The Denim Underground

I have just come back from dyeing indigo in the mountains of Fujino for my 5th or sixth consecutive year. It always feels great going out there and immersing myself in nature for a few days. Osaka for all of its culture is starved of nature and the outdoors. It also gives me some time to think about things and of course have incredible discussion with Bryan-san. If you didn’t know this is the year of the monkey which happens to be my year in the Chinese zodiac. The conversations this year weren’t so much on what has happened but where we are heading.

For the past few months I have been contemplating all sorts of random ideas and the thought of denim and fashion is never out of mind. The Weather Underground was a political group that took extreme actions but had fairly simple ideals. These kinds of extreme actions and simple ideas are quite apart of society at this very minute. So, that is where I developed this idea called “The Denim Underground”. Maybe it is a sort of anti-fashion anti-heritage idea, but maybe it really isn’t anti anything. I kind of like fashion in the regard it operates as the artistic expression of clothing, and what can be achieved psychologically by meditation-styling. Pairing your mood with your clothes for me at least, helps for functioning on a daily basis. Eventually someday I will iron this out and create some sort of manifesto or something…

Anyways… Damage and wear, and paint and patches. This is my jam. I love… no, I adore workwear. The function is obvious and specific. Workwear is also like this fantastic base for simple clothing. Pockets in meaningful and useful places, reinforcement points, durable fabrics. It is like the everyday persons uniform. Narita-san reworked these Kapital multi pocket pants for me. White pants with white patches and paint, for me this is bliss. It is so simple but at the same time looks fantastic. They’re not exactly dirty but they’re not exactly clean either. White is such an odd color to deal with… it’s this modern/heritage “summer” color that really looks better totally fucked up and dirty.

So this kind of balance between fashion (damage, distressing, whatever-you-want-to-call-it) and simple everyday workwear is the aim of The Denim Underground. Wash and wear. Patch and darn -and re-dye…

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Re-dyeing is the ultimate fun part. Once you wear the hell out of your clothes, repair them, the opportunity of re-dyeing presents itself. You can dye with this curious red stuff called madder, this comes from the roots of an insignificant evergreen. Green, the green leaves of the indigo plant Persicaria tinctoriaAs the leaves of the indigo plant dry the release the most heavenly of fragrances and the gradually change from green to a very unusual dark blue. Recently I have started experimenting with over-dyeing some antique french linen night gowns and random garments. They come out looking fantastic after a few dips in indigo. The color is consistent and the texture is really lovely. Madder and indigo; the two most important dyes in terms of everyday clothing from ancient times to  now. Think of red and blue bandannas. In many ethnic and folk communities all-over the world you can find these two dyes and colors blended together in any number of techniques.

From my own research into the history of bandannas, the importance of madder dye is noted again and again. From India to Scotland, the color was the base for most of the textiles. Especially hard wearing ones such as rugs and wraps. It wasn’t until the invention of fastcolor (synthetic dyes) did people stop re-dyeing their clothing.

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So here is a pic of the second year of doing Oak Street Bookmakers indigo rough-out trench boots. I learned an impressive amount last year dyeing them. These are them after they have been dyed, and rinsed. They are still wet and look much darker than usual. This project has been incredibly interesting working on. The variations in the hides, brings out the individual uniqueness in each pair. Sometimes the pairs don’t even come out matched completely, which I think makes these boots very personal and very interesting. Definitely something I would include to be apart of the philosophy of The Denim Underground.

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But before I nod off, I want to explain this amazing piece of clothing. It comes from Albania, it is from the 1800’s its made from yaks wool and there are apparently only two of these in existence currently. This is one of them. The other is in a museum somewhere. It is a piece of folk clothing made in one small village somewhere in Albania. It really blows my mind that there is still stuff like this out there. Sitting in some cedar chest… You can see it is hand-spun and hand-woven which equates to an extraordinary amount of time. Not only in actually making it, but learning the skills to make it. It is simply pure function, every part has been designed around functionality and durability. Also the silhouette and structure is similar to Japanese fishermans work jackets with the shorter sleeves, mid-length and massive weight. Very interesting…

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Junk Trove

Maybe it was an early exposure to Oscar the Grouch growing up… junk has an ever-increasing appeal.

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Junk: vintage items, that have either been remade or repaired using old or worn materials.

The Depression era Thunderbird necklaces from Santo Domingo really worked up a storm of ideas about saving and reusing materials to make new things. Take for instance this Depression era bolo tie, using wire to string a pair of turquoise nuggets on a piece of leather cord. The entirely hand made appearance is really neat. Also using an old thunderbird earring strung on old trade beads looks cute! This also connected some new dots to boro, denim repair, and Japanese aesthetics.

Interestingly enough it would be nice to dwell more on the idea of nature-worshiping societies (Native Americans and Shinto for example) generally regarding leftovers as material, not trash. Definitely something more to consider there…

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Anyways back on topic. Junk. For the sake of avoiding confusion Junk is not a negative word in this context. It is just the state in which the object exists. The state of Junk. The majority of junk is overlooked by pickers and vintage collectors, there is an abundance of it out there and it is really up to the individual to find their preferred junk.

Take for instance denim repair.

DSCF3879A combination here of machine stitched repairs and hand stitching creates a sort of folk/junk art that has a personality. It isn’t clean or precise, but there is a beauty to it.

DSCF3883I assume from looking and observing denim repair photos on the net and instagram that there is a preference for “clean” repairs. The word clean here suggests that the stitching is not seen and the repair is almost invisible. This is the opposite of Junk. Junk has to have character, it really has to be unique.

Friend and constant source of inspiration John Dennis, of Sam Roberts LA understands the Junk aesthetic well. He constantly incorporates miscellaneous items into his products. Old coins, trade beads, and 19th century calico fabric just to name a few. They’re beautiful, and especially easy to arrange into an individual style.

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Recent Repairs

There is something crafty about repairing old clothes. There are some frequent spots that have damage, such as the collar of a jacket or the knee on a pair of jeans. Others are entirely unique to an individuals’ life. It is kinda like reading a journal entry with the people’s names redacted.

The tricky part is figuring out how to best repair an entire garment repair by repair. Mentally there has to be a game plan, a theme. There may be a point on a piece of clothing that helps determine a starting point, but usually it’s just experimenting with a stitched together narrative. Piece by piece, repair by repair the theme begins to take shape.

Eventually you find a place to end. With this post I wanted to share where I ended. Some of these repairs are small and simple, others were time-consuming. This is a short journey of hobos, mechanics, and nomad bikers.

Recent Repairs Levis Sakiori 2 Recent Repairs Levis Sakiori 1Sunday Craftsman Mechanic Jacket 2 Sunday Craftsman Mechanic Jacket 4 Nomad Biker Vest 3 Nomad Biker Vest 4 DSCF1922 DSCF1923

 

There are also these Kapital century denim repairs. Since the vertical sashiko threads stand out, the repair stitching looked good horizontal, and blended. The contrasting colors mix well, indigo and grey; grey, brown, and indigo. It was important to keep the texture consistent, to keep a rough and tough looking fabric.

Recent Repairs Century Denim Sashiko Darning 1

Recent Repairs Century Denim Sashiko Darning 2

Recent Repairs Century Denim Sumi and Kakishibu patch

Inspiration 2014 Preview | Brown Tabby Works

There have been more that enough things going on at this hectic time of the year, among them is getting ready for a debut at Inspiration LA this February. I will be introducing folks to two of my friends this year. The first is Narita-san from Brown Tabby in Osaka.

The theme is hoboro a portmanteau of “hobo” and “boro”. So you will see plenty of denim and indigo fabrics, plus plenty of eccentric stitching. There are a few secret surprises that you can look forward to at the show. Take a look at the hat clutch bags, hobo hat and overalls, and boro-bow-ties.

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Brown Tabby Works – Boilerman Overalls

This project; the first and last of its kind. This was a project undertaken by Narita-san and myself. The idea was to reconstruct a pair of overalls that were basically unwearable. Rather than just turn the remains into patches or thread, we took it upon ourselves to give this pair a second life.

The denim was part of a collection 2 years in the making. A precarious ordeal; fishing old denim rags out of attics of abandoned houses in North Carolina. This rescued denim made its way to our shores.  None of this denim was wasted in the least during the reconstruction of these overalls. Every scrap and tatter has found its way into some repair or another. All the denim was generously gifted to us for the purpose of this project.

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Piece by piece, and stitch by stitch; a total of 96 sewing hours; 2 months of concept and execution. The basic idea here is a generational heirloom repair. The stitching colours, and denim scraps create a sense of time flowing from one repair to another. Very little machine stitching was done, as most of the fabric was so old and thin from sitting in storage for years that it was too delicate. It needed a gentle hand and stitching that would shrink and stretch with more ease.

The tradition of generation after generation of railroad workers from the 1920’s  passing down knowledge through the ages. Little by little adding more and more repair. The really remarkable thing is though that one person did all the stitching time on this, and put in an unbelievable amount of effort and passion. I revere Narita-san for his perseverance and tenacity.

The patchwork layout and reconstruction was more like a game of Tetris than anything else. Making sure the gradation of denim had continuity, and the wear and fade of each part matched closely to the original structure. What you have here is a sophisticated repair showing much passion and skill; a masterpiece.

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Brown Tabby Works X The Bandanna Almanac

I have been gathering worn out, and faded items over the past few years. Narita-san and I have teamed up to bring these items back to life with a more shibui feel to them. Through detailed repairs we bring out the faded beauty of each item, their individual stories become apparent by keeping the stains and scars. We also add some more function to them by stitching pockets and altering the length of some items. All items and future items are/will be available on my new Etsy site. Kishoten…, means: introduction, development, turn… and the conclusion is up to each customer. From the Japanese 起承転結.

The first item we have completed is this noragi. I wanted to keep the original repairs and fabric on this piece, so we shortened the length and added pockets to the font side. The addition of a blanket pin acts as a closure, to keep the rustic theme.

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The second item is this Red Cross Army vest. The worsted wool in Army green has a mother-made feel to it. Probably because these were hand-knit by housewives and volunteers during the two world wars. This one had several holes in it. So we used some old sock yarn and hand-darned each hold. This adds a little colorful contrast to the otherwise mute khaki green.

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The third is my personal favorite. I found a Harley Davidson dude’s Lee Storm Rider. There was a lot of wear and damage to the entire piece that made it very unique. We cut out the back panel and put in a repurposed Chimayo fabric from a Kapital vest. The holes we are all patched with indigo thread. The collar features a nice contrast green corduroy patch, and the blanket lining inside was patched with fabric from a Warner Brothers Costume Department tunic.

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Repair | The Hand-Darn

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In the last episode the backside patch was featured. This time Narita-san will be demonstrating a completely hand-stitched repair. The hand-darn is the strongest and most time consuming of the repairs I will be featuring.

Start off with good sturdy thread. In this case we used indigo-dyed hemp. The darn repair can be used in knit repairs, especially socks and sweaters. If your jeans get a premature blowout then this is the repair you will want to use, as it can be blended with unfaded fabric easier. I surrendered by self-dyed kakishibu canvas hat for this repair.
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A big thick needle will take care of the heavy thread and make weaving it through much easier. Just look at the difference between a standard sewing needle and this darning needle.

Hand Darning (1)

As a note, darning can be done by hand, but so much of the beauty which is part of a hand-darn is lost in the machine. The hand-darn is a beautiful repair, and with enough practice and patience you can make your repairs really special.

First start with a knot on one end of your thread it pull it tight.

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The first stitch should be small right next to where the thread came out from the knot hole. The second stitch should come out about 2 or 3 mm from the actual hole (in the example there is no hole). Then bring the thread over the hole and push the needle through the front side about 2 or 3 mm from the hole. Then make another small stitch almost right next to the hole the thread came through. From here you will do the same thing to cover the hole with weft stitches.

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Take your time on these and try to get them to line up neatly.

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If the hole is not circular don’t worry you can shape the darn as it goes along.

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Once you get to the other end of the whole you will push the needle through to the back one more time. Now you will start to weave the warp threads in.

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Over under over under, again and again. Remember to push the needle through and back to the front after you finish each row.

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Really take your time here and tap the threads into place so it is all neat and tight.

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At the end make sure to squeeze the last weave in tight. This will ensure a solid and secure repair.

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Use an embroidery knot to finish the stitch on the reverse-side of the fabric.

Repair | The Backside Patch

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This is the second post in the series of repair. In the first post I explained the Front-side patch. This time we will do a backside or reverse-side repair. This repair is useful for lined garments, but can be used the same as a front-side patch. Again these repairs are a matter of personal taste so please chose your patch fabric carefully. In this case Narita-san used denim jacket scraps to patch this shirt.

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This denim shirt was stained and so the stained part was cut out. Around the cutout area it is best to make little cuts around the hole to make the fabric easier to fold inside.

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Back patch in place, it is now time to stitch. In this repair we used a machine, however this can just as easily be done with a needle and thread with an overhand stitch.

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First, sew the outside edge of the patch, so feel free to use a patch that is large and trim off the excess later. If you do this by hand sewing the patch, use a running stitch around the edge.

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After stitching the edge of the patch, sew around the hole.

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Run another line of stitch around one more time if you are using a machine. This will add some puckering and will keep the repair from looking too perfect. If you do a hand stitch here use an overhand stitch.

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Voila! Depending on the patch used you can even stitch up some of the patch fabric to break up the color and add a little more texture to the repair.

Repair | The Front-side Patch

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This is the first post in a series on repairing clothing. I chose simple repairs, that you can do at home with either a sewing machine or by hand.

Narita-san of Brown Tabby explained and showed me how to repair worn-out garments. First thing is the design. We dug through his collection of vintage rags some rare Levi’s scraps. We are of the same breed, and we both believe that if you aren’t using it you’re wasting it. So instead of just looking at or collecting vintage clothing we are giving it a new life.

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Narita-san chose a scrap and started trimming off the excess fabric and thread. He pointed out that he wanted to keep the worn edge so it blended with the with the wear on the jeans.

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Next he went to the machine to start sewing the patch on.

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Cotton thread is the best to use in a well-worn repair because the thread will naturally fade and shrink and give a more natural, imperfect aesthetic to the repair. Polyester won’t fade, and definitely won’t look as good as cotton.
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Narita-san folded the edges over by hand as he sewed them down. Puckering the fabric and shaping the patch is important to keep the vintage aesthetic and to avoid putting stress on one point of the fabric. This will avoid additional tears and rips from the stress of the stitching around the patch.

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Once he sewed one side of the patch he quickly stitched up the rest of it with a buzz of the Juki.
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He ran the stitching around again this time making the stitch lines uneven. The purpose for this is to keep the fade uneven to maintain continuity with the repair and the base denim.The puckered patch also looks more natural and the imperfectness brings out a very unique character to each repair. Front-side patch 7

Personal preference will be a major factor in your repair. The most important thing is to choose your patch fabric to suit your repair.

Koromo | What is Koromo?… Factory and Concept

Coromool Factory Door

or Koromo  is an extraordinary clothing and accessories company based in Kyoto. I am sure there are so many other companies that aspire to be this excellent. This company stands out from the crowd because their concepts are based on the simple idea of learning from the past. In Japanese they use the four character idiom “温故知新”.

Vintage Ranru

On the day I visited the factory they were working on this vest. They have a wide variety of products and material, but I was lucky enough to see how they use this old fabric. The old stitches remain and worn-out holes are repaired; the old beauty remains and the mendings add an unintended refinement. See: Shibui

TechniqueHand stitching

They not only collect and reuse amazing ranru, and boro fabrics, but also use traditional techniques in their design. For example: they use resist dyeing techniques with Ise-gami, a traditional craftsman-made stencil paper, instead of silk-screening. The designs are not only unique but the customer can walk away with a folk-craft. Walking into their factory, or even one of their stores is like getting a lesson in Japanese textile folk-crafts. The customer gets a chance to experience with all their senses, the lessons of the past. And spread that knowledge by wearing their products.

I really like that Koromo gives a second life to these textile treasures, by preserving the techniques and knowledge by integrating them into the product. It creates an interaction between the craftsperson and the designer, with the customer. At first glance one can get an appreciation for the skill, and workmanship that goes into these goods.

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Osaka | Brown Tabby – Used Clothing and Repair Shop

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In the heart of 河内木綿 (Kawachi cotton) country, Brown Tabby is located amongst the industry and factories  of Higashi Osaka. An area with a long history of workwear, dating back to Edo period. The Yamato river was the artery that was later nicknamed the “Cotton Road” on which boats transported short-stem cotton to factories.

Brown Tabby is owned by Mr. Narita, a very knowledgable vintage fanatic. A store with an amazing and unique selection of vintage accessories, hand-made goods, vintage and new clothing, and some really great vintage footwear. But for me the most important thing they do here is repair.

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The repairs and remade items are finely and authentically detailed. I couldn’t believe one guy is doing all this work on these items. Incredibly good quality workmanship on real vintage pieces. Most are items that were dead stock that other local vintage stores would have a hard time selling. So Mr. Narita sources some really great pieces then repairs and remakes them into remarkably good pieces and reasonable prices. Each piece done one at a time, each one individually distinct.

Kapital Kountry | Liquor Flannel Shirt – Cornfield Damage

Inspired by the vintage flannel shirts by BIG MAC Kapital went to great lengths to recreate this thick durable flannel. The flannel is heavyweight and feels like it was made in the 1950’s. Commonly worn by truck drivers, farmers, ranchers, and almost every other working man in America. This shirt looks like it should be a workwear museum display.

The Kountry crew took their time to design this shirt. The erratic stitching and what looks like a recycled oven mitt or placemat has been used to finish the shirt. Slight off-white sashiko stitching on the quilt adds a subtle texture. Hand-stitched underside patches look really rugged, and I like the chest pockets are finished at the bottoms with contrasting fabric. It looks as though they were worn through and patched up, as though the person who wore this shirt carried around baskets of corn all day. I like the blend of slight cute and rugged, flowery prints and hard, red flannel.