American and Japanese Denim: The Heads and Tails of Denim

With the denim market being a vast grouping of different brands and styles, raw and selvedge denim are the heart of it all. Surprisingly, most selvedge and raw denim originates from one of two places, America or Japan. Although there isn’t an official ‘debate’ between which of the two is better, a common question I’ve seen floating around is, “which one is better?” Honestly, I don’t know if I can say one is better than the other, but there are differences between each country of origin.

Residing in the United States, the oldest selvedge denim factory in the world is the Cone Mills Factory located in Greensboro, North Carolina. Brothers Moses and Ceasar Cone began the factory in 1891 with an entrepreneurial spirit in mind. If not the only one, Cone Mills serves as the powerhouse of American selvedge and raw denim. The factory takes great pride in its history and several of the employees have worked there for over 50 years preserving the traditional methods of the factory. A few of the many brands that use Cone Mills are imogene + willie, Tellason and Left Field NYC.

A vintage photo of the Cone Mills weaving room in 1941. Source: (www.conedenim.com)

A vintage photo of the Cone Mills weaving room in 1941. Source: (www.conedenim.com)

Denim from Cone Mills tends to have a particular look; a dark raw denim that fades into a bright shade of indigo. With only one factory, some perceive most American selvedge denim as having the same look with each fade. Partially true, however most brands implement their own finishing touches on the denim to make their own pair’s unique. Across each brand the raw denim will eventually fade into a bright indigo. With a well-established reputation, Cone Mills has made a name for itself and is not only the leading selvedge mill in America, but one of the top producing in the world. Every denim enthusiast should have at least one pair of raw denim from this American factory in their closet.

Here is a pair of denim from Railcar Fine Goods constructed at Cone Mills. Shot after 14 months and 7 washes, notice the bright blue shade of the natural indigo. Source: (www.rawrdenim.com)

Here is a pair of denim from Railcar Fine Goods constructed at Cone Mills. Shot after 14 months and 7 washes, notice the bright blue shade of the natural indigo. Source: (www.rawrdenim.com)

At the other end of the globe, literally, lies Japan. Also known for their high quality selvedge and raw denim, Japan is home to several mills, with variations between each facility. Established not too long after Cone Mills, Kurabo Mills was founded over 110 years ago and is the oldest selvedge mill in Japan. Kurabo supplies denim for Big John which is Japan’s first denim brand. After Kurabo, Nisshinbo Mills opened in 1907. Nisshinbo was known for combining traditional and modern techniques, and is widely recognized for their ring-spun denim. Taylor Stitch utilizes Nisshinbo denim as well as other mills in Japan and America. Other notable mills in Japan are Kaihara, Japan Blue Group and Kuroki. With each mill comes different colors and variations of denim.

Pictured is the spinning mill at the Kaihara facility. Upon first glance, the mill is a lot more modern than that of Cone Mills. Source: (www.kaihara-denim.com)

Pictured is the spinning mill at the Kaihara facility. Upon first glance, the mill is a lot more modern than that of Cone Mills. Source: (www.kaihara-denim.com)

Each mill will produce a quality pair of denim. Where yours is produced depends on the brand you choose. Clearly, Japan has more of a variety than American when it comes to selvedge denim. I own several pairs of Japanese selvedge myself and love them. However, I love my Cone Mills pair just as much. Whichever one I wear depends on my mood, what else I am wearing, etc. With a variety of mills, brands such as Naked & Famous are born that create anything from a traditional japanese denim, to raw denim naturally dyed with pomegranates.

A pair of Momotaro jeans after 14 months with several washes. Source: (www.rawrdenim.com)

A pair of Momotaro jeans after 14 months with several washes. Source: (www.rawrdenim.com)

Compare the Momotaro pair above to the pair from Railcar Fine Goods. Can see you a difference in the fade and the intensity of the indigo? I tried to find a pair that was worn for the same amount of time. Obviously, not every pair will fade in this particular way, but the process the indigo is treated in the factory does have an effect on the intensity of the fade.

At the end of the day, where you purchase your denim will be one of the determining factors in the pair’s quality. As far as which country produces better denim, it all boils down to personal preference. Hopefully this breakdown has opened your eyes to another level of depth within the denim community. So go ahead and discover a brand you admire from each country and see the differences firsthand. Or better yet, some brands even use denim from American and Japan. The worst thing that can happen is you having two new pairs of beautiful raw and/or selvedge denim. Now for a denim enthusiast, that’s heaven.