The Tailors Of Iwate

Adherents to the bushido code, our tailors in the Iwate prefecture of Japan are considered some of the finest makers in the world.

In the Iwate prefecture, a picturesque region of Japan famous for its sake and lacquer production, there is a quiet little city framed by mountains and with a wide, fast-flowing river running straight through its heart. This is home to M.J. Bale’s oldest tailoring atelier.

The workshop is more boutique than industrial. There are about 70 tailors, all of whom have compelling stories. There is the boss, Yano-san, a descendant of Japanese pirates, and the former kimono-maker Yumi-san, whose family are from the Kanazawa clan of samurai. Then there is the head cutter, Inari-san, who has been cutting fabric by hand for more than 45 years. Inari-san is colloquially called shokunin by his co-workers, which translates to ‘maestro’, but on a deeper level describes how he spends every day of his life striving to improve himself.

M.J. Bale has been working with this workshop on our ready-towear Collection suits for more than a decade. “The craft and the quality of workmanship here is second to none,” explains M.J. Bale founder Matt Jensen. “Culturally, the Japanese really explore that fine line between art and science. It’s that combination of creativity, hard work, attention to detail and quality that is an enormous differentiator for Japanese craft. It was a real match to what we’re trying to do in terms of creating great products of integrity.” Each M.J. Bale Collection suit created here in Iwate is the result of more than 50 hours of craftsmanship. The jackets go through more than 200 stages of production, including a full-canvas construction and handsewn armholes, collars and cross-stitched buttons.

The construction process begins at the workshop with Inari-san, who traces with chalk the garment’s measurements on the fabric and then deftly cuts the cloth by hand (especially the fabrics with checks and stripes that need to be aligned perfectly). In another part of the workshop, a team of tailors bring the canvas to life. Here, this mix of natural fibres that ‘float’ inside the jacket to give it structure and shape goes through an exhaustive preparation process. It is steamed in a tiny wooden box (like a mini sauna) for 30 minutes, sewn to the jacket fabric with small, looping stitches, and then steamed again, and again, and again.

One of the great ironies of high-quality tailoring is that most of these details will remain unseen. And yet, much like the French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s maxim “What is essential is invisible to the eye,” the wearer can feel the difference. Highlights include the shoulder (reinforced with layers of thin canvas hand-stitched to provide more flex and comfort), the armholes (initially sewn on machine and pressed together using hot steam, with a lining attached by hand), and a full-canvas construction that runs down the length of the body. The jacket collar alone involves 41 individual stages.

This dedication to craft is in part due to the samurai culture of bushido: a code of conduct that stresses tenets of loyalty, honour and discipline. From the attitude of the tailors here in Iwate to the cleaners on the trains, who bow to the passengers waiting on the platform before and after their task, bushido permeates every aspect of local culture as a form of love. As Morihei Ueshiba, the founder of the Japanese martial art Aikido, wrote: “We put ourselves in tune with the universe, maintain peace in our own realms, nurture life and prevent death and destruction. The true meaning of the term samurai is one who serves and adheres to the power of love.”