Good Jeans: Made In Japan

We went to Okayama – the home of Japanese denim – to work with artisanal and sustainability driven weavers and makers on the world’s best collection.

The streets of the Kojima district in Okayama prefecture are full of denim. There are blue jeans looped over powerlines and hanging from fences. A giant, sculpture-like pair marks an intersection on the city’s aptly named Jeans Street. Even the lockers at the train station are covered in denim sticker panelling. Kojima is not just the home of Japanese denim — it is its Graceland. It is also the birthplace of M.J. Bale’s new Made in Japan denim collection, a tight threepiece collector’s edition consisting of vintage 13oz indigo selvedge denim jeans and a jacket, and a 7.05oz indigo denim shirt.

Made for the aficionado, the Kamakiri jacket and jeans in regular fit are constructed in Kojima from red selvedge denim. The 13-oz cotton yarn has been woven in a 3/1 twill weave, having been ringspun in the traditional Banshi-Ori method. The Kamakiri denim shirt in casual fit is made in the same Kojima atelier from 100 per cent cotton in an ecru selvedge denim, also woven in a 3/1 twill weave and ring-spun using the same vintage looms.

Our denim weaver is the world-renowned Kuroki mill, which is nestled in woodlands outside of Ibaru in Okayama. OEKO-TEXcertified, Kuroki sources fine organic cotton, then uses natural (i.e. no chemicals) indigo dyes to create the rich purple-blue colour. The cotton is twisted into yarn then repeatedly dipped into the inky dye using a rope-dye method.

The yarn is then woven into selvedge cloth using old Japanesemade Toyota machines from the 1950s. The clink-clank sound of the warp and weft, clattering along at five revolutions per second, sounds like soldiers’ boots on a parade ground. Following weaving, the cloth is inspected twice for imperfections and then air-washed

exclusively for M.J. Bale in Kojima to achieve the texture, durability and colour fastness we require for a connoisseurstyle denim collection. Following this, the cloth is passed onto our maker, Nice Corporation, a few kilometres down the road.

B Corp-certified, our maker has just 33 employees and is family-owned. The company president, 44-year-old Ikuma-San, runs day-to-day operations; one of his younger brothers oversees production and logistics; their father, Kazuhiko-San, is chairman; and their mother, Atsuko, is the head seamstress.

The workshop is small, with a total of about 10 cutters and sewers working on the floor. When we first visited, the workshop seemed so boutique that we assumed they only made prototypes and samples.

Our Kamakiri jeans and jackets are constructed here according to traditional denim workwear methods of the late 1900s. Twenty-five panels of Kuroki’s indigo-dyed fabric are used in each pair of Kamakiri jeans, sewn together in 42 stages. The jeans are twin-needle-stitched, using 10 stitches per three centimetres to make them stronger and more durable. They are also chain-stitched to make them more elastic. Brushed felt is sewn on the inside of the jeans to make them more comfortable.

Ikuma says the company’s competitive advantage is artisanal craftsmanship. “We really care about every stitch,” he says. “For example, we really care about the corners of the pockets on the jeans. Every corner has to be very clean and sharp. This is the artisanal way. It is about attention to detail. Look at my mother, Atsuko. She is the master. She has been doing this for 40 years. But every day, she challenges us all to be better. It is the love behind the making.”