Made in Japan: The loopwheel sweatshirt

Men's Japanese Loopwheel Raglan Sweatshirt in Archive White Melange

Sunspel’s Japanese loopwheel cotton sweatshirt is painstakingly crafted on vintage tsuriami ki machines. Here’s what makes the traditional but now incredibly rare loopwheel technique so special.

A garment made from loopwheel cotton fabric has some very particular properties. It has a distinctive dense and ‘fluffy’ feel, it is soft yet unusually strong, and it ages beautifully. All of these special properties result from the loopwheel technique, a once-common but now vanishingly rare cotton weaving process. 

Today there are just a handful of loopwheel factories operating worldwide: in Germany, and in Japan’s Wakayama prefecture, where Sunspel’s loopwheel sweatshirt is made. 


The craft of loopwheel

The Wada Meriyasu factory at Wakayama is an extraordinary sight: row after row of large, heavy, cylindrical machines, suspended from the ceiling like temple bells and steadily rotating on anold-fashioned-looking pulley and belt system. Known in Japan as tsuriami ki (‘hanging knit’), these loopwheel machines are genuine vintage objects, some around 80 years old. 

Each machine has more than a thousand needles that must be manually set by trained operators, meaning that only a handful of craftspeople have the expertise to keep them running smoothly. It is a tooth-wheeled system: cotton yarns are rotated around the spinning cylinder which steadily stacks layer upon layer of woven fabric to create a cotton tube that becomes the final garment. Sunspel’s loopwheel sweatshirt is designed with a side seam to ensure an optimal fit, but the technique means that it is possible to make loopwheel clothes without one.

The technique has other benefits. The ‘beard’ or spring needles allow air to enter during the knitting process, resulting in the cotton’s particular dense and fluffy feel. The loopwheel machine’s slow rotation means that the yarn is knitted without any tension except gravity, resulting in garments that are soft yet stretchable and strong. The loopwheel technique means that sweatshirts and t-shirts retain their natural drape and shape however much they’re washed, so they age extremely well. And generally the clothes have a lovely ‘handwoven’ quality that’s very difficult to replicate on more modern cotton-weaving machines.

Traditional 'tsurama ki' loopwheel machines in Wakayama
Traditional 'tsurama ki' loopwheel machines in Wakayama

Passing on the tradition

The loopwheel technique was invented in 1926 by an Italian, Giuseppe Negra, and in the first half of the 20th century the machines were widely used - especially in Wakayama, which was the heart of Japan’s loopwheel cotton industry. But as global economic growth accelerated, cheaper and faster techniques began to take over and the last loopwheel machines were manufactured in the 1970s.

From a mass production perspective, loopwheel makes little sense. It takes a machine an hour to make just one metre of fabric – enough for about 20 shirts a day if it ran continuously. The cylinder shape corresponds to the body of the garment and has to be individually set up for each size. This makes the whole process laborious, time-consuming and expensive.

But at the Wada Mariyasu factory this labour-intensity and the demands of care and craftsmanship are the very reasons to keep the loopwheel technique alive. Established in 1957, the factory has 120  vintage tsuriami ki machines, tended by just a few skilled operators. They are passionate about their craft – evidence of which can be seen everywhere in the factory – and about handing on the Wakayama loopwheel tradition to the next generation. 

Yet they’re also convinced that loopwheel cotton is ideal for a very contemporary sensibility: clothes in clean, classic designs, made with care and designed to last. It’s an approach that chimes perfectly with our own ethos, and the result is the Sunspel loopwheel cotton sweatshirt – designed in England, made in Japan.

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