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Understanding The Difference Between Japanese and American Denim

Japan and the United States have worked long and hard to establish themselves as the two premiere manufacturers of raw selvedge denim in the world. A slightly antiquated process, the milling and production of raw selvedge jeans has all but disappeared in many areas of the world. In spite of this, the Japanese and the Americans have continued to produce the highest quality, most coveted denim in the world.

The question still remains though in the minds of potential buyers – which is better? Whether or not there is a clearly superior denim could be debated endlessly and would likely boil down to personal preference. However, we are going to dive into the details and look at some of the differences between Japanese and American denim. Does one have a clear advantage over the other? Let’s find out.

Japanese Denim

Japanese Raw Selvedge Denim, Japanese and American Denim

As we highlighted in our feature on Japanese Mills – unlike in the United States, Japan can boast of multiple denim mills that crank out top-quality premium selvedge jeans. This means that Japanese denim will inherently have a wider range of fades than American denim, which primarily comes from one mill. The fading all depends on which mill the denim was manufactured at as well as the characteristics of that specific mills’ production process.

Additionally, because there are multiple mills in Japan they are able to produce a greater variety of selvedge products. For example, Naked & Famous uses primarily Japanese denim, and their product offerings range from glow in the dark jeans to scratch and sniff jeans. Other mills, of course, are known for producing less innovative but higher quality replicas of American denim that are simpler in design.

Generally speaking, when compared to American denim from a fading perspective, Japanese denim is known to produce higher contrast fades. However, for many people these fades take longer to set in, but develop more character and personality in that time. The denim is made on old Toyoda looms (not co-opted American looms), that operate slowly and produce an uneven – but sought after – texture and slub in the denim, especially when compared to the quicker and more precise denim mills used around the world today.

Jeans that are made in Japan, from Japanese denim, are also known for their top-quality construction and incredible attention to detail. For this reason they are often considered the best jeans on the market. The denim is also known for being dyed using natural, rather than synthetic, indigo. The natural indigo dye leads to a more pure, darker indigo color, as well as better fades. Japan has a rich history of textile production and dyeing, and this shines through in their denim offerings. Again, there is quite a range in the color of Japanese denim. Some mills try and replicate American style denim, while others look to make colors unique to their mill.

Of course, there is variety in the Japanese denim market and with over 40 brands touting the “Made in Japan” label, not all the denim produced in Japan is made to the highest quality standards. The characteristics we have outlined, however, generally hold true for the ones that are.

American Denim

Cone Mills Denim, Japanese and American Denim

Generally speaking, American denim is considered to be of equal quality when compared with similarly priced Japanese denim. Unlike Japanese denim however, the vast majority of denim that is produced in the United States comes from the legendary Cone Mills plant in Greensboro, North Carolina. As a result of the limited amount of mills, the fade patterns associated with American denim are much more consistent than those of Japanese denim. What this results in is the majority of jeans made with American Cone Mills denim looking very similar. Some people enjoy this, while others prefer more variety in their indigo and fade contrasts from jean to jean.

The fades associated with American denim are more even and consistent, giving a vintage feel to jeans made from American denim. In comparison to the high contrast fading that Japanese denim produces, the blue hues that develop from a well-worn pair of American jeans are very distinctive and easily recognizable. These distinctive fade patterns are even replicated by Japanese brands.

Unlike Japanese denim, American denim often does not have the same slubiness and texture that many denim enthusiasts look for. The denim does have a unique texture, but it is not as pronounced as the texture tends to be with Japanese denim. Outside of changes in weight, or maybe a different cotton used in the production of the denim, American denim mills are not nearly as adventurous as their Japanese counterparts.

That being said, American mills including Cone Mills still produce denim in a similar way to that of the Japanese mills. The denim from Cone Mills is woven on vintage shuttle looms – American Draper x3‘s from the 1940’s – that produce the material slowly and give the denim a texture that is unique and contributes to the fades. They even go so far as to say that the bounce from the old wooden floors of the mill gives the denim a unique character. The indigo dye is also natural, rather than synthetic, assuring a similar rich indigo color and quality fading over time.

selvedge lines

The differences between Japanese and American denim are subtle, but for many denim enthusiasts they make a huge difference. While denim quality is obviously a large factor in differentiating pairs of jeans, a considerable portion of the difference in denim quality can be made up in the construction of the jeans themselves.

At the end of the day, 100% of the choice comes down to personal preference over what you’re looking for in a denim. There remains no clear winner in the competition for a superior denim fabric from either Japan or the United States, but we’re always curious for you to let us know which you prefer and why in the comments section below.

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