Friday, 16 March 2018

Act naturally

I was overjoyed to travel to Tennessee last autumn, for a story on natural indigo which runs in this month's Wallpaper*.
I wouldn't have been quite so overjoyed had I know that the new fabric would be the last developed and loomed at the historic White Oak plant in Greensboro. Words fail me on that subject right now, so instead here's photo gallery from my trip to the indigo fields, plus a Q&A with Allen Little, who designed that wonderful fabric, used for last season's LVC 1880s repro of a pair of jeans in the Levi's archives named Stumpy.

Tell me about how you developed the new natural indigo fabric.
It was a group development like a lot of our LVC. They typically have a theme, we meet with Paul [O'Neill] and his team to get the flavour. This particular one, was a little different. The 1880s jeans predate the 501, so it is earlier than the 501 fabric. Paul and Stacia [Fink] hand-carried the jeans to me in Greensboro and we had a meet. It’s an unusuall pair of jeans that they call it Stumpy! We laid it out...and looked at the fabric. When they show us something like we can’t [destroy part of] it. We have to look closely, and also go though out own collection of old fabrics so we understand it. From a construciton standpoint we try and go back in time and understand what level of technology existed or did not exist, from the construction, there’s all sort of character caused by problems with lack of technology So we created some yarns to mimic the fabric. This one has a lot of different qualities, there’s the lack of process control, character details, nepping As far as the natural indigo part, we had a source [Linda Bellos] who we met a long time ago … we were happy with the results and it made sense to do it in natural indigo, produced in the USA so here we are again a lot of years later with .

How long did it take to work out?
It took about two months for this fabric.

Does using natural indigo change the dyeing process?
We apply it the same way, the concentration of natural tends to be lower so we have to compenstate for that. But from years to year we evaluate the propertyies, the plants grow some years better than others.. so for us it’s a matter of binding the crop and keeping it [consistent].

How does the natural indigo vary?
We want to make sure we have the whole crop represented. The very first vegetables are typcially young and tender, then less and less so as the season goes . To make sure we don’t have a problem with the dyeing size [there is] proper blending and mixing of the early to the mid to the last harverst. And we have procedures where we are checking the storage and we have procedures for seeing it gets mixed early and doesn’t settle. All thing we don’t have to do with the synthetic.

The natural indigo jeans I’ve worn often look different... but in general the dye seems to sink further into the yarn, is there a reason for that?
I think your basic assumption is correct. Any producer can create an effect, let’s say they don’t like it to penetrate, so you have it chip off easily [like with] some of the Japanese jeans, where it’s on the very surface of the yarn. We have a dyeing methodology [that’s different from] that. But if you do something different along the way, in dyeing or preparation, there are all sorts of things that affect it; how tight the yearns are, temperatures, the acidity of the dye. For natural indigo I think, at least for us, we want to dye it just like it was when natural indigo was used. There was no tweaking of any of the chemistry involved in the dyeing. But [even without tweaking, natural] indigo does wash down different.

I’m full of admiration for this project, which goes right back down to the very beginnings of Levi’s and Cone.
It’s been very exciting. It’s plant-based so it’s much more sustainable and that’s very important for us. It’s part of our heritage... the first ]Cone] fabric was a shuttle fabric. It has its own look for sure, it is a little redder than some but it truly doesn’t look like anything we’ve dyed before. For me.. as a development person, this is the best project you could ever give me, it’s so iconic.

Wednesday, 28 February 2018

Back to our roots

Look out for the current issue of Wallpaper*, which features my story on natural indigo, being grown once more in the American south after a break of a century or two. I'll update with a Q&A and some more photos in the next few weeks.

Sunday, 26 February 2017

I'll be your mirror: LVC's lefty 1976 jeans

I'll update this post later, but I told friends I'd post photos of the pair of LVC 1976 mirror jeans that I was privileged to open in the mail recently.

The inspiration came when Cone Mills decided to put back into service an old G Series loom that was on display in their reception (I photographed the loom during my visit and will try and locate the photo soon). The loom still had a bolt of fabric, which it was weaving just before the venerable machine's retirement. Levi's staff were overjoyed and talked of making some jeans from the deadstock fabric - before realising it was a left-hand twill. Levi's 501 is famously right-hand twill. How could they turn from left to right? Easy! Make these mirror image jeans.

There are, I've been told, around a dozen pairs using the original fabric. I was lucky enough to be in the office around the time they came up with the idea. The kind, crazy people offered me a pair... and unlike so many people in the planet followed up on their promise. So these are one of a dozen or so pairs using the deadstock fabric.

It was strange for me to open up a pack with these jeans, as they are so strongly evocative of so many new pairs I've owned. They're a very authentic cut, as the pattern was taken from a deadstock pair of originals  - when taking a pattern from worn, washed jeans, more guestimates are obviously involved. There will be a limited edition of 501 mirror jeans, using fabric which replicates the original run. And the other good news is there will be a regular reissue of the right hand twill version, at a lower price. These are a very distinctive shape, high waisted, carrot shape - a cut which I reckon is very popular right now. Makes a great change from the usual 50s and 60s shapes, and it will be fascinating to see how all versions, using the deadstock and the repro fabric, look as they wear in.

The G series loom was used for training. Hence the deadstock fabric has loom errors, presumably from when it was set up to demonstrate how to configure a left hand twill. So actually, these are MOSTLY left hand twill!

Monday, 2 January 2017

Toyoda and the Japanese industrial revolution

Toyoda Model G loom, Science Museum, London

In previous posts I've discussed Toyoda looms in relation to the silly myth that Japanese denim mills somehow acquired "old Levi's looms", a claim that was first used in relation to Evisu.

But Toyoda looms are fascinating for many reasons. Not only are they still weaving some of the world's finest denim today, at Kurabo, Nihon Menpu and many other mills, they also mark the birth of Japanese industry.

In Japan, the career of Sakichi Toyoda is justly celebrated. Sakichi first developed a power loom around 1897; this design was further developed by  Kiichiro Toyoda, with Rizo Suzuki and Risaburo Oshimo, who eventually perfected the design as the Toyoda Model G loom, in July 1924. "Automatic" means that the loom changes shuttles - the large bobbins which carry the white, 'fill' yarn for denim - automatically, which allows a single operator to supervise 12 or 20 looms, rather than one or two.

Toyoda Model G looms at the Kurabo mill, Kurashiki
Toyoda looms at the Kurabo Mill, Kurashiki
Other manufacturers, including the Draper Corporation, had already developed Automatic Looms, notably the Draper Northrop, produced as early as 1897 but which seems to have only become widespread after 1915 or so. But the Toyoda G apparently allowed for bobbin change with the loom still running, it was reputedly more reliable and physically compact than its rivals, and included a failsafe mechanism, which meant the operator couldn't insert the bobbin in the wrong configuration. Consequently, it became one of the first Japanese industrial designs to be widely exported, thanks to a partnership with Britain's Pratt Brothers, a huge producer of textiles machinery, who licensed the design.

The profits generated by the Model G helped finance the development of a motor car, and the creation of what we know today as the Toyota industrial corporation. The Model G's significance is marked by the inclusion of an early model in a prominent location at London's Science Museum. The Model G loom shown here is the one in London.

It's hard to know how many Model G looms are still in operation; I know they are still in use at Nihon Menpu (a historic photo here shows them in the mill in the 1920s). Toyoda shuttle looms are in use at most of the well-known Japanese mills, most of which will have a combination of older and newer machinery. The growth of Kurabo, once of Japan's biggest textiles producers, was powered by Toyoda; period photos show dozens of Model G looms in the factory, alongside imported machinery, by Pratt Brothers and others. We know that the fabric for the first Evisu jeans was made on Toyoda looms at Kurabo - so as well as helping launch the industrial revolution in Japan, powering one of the country's key export successes, the Toyoda Model G was crucial to today's fascination with selvedge denim.

Automatic Bobbin Change mechanism
Toyoda looms at Nihon Menpu, circa 1920s.

The exterior of Kurabo Mill in Kurasghiki, an industrial giant powered by Toyoda.

The Platt Toyoda-licensed loom, built in Oldham.

Friday, 4 November 2016

A Revolutionary Appearance

Just a quick, late note to say I'll be speaking about denim and the Counterculture at the V&A this evening, Friday 4 November, in conversation with fashion historian Amber Butchart. We'll be discussing the years 1966-1970, as well as the roots of the counterculture, and how the story of denim is interwoven with that of music and art. It's free, and is scheduled for 19.30-20.30 in the Tapestry Room.

Tuesday, 19 July 2016

Gripping Yarns part 2: a hairy experience

It took a photographer, Farhad Samari, to express it best: the yarns are the foundation on which denim is built.

This second part of my interview with Allen Little, who designed many of Cone's finest yarns, covers some fairly esoteric subjects; in particular the hairiness of denim, and where that comes from, and the folk tales about "unbleached" fill yarns. Odd bits didn't make the edit; we did speak about Zimbabwe cotton, about which he was complimentary - although we didn't have time to discuss whether it's really long staple (it isn't, in the strict sense). My apologies that I have no more photos of the spinning process; you'll have to look at the previous Q&A for those. Instead, here are my photos of the loom floor, from January 2009.

There's a tendency from many companies, who produce selvage denim, to over-do the slubbiness, isn't there?
I think so, I think there is a lot of mechanically programmed denim that people call vintage that is very far away. You have to remember, people tried to make the best quality they could at the time. When they over-exaggerate the unevenness of the yarn, it becomes something else.

What're your thoughts on hairiness?  A lot of people prefer almost an early '80s style denim, which is very hairy, and that's become associated with a vintage look. Hence there's this belief that the only good denim is hairy. What's your take on that?
The old yarns were ring spun and therefore [somewhat] hairy,  but hairiness a lot of time comes from speed, and the newer machinery tends to run a lot faster. For some of our vintage fabric we have different levels of how much hair we leave on in its finished state. I don't agree it's all gotta be hairy, it all wasn't hairy. I think it's a mixture.

How much did the original cotton vary? For instance, today in terms of staple lengths, you average your cotton stock,for consistency. But we'd be talking about massive variability in the early days, what effect did that have?
It had a major impact. In the old days the goal was to make the yarns the same, as best they could. But they couldn't. Our family were farmers as well as spinners... you have to think about many conditions…seed, soil type, climate conditions,  there was no (or little) irrigation and various farming techniques.  all these things came into effect from year to year, crop to crop. They had little control. Think about various machinery though the years, and the different geographic regions, the effect of insects, the poorer quality of fertilisers, exposure to sunlight and rainfall and all this affected the cotton. The mills were trying their best to create the same product but mother nature and climate affected everything, and I think the denim changed because of that.

Mills would in general use longer cultivars of short staple cotton. Did that stay the same or vary?

The staple length of the cotton has a lot do to with climate and the length of the year they grew in. Cottons today are designed for the region that they grow in, for instance to cope with lower rainfall. Back then, the length of the fibre and the thickness of the fibre had a lot to do with mother nature. Even today, with all the techniques, irrigations, the same farmer can plant one field one year, and the next year [the staple length] can be significantly longer. Back then, cotton properties were evaluated by a cotton classer which was a person measuring by hand.  In today's world, we have automated testing equipment so we know more about the cotton that we purchase. Transportation is also easier and more accessible; in the old days you would take cotton that was geographically closer.

Some people like Texas cotton, because it's hairier, shorter staple, associated with that '70s look. Did Cone move to Texas at any point, did the source change?
Cone started with cotton that was close in proximity to the mills.  As transportation was became more accessible, I think there was a move into the Texas cotton... and I think the Texas cotton can be typically shorter [staple length] because of lack of rainfall, in the state as a whole and other factors. It's very good cotton for denim. Then of course North Carolina used to [provide] a lot of cotton, South Carolina and the  states across the Mississippi valley, we call that Delta cotton , that Delta cotton is good cotton.[But] Texas cotton per se... the cotton is not hairy it's the properties of the cotton,  the yarn's hairier because the cotton is a tad shorter with more short fibre content. [But] it's a generalisation that Texas cotton is more hairy, it is due to the properties of the spinning that makes the yarns more hairy.

What about shades of cotton – does that vary a lot?
It does.just another challenge of cotton milling. Cotton comes in various shades of yellow up to cream, you see denim in different shades just due to the colour of the cotton and climate which make it difficult [to reproduce]. But we try to address that in our vintage denim, we try to address those issues also..  we take other techniques to try and generate the variability in the cotton colour, we try to address that more on a yarn construction and can control some of that in dyeing.

I've heard talk of 'unbleached' cotton - was fill yarn ever bleached?

Bleach and cotton don't like each other, that's just a function of.. a particular year crop.. a particular geographic region. We mention the 1915 fabric. Some cotton tends to be much more yellow. If you've seen that piece of denim we have addressed that in the fill yarn to make it look like one of the more yellowish cottons. We do that using different techniques... I have to be careful. There's a variety of ways, you can pick a certain colour cotton, there are ways to colour the cotton to create a certain look and you can definitely buy different cotton varieties that have different colour, different regions and different varieties have different colours.

Is there a yarn you're particularly proud of?
Proud? I really like the XX15, that's a special one, what you call the 1915 fabric. I like them all but that's a favourite, I like the 1960…   and then we have another vintage, similar to the 1915 it's a little different, rougher - the 1950s one which has our special yarn almost like the 1915. I'm a textural person, I like more character and uneven-ness.

Sometimes I'm staggered by the depth of knowledge, and love, of fabric from people who've been in the industry for a long time, like you or Ralph Tharpe.
That's called, being born in a doff box as I was once told when I was a boy. A doff box is a box where, on the old spinning machines, you put the bobbins of yarn in. As far as the people I meet that have that... the knowledge they bring to the table is pure magic.

Wednesday, 11 May 2016

Gripping yarns: a Q&A with Cone's Allen Little

 Denim nerds love talking about selvage edges, and looms. But really when we're do so, we're overlooking something more vital: the yarns. Different looms do have a different effect - but really, it's the yarns that contribute more to the character of denim and how it wears in. 

That's why I was excited to spend hours on the phone with Allen Little, who's undoubtedly one of the world's leading yarn experts. Allen works for Cone, a company that is currently celebrating its 125th anniversary. Cone produce an incredible variety of vintage-style denims, all made on their old Draper looms. But each of those individual denims, will have a specific yarn. Cone are unusual in this respect; although we often think of Japanese mills as boutique operations, they usually buy in their yarns from outside suppliers. Cone, in contrast, design their own. 

Most of us know that many denim manufacturers turned to Open End spinning in the 1980s, and this lost us a lot of character, because the denim was simply too smooth and even.  Hence, from the late 1980s onwards, there was a return to Ring Spun yarn. But beyond the use of Ring Spun yarn, there is almost an infinite variety in the look of what's available. Here Allen gives us an overview of how he reproduces specific yarns of specific eras.

As there's so much information to absorb, I'm running this Q&A in two sections. I will run the second part - which cover hairiness, cotton staple length, and the fiction of 'unbleached cotton' next week. 

The main photos here are from Farhad Samari , from the Inventory story we did together. 

Tell me about your background - I know your roots in the fabrics industry go deep.
I grew up in Wadesboro, North Carolina, and my family had spinning plants, spinning mills, way before I was born, a mill called Little Cotton Manufacturing . So I grew up in that environment – as a boy they allowed me to sweep the floors, I was surrounded by Whitin Spinning Frames. I went on to a textile career and decided to go more into the machinery and design side. So I joined Amsler Tech in Switzerland, a machinery company which make fancy yarn attachments and devices which are primarily aimed at denim; I spent around 10 years travelling round the world, teaching people how to use the machines and how to design the look they were aiming for. Then I came to Cone, which was a very big customer of this company - so finally I came back home, around [11] years ago.

Amsler software and controls are a very modern way of making yarns that look old-fashioned. How has the potential of their systems changed over the years?
It all developed over time. It started as a very crude technology and slub spinning was not really highly regarded. Denim and upholstery were the first things that went into it. Then as denim went from workwear into fashion there was an explosion of the demand. Everything became more complicated, the computer controlling other machines became more complex, the programming became more complex.

It used to be slub spinning was very simple; you just put a thick place in the yarn, and there was not much designing behind it. Then in the '80s the designing became more important. At the beginning, there weren't many people who knew how to design the yarn to give a certain aesthetic for a fabric. So that's what I was fascinated with.. and wondered if I could figure out how to design something that looked really nice and vintage-like, as I was training people how to use the machine. You had to learn how they operated, you also had to learn about also what old denim looked like, and I guess from there the software, and the controls of the slub devices kept advancing until now we've reached the point where it's highly computerised, and some of the designs for software packages that go with the machines are really quite amazing.

Tell me how you'd go about mimicking the yarn on a vintage-style denim. For instance, on LVC most of the denim is loomed in essentially the same way, so it's the yarn and the dyeing that defines the different fabrics. One of my favourite denims you've produced is the LVC 1915; a fabric that's authentic, vintage-looking but subtle. I assume that's one of your yarns - how did you go about developing it?
Yes, I designed that yarn. We were looking at [old] garments… we couldn't cut them apart 'cos they were quite valuable, but we know where the fabric comes from. You had to go back and think about the lack of control we had in the old day. So you're trying to take a computerised system to replicate a lack of control. The uneven-ness that came with the old type of spinning, this unevenness was random. You had many types of problems with the old spinning. Sometimes you had very long uneven sections of the yarn, sometimes you had very short uneven sections. Sometimes you have yarns that are more hairy than other ones. So we had to design yarn to replicate all of that. This particular yarn, we focused on three or four elements we had to reproduce, for each part of the aesthetic value we were looking for.

Looking specifically at LVC which has a wide variety of denim. We have 1915, then for instance, the early '30s, then we're on to wartime denim... was there a different yarn for every one?
We have some that are just different in proportion. They have different arrangements, there are one or two yarns common to some constructions, you learn in the old spinning what your main unevenness factor is, [and] that becomes a staple for some. Depending on where the yarns were made, it really depends on the time era and quality of cotton for a particular build at that time. So each one is unique in its design, but there is some overlapping.

Was recreating a duck fabric hard?
The denim is much more complex. The duck fabric, we did a few tricks to design that but no, from our perspective it was a simpler fabric. We took the same approach, as with anything else you try and mimic, thinking about how it was made originally. Trying to get the colour correct and some natural character to the duck fabric took some work, but it wasn't as difficult as the denim. We've been doing vintage for so long we have the arsenal of tools to do that, and that was more about coming up with a construction, using our existing tools.

In the pre-war Levi's, how radically was the spinning technology changing? If we take, say, the 1915 and the 1937, is there much difference?
There's not so much between them. The bigger advances in spinning were made later.. but back in the very early days things were produced very slowly. As you move from one era to another the yarns are getting a little bit better - but when I say better I don't mean good. The oldest denim is going to be the most uneven, with the most character but they're the hardest denim to reproduce, due to a variety of things. You've got to think about how a mill was powered, for instance if you're running water power, speed and things like that can change. So the denim got better as the years went along – but it wasn't good, technically

In 1940 vs 1915 there are differences in the denim, the ones from 1940 will be better, for instance the dyeing – they learned more about dyeing techniques as time moved on. It presents a challenge, but I think we've done a good job. You just have to try to put yourself back in time, read books about how things used to be done, plus there are old records from Cone, in our archives, and you have make interpretations of all of that.

Obviously the spinning technology was constantly improving. But in the late '50s and '60s you would have introduced Magnadraft spinning, and on that the magnets would have deteriorated over time. How did that affect the look of the denim?
When Magnadraft was working well, with magnets having all the power, it was much better The older denim, the cotton was not prepared as well, it has issues with neps and and parts of cotton left into the yearn, and that all changed during the Magnadraft era as the carding machines did a better job. We created a special yarn to simulate the issues with the Magnadraft, as the magnets lose their power - they don't have as much grip and it creates some unevenness. And that was a random effect. You've got to think a warp of denim is made from many different yarns, obviously we can't reproduce a 1000 different yarns to reproduce the different strengths of the magnets, but we can program it where it looks like it has. And that's a very special unevenness. Because of course this Magnadraft look is a nice look if you're into vintage.