Denim Month: A Brief History of Denim, Part 2: Japan

(See Part 1 of our history of denim here.)

The history of denim would not be complete without mentioning Japanese denim! This is not just a story of human ingenuity, resilience, and a bit of intense passion, but also of hope. Recent years have seen the demise of many famous American mills, such as Cone Mills. On the other hand, the Japanese denim industry is still prospering, hopefully for many years to come.

Denimheads will know that the birth of Japanese denim is centered around Kojima, a sleepy town in Okayama, West Japan. For centuries, Kojima has been an important center for cotton farming. Its low-laying land was reclaimed from a salty swamp, and therefore is too salty for growing rice. In addition, Aizome (indigo dyeing) was spread in Japan. In this context, jeans seem like a natural craft for such a region, but the coast of Okayama was by no means the only region of Japan that produced textiles — it was not even one of the most famous ones! The important thing to note about Kojima’s pre-history is that local industry focused on crafts rather than agriculture.

Indigo vats fermenting at the Kosoen dyehouse

Denim grew as an industry for several reasons. On one hand there was a shrinking market for school uniforms (which had been the main product of Kojima for decades) due to internal competition. There was also the need for supplementary income in the harsh post-war years, by — for example — taking contract work to re-cut discarded old American jeans to fit Japanese bodies. These jeans must have been a common sight at the time of the occupation, when the United States Army imported large quantities of clothing (often feeding the black market of Ameyoko in Tokyo). The sudden influx of American movies and pop culture helped the spread of this material.

Though the origin story of Japanese denim is a bit obscure, it is believed that the first domestic brand of denim was the now-defunct Canton brand. Starting in the 1960s, Canton initially used American-made jeans and subsequently started production in Tokyo with imported denim.

Maruo Clothing — now Big John, a brand still thriving today — then had an idea to solve its perpetual supply problem for jeans: Maruo would make its own denim fabric, sure to be much cheaper than American imports. Maruo Clothing had already gained success since 1968 as a maker of jeans with imported American denim. Maruo had convinced the famous Cone Mills to send them scraps, B-rolls, and leftover fabrics, which were used to start the first Big John line. Maruo Clothing took a huge gamble by completely switching to becoming a jeans manufacturer. This must have felt like an outrageous move at the time, when almost no one in all of Okayama even owned a pair of jeans! In the early 1970s, Big John asked a factory called Kurabo to reverse engineer the Cone Mills fabric. After several trials, Kurabo Mills finally managed to produce the first-ever Japanese denim in 1972, named Kurabo KD-8 (the 8 is because it was the eighth try).

What makes Japanese denim so distinctive, even now, is the use of short looms to create unique selvedge denim.

A close-up of two turned-back jeans hems, each from a different pair. The pair at the top of the photo is indigo dyed, and the turn-up shows overlocking at the seam allowances in matching dark blue thread. The pair at the bottom of the photo is also indigo dyed but is selvedge denim, as shown by the turn-up. The selvedge is white, with a single thread of red woven in.

This distinctive effect is achieved by using old-fashioned shuttle looms, mostly abandoned in the US after WWII in favor of projectile looms, but imported — at very low cost — to Japan. Projectile looms are faster and therefore reduced costs, but shuttle looms create a shorter, self-sealed edge (the selvedge), and a more unique and uneven texture to the fabric.

A shuttle loom in a textile factory, which is weaving a roll of indigo-dyed selvedge denim.
A shuttle loom. In this case, warp yarns are set in the loom, the pattern is programmed in, and a shuttle carrying the weft yarn is shuttled horizontally across the loom which is then beaten together with the warp yarns to begin creating the fabric. Image from Heddels.com

Once considered signs of inferior quality, these characteristics started to appeal to customers in the 1970s. Enthusiasts began to revive vintage production, reintroducing denim garments as a superior product from a bygone era.

A projectile loom in a textile factory, with a roll of deep indigo denim being woven.
In the projectile loom the warp yarns are still set into the loom but, instead of a shuttle, multiple smaller projectiles that grip onto the end of the weft yarn and shoot it across the loom through the warp yarns are used. When the projectile reaches the other side, it releases the yarn and drops down to a conveyor belt which then transports the projectile back while another projectile shoots across the loom. Image from Heddels.com

Interestingly, this revival did not start in the United States, but instead in Osaka! Starting with Studio D’Artisan in 1979, five companies (the Osaka Five) began re-adopting vintage weaving methods to craft the selvedge denim jeans of the past that had almost been forgotten by the masses.

Partial close-ups of 5 vintage jeans leather patches, one from each of the "Osaka Five": Studio D'Artisan, Denime, Evisu, Fullcount, and Warehouse.
The Osaka Five: from left to right, Studio D’Artisan, Denime, Evisu, Fullcount, and Warehouse.

The efforts of the Osaka Five inspired other small denim makers to not only rediscover selvedge denim, but to eventually pioneer new styles, dyes, and cuts specifically to exploit the unique characteristics of selvedge denim. Japanese denim is now a global phenomenon with the town of Kojima as the center of it all, having been resurrected from a sleepy shutter town to a tourism center for denim lovers.

An outdoor corridor at a railway station in Kojima, Japan. The main walkway is covered by a continuous awning, from which hang dozens of pairs of denim jeans--a celebration of the town's prominent role in the traditions of Japanese denim.
Even the railway station of Kojima is denim themed! Photo by @emilia_to_nuno

Hopefully these insights into what makes denim so special, as well as so ubiquitous, have you ready to cut into your own denim for our theme month!


Emilia enjoys black outfits, word puns, and transforming her apartment into a greenhouse. When she is not sewing, she is a researcher in the field of Neuroscience. You can find her on IG @emilia_to_nuno and on her blog.


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