Selvedge Denim: Do The Japanese Make Them Better?

Not all denims are created equal. The same, too, can be said about the selvedge siblings, even those that are made in Japan


Uniqlo men's denim jeansUniqlo slim-fit straight selvedge jeans 

Selvedge (from the phrase self-edge, and also spelled selvage) denim has been so hyped that denim jeans sported with a selvedge on the underside of the out seams are invariably considered “premium” and, hence, superior. This is as near to the truth as the waist is close to the ankle. It is also not accurate to say all selvedge denim comes from Japan. It, too, isn’t entirely correct that selvedge denim is raw denim, and equally untrue that they only come from old artisanal looms. The Japanese make a lot of selvedge denims, that’s certain, but their reputation as weavers using only discarded American looms is spun from more myth than fact.

The controversy that has plagued Japanese selvedge denim recently intensified as more brands are charging astronomical amounts for jeans made with this long-lived blue cloth. Did the Japanese really buy up all the old looms when the Americans decided to move jean production off-shore, as woven by popular belief? Well, it depends on who you ask. There are those who want to deem this true to protect the romantic story so as to keep consumers paying for what are thought to come from vintage looms. There are also those who think that the truth is vital as the way to guard America’s reputation as home to original blue jeans—that the looms, as jokingly proposed by Mike Hodis of Rising Son & Co to The Crosby Press, “ended up in the bottom of the ocean” (for us, more likely, junk yards), not on some factory floor in the Far East. The story remains mystifying especially when the Japanese themselves have not really come out to clear the air. But the fact that even Japan’s most expensive denim label Momotaro uses local Toyoda vintage shuttle looms rather than those once disposed by Americans may help demystify expensive Japanese denim.

SelvedgeThe selvedge: here, stitched together on the out seam and ironed flat, distinguished by the narrow white tape on which a red thread runs lengthwise through it 

The introduction of Uniqlo’s jeans made from “premium selvedge denim” this season, too, may help to shed some light on the question. The clue here is the price.  At S$59.90, what are the chances that these pants could be fashioned out of fabric woven from antiquated looms?  The problem is compounded by the quantity Uniqlo produces too. Old shuttle looms are known to be slow. Can they fabricate the amount Japan’s largest fast fashion company would require to reach a world-wide market, from the UK to Australia? And can Uniqlo produce the uniform quality required to convinced consumers they’re not buying inferior products (never mind if denim woven from old looms tends to be inconsistent in finish, and therein lies its charm)?

Uniqlo’s selvedge jeans come with a hang tag labelled “Original Fabric Selvedge”. The underside tries to explain what selvedge denim is, but does not state with certainty that the jeans you have in your hands are made from the fabric they have described. “Selvage refers,” it says, “to the self-finish edge of denim material created using old-style narrow shuttle looms to prevent fraying. Often referred to as ‘red selvage’ because of the red thread used, the selvage technique is typical in jeans made using original narrow-cut (29-inch) denim.” There is no mention if indeed this is the “Original Fabric Selvedge” as depicted—fabric that comes out of “old-style narrow shuttle looms”.

Unqlo selvedge denim jeans hang tagHang tag on Uniqlo’s premium denim jeans emphasising their use of selvedge denim

But on its website, as well as at an event to intro the company’s denim jeans last Tuesday, Uniqlo does identify the manufacturer of its selvedge denim. It comes from Kaihara, one of a handful of active fabric mills in Japan producing high quality denim. Unlike in the US, where only one mill (and believed to be the world’s oldest)—Cone Mills Factory—is reportedly still in production, Japan is home to several mills producing premium denims that are admired globally. Kaihara isn’t Japanese oldest mill, but it is one among a few truly famous that include institutions such as Kurabo and Nisshinbo. Kaihara is noted for their innovative approach to weaving denim and is not opposed to working with brands to come up with new fabrics such as those seen in use by Evisu and Baldwin, brands that they supply to.

Kaihara did not start as a mill for denim. In fact, they began in 1893 as a manufacturer of indigo kasuri for kimonos. It wasn’t until 1970 that they started making denim, and developing an indigo dyeing technique known as “rope dyeing”, considered by denim aficionados as the best dyeing method for yarn since the threads are twisted into a rope and then pulled to and fro through rollers and vats in a repetition of dipping and oxidization to yield the deep blues Kaihara denims are known for. It is also reported that Kaihara uses only American Pima cotton, which, for some—certainly the folks at Uniqlo—is the best for making denims. Furthermore, the yarns are re-spun 64 times for durability. Kaihara’s vintage-style denims (which presumably includes selvedge denims) woven from narrow shuttle looms began only in 1994.

Uniqlo denim jeans 2The sleek and modern finish of Uniqlo selvedge jeans

In naming Kaihara in its marketing material, Uniqlo is giving its premium jeans snob value (note: not all Uniqlo jeans are made from Kaihara denim). While it is doubtful that Uniqlo uses Kaihara’s top-of-the-line denim, that does not mean its selvedge jeans are inferior. Far from it, these are rather handsome jeans, and would be acceptable to any stylish individual who takes smart to mean neat and devoid of fake wear and tear such as grossly artificial whiskering and shredding. They’re sturdy looking despite being made of a light 13-ounce denim (standard, as top quality denim can be of 20 ounce in weight). We’re not sure if the denim is sanforized—a patented method of shrinking the fabric to “fix” it so as to reduce shrinkage after washing, but we suspect the denim is singed and calendered (so as to yield a smoother cloth) since it has a nice hand-feel. For the price, these jeans are even more desirable, for they look a lot more expensive than what Uniqlo is charging them for. Admittedly, these may not be jeans for denim heads, especially those who won’t settle for anything less than jeans made from raw or loom-state denim.

The Japanese are specialists when it comes to denim production, and the details—often those that escape the casual observer—are what set them apart. But that’s not extraordinary considering how intensely passionate they are when it comes to fashion of any sort. Leading American jeans wear retailer Self Edge’s co-founder Kiya Babzani told (a “shopping and style intelligence” site), “The Japanese eye is very different. The mentality they have towards garment production is very different.” And it is this difference that makes Japanese selvedge denim, well, different. And desirable.

Uniqlo’s premium selvedge denim jeans in different fit and washes are available at Uniqlo stores islandwide. Photos: Jim Sim