Steel Feather, the ultimate Norse-Nipponese denim?

Norway is a relatively small country, and when it comes to the clothing industry the two main focus areas are heritage clothing and utilitarian basics for the army. Mostly though, almost all the production equipment has been packed down and shipped off to Eastern Europe, where people will work for less money, and see a future in the garment industry.

There are upstarts such as Norwegian Rain and Ætt, but in general while Scandinavian style is currently very much the in-thing, Norway is contributing to it only marginally.

Which is why it is interesting to observe that when it comes to denim, Norway actually has something to bring to the table, in the form of two very distinctive small denim companies, Steel Feather and Livid Jeans.

Distinctive? That must be the hardest part of all when it comes to denim today, where new companies are hopping on the bandwagon on a weekly basis, every single one proclaiming to be the absolutely unique and different. How on earth can you bring something new to the denim table?

I have reviewed Livid Jeans, giving you more details about their unique properties then, but this time, my focus is on Anders Helseth and his company Steel Feather.

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18 months of wear and a few washes gives the leather patch patina

Steel Feather is the brain-child of Anders Helseth, a thirtyish Norwegian guy with a long-term fascination for quality denim. I’ll admit, before meeting Anders I was expecting him to be a tattooed biker, a expectation somewhat influenced by the name “Steel Feather”. Indian biker mystique? I was very curious indeed as to who this guy might be.

Meeting up with Anders in Oslo, it wasn’t difficult to deduce that he was indeed him. What gave him away? Only wearing heavyweight denim jeans, a wabash pattern shirt, and big old Red Wing boots on probably the hottest day of summer yet. Oh, and carrying a custom made denim bag. Yeah, it had to be him.

And as it turns out though, the Steel Feather name is a direct translation of a road name near where he lived, not some mystic biker thing. Feather in Norwegian can also mean “spring”, which is most likely the original meaning. Then again, a feather is more visual than a spring, so I can see why Anders went down that route for his branding!

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The summer attire of a true denimhead

Anders himself is as non-biker as you can get, more likely to be found lustily eyeing up a classic British bicycle than riding knuckles-high on a hardcore hog. We started out talking a bit about how Anders fell in love with denim years ago and became a keen collector of the rare and unusual variants. At the time he started a blog to review and document his collection, which led to building contacts in the denim community.

After a few years and many variants he came to the point where rather than seek out the next variant, he wanted to create his own ultimate pair of jeans. Ultimate in the denim quality used, the details, production and user experience.

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So how does one go about such a venture? Well, at the time most good things were coming from the land of the rising sun, so  a pilgrimage to Japan was in order. When in Japan, the place all denim-heads want to visit is Okayama, where all Japanese denim comes from. And in Okayama there is Jeans Street in Kojima, a street that markets itself as “The Holy Land of Jeans”. And this is where Anders headed to, in his quest for a denim that would fulfil his vision.

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In an inspired moment though, he decided to go walkabout, and about 15 minutes walk from Jeans Street he happened upon a small denim store. And this became a pivotal point for his project, as the shop was run by the go-to guy that makes the really special and limited versions for many of the really special Japanese denim companies. In other words, for quality and small production runs, this is the place to go. Yoshinori spoke enough English to be able to answer the many questions Anders had and as the conversation progressed, Anders realised that he had found the mother-lode.

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And Anders gained the respect and friendship of Yoshinori and from there a partnership has evolved. This early connection has also meant introductions to other vital parts of the process have become easier.

Upstairs in the shop is a small denim factory, where designs can be worked through, fabric cut and assembled, and complete jeans can be sewn from start to finish. And this by acknowledged experts in their special fields.

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Denim for Steel Feathers on the loom

The denim for Steel Feather comes from a one-man denim mill, where the owner is the sole operator of his array of Toyoda narrow shuttle looms. A finite resource, as once the owner retires, the mill will also be retired. This mill produces many of the really special denims in the area. The dedication involved is immense, with temperatures in the mill reaching 40C during summer. Not to mention the cacophony of noise when all the looms are running full tilt.

The world suddenly becomes very much smaller when you have made friends on the other side of the world and can Skype and email with them. Several further visits to Japan have further cemented the relationship Anders has built with his friends there, to the extent that he now stays in their homes and has become friends with their families. For a young Norwegian lad this is a long way from home!

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Anders has become so involved in his project that not only does he visit the mill to see the denim for his own project being woven, he also gets to do fun stuff like visiting a factory where they dye the denim with real indigo. And he gets hands on with the indigo dying process. Real indigo dye is quite rare these days, as it is expensive compared to the more cost-effective options. A real enthusiast will of course demand proper indigo!

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The same model, but 18 months of wear separates them

So far Anders has produced one version of the Steel Feather vision of the perfect jeans, the SF01. In a heavyweight 21oz selvedge denim, it was released in 2012 and was a success within the denim underground. Denim of this kind is never going to be mass-produced, widely available and a high-street name. It’s more about producing something the connoisseurs will appreciate, like the best coffee, a single malt scotch, or quality shoes. You need to appreciate the process, the story, the details and dedication.

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When Anders showed me the prototype version 2’s he has been wearing for the past 18 months it was quite the eye-opener with regards to how denim wears and fades. These trousers have been washed a few times, as Anders isn’t totally true to the cult of not washing your dirty jeans (I’m sure his loved ones approve), and the thick denim felt very soft and comfortable, with a superb selection of shades worn in the fabric. This is what the “fake worn” workshops are trying to achieve with sandblasting, sanding and acid, failing miserably.

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The second version has been almost two years in the making now and is a subtle evolution more than a completely new design. Where the first version had a zippered fly, the new model has more traditional buttons. Where the original had a lining in deadstock hickory material, the new model has a fine herringbone cotton. The fit has also been updated, a little more generous about thigh and butt, and a little straighter legs.

At the end of the day though, it’s all about the fabric, and the three new fabrics have been developed and selected to be special, which they undoubtedly are. Very little denim can currently be described as kibata”, meaning loom state i.e. unsinged, unsanforized, raw and rigid. This is as real as it gets, guys, and only the very dedicated will truly appreciate it.

The three versions are:

  • 16oz in a slubby texture (as the prototype)
  • 15oz in a vintage “repro-worthy” texture
  • 14oz = natural indigo even texture

Similar, but different, and a version to suit everyone, or should you go for the full series?

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This is how the leather patch starts out

As an interesting side note, Steel Feather jeans are only available from two places, either direct from Steel Feather HQ (i.e. Anders) or from the premier rare denim shop in London, Rivet & Hide. In fact, Anders was instrumental in the founding of Rivet & Hide, and has supported their efforts by keeping them as the sole supplier other than himself.

In fact, Anders’ own pair of SF02 prototypes are due to go on display at Rivet & Hide soon. Only on loan, of course, as there is many a year left of wear in them.

Anders also took on the role of presenter in the documentary film “Warp and Weft: A Snapshot of Raw Denim in the United States” that delves into the world of raw and selvage denim, interviewing denim enthusiasts on both sides of the Atlantic.

PS: Anders’ website is normally available at steel-feather.com, but is currently offline. He can be emailed at anders@steel-feather.com

Check out the pair of brand new Steel Feather jeans I have available on my For Sale page! These will make someone very happy indeed.

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