To find one of the rarest fabrics in the world you don’t travel to the Italian countryside, or the Scottish Isles, rather you journey seven hours outside of Tokyo, to the Wakayama Prefecture. There on the southeastern coast of Japan you’ll find the Loopwheeler factory, one of the last bastions of Wakayama’s once robust manufacturing industry. Along with Merz B. Schwanen in the Swabian Mountains of Germany, Loopwheeler is one of the only remaining two factories producing authentic loopwheel terry cloth in the world.
For most companies, their success is determined by how well they can adapt to a changing marketplace, but it’s Loopwheeler’s reluctance to change anything which has made their product so extraordinary. The loopwheel process was developed by Italian inventor Guiseppe Negra back in 1926, using machines which rotate around cylinders at an incredibly slow rate to create layer after layer of cotton. These machines can only complete twenty-four rotations per minute, meaning it takes an hour to produce just one meter of loopwheeled terry. All that time and effort is well worth it though because the resulting fabric is remarkably durable. Negra licensed the loopwheel process out to companies like L.L. Bean and Champion, which is why vintage American sweatshirts from this era are so desirable to this day.
While the resulting product is first-rate, the loopwheel process itself was just too slow for these rapidly scaling companies and in the mid-century they all traded up to faster, side-seam manufacturing for their knits. Loopwheeler in Japan never got around to modernizing though, not because they recognized how special the loopwheel process was, but because they simply couldn’t afford to invest in costly new technologies.
As vintage garments have continued to inspire modern designers, there has recently been a significant resurgence of interest in loopwheel sweatshirts. For years now, reverent workwear brands like the Real McCoys and Studio D’Artisan have turned back to loopwheel as no other fabric can create that soft and sturdy texture which characterizes the legendary sweatshirts of the forties and fifties. This past year though, it was more contemporary leaning designer, John Elliott, who offered up a considerable collection of loopwheeled basics, and in the past Nike has even partnered with Loopwheeler for a small series of pieces. Because if you own anything made from genuine Loopwheeler (old or new) you know it’s worth the trouble and the money.
No matter how much press or interest Loopwheeler gets though, their production will always remain the same. Their competitors will surely continue to modernize and digitize their processes, but Loopwheeler’s small Japanese factory will continue to churn along at one meter per hour, just as they always have.