll our eyes? (similar to the owner here, when Kyle wanted to see the old looms?)

    Because, as this article says, there is no difference in quality. Perhaps even, with modern denim weaved more consistently, a theory could suggest its quality is better….
    I sometimes question my fascination with selvedge.

    • Geo

      Selvedge does not necessarily mean high/higher quality. Selvedge denim often (not always) seem higher quality because those making it often use higher quality materials (i.e. cotton). There’s already a higher markup because its more costly to produce, may as well use better materials while you’re at it.

      If you were to use the same cotton threads on both a shuttle loom and a projectile loom, the projectile loom will create a much more consistent denim. But isn’t the lack of consistency the reason you’re fascinated with it in the first place? Imperfections in selvedge denim, couple with its stiffer nature and rope dying, give it more interesting fading properties. At least that’s why I’m fascinated with it.

      • Johnson Benjamin

        Yes. I do understand the varying of quality in Selvedge is based on the materials used really. Jc penney Selvedge < Gap Selvedge < (Insert good brand name here). So those really are the driving forces of the high cost of selvedge (and also shipping if buying Japanese selvedge).
        I know of some high quality projectile denim, a company in Texas manufactures it. (I think it is organic or something too).

        I do know some of my fascination comes from the fact selvedge is unique, and part of this subculture. Which is probably a bit superficial and leads me to this questioning.

  • docmac

    Really great post. The quality/artisan issue is always interesting. Kind of like dinnerware….mass produced ceramic plates are more consistent, exact, flawless and cheaper…but there’s an appeal to handmade with it’s flaws and uniqueness, and it transitions from “product” to “art”. IMHO.