With renewed consumer appetite for premium denim in 2013, the market for selvedge (also called as ‘selvage’) denim which is highly prized for its dense weave and unique imperfections is driving the market forward fort denim producers and brands. As consumer research group NPD reports, the fastest-growing segment of the denim market is premium (US $ 75+) with an estimated market value of US $ 1.4 billion for the year ended February 2013, up 17.3 per cent from the year before; just two years ago, the premium denim market had not yet reached the US $ 1 billion mark. What’s more, the total units of premium jeans sold grew 16.4 per cent to 13.5 million pairs for the same period. By comparison, the overall denim market grew only 7.0 per cent in value, while unit sales remained flat. Revival of selvedge denim which is highly prized for its dense weave and unique imperfections is driving the market forward for denim lovers.
Selvedge is a particular type of denim weave that forms a clean natural edge that does not unravel. In fact, the word selvedge is a distortion of the phrase “self-edge” or the natural edge of a fabric. Most selvedge denim is available in its raw or unwashed form, though one can also get washed selvedge. Selvedge is made using retro-styled shuttle looms in which the cross-thread goes back and forth as one continuous thread, rather than as individual threads. The look is natural vintage and each garment is different and unique, just the right ingredients for premium denim.
Traditionally, shuttle looms produce denim so narrow that up to three yards of the fabric is required to make a pair of jeans. As a result, manufacturers use all of the fabric with a straight outside seam. The ‘selvedge’ edge in places like the coin pocket or when the cuff is turned up, reveals the two selvedge edges where the denim is stitched together. The edge is usually stitched using a red thread, though yellow, brown or green threads are also used. Before the current denim boom started in the late ’50s in the US, denim used to be made on shuttle looms. As rock’n roll hit home and demand for jeans skyrocketed, manufacturers decided to switch to modern, projectile-looms to bring down costs. These new looms could produce a 60-inch fabric much cheaper, disposing off the old looms as outdated.
In the founding days of PRPS, Donwan set out to find the best quality selvedge denim in the world, and it wasn’t at Cone Mills – it was Okayama, Japan. Back then, Cone was really struggling just to stay alive, facing stiff pricing competition from Turkey, India, China and the whole “Americana, US heritage brands, made in USA” menswear movement hadn’t happened yet, so there wasn’t the appetite like we have today for American selvedge denim from all the denim brands that have cropped-up in recent years.
Japanese, the Leaders in Selvedge
In the ’90s, an increasing interest in traditionally-made denim prompted Japanese manufacturers to buy up the moth-balled shuttle looms lying unused in the US and thus began the crafting of beautiful denim using real indigo dyes to colour them. Today, the Japanese are the leaders in high-quality denim, especially selvedge denim. The rarity of weaving on old looms as well as using ancient dyeing machines make Japanese selvedge denim among the rarest fabrics in the world today. As a traditional textile industry, Japanese weaving technology has long been ahead of the world and the old Toyoda and Sakamoto shuttle looms dating back many decades were much more advanced than the Draper looms that Cone Mills utilized for Levi’s.
Arvind, the Sole Producer in India
In India, Arvind Ltd. is producing selvedge denim in both regular and stretch options on old shuttle looms. “Selvedge denim is made on old-style shuttle looms. The fabric is woven using one continuous cross thread, the weft. As the weft loops back into the edge of the weave the selvedge edge is created,” explains Aamir Akhtar, CEO Denim Fabrics, Arvind. The company is producing one million metres of selvedge denim per annum. Talking about the growing demand of selvedge denim he adds, “There is surging demand for selvedge denim in the world market; however it’s a niche product so the volumes are not big. Only very premium brands are doing it worldwide. We have buyers who value the vintage look in denim so they are buying from us. Rather than the stretch ones, the regular denim is more in demand.”
Selvedge production is much slower than conventionally produced denim, and only the best raw materials are used. The old shuttle looms produce three metres of 75 centimetres wide selvedge denim per hour, and a modern loom is more than 10 times faster. And, as the shuttle looms date back to the 1950s, they require a lot of tender loving care in order to work. Modern denim production is a high-tech industry in which computers control much of the process. In the slow denim factory, the looms are under constant supervision from a couple of denim craftsmen, who oil the machinery and inspect the weaves. “Naturally, the slow production process makes the denim more expensive, but there are also many advantages. The low speed produces far less stress on the yarn, which makes the hand of the denim softer and the fabric more durable,” says Aamir.
Interestingly, high quality selvedge is the secret behind the success of many young denim brands, including Norwegian label Livid Jeans, which exclusively uses Japanese and Cone Denim selvedge for their handmade jeans. Other great selvedge denim brands include: Cheap Monday, Sugar Cane, Rifle, Momotaro, 7 for all Mankind, Studio D’Artisan and Takumi.