"Studio D’artisan recently released a number of items made from unbleached undyed cotton that has beautiful natural colors in both a rusty-reddish-brown (Coyote) and a khaki-green-tan (Roadrunner). I’ve had the jacket and the jeans for about a couple months and wanted to give an initial review of them each. For any history nerds present, I thought I’d give, in the comments, a little historical background to these cottons as much about their history is buried in old newspapers, books, journals. I also want to thank Merv at Okayama Denim for getting these to me with such great service and speed!
The origination of the colored cottons has been the subject of much confusion. In the 19th century, there was good demand for a kind of cotton called “nankeen cotton” which was a khaki colored fabric and was sourced from China. As early as 1798, the dutch merchant André Everard Van Braam Houckgeest published in his travels to China, dedicated to George Washington, that the Europeans had been receiving “nankin cotton” from China that lacked the deeper yellow-green color from earlier times. Houckgeest explained that the color of the nanking cotton was not due to a lack of dyeing as the color was intrinsic to the cotton itself but, rather, that trade with the United States had resulted in the “Nankeen cotton” being mixed with regular white cotton to meet demand. Throughout the 19th century, there was certainly some demand for this yellow-green cotton as well as a more reddish-brown variety. And confusion about the origin of the cotton remained, with imitation nankeen which was regular white cotton dyed to look like nankeen cotton produced as well. Questions about whether the nankeen cotton was its own distinctive species or whether it was a variant of a diverse kinds of cotton also abounded. And, lastly, it was unclear what gave these cottons their colors.
Even now, it remains unclear where these cottons originated from. James Vreeland proposes that even the 19th century references could be from cultivars produced from South America that were then introduced to different areas of the world. Vreeland cites sites in South/Central America such as a pre-Hispanic grave and a millennia old tapestry containing colored cotton bolls that show the cotton to have been present there. Moreover, because the age of colonialism so many plants from one region taken to others across the globe, finding out detailed trajectories is difficult. At any rate, by the end of the 19th century these colored cottons had been documented in India, Africa, America, and the Mediterranean. They were used to produce khaki trousers worn commonly with morning coats. It has even been suggested that, when old, these trousers were broken into pieces and used as cleaning rags giving cleaning dusters their famous yellow tinge. As pointed out by Edward Shunck in 187X, the yellow varieties are commonly found in fields on white cotton which are then separated from the white cotton and, after being collected, are used to produce the yellowish cloth. And as Sir George Watt points out, the colored varieties may be a hardier ancestral condition as many white cottons may turn colored when facing difficult environmental conditions.
During the late 19th century, there is evidence that nankeen cotton was also grown in the united states and connected to slavery: Because the cotton was easily recognizable as separate from the white cotton sold on the market, slaves were allowed to grow the colored varieties for their own use. By the beginning of the early 20th century it seems that this nankeen cloth otherwise commonly found in farms were now disappearing. A news article from 1900 in North Carolina reads,
Many of us remember the occasional stalk of nankeen cotton that used to found in our cotton fields. For many years we have not seen or heard of any of this cotton. If any reader of the Times has any we would be glad to hear from him.
To which a correspondent replied,
I have never heard of any one planting this cotton since the war. The yield of the plant quite equals that of the white cotton and it is sold for a higher price but there was not the same demand for it. The cloth made from nankeen cotton is very strong and never fades. It would make the first-rate khaki as it would not need to be dyed.
With the article concluding that a number of regions in the south still grow such cotton but it is mixed with stained or tinged cotton reducing its quality. Thus, after WWI it seems that the famous nankeen cotton had become more of a minority with khaki pants being produced by dyed cotton rather than the original yellow-green variety. Since then the colored cottons have been as cyclical as they were in the past. In the 1960’s the JO Ware had tested four different kinds brown cottons and green cottons for the quality of the fabric they produced: the results showed the fabrics to be of reasonable “quality” but lacking behind that of the common white upland variety and concluded that “if one of the properties happens to be fairly satisfactory, one or more of the others is entirely too low.” It’s unclear if Ware actually tested the cottons in a thicker material for which they were historically known for. The primary problem, however, was that the “low yield, counteracts chance of success in commercial production.” In a time where profits needed to be maximized and demand met, the colored cottons may have seemed a risky proposition.
The colored cottons have not had much easier of a time in the present period. Despite still existing from the USA to Turkey to China, they have seen their popularity rise and vain (as attested to Sally Fox’s growth and fall in the 90’s). But perhaps the time is ripe for some of their benefits to be recognized. For one, they are well suited for the sustainable trends currently required and demanded by certain areas of the fashion and textile community. Because the colored cottons, especially the brown, are so hardy, they fit well with organic agriculture and for growing in otherwise difficult conditions. And at the level of clothing, the colored cottons have a number of benefits that have recently come to light: test of anti-bacterial and anti-microbial properties have shown the red-brown varieties (coyote) to have remarkable resistance to bacterian and microbes (and both colors while biodegradable take much longer than white cotton suggesting protecting effects of the outer layer of the staple). The colored cottons also seem to be more hydrophobic than the white cottons making them well-suited for outer-garments, they are more uv-resistant, as well as less flammable too. Not to mention that their natural colors make dyeing unnecessary.
Indeed, when JO Ware tested the colored cottons for their ability to make quality fabrics, he did not test for the long-term durability of the fabric. And it is my tentative suggestion that the increased waxes and fats leading to anti-bacteriality of the cottons may lead to a more durable fabric—the original nankeen cottons were, after all, famous for being colorfastand resilient. Denim is already ideal for short staple cottons and heavyweight denim even more so—by my lights, naturally colored cotton and denim may well be a match made in heaven. I haven’t yet been able to get confirmation, but I believe that the coyote cotton used was grown organically in New Mexico as Sally’s farm hasn’t produced cotton in a few years. Whether the green cotton was grown in New Mexico as well or whether it is collected and separated from the coyote or other kind of organic cotton as it was a few hundred years ago I am unsure of—would love to be informed by anyone who knows.
I hope to wear both of these garments to their limit to see how well they cope with the stresses and strains of modern day life. And, so, on to the review!
Review of the Road-Runner (Green) Jeans
The fabric is, after all, the most important element of high-end jeans and with a cotton like the green roadrunner, it must be the star of the show. But, the cotton by itself is worthless unless it is spun and woven in a befitting manner. Here, Studio D’artisan has put together a tour de force. The resulting denim is a nice thick 15oz on a shuttle loom raw and unsanforized with moderate slub and very characterful hand. It feels like the tension on the loom was set low but the density of threads high*—*running my hand over it I can feel the individual threads easily rising and falling as the fabric bends. Because it is unbleached it contains little pieces of seeds and leaves adding another dimension to the nep already present in the fabric. The beautiful thing about loomstate denim is not only that it is irregular and more willing to conform to one’s body and habits, but also because it continually reminds us of the processes that produced it. In this regard, Studio D’artisan’s Roadrunner jeans are leagues beyond anything else I’ve ever encountered—the jeans are perhaps even more farmstate than they are loomstate. This fabric is something else.
Then, there is the color which I’ve found impossible to really capture in photos. A mixture between grass-green and sand-tan they appear more tan in soft light while in sunlight they turn almost iridescent. I’ve never encountered a color like this before and I don’t think any of the photos really quite do it justice. I was unsure about the green cotton in photos as the coyote brown is much more compelling (especially since the brown is more anti-baceterial and durable with higher yield)—but in the right light the iridescence of the green is an equal match. Because the cotton plant fills the staple fibers with colorants before opening each staple has a different tint to it; when combined into a thread, the colors blend together and produce a heterogeneous thread with variation at the most minuscule levels. I’ve included a photo where one can see the coyote denim, the roadrunner denim, as well as Suvin Gold side by side to compare coloration. Three undyed unbleached fabrics with entirely different looks. Another photo you can see how it rejects water and turns even a darker green when the water gets in.
One of the most interesting developments in the fabric, for me, is the way it has aged. I’m, of course, a fan of the beautiful indigo blue fades that our usual Japanese denim produces, but I’ve also always felt that white denim doesn’t get enough credit for the way in which it collects dirt and turns a nice light brown. Surely, whether a cloth ages nicely because of color rubbing off or color being absorbed shouldn’t matter! In the case of the roadrunner denim, the dust and dirt that attach on to the fabric have, in some places, mixed with the green of the denim turning it almost light orange. I’ve included photos of the belt loops where this has been most apparent. I didn’t buy these jeans because of how I thought they would age but because of the cotton as it is—but these subtle changes and variation have made me much more excited to see their evolution in color.
Having produced such a gorgeous fabric, the details around it needed to accentuate and not compete for attention. Studio D’artisan went out of their way to choose threads for the construction of the jeans that perfectly matched the tan-green color of the cotton and I find the resulting uniform look perfect—it somehow brings up the casual fabric and, combined with the fit, makes a much more “proper” looking pair of trousers than I expected. Almost reminds me of the nankeen trousers that were popular in the 19th century. The choice of a white cotton selvedge also serves as a nice contrast between the khaki green.
The pockets bags are made out of what appears to be unbleached cotton herringbone that also feel unsanforized. They’s smooth and the herringbone gives them a nice look—it’s not the heaviest pocket bags I’ve ever encountered nor the lightest but they feel nice and soft with medium weight. And, again, the stitching is the same color as the pocket bags rather than the green used elsewhere. The same cloth is used to half-line the rear pockets. Speaking of the rear pockets they have hidden rivets, stamped on the inside, and are bar tacked—I like how the bartacks themselves are hidden as opposed to my RRL’s which have the bartacks showing above the hidden rivets. The arcuates are not overdone and, again, in the same color as the rest of the denim.
The belt loops also have raised edges. The rivets on the front are stamped on the outside and the burrs are smoothed down (makes it easier not to scratch my phone with them). The buttons are black coated and should age nicely. The coin pocket, as always, is selvedge. There are two nice rayon tags on the inside, one for Studio D’artisan and one for Sally Fox’s Colorganic. The leather patch is pony-hair and, given the grayish-blue color, chromed tanned. I think given the organic nature of the cotton a veg-tanned deerskin would have been nice as well but it made little difference to me as I usually opt to remove such patches as I quite like the clean look of the jeans functioning more as khaki’s as well as the clean look of early 20th century 506XX jackets.
There are a number of different kinds of stitches from varying densities and sizes. The arcuates given wide spacing, the waistband chain-stitched at the bottom and lock stitched above tightly. The inseam is chain stitched and then also locked stitched—the sewing is so clean here that I can barely tell the two apart across the whole length of the jeans. Super nice. At the crotch, the lock-stitches, chain-stitches, overlocks, and bar-tacking combine beautifully. Comparing these to my RRL’s the cotton thread used here is thicker and much more robust (and the RRL’s are no slouch to begin with)—compared to my Levi’s 511’s there is just no comparison.
The out-seam itself is lock-stitched. On one of the sides it seems the thread broke during sewing and the seam had to be restarted halfway down the leg. The craftsman did a great job of securing the two ends of the lockstitch down. I trimmed the threads down as I believe they were likely left long to allow for shrinkage during the first-wash—I don’t believe this would be a durability issue in the long-run. The hem at the bottom also features some delicious chain stitching and the roping effect is marked. The inseam and the fly are overlocked. In certain areas, the tufts of cotton exploded outwards—I get the distinct feeling that this is because the thread themselves are tightly spun. Wherever a visible thread is seen, the cotton threads explode suggesting that they’re very tightly wound. This fabric really seems like a pta to work with—and I love it. The raised belt-loops, half-lined pockets, the recessed copper-rivets, the chunky chain-stitching, white selvedge, black-coated buttons, arcuates, roped hems, and pony-hair patches combine to form a pair of jeans that feel as tough in construction as the fabric they are made out of.
For all their farm-state fabric and heavy-duty construction, the resulting fit/look/style of the jeans is remarkably fashionable. The cut is the same as the SD-108’s which is a relaxed upper block with a taper at the bottom. The taper is not subtle but really comes in fast. To me, it is the best of both worlds. I find slim fit jeans in heavy denim just too tight when sitting cross-legged, so having some room to breathe up top is appreciated. I really like how the tightly closed hem looks with my ankle-height chukka boots. Because I bought these one-washed, the entry holes at the bottom were quite tight for my over-sized heels, but they’ve stretched with wear and should open up more. My Suvin Gold Kamakura shirt is made out of a much more formal fabric, a 150 count twill but combined with a veg-tanned belt (B-81, in my case) the resulting outfit if not at all out of place. This was a surprise. The fact that such a raw fabric with such heavy duty construction can result in a pair of trousers that are so flexible (in terms of looks) and comfortable is nice. I could see myself wearing it with a dress-shirt and tweed blazer in the winter or a tee-shirt in the summer or, my favorite, with the matching coyote denim jacket for a double-but-not-double denim outfit year-round.
I guess the idea was this: take the famous nankeen cotton from the 19th century and mix it with all the jean construction techniques developed throughout the 20th century while using styling from the 21st century and see what happens.
What happens is that I’m completely smitten. From the color and feel of the cotton to the low-tension high-density shuttle loomed weaving with the creamy selvedge to the copper rivets and unbleached herringbone bags, and heavy-duty stitching everything just works. The result is pair of denim that lets you feel its origin. They feel as organic and farm-like as the cotton from which they are made. No sanforizing, no bleaching, no singeing, no dyes, just a raw pair of jeans that feel like they’re ready to put work but also can replace the khakis for a nice night out. For me, this is the holy-grail pair of trousers."
The green of the denim is more apparent in this photo than in others. Contrasted with the unbleached but much more processed off-white color of the Suvin Gold above it.
Clipper and Indy lurking in the shadows.
One of my favorite pictures as it displays four undyed/unbleached items: Coyote denim jacket, Roadrunner jeans, Suvin Gold shirt, and veg-tanned belt.
Weird foot position but it shows how trim they are on the lower legs nicely. Ends at the perfect height for the chukka boots.
Drying in the sun, some areas rejected the water while others turned even greener.
The green comes across nicely here.
Texture, texture, texture. Note the flecks of seeds and leaves.
Buttons feel very nice and the rivets are recessed.
Pretty rayon tags.
Stamped rivets and hem
Love the actuates
Raised belt loops.
Selvedge contrasts cream cotton with the khaki-green.
Chain-Stitching and lock-sticking layered to be almost unnoticeable.
The convergence of the threads.
The hem turning a nice brown.
Half-lined rear pockets.
The only broken stick I could find and it seemed to be tucked and secured quite nicely. Amazing jeans.