FROM SEED TO JEANS
Toughness is often seen as the essence of denim; but to be truly tough is to be utterly uncompromising. Reaching far beyond the physical toughness of the denim textile itself, is the toughness of spirit of its production, and the unwavering ethos of the craftsmen who make it.
Denim from Japan has a reputation among denim enthusiasts as being the best in the world, and for very good reason. While it doesn't have quite the same storied history as American denim, Japanese denim is known for its extremely high quality construction and the highly skilled artisans who make it. But to understand why Japanese denim is significantly better than other types of denim, one must first try to fundamentally understand how that denim is constructed and what makes some denim more highly prized than others.
Denim, originally derived from dungaree fabric, is a cotton twill textile in which the transverse thread, or “weft,” passes under longitudinal threads, known as the “warp.” Indigo denim, the type most people think of when they think of classic blue jeans, uses dye only on the warp. And while the majority of denim made today uses cheaper synthetic dyes, premium denim often uses natural indigo dye, complete with all its beautiful intricacies and imperfections. However, many argue that the most important trait in denim's quality is the cotton cloth the denim is made from. The denim’s selvedge, derived from the term "self-edge,” refers to the natural end of a roll of fabric which, when ultimately made into a pair of jeans, prevents unraveling of the textile. Japanese selvedge denim must also be woven on old, typically wooden looms, requiring a far higher degree of skill and dexterity. This ultimately leads to a tighter, denser, higher quality weave along with various beautiful imperfections that make every garment somewhat unique.
Today, one would struggle to find a more quintessentially ‘Japanese’ selvedge denim brand than Samurai Jeans. Samurai Jeans is based out of Osaka, but produces their signature jeans in Japan’s denim heartland of Kojima in Okayama Prefecture. Founded in 1998 by renowned denim artisan, Toru Nogami, Samurai constantly strives to push boundaries in the realm of Japanese selvedge denim and indigo garments. With many of their jeans taking inspiration from well-known Japanese historical events, the brand has largely defined itself by their strong connection to the ideals of Japanese craftsmanship. Samurai has crafted a meticulously developed brand ideology centered around a core philosophy of high-quality domestic production. As of late, Nogami has been changing the way modern apparel brands engage with both their customers and production partners. And unlike many brands that have, at least in some sense, sacrificed quality and craft for the sake of reaching a wider audience, Samurai has only become more and more obsessive over the years; perhaps culminating when Nogami and the Samurai staff decided to produce denim in which they took part in every single stage of the production process. Not only did Nogami have a vision for the perfect pair of jeans, but he dared to craft denim that was truly 100% ‘Made in Japan,’ from start to finish. And this, ultimately, meant starting with the cultivation of the cotton plant itself.
Considering that denim is, in its most fundamental form, tightly interwoven cotton threads; the artisans at Samurai decided that they needed to start there. Nogami and the Samurai team first sought to find cotton that was being grown locally in Japan, and more specifically, a farm that was using a Japanese indeginous cotton varietal. Unfortunately at that time, no such cotton farm or purely domestic fibers were being grown in Japan. Ultimately, Nogami and his team would strive to do something wholly unprecedented; they would simply attempt to grow the cotton themselves. This, in itself, was going to be a groundbreaking pivot in the denim industry and a powerful reminder of Samurai’s unyielding commitment to the art of crafting denim. From the project’s inception, it was clear that giving up and moving on was not an option. They were going to create what they wanted to create, fair and simple. This was a moment of strength, and indeed a move which would require a high degree of toughness.
As of late, community supported agriculture has become the crux of small-farm economics. Many are familiar with the Farm-to-Table movement, where restaurants pride themselves on sourcing meat and produce through direct acquisition from a local producer, or by raising the food themselves. However within the fashion and apparel industry, this philosophy of directly sourcing raw materials for garment production is almost non-existent. In stark contrast to the ideas behind community driven production, most modern fashion brands operate on a model where every aspect of production is anything but local. Raw fibers may be grown in one country, shipped to another for processing, spun into yarn or made into lengths of fabric in another, and then be ultimately sewn and assembled in a factory elsewhere. This diluted manufacturing process not only greatly reduces quality control, but removes opportunity for community engagement within the garment making process. Samurai Jeans is looking to change this dynamic entirely with their Samurai Cotton Project. Nogami and his team decided to go head-first and purchase a plot of tillable land in order to make these aspirations a reality. And with their bare hands, they were going to make something which was not only beautiful, but undeniably impactful in the community.
The farm itself is located in Tamba-Sasayama, up in the Northern highlands of Hyogo Prefecture. The farm consists of several individual cotton fields scattered within a small farming community that historically had produced small yield food crops such as sweet black soy beans and chestnuts. And it was this specific community of agriculturalists that drew Nogami and the Samurai Jeans team to start up their cotton cultivation project in this region. The desire of these community members in small-town Tamba to be a part of rejuvenating Japanese domestic cotton production was a clear indication that the brand was moving in the right direction. But even with local involvement, a clear concept, and an unwavering drive, the challenges put forth by such an endeavor would be somewhat unprecedented. As cotton cultivation had mostly vanished from Japan in the modern day, the team would need to take on the even greater challenge of starting from scratch. But with Japan’s long history of cotton production and textile development, it is important to understand the historical context of how we got here and what kind of challenges Nogami and the Samurai team will inevitably need to overcome.
Historically, hemp fabric was the only material available for general use in Japan until the introduction of cotton via Chinese trade routes. Japanese maritime merchants began importing raw cotton fibers as well as some finished cotton goods from China and India from the 15th century. This trading partnership lasted until around the 16th century when Japanese agriculturalists adopted Chinese cotton cultivation methods and began to produce cotton domestically. Cotton farming quickly became established in the western regions of the Japanese archipelago. The waters and wetlands of these regions were exceedingly high in salt content, and therefore the land was wholly unsuitable for growing common food crops such as rice and barley, but extremely advantageous for growing cotton plants. This resulted in a reatlive boom in cotton production in what would in-turn become Japan’s future denim capital: Kojima. However, despite the many centuries where Japan had refined its cotton production techniques, the practice greatly dwindled overtime, until more-or-less disappearing altogether in the modern day. Importation of cotton has almost entirely replaced the former farming and cultivation traditions that had been practiced and perfected over the centuries. Needless to say, the domestic cotton varietals which had been an integral part of the industry, vanished right along with the industry itself.
The fundamental foundation of the Samurai Cotton Project is the crucial reintroduction of indigenous Japanese varietals of cotton, along with the traditional methods of its cultivation. The cotton varietal being introduced in their most recent stage of the project, known specifically as the Sakaiminato varietal, is indeginous to Tottori Prefecture, and was historically grown throughout many parts of Japan. What really makes this project so particularly ambitious is the near “start-from-zero” in terms of reinventing Japanese cotton agriculture from the ground up. Despite Japan’s long history of cotton cultivation, Nogami and the Samurai team essentially need to start over, as much of the old methods and growing conditions of pre-modern Japan’s cotton fields have either been lost or cannot be applied to modern production. These methods are no longer extant, and thus the Samurai Cotton Project is looking to not only reintroduce, but largely reinvent the way that cotton is grown in Japan. Because the continuous line of tradition was broken, Japan’s severed cotton lineage needs to be sewn back together from the start. Whether this means recreating the soil conditions of Japan’s former cotton heartlands, or by utilizing traditional methods of pest control, the challenges lie in the painstaking trial-and-error which must take place within this ambitious project. Already burdened with the challenge at hand, Nogami, ideologically unwavering in his vision, decided to add an even greater challenge to an already herculean endeavor; not only would the cotton and denim be 100% made in Japan, so too would the cultivation of this cotton be 100% organic.
An already small-run, low volume cotton farm taking on the task of organically mitigating nutrient depriving weeds and insects was no small feat. This too, requires constant trial-and-error, going off of old methods which are largely not in use today. The addition of bamboo charcoal to the fields has begun to see results at their farm in Tamba-Sasayama, but even now this commitment to organic cultivation has presented by-far the biggest challenge. Nogami also insists on not using any kind of inorganic fertilizer, relying on the natural qualities of the soil to get the job done. Tending to the fields will run year-long, as things such as weeding and adjusting the soil will be done by hand. Despite every challenge, the team marches on, resolute in their goals to create something with an unprecedented level of purity in design and, of course, Toughness.
Sowing the Seeds
I was lucky enough to be invited to this year’s 2022 seeding event. Witnessing the growth of the project firsthand, as well as being a part of the process myself, showed just how community driven the Cotton Project really intends to be. Boots on, we took to planting three cotton seeds per every half-meter of soil. I was informed by one of the local agriculturalists engaged in the project that the purpose of using this triple seeding method was to ensure that along the way, the strongest seed to survive would be left to reach full term growth. The seeds themselves had been sitting in a small pool of water in order to better penetrate the seed-wall and expedite plant growth. Each seed was then nonetheless soft and “cottony” in texture, proving that the plants were already showing signs of life.
Keeping in the spirit of community engagement, the cotton plants sown in these fields will eventually be picked by local community members, friends, and family; all taking place at their October harvest event. The goal of this event is to give people a chance to add their own influence to this unique endeavor in the denim and textile space. The seeds taken directly from these cotton plants are meant to be taken home by those who took part in the event, so they too can grow their own Sakaiminato varietal of cotton within their own homes and gardens. The cotton plants grown in the homes of the harvest event participants can then be brought into Samurai via their main location in Osaka, and will be blended and woven into future denim garments throughout the coming year. Each person is uniquely able to add their own element, their own contribution to the project directly, making clear the truly direct and unfettered engagement between Samurai and their community of supporters.
Talking to Nogami and his team, I could feel the pride and passion that was driving the project. Nogami himself trudged through the muddy rows of soil to plant the seeds himself, and to make sure that he, along with his team and local community members, offered a hand in growing this project from the ground up. You could feel the excitement and enthusiasm of everyone involved in what could potentially be the first steps in Japan’s cotton renaissance. Nogami explained his goals simply; grow and expand. This project is still very much in its infancy, and currently the fibers being produced in the Samurai cotton fields must be blended along with other strains of cotton fibers to ensure viability in production. That being said, the aim is to shed these constraints and become fully non-reliant on international varietals of cotton. 100% made in Japan, 100% organic, 100% community driven, 100% Samurai. One of the most exciting aspects of this project is simply waiting to see what the future holds, and what will become of these seedlings, their fibers, their yarns, their denim, their garments; to grow jeans from seeds. These goals are ambitious, but in no way unachievable. Trial and error, experimentation, growth and fruition; such is the nature of an endeavor truly born from toughness.