True Blue

Venturing into hidden parts of Hiroshima to discover how fabric for Uniqlo jeans are made at the legendary Kaihara mills.

BY IAN LOH | Mar 27, 2017 | Fashion

It’s a beautiful autumn day and the mountains are crowned with leaves in resplendent hues of red and yellow. As we travel along twisting mountain roads, between tiny hamlets buried deep in the far east of Hiroshima prefecture, there’s not a soul in sight… until we arrive at the Kaihara mill in Fukuyama.

At first glance, it’s hard to believe that this sleepy town has a long tradition of weaving and cotton-dyeing, and has been a key producer of kasuri (fabric made of yarn that is dyed to produce a pattern or an image when woven) in Japan since the Edo Period (17th through mid-18th centuries).

Established in 1893, Kaihara is one of the earliest known producers of Bingo-kasuri. But it wasn’t until the ’60s that the company started leveraging on its traditions in manufacturing indigo-dyed kasuri textiles and developed rope dyeing to produce world-class denim fabrics.

Fast-forward to today, and Kaihara produces up to 400 different types of denim fabrics for more than 200 jeans brands around the world, including Uniqlo. After an extensive tour of all four Kaihara mills, we’re pretty sure that it isn’t quantity that makes Kaihara the natural choice for Uniqlo. It is quality.

To this end, Kaihara uses only raw cotton harvested from high-quality sources found in the US and employs ring or open-end spinning, according to the desired yarn quality. For added strength, the threads are spun and re-spun a total of 64 times. The delivery robots that operate across the processes are so efficient they require little to no human intervention.

The dyeing process is also very special here. Although the exterior of the yarn is a stunning indigo blue, the core retains cotton’s natural white. The unique rope-dyeing process—which Kaihara developed in 1970—is the ultimate secret to producing this white core. The yarn for ropes is repeatedly submerged in indigo dye, pressed in bundles and oxidised to achieve a rich deep blue. In fact, the attractive gradual changes of natural fading is a characteristic only seen in denim woven from such yarn.

The yarns then undergo a sizing process that strengthens, lengthens and smoothens out the warp in preparation for weaving. Today, Kaihara is one of only a handful of mills that still uses and maintains old-fashioned shuttle looms originally deployed in the ’70s and the early ’80s for its selvedge jeans. The wooden shuttle that threads the weft flies back and forth, producing a rhythmic clanking: this repetitive motion causes minute inconsistencies in the denim—a key element of vintage denim’s exquisitely modulating texture. While an advanced high-speed loom can produce about 350M of yarn every day, the daily limit for an old-fashioned shuttle loom is about 120M.

To ensure that the denim produced is of the highest quality possible and will last as it is intended, Kaihara’s team performs grey fabric inspection and a series of tests on every single cloth created, as meticulously as possible. As one of Kaihara biggest clients, Uniqlo also works closely with the manufacturer. Its new Denim Innovation Centre in Los Angeles focuses on providing a structure for optimal fabric development and selection based on the type of jeans manufactured.

With the “3Fs” (Fabric, Fit, and Finish) in mind, the centre is tasked with developing fabrics, as well as conducting R&D on the latest production technologies. In addition, it will also focus on environmentally-friendly processing and production methods, as well as conduct R&D on chemicals and techniques used for the fading and the distressing of jeans.

By forging a longstanding partnership with Kaihara, Uniqlo aims to combine traditions and innovative technologies to craft a new generation of jeans.

Masaaki Matsubara, Director of Denim Innovation Centre tells us more about Uniqlo denim.

ESQUIRE: Tell us more about the Denim Innovation Centre in Los Angeles.
MASAAKI MATSUBARA: The DIC is a research and development centre or design centre that specialises in jeans for Fast Retailing Group. We collect all the information and the development that is in alignment with the respective brands. To be more specific, for example, we would develop items with the fabric manufacturers and upon research, draw up lists of optimal design as well as the fit. And ultimately, we develop the finish as well.

ESQ: How is Uniqlo denim different from other brands?
MM: First of all, Uniqlo itself has this concept of LifeWear where we offer essential items for everyday life. So, the same concept applies to denim. Authenticity is very important in the denim we offer. We strive to remain relevant and always respond to the market.

ESQ: As a Japanese brand, how much Japanese craftmanship goes into Uniqlo denim?
MM: Japanese craftsmanship denim definitely forms the foundation in our approach. But rather than simply single-mindedly focusing on that, we want to keep challenging ourselves to innovate the denim.

ESQ: What are some of the technologies or innovations that have been highlight so far?
MM: Heat Tech denim is one of them. Another example is the Ultra-Stretch jeans. The new Ultra-Stretch jeans have doubled the stretchability compared previous versions.

ESQ: With so much effort being put into the R&D, how do you keep the price competitive?
MM: Innovation is not simply generating something new but also requires costs for development. So, that means a solution needs to be well thought out. We put cost reduction and cost control into our processing as well. For example, removing redundant processes, stream lining etc.

ESQ: What can we expect from the new Uniqlo denim line?
MM: The main difference in the past was the fit, whether it’s wide or skinny. But the new denim focuses on the length and the proportion. The wash of the denim is another important element.

ESQ: After being in the industry for almost 20 years, what do you think is the most interesting thing about denim?
MM: I think denim is very special because of its fabric. Once you wash it, it gives a character that has not existed before. Or you distress it; it gives another different kind of character. I mean, the basic design of denim will always be the same—five pockets. There’s not much of versatility when it comes to that. But yet, we need to develop something that is new and updated within the given framework, and how we pursue R&D is extremely important. What can we do to make the denim look cooler or what can we do to make it more comfortable. It’s the accumulation of the daily effort that we put in that I find interesting.

This article was first published in Esquire Malaysia's April 2017 issue.