Guide: Loopwheeled Tees

Introduction

For the longest time, I would fight the weather with the way that I dressed. Warm day? Button-up and a cardigan. Flannel and a jacket. I wanted to look good, and I was very willing to endure pit stains for it.

Recently, though, the Californian beach city guy, if-you-know-you-know, laid-back aesthetic has been rubbing off heavily on me. The people I’m describing probably aren’t even conscious of the vibe they’re giving off, which is a big part of why I think it’s cool. I’ve also been trying to draw less attention to myself, but without looking like a bum. As such, I’ve been drawn heavily towards the highest quality basic garments, and the loopwheeled tee is one of those garments.

Loopwheeling refers to a knitting method in which yarns are knit slowly around a cylinder, with the resulting tube-shaped fabric falling downwards.

Because the only tension present in the knitting process is its own weight, the resulting fabric is a low tension weave that retains the softness and natural characteristics of the yarn used.

The Bandanna Almanac, has a great writeup on his visit to the Kanekichi factory — a factory that makes loopwheeled products for many of your usual suspects in the Japanese workwear space. In the article, you can really see how old-school-industrial looking the loopwheeling process is. Yet, you also see that loopwheeling is an artisanal process, requiring the careful hand of shokunin (Japanese for artisan/mastery of a craft) to regulate the machine’s operation.

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While loopwheel tees only provide a marginal difference in comfort and construction, it remains the end-all tee for the most discerning of workwear enthusiasts. It is rare, expensive, made like the good ol’ days and completely unnecessary. Just how I like it.


History

While the T-shirt is something that most are okay with wearing on its own now, it had its start as underwear. In an article written by MoMA’s Michelle Fisher for the Google Arts & Culture blog, the T-shirt came about when undergarment companies ‘bisected the union suit (a mid-nineteenth-century underwear invention), creating long johns on the bottom and an undershirt on top’.

The T-shirt’s proliferation is also heavily linked to masculine ideals. In the same article, Fisher talks about how the its military, hard labor and rebel associations were what really drove its popularity. Masculinity, amirite guys.

Companies also marketed these undergarments for the general citizenry using strangely ambiguous rhetoric that played up the garment’s comfort, construction, and ease of maintenance, focusing on the image of the virile, heteronormative soldier or dad on one hand, while performing a parallel function as a homoerotic signifier of the taut male torso on the other.

The loopwheel machine’s invention came somewhere in the middle of that. Invented by Guiseppe Nigra, an Italian inventor, the technology was licensed out to American sportswear makers (like Champion, for example) and was used continuously between the 30s and 60s. The loopwheeled sweatshirts made in this period were so soft and durable that Japanese vintage buyers would scour all over America to buy them up and sell them back home.

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Patent diagram of the loopwheel machine

Right around the middle of the century, the slow weaving process of the loopwheel was no match for growing consumerism. With its hard labor and army connotations, the T-shirt was marketed by undergarment makers like Hanes and Fruit of the Loom as a masculine garment that could be worn on its own. Combined with its ease-of-use (no buttons and no need for ironing) and superior comfort, the tee shirt grew in popularity among the young and old alike.

As such, loopwheeling was slowly phased out in favor of 2-part flat knit bodies that are sewn together at the seam — the standard tee construction you see today.

Not all hope was lost for the loopwheeling, though. As with a lot of mid-century American cultural production, the Japanese noticed that manufacturing methods were changing and decided to preserve them. Workwear enthusiasts in Japan saw that the loopwheeling as a knitting method was being phased out, and those super soft 1950s and 60s sweatshirts were drying up in stock. Japanese clothiers then bought up loopwheel machines, brought them back to Japan and started making them there.

Today, apart from Merz B. Schwanen in Germany, loopwheeled machines exist only in Japan, where factories have multiple machines running simultaneously and an additional few on ice for when those break down.


Benefits

Loopwheel Texture

If I had to pick one thing about loopwheel fabric to talk about, it would be its texture. Because of the slow weaving process, loopwheel fabric has this irregular texture that is not only visual but physical. It is neppy in the selvedge denim sense, meaning that parts of the cotton fabric sticks out slightly from the main fabric surface. With this naturally heathered look, even a blank loopwheeled tee has enough visual interest to stand out on its own.

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That horizontal texture is to die for

That distinct horizontal nepping gives loopwheeled fabric a look that you cannot really replicate with other knitting methods. On top of that, the horizontal streaks become more obvious with wear and I find that super cool.

Comfort

Because loopwheel tees are made by very slowly knitting hanging fabric around a tube, the result is a very low tension weave. This means that the natural characteristic of the yarns used is preserved in the knitting process, (usually) resulting in a softer hand feel. This also enables the production of a heavyweight and thick tee that is still breatheable and soft.

Additionally, the removal of the side seams means that there isn’t a raw edge to chafe against the skin, providing for a more comfortable tee when moving around.

Better Construction

While not directly related to loopwheeling itself, loopwheel tees often come with high-end construction elements that improve their structural quality over generic tees. On loopwheel tees, you will commonly find reworked collars that don’t overstretch, tighter stitching, better quality cotton and nicer hems.

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Warehouse & Co’s reinforced collars

The Flex

Obviously, the whole reason you’re buying expensive garms is to flex on your Internet friends. Just watch how many more Internet points you get when you say that the shirt is made by The Flat Head or Real McCoys vs. American Apparel or Gap. Trust.


Downsides

Cost

Yep. Loopwheeled shirts, especially in America, will run you about $100 per. And because of the nature of the stores that sell loopwheel stuff, they almost never go on sale.

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Part of Self Edge’s loopwheeled lineup. Note the prices.

Sure, it is expensive because it takes so many skilled artisans to make that slow-ass machine run(to be specific, one machine makes one meter of fabric per hour). Loopwheeled shirts are also better made and thus will last you longer. You could even get them proxied from Japan to save a bit of cash. But, just because one can explain its cost doesn’t make it worth it.

It really is up to you to decide if the marginal benefits that loopwheeled products provide are worth the huge jump in price. I personally have a bunch of Bella+Canvas blanks that share body time with my fancy schmancy loopwheeled stuff, that costs one-tenth the price. The point of diminishing returns for clothing differs for different people, and I respect that.

Fit

To me, a major downside of loopwheeled tees is that it fits inherently boxy. Because the body shape of the tee is fixed by the diameter of the tube the fabric is woven around, the chest, hip and waist measurements are the same. Unlike a 2-part tee that can be made to complement the natural V-shape of the torso, there is no way to change that in a side-seam-less loopwheeled tee.

While some people prefer tees that fit like ones made from way back, I personally prefer tees that fit a bit more ‘tailored’. Because my waist is quite a bit smaller than my chest, the bottom hem of my loopwheeled tees tends to look flared out and unshapely.

Furthermore, without the side seam to hold the shape of the tee together, garment twist is a much more noticeable issue.

You’re Really Only Flexing On Yourself

Let’s face it. You may have racked up hella Internet points on reddit, Styleforum and Superfuture, but irl people aren’t gonna know the difference between your fancy Japanese loopwheel tees and a tubular knit, Walmart Gildan thing. You’re gonna claim that your tee is special because it doesn’t have a side seam, but many of your friends probably own tees like that too. And when you start going into how soft it is because it was made on a vintage, low tension weave machine by artisans, you’ve already lost them.

If you’re really trying to flex with a tee shirt, you’d be better off dropping this fake blue-collar dressing thing and buy some Off-White or Supreme instead.


Loopwheel vs Tube Knit

Because loopwheeled T-shirts are generally delineated by the lack of side seam, it is commonly mixed up with tube knit T-shirts. Another type of T-shirt construction, the tube knit/circular knit, also results in a tee sans side seam. To make things more confusing, loopwheel tees can come with side seams if the loopwheeled fabric is cut up and restitched at the seams — something I’d like to see more of.

Compared to the low density, slow-moving loopwheel machine, the modern tube knit machine draws from 10+ yarns simultaneously and rotates super fast to spit out knits at a rapid pace.

Because of the tension needed to support that high-speed knitting process, the resulting fabric is thinner, tighter in weave and flatter in appearance. This is in contrast to the fluffy, loosely woven and highly textured loopwheeled fabric.

Because it is difficult to distinguish the far more expensive loopwheeled tees from the inexpensive tubular knit ones in pictures, many companies get away with mislabelling their tubular knits as loopwheeled. As seen in the Superdenim/Real McCoys mislabelling of the two-pack tees (they are not loopwheeled), it’s the retailers that get it wrong, too.

As such, it is important to do your research on the brands and the retailers to get the product you’re after. You can trust shops like Self Edge, Rivet & Hide and Corlection to provide accurate listings and specification sheets for their products.


Recommendations

If you’re looking for a basic, blank, no-frills loopwheeled tee, I’d go for the legacy Japanese brands that buy from the Wakayama factories (or make their own). The standouts for me are Studio D’Artisan’s Suvin Gold blanks, The Flat Head blanks (dat triple-stitched collar tho), and Warehouse & Co.’s pocket tee. To get that good good for the low low by sacrificing high-end construction elements, check out offerings from Entry SG and Barns Outfitters. And for all you big guys out there who don’t play well with Japanese sizing, The Strike Gold has got you covered.

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The Flat Head’s purple-yellow triple stitched collar that prevents overstretching

For something non-Japanese and with a better distribution network worldwide, Merz B. Schwanen is your only option. They’re the only company producing loopwheeled stuff outside of Japan, but they’re pretty damn good at it. The fabrics are excellent, the construction is top-notch, and they have that triangular armpit thing that is pretty unique.

To make an already bougie product even more bougie by adding an artisanal element, check out Tezomeya. They take a blank loopwheel tee made at the same Wakayama factories and hand-dye it in-house. They also make a version of it with shibori (tie-dye), resulting in some funky (and weird if seen without context) patterns that will sure to impress even the most discerning of your Internet friends.

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