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Kaihara Denim: From No. 1 in Japan to the top manufacturer in the world

As I’m sure you’ve all seen popping up on our socials, our new Japanese denims are in… and they’ve got us excited!

The Kaihara mill, based out of Hiroshima prefecture in southern Japan, is one of the OG denim mills in Japan. Starting out making Kasuri (a traditional yarn-dyed textile) in 1893 and pivoting to denim production in 1970, Kaihara now stands as one of the titans of the Denim industry.

Used by Levi’s (who in 1973 ordered some of their denim, this firmly placed them on the world stage), Uniqlo, Polo, Lee, APC to name a very small few, this mill provides denim to over 30 countries and to 50% of the market within Japan. It’s said that out of any two pairs of jeans seen on the streets of Japan, one is made from Kaihara denim.

This almost cult following doesn’t just come from nowhere. In a rare move, Kaihara completes every step in the production process in-house. From spinning the raw cotton into yarn, to finishing the bolts of new denim, every aspect is carefully observed and tightly controlled. Their rigorous standards enforced during all steps of the production process ensure a product which has both quality and consistency. When you buy a piece of Kaihara denim, you can be sure you’re buying some of the best denim in the world (and no… that isn’t an exaggeration)!

This quality starts from the raw cotton which is spun into the yarn in-house. Kaihara sources their cotton from farms in places as far-flung as the US, Australia, and Brazil. Once the cotton arrives at their factories it’s subjected to strict inspection to ensure that the raw material is of a high and consistent quality. As is so astutely and proudly stated on their in-depth website, “Everything begins with the quality of a single thread.”

Kaihara’s origins as a kasuri mill - a fabric that lives and dies on the quality of its indigo dye - has ensured that their dyeing remains unimpeachable. The techniques they developed a century ago still inform their practices today. Completing their first rope dyeing machine in 1970, they successfully combined the techniques of ‘submerged wringing’ used in kasuri manufacture and the US technique of dyeing the yarn in bundles. 

During rope dyeing the yarn is passed through an indigo bath and then wrung out by large rollers. Adjustments made to the formulation of the dye, the length of time it’s exposed to the air (the rich blue of indigo is achieved through oxidation, and the yarns are actually a turquoise-y green when they come out of their bath), and the tension of the yarn as it travels through the bath all come together to allow the dye to penetrate only the outer surface of the yarn leaving the inner core untouched - this is actually what ensures your denim will wear in that perfect, effortless way! As the outer layers of the yarn are rubbed they will gently wear away to reveal that lovely natural inner core.

Another factor that adds to the diversity and quality of Kaihara denim is the myriad of different looms used in their factories, all employed in the weaving of different types of denim. The most famous and long-running of these is the shuttle loom which is typically used for making selvedge denim; with it’s narrow width and stable, non-stretch handle it’s the quintessential Japanese denim. Newer, more state-of-the-art looms like the Projectile and the Rapier produce wider-width denim and are used for heavy-weight denim and light-weight chambrays with finer thread counts, respectively. Once a bolt of denim is off the loom it moves to finishing, and involves processes which can range from singing the surface to remove fluff, sizing the fabric to increase its body, and even shrink-proofing it! 

One of Kaihara’s stated missions is to produce as ethically as they can and cite coexistence with nature as one of their most important mandates. Denim is created from two natural resources, indigo and cotton, without which Kaihara would be finished: “We must act to preserve and protect the environment that we rely on.” At their factories, they have their own effluent treatment facilities which they maintain and monitor to their standards - standards which are actually much more stringent than those imposed by the Japanese government themselves. Technicians monitor water quality and they actively explore ways to improve it.

The wide range of techniques, processes, and tools employed by the Kaihara team speaks to the value they place in both tradition and evolution. They describe this dual focus as ‘Onko-Soushin’, “the handing down of quality old things and ideas in order to create the next future move.” Far from letting themselves languish, they have unceasingly worked to build on the rock-solid foundations laid during their days in kasuri production. Tradition and invention, history and progress - the story of Kaihara sits on these axes. Through their tireless quest to hone their product without leaving behind past understanding, we see how a compression of these purported dichotomies broadens the horizons of creativity and invention.

Kaihara is a company so clearly and vocally proud of its origins. Their website has pages and pages of information on their history, their inventions, their community, and their commitment to environmental mindfulness, to say nothing of their product itself. They even opened a museum dedicated to their product and history in the mid-90s! In every aspect of their presentation, their passion and respect for their product, team, and history shines through. Even though their company has expanded alongside their denim production, they seem to still embody what I see as a quintessentially Japanese appreciation for craft and for the apotheosis of the mundane physical object through a pure and steadfast dedication to quality. And in the midst of the craft renaissance we’re currently living in, now is the perfect time to appreciate people who understand the value in tradition and are dedicated to keeping the spirit of craft practices alive through thoughtful rejuvenation of old techniques, concepts, and ways of being in the world.

 

Written by Chani Balmer, Drapers Manager
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