Selvedge Denim Fabrics Woven On A Shuttle Loom
For over 150 years jeans have been made with so-called selvedge fabrics. These kinds of selvedge fabrics are known for their self-edges on both ends. Sometimes, (also spelled as selvage and sometimes as salvage). This means that they are cleanly finished directly off the loom, with self-finished edges. So, they don’t need to be lock stitched afterward as they don’t fray. Selvedge fabrics are woven on authentic shuttle looms. These narrow looms are run by a wooden shuttle that flows back and forth constantly, resulting in the self-edges. This weaving process is a slow process as they can ‘only’ produce around 100 meters of denim fabrics within 24 hours. And the fabrics are quite small, around 70 – 80 centimeters (27’’ – 28’’).
Original Picanol shuttle loom, owned by the Italian Candiani denim mill.
The Birth Of Modern Projectile Looms
A modern weaving loom, called a projectile loom, is around 10 – 15 times faster, and weaves double twice the width, so around 140 – 160 centimers. These modern projectile looms cut the horizontal thread (better known as weft) when finished. This creates frayed ends that need to be lock stitched before they’re usable to cut out the pattern to make a pair of jeans or denim jacket. These projectile looms were introduced when jeans became more popular after World War 2 and a more and faster production was needed within the denim industry. This is to serve the growing market. The shuttle looms faded away in the denim industry around the end of the 1970s/beginning of the 1980s.
The Japanese Osaka 5 Group
In the 1990s, Japanese denim brands started to dust off these original shuttle looms to replicate the original selvedge fabrics. This is to replicate mostly 1940s and 1950s pairs of Levi’s 501 jeans. The most popular group of denim brands that started this movement is known as the ‘Osaka 5’. The five brands that are included in this denim group are Studio D’Artisan, Evisu, Denime, Warehouse, and Fullcount. All are still active these days.
Reasons To Embrace Selvedge Fabrics
Nowadays most denim fabrics are woven on projectile looms instead of the original shuttle looms. And as true denim connaisseurs like to stick to the originals, they prefer these selvedge fabrics over more modern denim fabrics. But, what are the 5 key reasons why they embrace these authentic fabrics? Let’s find it out here below!
- Slow Craftsmanship
Weaving selvedge fabrics is a slow process that is true traditional craftsmanship. Keeping a shuttle loom up and running isn’t so easy and so isn’t the maintenance of it. Threads can break quite easily when running full speed so they need a lot of attention. The results of these more labor-intensive selvedge fabrics can’t be achieved with non-selvedge fabrics as there are more irregularities in the fabric, which gives them more ‘character’. In other words, it gives more depth to a fabric. And that’s exactly the beauty of selvedge fabrics. And a signature of the craftsmanship behind each selvedge denim fabric.
Fun fact: Did you know that Japanese car producer Toyota first produced shuttle looms under the name Toyoda?
Original wooden shuttles from a shuttle loom.
- Unique ID Character
As the wooden shuttle goes back and forth constantly on a shuttle loom, it gives a smooth and clean finish on both ends. Back in the day, these selvedge woven denim fabrics were finished with clean ecru threads, known as plain selvedge. After a while denim mills started to add a thread color at the middle of the self-edge so they could see very easily for which denim brand the fabric was woven. The most common and most popular selvedge ID color is red, which was first used for the production of denim fabrics for Levi’s. Later, they added green and yellow/gold for brands such as Lee and Wrangler. These selvedge colors are now known as ID (identity to distinguish the fabric and thus the brand).
These days all kinds of selvedge IDs are used within the production. Edwin jeans from Japan is known for their unique ‘rainbow selvedge’, showing a multiple color ID. And the Canadian denim brand Naked & Famous uses a uniquely produced vulgar selvedge fabric. This is a selvedge denim fabric with naughty words woven into the selvedge ID. When you flip the cuff of your jeans, “Fuck You, You Fuckin’ Fuck” is visible, so you can tell the world how you really feel that day. Cuffing your jeans with selvedge fabrics is almost a standard as this way you can proudly show that your jeans is made with an authentic selvedge denim fabric.
Fun fact: Did you know that Lee was known for their half-selvedge denim fabrics back in the day? This means that half of the fabric shows a selvedge ID while the other side is non-selvedge (thus lock stitched).
Fun fact 2: On vintage Levi’s jeans the redline is washed-out due the many washes duringall the years.
Redline selvedge ID by Levi’s.
Washed-out selvedge on a vintage Levi’s jeans from the 1950’s.
Rainbow selvedge by Edwin jeans from Japan.
Plain selvedge / ecru selvedge on a pair of Grivec Bros.
Lee 101 jeans showing a single-line selvedge ID. In this case it’s a blue selvedge ID. Learn more about the strong connection between Japanese selvedge fabrics and the Lee 101 collection here.
Vintage Lee jeans from the early 1950’s showing half-selvedge.
- Durability And Quality
Selvedge denim fabrics are woven at a slower pace and woven most of the time with high-quality cotton. This results in a longer-lasting denim fabric as it is very sturdy and thus durable. Also, most true denim heads like to wear a pair of jeans made with rigid (also known as dry, raw, or unwashed) denim fabrics. In this case, these denim fabrics aren’t prewashed in a denim laundry, but ‘virgin’ when they started breaking in their jeans for the first time.
Over time, the unwashed stiff denim fabric softens and shapes more to their body type which makes them more comfortable to wear each day. After a few months, their personal and natural wear pattern will be more visible as the indigo chips of the threads. This is because indigo doesn’t penetrate the core of cotton during the indigo-dye process. So, the core of the cotton stays white, and this will be more and more visible when wearing and/or washing your jeans. In the end, the wearer achieves a beautiful natural wear pattern that perfectly reflects its lifestyle.
Fun fact: Most selvedge fabrics are Sanforized. Sanforized denim fabrics (a fabric treatment invented by American Sanford L. Cluett in the late 1920’s) are treated at the denim mill to reduce shrinking. Normally Sanforized fabrics will shrink around 1 – 3%. Unsanforized denim fabrics, also known as Loomstate or Shrink-to-fit, don’t get any treatment at the denim mill. This means that these fabrics will shrink up around 10% after the first wash. When you buy a pair of jeans made with Unsanforized demim fabric you will have to keep in mind to size up your waistsize by two and the length of your jeans at least with 3 inches. More about this here.
- Sustainable Approach
The slow production process to create selvedge fabrics results in a more sustainable product in the end. This as these fabrics will last long(er) than regular fabrics (if you treat them right, learn more about how to wash your jeans in previous article here). A stronger fabric means a longer lifespan in the end. And thus less purchases. On top of that, most denim heads that wear selvedge jeans wash them less to achieve the holy denim fades. So less water and energy waste, so better for planet earth. And as with most of your more expensive purchases, you will take more care of your jeans knowing that selvedge jeans are more expensive (due to the production process there’s more waste to cut one single pair of jeans) than non-selvedge (most of the time).
The pattern for one single jeans on selvedge jeans (woven on a shuttle loom) at the Candiani denim mill.
The pattern for one single jeans on non-selvedge jeans (woven on a projectile loom) at the Candiani denim mill.
- Lifestyle And Community
Lastly, wearing a pair of selvedge jeans is more than just a simple piece of clothing. It makes you feel part of a (denim) community as it’s a way of life. A lifestyle that is strongly connected to denim. Those denim heads are selecting carefully the rest of their outfit too, so a good pair of Goodyear Welted constructed leather boots, a loop wheeled sweater, and a woolen fisherman coat for example. Pieces of clothing that share a story, a history of production.
Worn by heroes in the past such as Marlon Brando in the film The Wild One, James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause, or Marilyn Monroe in The Misfits. But think also about musicians such as John Lennon, Elvis Presley, Bob Marley, Marvin Gaye, and Bob Dylan to name a few that set a new standard. They were the denim heroes and rebels who embraced denim like no one else. Classic and timeless (clothing) styles that are produced to last long and that are better with age.
Note: If you want to learn more about these classics, go check out the book ‘The Rebel’s Wardrobe’ by Bryan Szabo, published by Gestalten.
Note 2: Did you know many of these denim heads are coming together on special denim events such as Denim Days in Amsterdam to celebrate all things blue? Watch the photo + video recap of the last edition of this special denim event here!
All the images in the article by Wouter Munnichs / Long John.