Natural dyers have a dirty secret, and it’s something which isn’t talked about nearly enough.Read More
I'm not always sure what people mean when they say 'hand made'. I was talking to someone recently who said their clothing was all hand-made, because it was guided by hand through a sewing machine - which would make almost all clothing in the entire world 'hand-made'. To me, at least, saying clothing is 'hand' -something is to say it's made by hand in the most basic way possible, where the gesture of the hand is evident in the work left behind. Our hand-spun garments are made from cotton turned into yarn by hand creating an uneven texture. Our hand-woven garments reflect every hand movement including all the little pauses where say a cup of tea was taken on a break. Our hand-dyed garments all have an ever-so slightly different shade, the colour judged by eye and touch. You get the idea.
Hand-embroidery, for us, is possibly the purest reflection of hand-work. Every stitch is a feature and left by the movement of a hand using just a simple needle as a tool. It's fine and artistic work and it takes an incredible amount of time and skill.
When we approach an embroidery design the first step is always to make up a sample - this is almost always done by Katy, but I have been known to do a few too (one, I think).
This is what buyers invariably see at shows and likely what you see too because we shoot our lookbooks with our initial samples. Once we've taken orders for the season we instruct our dye house to begin making the fabric and send on the embroidery sample to the lovely ladies who do the work. From SS17 we began working with a very special set of women who Katy (to my chagrin) calls 'The Embroidery Nuns', even though only one of them is actually a nun. At first it was a slip of the tongue, then it became a habit which she discovered irked me - now its on purpose.
"The Embroidery Nuns" (actually one nun and a lot of non-nuns)
Augusta has been a nun since her youth, and joined the convent while there was still a strong group of French nuns worshipping in the building. In her time she's seen them come and go, though largely go, until several years ago she found herself the last remaining warden of the once fully-stocked nunnery.
Having learned needlework from the original incumbent nun (a Parisian whose name I sadly can't remember) she reached out to the community, inviting in ladies who would otherwise struggle to make a living and simultaneously raise a family, to learn the craft. Before long the nunnery was turned into a series of workrooms and Augusta was able to secure work for the ladies adding embroidered flourishes to tablecloths and clothing.
We had a long chat with her last time we visited - the ladies were used to mainly floral illustrations and had absolutely no idea what on earth our design was. Explaining that it was a wave of bacterial fermentation didn't really help. She also stressed the importance of this kind of work for these ladies, not just as a means of supplementing family income but as a reason to "get dressed up and hang out with other ladies in the town".
This is a theme we see so often with our production, whether it be hand-dyeing, knitting, weaving or embroidery - the community spirit is the happiest byproduct. Those working in and around it feel like they're cultivating a niche, or sharing in a sort of art form no matter how under-appreciated their efforts have been in the past. The craft they practice is like a dying out language - they're the last remaining speakers sharing meaning through a group of sounds incomprehensible to most, but dripping with history, hope and culture. Not to be too grandiose but keeping these precious languages alive is so important, and passing them on to new generations is incredible. The only way we know how to make it attractive is for outfits like us to show these guys and girls how much their work means to us.
I'm afraid we are quite thin on the ground for production pictures here - while we developed the print and created the original prototypes ourselves the bulk of the work was done several months later by technicians at Jeanologia.
Jeanologia is an incredible company based in Valencia, Spain that design, build and engineer machines and software on the absolute cutting edge of denim laundering. As well as being the most high-tech solution, the machines they produce are far and away the most sustainable and earth-friendly way to launder jeans.
Now, lets just explain what 'industrial laundry' actually is - because not all that long ago I would have assumed we were walking about cleaning clothes. When you buy new jeans that look worn and ripped they've been through a process that uses chemicals or manual work that ages, rips and tears the fabric.
Stonewashed jeans, for example are put into a giant machine that literally washes the denim with pumice stones - equally acid wash uses bleach-soaked towels.
This is what people are talking about when they say 'washing' and 'laundry' - and as you might imagine its not quite as eco as it should be. Jeanologia uses lasers instead of chemicals and sandpaper to add wear marks and Ozone to bleach out fabric with almost no water or pollution whatsoever.
Our approach to their technology was a little different - we felt with the almost limitless scope of laser technology we could do something a little more future-y than vintage markings and decided to 'scortch' our natural indigo denim with sideways 'laser rain'.
Above are our first tests - trying out line thicknesses, laser power, and wabash dots. If you look closely you can see on this thinner test where the laser has struck the denim (almost like little matchsticks). Next task was to actually draw our broken laser rain pattern and test it out.
Because of the high powered lasers it was difficult to really get close enough to capture just how incredible the process is. The laser removes a layer of indigo in seconds, creating a 'print' with no water used at all. Above you can see it in action - if you look closely you can even see some of the dotted lines in the forefront burning red.
The pattern itself is inspired by a few things - British weather (that unforgiving sideways rain you get when the wind teams up with the clouds), German rain camo and vintage American wabash.
Design, in so many ways is about problem solving - and natural dyeing is no different. Sometimes what we can do is limited to what is available in nature, and other times we get to push the boundary just a little.
Around a year ago we began looking for a tahini shade fabric - and felt like we struck gold when we discovered some of our weavers and dyers in Thailand had been making something suitable. We quickly bought some old fabric they had made and fell for it entirely.
The problem arose when we needed to make more - the ebony fruit they used to dye with is seasonal, and we had completely missed it for the year. We felt a little flat to say the least, but the weaver told us they sometimes make the same shade using the bark of the tree, in combination with mud.
We had to see for ourselves.
This is the tree bark above - its peeled off regularly without harming the tree as long as it is not over harvested. You can see it has almost a blood red inner and the wood is quite fragrant.
Collected together in an entirely unscientific measurement a giant's teabag is made and drawn over a rolling boil.
Natural, home-spun cotton yarn is left to boil and dip over quite a short period of time (this one was only in there about 10 mins) before it reached an almost grey hue.
Like hair the yarns here look much darker wet than they will dry.
To get our Tahini shade the yarn is taken about 200 steps away to an almost dried up pond (it fills in when rainy season comes round) where it's stamped into the mud and washed.
What's really interesting is the ladies have tried plain water and even other parts of the pond and found that only one little spot actually magically changes the tone of the yarn. We believe the iron content is to blame (it seems like a similar method to Japanese Kakishibu or Indian Myroblan).
Again, the finished yarn is markedly darker than it will be when washed and dried, but it's an incredible journey.
Once dry they're then loaded into the home-handlooms and woven into our fabric. I have to admit, it did make us smile that the weaver was wearing a little coat she'd made herself out of the same fabric.
As with all our garments the natural dye process means theres an interesting variation in colour. Some pieces are almost a little striped - making each one totally unique.
Katy and I first went to Thailand about 8 months into starting STORY in the hopes of finding more natural dyers, hand weavers and craftspeaple to expand our pool. We did a lot of research and settled on the North West, and sure enough a few conversations later we had a guide who knew all the last bastions of natural dyeing. We jumped in a car and drove around remote villages, eagerly awaiting blue fingers and the distinctive smell of natural indigo fermentation.
Except, we didn't find that. We found indigo dyeing, sure - but it was all synthetic. Natural dyeing had died in the region, replaced for ease with chemicals and imported fixatives. Place after place we were disappointed, and after an ungodly amount of driving we headed back to the nearest city feeling dejected.
The next day we decided to let loose and visit a night market, mostly to get watermelon shakes, but also in the hope we might see something interesting. After hours on our feet we were headed back to our rented room when we caught the sight (and whiff) of natural indigo. There, right at the edge of the market was 'Suchada', a smiling lady selling the indigo dyed fabric her family dyes and weaves on the opposite side of the country. I was skeptical, we've met charlatans before, so I likely came across quite rude - asking pointed questions, insisting on pictures. She answered everything with a broad smile and showed us pictures and videos of her family on her tablet. More than that, she invited us to visit - so we did!
Not only does this family (they refer to themselves as sisters and brothers, but they are more related by community than blood) grow and harvest their own indigo, but they do the same with their cotton too.
Most of the cotton used is grown in small gardens, alongside beans, veggies and even rubber trees by retired farmers who continue their natural dye and weaving craft as a hobby and supplementary income.
They harvest the indigo, and spin it into yarn themselves, using traditional wheels. The little bottle above is a local oil used to keep the wheel and spindle nimble.
The kind of indigo they choose to grow here is actually the same type the guys grow in India, but the climate being different makes for some interesting shades. We've noticed the Indian extract is redder, while this stuff is a little greener.
While the indigo plant here is the same as in India, the vats are quite different. Our Indian indigo dyers use grain, water and a little lime to dye in vast underground vats, but these ladies in Thailand use tamarind juice, ash water (filtered through bbq'd leaves) and rainwater in a series of small clay pots.
These pots are reffered to as little 'children' that need to be kept fed, watered and airated to live. They're just the right size for dyeing one hank of yarn and nothing else. In fact, weather permitting, our dyers will dye just one hank a day by dipping it once in each of the six pots until the vat is exhausted and the yarn is a deep dark blue.
We've been working with these ladies for a few seasons now - you'll find the plain indigo fabric in our Sundae Jackets from SS16 (and back again in SS17) and for AW16 we've also made a light brown fabric as well as a 'rain ikat'. To make the ikat yarns the ladies wrap plastic at intervals around the hanks (see above) before dyeing, leaving white spaces in the yarn.
We've been told all kinds of 'rules' for drying indigo, and here they like to dry the hanks of yarn outdoors under shade.
Once dried, the hanks are washed again in rainwater before being mounted on a loom and hand woven into fabric. It's laborious but meditative work. Some like to do it alone, others keep their looms in a central location so they can chat with the other ladies in the community while they work.
Finally the fabric is softened with water and given a good iron to get the shrinkage out so we get a stable, soft and breathable fabric. The absolute best thing about this entire process is the myriad shades we get - meaning no two jackets are ever the same.
This was actually the most challenging thing we've done to date and was only meant to be a very small project when we travelled all the way to India in the summer with finished ecru garments . We nodded to each other and smiled a sort of 'gosh, this is amazing, but crazy' sort of smile every step of the process and thought we'd done a good job.
The problem was, we had done such a nice job that when John Skelton and Xiaoxiao Xu from LNCC came to visit us they asked if they could have it to stock in LNCC - a season ahead of our planned wholesale launch. It was never meant to be a big run, but LNCC didn't even need to make a case for themselves. We discovered just a few weeks earlier that they had curated a 'conscious' collection on their site that sat as prominently as their main offering, making a real statement about one of our core drivers - sustainable clothing.
The collection is now live on their webstore, and it represents months of very, very hard work by everyone involved. I know, it seems like hyperbole - how can one white line be such a headache?
Because the line isn't painted - it's the part of the denim that's resisted the indigo dye, a little peep at the virgin fabric is achieved through an age-old indian 'wax resist technique' . The Japanese historically used a mix of rice bran and other ingredients to make a resist 'katazome' paste that works on the same principle (something we will be playing with in later seasons).
Wax is heated up (although, in the Indian sun it doesn't need much) until its almost a watery consistency. It's then painted (or stamped with a wooden block) directly onto our made garments. This is where we really made trouble for ourselves - the easy way would have been to do this on flat fabric then make the garments, but we wanted the line to go over the pocket and around the bottom of our jeans 'just so'.
The fabric we use, likely because its natural ecru and handloomed (from ORTA, an amazing Turkish mill who commissioned traditional hand weavers to make selvedge denim), readily absorbed the wax and made for a stiff stripe. The upshot is a clean finish that means even the inside of the garment shows the stripe (although less prominent). What's extra lovely about this is the visible strokes and splodges on the finished piece that reflect the human hand.
Once air dried, the full jacket is submerged in our natural indigo pits. We've gone on-and-on about these, but they're beautiful, calm pits that build up fabric to a deep dark blue using just plant dye (indigofera tinctoria) and some food for the fermentation.
Here's a pair of trousers dipped once in the vat. The colour is lovely but slightly uneven - our jackets and jeans need 6 full cycles of dipping.
Here's the Time Jacket after a final dip. It's a super-deep almost purple colour (because of the red impurities in our natural indigo) at this stage and still has wax intact. Once dry, the garment is boiled(!) allowing the wax to melt and float to the top where it's collected and re-used.
Once finished we attach the labels and they're ready to wear. One beautiful thing about the whole process is how the hue of the whole jacket changes over time. I've been wearing one on and off for six months, and the deep inky blue has softened to calmer shade, wearing down further over seams, folds and the pockets.
All in all it makes for a beautiful, simple effect that completely belies the amount of work that went in. It's an amazing success that we simply cannot ever repeat on this scale.
We've spoken a little about Master Thiti in a previous story - but we wanted to share with you his very singular way of indigo dyeing that we experienced when we did a little collaborative dyeing.
Indigo is his "joint favourite" dye (along with ebony - a fruit that produces a range of greys and blacks) and his enthusiasm really shows. He straddles a line between perfection of form and expression that's infectious - like a master baker that no longer measures ingredients - instinctively throwing portions into a mix with a flourish.
When we arrived at his home (which also serves as his workshop) we were met by a pot of yarn billowing steaming air high into the neighbouring treetop. He was scouring them - removing any starch and residue left on them from spinning.
We peered in and immediately noticed a leaf from the neighbouring tree had dropped in. We told him immediately - sure the batch would be ruined - but he gave us a wistful smile and explained "It's all nature. It's okay. This tree makes blue too but I not know why".
He extracts his own dyes too - but for the moment he's using indigo paste from Laos. It's a thick, slimy inky black blob far removed from what we're used to (most places we visit use a dried powdered extract).
A handful of paste (technical measuremt) gets put into a large stone bowl. He adds fruit from his garden to regulate acidity (starfruit of thai limes - he isn't fussy), water filtered through ash (made from burned banana skins), tamarind and perhaps a little water depending on 'the look' of the mix.
Finally - and this is a tip passed onto him from an old hilltribe lady from China - he gives the vat a nice long shot of whiskey. He says there are many 'reasons' for this (using his fingers to gesticulate with inverted commas how futile us wanting to make 'sense' of it all is) but cheif among them is to get the bacteria - the chaps making the magic happen - drunk. Drunk vats make "much beautiful colour".
The vat then needs a few days to mature before use - but after that you just need to top it up with a little of each thing again.
The Master then went to attend his silk moths and have a cold beer while we hung out with his helpers - his rag-tag collection of pooches that loved to help and photobomb pictures we were trying to get with our first Thai vat.
The first drop from the Artist series, which sees STORY garments made up in super-special fabrics, is composed of a longer line Time Jacket made in Mango Ikat and a Sundae Jacket in Painters Camo fabric. They're available on the webshop now.
A brief history of Master Thiti and Fai Sor Kam
The Artist series explores the extremely slow craft of fabric as an art form. If that sounds too high brow then the cut and thrust of the series is this: even within the extremely artisan world of natural dyeing and hand weaving, there are people innovating and expressing new ideas.
Master Thiti, our first artist, is better known by his brand name amongst weavers in-the-know. Fai Sor Kam.
Fai Sor Kam fabrics take things to the extreme in search of art. The word 'artisan' would apply here but it's overuse makes it seem far too weak for what Master Thiti does. He has been part of natural dyeing, weaving and craft for quite some time. Decades before we met he owned a factory producing textiles dyed with the same vegetable dyes he continues to use to this day.
There's an old saying: "make your hobby your job, and you'll never work a day in your life". Natural dyeing was always one of his passions, but the realities of industry proved that saying all too romantic. As work came in thicker and faster, he found himself increasingly stretched. Demand forced him to hire more staff until he was managing people and orders - not getting his fingers inky with indigo or spending any substantial amount of time on a loom.
Luckily for The Master, Thailand is equipped to deal with stress. Buddhism, one of the principal faiths, teaches mindfulness and meditation. Understanding he needed a clear mind Master Thiti took an extended break to spend time meditating.
Like everything else, he excelled at it. He did so well, and found it so rewarding, that he made a drastic move. He became a monk.
This spelled the end for his operation. For decades he meditated and went about his monastic duties. He gardened and served. He thought and pondered. Years went by in a calm stream of tranquility. He gave up the rich varying shades of natural dyes for a drab brown cloth that covered his body in the style of the great Buddha. He was happy.
Back in Blue
Except not content. Not completely. Brown wasn't right at all on him.
The Master came to a realisation. He needed to get back to dyeing. There was still so much to do. So much art in him. Far too much to waste. And so he gave up being a monk, laid down his brown robes, and replaced them with a pair of jeans and indigo t-shirt.
In the time since, The Master has created masterpieces. He's become a celebrated artist, a lecturer, and and famed designer. His little shop in a pretty corner of Thailand has attracted a host of celebrities, academics and lucky happenstancers.
We spent a good amount of time with The Master, at his home with his friends. We rifled through years of history - prying some of the most brilliant pieces of fabric we've ever seen from his archive. It may sound a little wild - but we saw things we couldn't believe. The things this man can dye with a mango alone blew our mind - not to mention his crazy whiskey indigo and burnt banana dyeing method.
Surrounded by friends, his dogs, and a brood of silk moths that he takes care of in his "moth hotel" he lives a satisfyingly slow life. He makes things as he pleases, sells them for what they're worth, and never compromises.
He also prefers not to make the flat, sandy brown colour he had to wear for so many years. He's had enough of that particular shade.
For more on The Master, look out for our upcoming blog on his idiosyncratic way of dyeing.
Our TRF shoes are made with a 100% impermeable, breathable, antibacterial but soft and light leather alternative. The sole is made from a lightweight, but tough, EVA, and the interlacing runs (unusually) all the way around the shoe. They're made in England, in one of the most incredible factories we've ever been to - and they're available to pre order now.
We often talk about 're-wilding' things, but I'm not sure if what we really mean has ever been fully explained.
Extinction is forever, we know that - but what if it wasn't? What if iconic creatures from long forgotten pasts could be brought back into the world and set free to re-roam the earth? That's re-wilding, and while Katy and I can't bring back the sabre tooth tiger - we can study the past to bring back wearable icons.
Most pieces in our collection begin their (new) lives in our vintage archive. We have an enormous library that we regularly look through, examine, and share with guests.
But sometimes, and this doesn't happen as much as I'd like, something finds us. That's what happened with the TRF (Two Right Feet) shoes.
We headed on up to Northampton originally to make a boot. In fact, we were so sure of what we were making that the principal reason for the visit was to check fabric and make an order.
We spent our usual time taking a tour, asking questions, prodding, poking and sniffing (especially in a shoe factory - nothing smells quite like new shoes.).
Then, we saw it. The original TRF shoe - stuffed in between two pieces of equipment. We can't show you a picture here because we don't have one. I know - big mistake. Terribly un-story.
Side note: Katy's home was burgled last week - and the thieves took our backup hard drive. The drive we keep all our images on. This update, and maybe a few more, are going to be on the naked side but we'll do our best to visit the factory again while our shoes are being made. Anyway - on with the story...
We didn't know the profound effect this shoe would have on us. We asked a few questions about it, the way it was made, and where it came from. Our guide smiled and told us how labour intensive it was, how much more expensive it was, and how much more hassle it was in general.
We finished up the tour, went back to the office, put in our order and set off back to London.
We were happy - but something felt off. We both kept talking about that other shoe. It was a classic - a gibson shape on a beautiful last. But it was also classic in a more youthful way than anything else. They're a formal shoe that wants to dance, and they're just begging to be re-paired with raw denim, the way they used to be worn in their heyday.
We insisted we have it. It was a little bit of a tussle - but we got there in the end.
I've written out this introduction at least ten times because I'm not sure how to start. Sometimes Katy and I get ourselves to wrapped up in the minute details that we forget to spell out the big picture.
So here's the big picture: we spent some time in a forest with a group of people who practice an ancient tradition of medicinal dyeing. We came back with new fabrics which are very very slow made, naturally dyed, hand loomed, and make up our Honour Scarves and new Shore Shirts.
I'll preface this with a statement about our own opinion on 'medicinal' fabric. While we both think there is a lot to be said for the chemical properties imparted by plants, we don't believe they should be used in place of scientifically proven medicines. That said, when we heard about a group of people practicing a 5000 year old tradition of medicinal dyeing in the forests of India, we were hooked.
These men and women dye yarns and cloth with mixtures of plants for their health giving qualities - not the way they look or the colour they give. Uneven colour on a yarn would be a failure anywhere else - but here, in the forest, every yarn is important, and potent.
I say forest, but it's more than that. This forest is cultivated; it's a nursery spilling over with hundreds of medicinal plants, all growing in symbiosis on the fertile land. It seems completely wild, save for a few brick walls, but every plant is expertly placed. Jutting trees reach for the sun while shade dwelling bushes hide below, presenting berries for the dye pot. The land is so fertile not just because of the weather, but because the waste from the dye pots is sprinkled back over the land - providing a perfect food source and a closed loop of sustainable living.
Our contact, Kay, eagerly takes us through winding pathways, stopping off every couple of metres to excitedly talk us through a plants native name, scientific name, and its medicinal use. We examine Indigo, wild basil, turmeric, goosberries, black pepper, and a giant list of plants we'd never even heard of. Some look the same - like generic plants - but every so often Kay would rekindle our attention by rubbing a bristle that would fill the air with perfume , or pinch a leaf that would explode deep, rich colour.
India has long celebrated the natural medicinal properties of plants, pioneering medicinal extracts for thousands of years that continue to surprise modern chemists. This method of dyeing cloth, now over 5000 years old, takes those principles and applies them to the clothes we wear. Our man explains to us that there are many concoctions, and most are tailor made, but there are a few hundred we can choose that promote general 'wellness' and 'good feeling'. The two we chose for our Shore Shirts do just that, and those found in the Honour Scarves are designed to assist healthy breathing.
Every fabric has a formula. The head dyer mixes up a relatively small amount of medicine in a pot until it's right. Most mixtures combine 20-30 different ingredients, in different quantities, but some can contain over 50. It's then cooked, cooled, dissolved or ground depending on the recipe. All water used here is rain water, collected on the rooftoops and filtered through rocks. They refuse to take any chances with water supplies when they've been so careful with their ingredients, and we cant blame them.
Next the brew is put into a larger pot, and again either cooked or left at ambient temperature. We were present for some of ourindigo dyeing which was done over a boiling pot - something we had never seen before. Indigo is a wily dye, and requires some precise and exacting moves to get it to transfer onto yarns - but a long rolling boil is not one of of them.
We asked about this, and we were treated to a broad smile and a reminder that this is the ancient way it was always done. We tried to dig deeper to work out how it worked but the only explanations these guys could give were based on medicine - a reminder that dyeing is a byproduct to them, not a principle concern. We were also asked to be mindful that although the colour we are seeing is indigo, the mixture actually contains 26 other ingredients - all of which work in unison for the final result.
That isn't to say they are completely detached from science. While talking us through the properties of indigo, they explained that it was traditionally an ingredient used when anti bacterial and temperature regulating fabric treatments were needed. They explain how it was used five centuries ago, and then school us on what science says today. Hint: science seems to agree, and this is isn't the first time we've been told how special natural indigo is.
The yarns are then hung up indoors, away from the harsh sun, and we are taken inside to see the other half of their stock cupboard. Pots of wood and dried ingredients overflow in rooms dusty with the smell of perfume. We comment on how great everything smells and they nod and smile. They know, and they even seem a little smug. That's something we really feel here - no one here is jealous of the way we live in London. This way is the right way for them, and they want to make our way of living better, by inviting more nature in.
We went back to these dry store cupboards several times during the course of our stay because someone would say something like 'It's dyed with five types of turmeric!', prompting Katy and I to exchange confused glances, before being marched in to examine all five. We might even see a sixth, seventh or eighth type too - which would prompt a completely new discovery for us that dissolved our scepticism. We have to be skeptic with STORY, because we hear so many grand claims on a daily basis that turn out to be total lies. We have to be sure, because brands should be the gatekeepers for honesty and truth.
Even after leaving we thought deeply about the dyeing. We saw it from start to finish - from picking fresh leaves and roots, to mixing them up with dried bark and minerals, grinding, slicing, boiling and drying. Yet we still felt uneasy because of that boiling pot of indigo. It was weird. We hadn't seen anything like it and it seemed altogether too violent for a natural dye.
We got a message to them before we set off for our next stop, asking for some kind of ingredients list so we could try and work out what was happening. We aren't experts, but we know some, and they kindly let us have a list of what goes into the fabrics we selected -- although they asked us not to share it for fear a big player could come along and steal it.
A few days later we caught up with Jesus, our indigo dyeing expert, and told him about the boiling pot. At first his face curled and creased, but he asked a few pointed questions - initially about chemicals. He sees a lot of snake oil charlatans in his line, so he's naturally cautious. However, he's also naturally curious, and when we explained what we saw go in, and what we saw come out he did a little mental maths and told us 'it works, but it's very labour intensive, and the colour would be very uneven - no good for commercial brands!'.
Katy and I exchanged one last stare on the matter. "Good".
Every single element of our products is important to us. I know a lot of people say that, and brands always talk about being detail oriented, but just how detail oriented can you be?
How about making sure even the paper tag on a product is personally hand made for us, in a process that benefits everyone? We went to the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, a specialist paper producer in India to meet the artists and makers.
Paper is, as you know, usually made from tree pulp and a few chemicals. But ours is made from 100% recycled cotton. That's 100% cotton from 100% cotton.
They take fabric scraps and pass them through a machine which is effectively a wood chipper. It tears and shreds the offcuts into teeny bits of cotton fluff.
Then it's very simply put into an enormous bath of water to wet and swell up the fibres. In this case they're making a luminous green paper (not ours - we went for a few different colours) - but the fact it's so bright makes the process even clearer.
It's then spread evenly inside a large tray full of even more water. It's then shaken a little, before the frame and screen are pulled out to reveal a complete sheet of pulp.
The chap below is an expert, and creates two to three sheets a minute. Of course, that's nothing compared to factory-made paper which flies out of machines - but it's pretty good going!
It's then popped on top of a towel, then another towel is thrown on top again and it's sqeezed by two rather strong looking men.
Once a stack of 25 or so is complete, it's then rolled over to a machine which compresses them even further (bottom left).
When the cotton is wet it sticks together because the fibres happily curl up and bend around each other. When it's dried they're fixed into place that way - making it strong enough to take on regular paper any day.
You can see from the picture above that the edge is quite rough and raw - so they're are cut off and kept on a shelf with a colour code. Because the only ingredients are water, dye and cotton - the scraps can be put into the bath again when they get round to making that colour again.
Our product was then cut into bookmark-sized chunks which didnt see the light of day until they were opened in the UK for an even more special and detail oriented print job - watch this space!
The TIME Jacket represents more than the sum of its parts. It isn't just a shape, a design, a piece of history - it's the perfect tool for the job at hand. We found the original TIME jacket long before STORY mfg. started firing up the looms - but once they started chattering we knew we'd be re-wilding this design.
We asked around wherever we could about the jacket through scouring archives and pestering experts. It was never clear exactly how it came to exist - though all parties agree that it was most likely made in the 30's or 40's.
The general concensus, from the build and similarity to other examples, is that it was most likely a jacket made in prison, for prisoners.
The selvedge you see that screams 'PREMIUM!' these days was probably only placed where it was because there was no access to an overlocker. Whoever made this up cut it on the selvedge out of ease - not out of a sense of style or heritage.
We now, in 2014, have purposefully chosen to replicate this odd, square and in some ways wasteful design. It would have been far easier to overlock the edges or use a wider fabric - but it just wouldn't be the same. We believe there's a time, a place, and a reason for overlocking - but this isn't it!
The fist-sized pockets at hip height were the first detail that attracted us. It may seem simple to ask for pockets in a usable place that you can actually fit a few things into - but you'd be surprised at just how hard they are to come buy! For us a pocket isn't an afterthought - it's often a forethought.
The TIME jacket, as naive as it was when it was made, hits upon a style and look we love. It's completely anti-fit and cut all at right angles for ease. For some that might be a turn off because it isnt fitted to the body; it drapes or sits - depending on how big you are.
We plan to make a larger size of this - but we aren't sure there's ever any need for it to be smaller. We've thrown it on people of all shapes and sizes, and it's looked superb each and every way it's worn.
That is, in part, why we're offering it as an 'upgradeable' piece. It's so utilitarian and such a blank canvas to showcase the fabric that it has unlimited possibilities.
And we want you to play with it, to patch it up, to upgrade it yourself - and make each one unique. The fabrics are already totally unique - but let's see just how far we can take this!
Somewhere in the past the arms where chopped off. We've recreated them but we cant help but like how playful a jacket with short sleeves is.
A short sleeve version may well be a future upgrade - but for now we have some other ideas up our sleeves!
In any case, the TIME jacket remains in our archive, a testament to something we aren't even sure of. We do know one thing for certain though - it's a survivor.
Not all hand loomed fabric is equal. Far from it. It takes time to learn the skill, and a little bit a family tradition helps too. River Denim has been in development for 3 years -- because even experienced weavers need time to master the quirks of denim weaving -- but my goodness did they produce something incredible.
Our River Denim fabric, as you know, is made with organic cotton from India which is dyed with natural indigo. What we haven't shouted about is how the yarn is made from long staple cotton that's normally only used in fine shirting cloths. When we asked why, the weavers simply answered 'because'. It's local, readily available and the highest quality so of course it's a no-brainer.
Once the cotton is hand spun and dyed in hanks by small scale family dyers it's given to the weavers. This practice not only allows the absolute best artisans to have the best product - but it means they can set up looms in their own homes and keep the industry local.
As you can see above, the warp yarns (the 'topside' of the fabric) are mounted onto a beam ensuring there's just the right amount for the full width. You can see the red colour of the selvedge line at the edges of the beam.
After that the warp yarns are threaded onto the loom by hand, which is like threading hundreds of needles several times, before being tied at the ends. This isn't a job for clumbsy hands - precision, patience and skill are needed in large supply.
It all takes great care, because one moment of rushing can dash all that hard work.
What really struck us about this whole process is just how long it takes to get the loom chattering. We knew it took a weaver around a day to make enough for one pair of jeans, but we had no idea how long it took to even get started.
Above you can see see just how much threading each yarn demands again (right), as well as a close-up shot of the weavers trusty shuttle (left).
This is real craftsmanship. Every pair of river denim jeans is made proudly by a single craftsman, and we can even (if you like) give you the name of the indvidual weaver that made your fabric!
Not to sound too fluffy - but it's fabric like this, and that in the rest in our first collection, that really make it worthwhile. There's nothing else like it, each piece is an imprint of time and a slice of life.
Ok, so - back to the good stuff. The bobbins of ecru warp yarn are loaded into the shuttle and fly back and forth creating the reverse side of the fabric. If you loaded a different coloured thread in here it would give you a different warp, like our Ni x Ni, which is natural indigo on both sides (warp and weft).
As the shuttle crosses over the whole roll of warp is pulled forward in a clockwork motion, feeding out towards the weaver. Below you can see the finished fabric rolling onto another beam ready to be sent for sanforization.
The finished product is the amazing River Denim. Traditionally, the hand loomed fabric was taken down to the river to be shrunk to size, but it's now taken to Arvind to be sanforized more precisely.
The reason it needs sanforizing is no matter how skilled the loomsman is, the warp and weft may not always be perfectly aligned. Power loomed fabrics can be left untouched because, well, they're made by a machine - and although we love human-made imperfections at STORY we're taking the expert opinion of a fabric technician in this case.
We'll go through this process later on, but in essence the fabric is scanned, then pulled over a series of rollers that shear and move to make sure warp and weft is at right angles.
There were a few times when Katy and I looked at each other and screamed with our eyes over the course of our India trip - watching our denim being hand woven and hearing the loom chatter was one of them. If anyone ever has the gall to ask how interesting denim can possibly be from now on in we wouldn't even know where to start!
We started noticing a quirk with our fit when new samples arrived, and as wear gathered on the first sample we realised that it wasn't a characteristic we wanted to go into production. The hem was curving, something we originally liked, but it was very quickly becoming a flare. Now, flares and bootcuts certainly have their place - but not on the 0 Jean.
We tried tapering the pattern to reduce the hem - but the stubborn curve kept fighting back, desperate to hitch a ride onto our legs. There was really only one person who could help us: Mohsin Sajid, denim genius.
When we first started on this journey, Katy explained how the fit, above all else, was probably the most important piece of the puzzle. That's why we searched high and low for a fit that we'd want to recreate, before finding the 1940's jean that has since become the 0 Jean block.
She also explained that pattern cutting is a skill people spend years honing. I thought it isounded simple; I'm a visual person with a good brain for spacial awareness - how hard could it be??
I couldn't be more wrong.
Mohsin explained, in the most simple of terms, that "You need to make 3D, into 2D pieces". It's actually quite a feat when you're dealing with layers of fabric with pockets in odd placements, leg twist, and around 70 years of age.
However, we enlisted the right person. Mohsin is so skilled that he cuts patterns with all manner of incredible contours for his own line Endrime. He methodically spent two evenings with us making up our new pattern from scratch.
As you can see above - it's not a matter of 'tracing the outlines' as I thought. You can see the seam actually sits flat on top, so you need to do some mental gymnastics to flatten that 3D shape into one you can cut out.
The 0 Jean fit is now ever so slightly tapered and is far closer to the original than the samples we've had so far with a felled inseam. In fact - if you look at it as a flat shape you can barely see the taper at all.
Mohsin then toiled the pattern in selvedge denim so we could check the fit - and it was spot on. It would have brought a tear to our eyes if they weren't already glassy from watching him work well into the early morning on the pattern.
The new measurements up on the shop are now almost final. Cookson and Clegg will sew up a production sample for us but now the only changes will be due to tolerance during production - and they will be minimal as the pattern accounts for that.
When production starts, all those that have pre ordered will be emailed for final size confirmation.
Our natural indigo x natural indigo fabric (Ni x Ni) is made entirely in Arvind's factory in India. Arvind are one of the world's largest fabric producers, making everything from shirting weights to experimental and premium denim fabrics. We were privileged enough to be in the company of the heads of denim design and technical implementation, Rajesh and Alpesh, when we visited India and they treated us like royalty. Many mills around the world produce incredible fabrics as proof of concept, but very few ever actually make it onto your legs. The truth of the matter is it's extremely expensive to pioneer, or take a punt on something out of the ordinary, so brands generally shy away. The average jeans consumer wouldn't know why natural indigo is such a treat - which is a bit of a shame.
STORY mfg. began in earnest when we decided to buy and sell jeans using these amazing fabrics, and this was the first we really fell in love with. We visited the factory to find out exactly how it's made, and now we can share the full narrative.
Cotton is brought in from picking and sorting outside the factory. It comes in these enormous cubes which smell gorgeous (somewhere between talcum powder and new carpets).
They feel very soft to touch but are actually very dense.
They're then taken to this machine (bottom left) which chews and rips the chunks apart. It's fed the cotton on a conveyor belt and the pulled apart material gets sucked vertically into a wide pipe which feeds into another machine in the next room (bottom right).
It's loosely spun into thick strands (imagine holding a loose ponytail) which is fed out of the machine in a circular motion. The arm tracks in a circle into a large cylinder until each is full (there's a spring at the bottom of the barrel to let the machine know when it's had enough).
One thing we can't show you is just how loud and hot it is. We initially thought it was just because we were visiting during a particularly hot hour, but it was explained to us that temperature and humidity are regulated to give the cotton optimum strength.
The barrels are then taken to enormous spinning machines which turn the loose bunches into small, tight yarns. On the left of the picture below you can see rolls of yarn which are already complete - each of these is called a 'cheese'.
Once the cheeses are ready, they're put onto these metal pillars and threaded all the way to the end where a roll is waiting to be wound. Each of these 'corridors' creates one roll, and you can see the incredible amount of yarn that needs to be lined up.
Below you can see the end of the line, where all of the cheeses feed into. A roll at the end turns and the yarns pull from left to right like a typewriter onto the roll.
Below is a finished roll, ready to be threaded through an even larger machine to be dyed.
It then takes many many rolls to be threaded onto these even larger rolls for the rope dyeing.
Rope dying is the process of passing yarns through these enormous rollers which dip them in and out of dye baths.
Arvind have both the largest and smallest industrial rope dyeing machines in the world, and our denim is far too niche to go anywhere near the largest. Instead, it's put through what Rajesh lovingly named the "baby rope machine".
Below you can see some yarn coming out of its first dip (still green as it hasn't oxidised yet), and on the right the same yarn after a few more dips (almost deep blue-black now).
The yarns are then rolled into colours, ready to be loomed into our fabric. It's actually pretty amazing and so beautiful to see a continuous ribbon of green slowly darken to rich indigo.
It makes you wonder just how amazing it must have been for those innovative first few who discovered the wonder dye of the indigo plant.
We know it's been a while, and some things have changed.
Mailing list members will get an email with full details, fit pics and sizing chart soon (which will also appear here a day or two later) but we thought we'd share these sneaky pics of the 0 jean in our natural indigo x natural indigo denim.
We've changed the back pocket shape to a more traditional spade design. The reason for this will be explained with the full update - but we love how it looks!
Close-up of the coin pocket (below) and back pocket stitch detail (above), both taken directly from our 1940's sample.
Other changes to come include chainstitch at the waistband and leg seam, red bartack detail at coin and back pocket, and the internals...well, some things we are keeping secret a little longer...
It was always going to be copper for us. It just took some looking, and a little help, to get what we wanted.
There's something premium about copper on denim, and both Katy and I agree that we always feel a little let down if beautiful denim is finished with 'antique brass' or 'gunmetal' buttons. That isn't to say that they don't have their place, but we just can't imagine finishing our natural indigo, premium jeans with anything less than copper.
Our buttons are made from a single piece of rolled 100% copper, and our rivets are copper capped.
Apart from being one of the best conductors of electricity and heat, copper (Cu) is actually an essential dietary element to human life. We need it to live, and it's just by virtue of nature that it's such a beautiful looking piece of the world.
Some of the most stirring pieces of art are laced with copper, as it forms a pigment when mixed with other colours. Not only is it gorgeous in its pure state, giving a pinkish gold colour, but in compound salts it forms other amazing colours such as azurite and turquoise.
Turquoise and copper are traditionally paired together in jewellery, and it's been the de facto precious stone for dozens of civilizations - but that's a STORY for another day, and another product.
With a little age, copper gets deep green patina, and we just know that it's always going to look beautiful as it develops over a pair of indigo jeans.
Everything here is in beta. You can see from the beautiful photos in this post that we've spent a lot of time on design, but please keep in mind that the denim we made the prototype in is NOT either of the denims we're offering (and neither are the buttons or rivets).
Here are the measurements for our second sample - if we're happy with it (and I think we will be) we'll grade it for other sizes:
Hem/Leg opening: 8.2
Front rise: 11.2
Back rise: 15.2
Inside leg: 36
We'll post photos of buttons and rivets as soon as we get them, and we'll keep you updated on the STORY from India.
As for price - we currently believe the natural indigo x natural indigo model will be around £120 GBP/$220 USD and the River Denim will be £200 GBP/$333 USD
Bobbin & Katy