“Typically, the most popular denims in the world are going to be a three-by-one right-hand twill weave, 10 to 12 ounces, red cast (vs. green cast), and — right now — vertical slubs rather than cross hatches,” Scott Morrison said, standing in front of a wall of 70 selvedge denims in his SoHo store, 3×1 Denim. He was not speaking in tongues; he was simply speaking the new language of denim.
Morrison grew up in Rancho Mirage, California, as a golfer, went to University of Washington to play golf on a scholarship, drew up a business plan in college to launch a golf company, then finally moved to New York in 1997 and started in on denim. He came to the party at the right time. “I remember going and buying a pair of Replay Jeans and looking at the inside and going, ‘Holy shit, what is Made in Japan? Japanese Denim? Japanese Wash?’ They were $125, which at the time was $25 more expensive than any other product they were making.” This was an advantageous enlightenment; from the late ’90s — Morrison places it around 1999 — onward, premium denim has been booming. What started with Earl Jean, Frankie B and Paper Denim & Cloth then moved into 7 For All Mankind, JBrand, True Religion. Then the wave really caught on, and leading up to the present premium denim companies have begun ad infinitum.
Back in 1999, Morrison and Ken Girard, head of Cone Mills product development, traveled to Japan. Morrison said that at the time, the Cone Mills selvedge shuttle looms in North Carolina were still. Selvedge, or “self-edge” denim (so named for the tightly woven band on the end of sheet of denim), was the classic style of denim — “it’s the record player of denim,” said Morrison — and Cone Mills is one of the founding fathers of the fabric. Starting in 1891, they were a premier fabric manufacturer, and throughout the early and mid-1900s, they made only type of denim: selvedge denim on shuttle looms. But as technology evolved and the economy demanded faster, cheaper denim, the new rapier, projectile and air jet looms took over production. When Morrison and Girard headed to Japan, no one was ordering the slower, more expensive selvedge denim. “At the time, the big brands, Gap, J.Crew, Esprit, Levis, Lee, Wrangler — every one of the American brands were focused on this moderate price point.”
What Morrison and Girard found in Japan were mills focusing on premium denim of the sort North America once made. He remembers it being better across the board, from fabrics to stitching to wash. And it left an impression. “My dogs are named after Japanese denim mills — Kurabo and Nishimbo. I was a bit obsessed, to say the least.” After that trip, Morrison’s travels in Japan (and also in Italy) continued, as did his study of premium denim manufacturing. He believed he wasn’t the only one who’d buy into this domestically born, internationally perfected practice. Morrison’s idea — shared by only a couple other premium denim companies at the time — was to bring this quality back to American jeans. “The premise was, why can’t we do the same thing in the States?” said Morrison.
“I know our customer is this one guy that’ll walk in and be like, ‘That’s fucking awesome, that’s what I want.'”
He did, but it didn’t catch on right away. He says his first two forays into offering selvedge denim failed miserably; customers weren’t ready for $250 jeans. He remembers that things that we take for granted on jeans today — oven baking, 3D-whiskering, hand sanding, bleach sponging — didn’t even exist until the early aughts. But Morrison held his vision, and through two companies, Paper Denim & Cloth and Earnest Sewn, Morrison evolved with America’s interest in premium denim. Finally, in 2011, he started 3×1, his most specialized project to date. 3×1, according to Morrison, offers the largest selection of selvedge denim in the world. They have, at any given time, 70 rolls of selvedge denim on their “denim wall,” and over the years have introduced more than 640 different types of selvedge denim, sourced from 18 different mills across the world. “The mills are the rockstars of the shop,” Morrison said. 3×1 specializes in specialty, and they cater to a distinct, particular client. “I know our customer is this one guy that’ll walk in and be like, ‘That’s fucking awesome, that’s what I want,'” said Morrison.
To get to that point takes a bit of education. And without digging through the annals of denim geek forums, it takes a bit of translating. So, Morrison offered to give a lay of the selvedge land — an overview of what to consider when buying premium denim.
1 To selvedge or not to selvedge. The first question to answer is whether you actually want selvedge denim. The selvedge advantage is that you’re getting the best quality cotton, because the actual weaving of the denim — on a shuttle loom — is intense and strong, breaking down slower than a weaker yarn. For non-selvedge denim, or wide-width denim — those made on rapier, projectile or air jet looms — you get a more affordable price, because the process is faster and more economical, and a lower-quality cotton can be used. Non-selvedge denim is also allowed to use pattern utilization (optimizing patterns so the least amount of fabric is wasted), because there’s no need to preserve the side seam “self-edge” ID. Selvedge, according to Morrison, is the holy grail of denim. But if you’re looking for the greatest cost effectiveness, non-selvedge is your ticket, and there are plenty of good options out there.
2 Find the right weight for the wear. The variation between denim weights typically fluctuates between 8 ounces and 16 ounces (it goes up to 32 ounces, in the extreme). If you’re getting raw denim (untreated and unwashed), 13.5 to 15 ounces is typical and 14 ounces tends to be the magic ticket for achieving both quality wear-in and relatively quick comfort. The lighter the denim, the quicker the wear-in time and the more comfortable off the rack. Heavier denims tend to be hardier and have the potential for more unique wear patterns.
3 Do you like a green or red hue? Denim tends toward a shade — either a greenish/blueish one or a more reddish/purplish one. Greencast denims typically come from Japanese mills, and redcast tends to be more associated with the typical American look. Greencast denim is dyed with a green sulfur dye before being dipped in indigo, while redcast denim goes straight into the indigo. As the indigo fades over time, wear and wash, the hue will rise more prominently to the surface. As for the dip, the darkness of the indigo is dependent on the number of dips during the indigo bath. Most indigo dyes are now synthetic, a technology invented by Adolf von Baeyer (for which he won a 1905 Nobel Prize in Chemistry), but there is a small faction still making indigo as a plant-based product. Those tend to be the highest cost, and often lighter in color.
4 Consider your yarn character.
Morrison looks carefully at the surface of a denim; he’s studying character. The more character of the thread — especially with slubs and nep — the more “workman” style the jean. Jeans with less “character” tend to be more formal and refined. This character comes about from thread diameter (thicker = more character, thinner = less character), and the presence of irregularities in thickness within the yarn weave.
5 Tackle the final stretch.
This may be news: selvedge denim now comes in stretch. It’s one of modern denim’s most promising developments, born out of improvements that allow synthetic fibers to be used on shuttle looms. It also offers more comfort and the same quality and look of a top-tier selvedge denim. In women’s lines, stretch is a de-facto element in many jeans, and Morrison anticipates it’ll continue to grow in popularity among men.
A Selection of Morrison’s Favorite Denims
L: XX133 – Mill: Kaihara, Japan; Weight: 13 ounces; Details: Black, Black
R: XX336 – Mill: Kaihara, Japan; Weight: 9 ounces; Details: Supima Cotton, Brushed Back
L: XX71 – Mill: Kurabo, Japan; Weight: 14 ounces; Details: Redcast
R: XX434 – Mill: Kurabo, Japan; Weight: 9.5 ounces; Details: Indigo, Indigo, Rainbow Selvedge ID
L: XX445 – Mill: Candiani, Italy; Weight: 10 ounces, Details: Stretch Selvedge, 98% cotton, 2% stretch.
R: XX60 – Mill: Kurabo, Japan; Weight: 13 ounces; Details: Khaki Weft, Greencast, Blue Selvedge ID