The arrival of a T-shirt in the midst of my winter time shopping certainly makes for an odd addition to my recent acquisitions, but we’re talking about vintage-inspired work wear and sports wear here, so the fashion is pretty slow.
Bryan at The Rite Stuff has been hard at work planning some new additions to his line-up, and the pocket T-shirt is the latest release. Certainly, the T-shirt is a relatively inexpensive and basic part of the modern wardrobe, yet there’s quite a bit to explore for such a modest garment, and certain points about loopwheeled knits to be covered I’ve realized were long overdue for this blog.
Without too much further rambling, let’s take a look at the loopwheel pocket T-shirt from The Rite Stuff.
You might know that, outside of Japan, most folks in the hobby started paying attention to loopwheeled shirts and sweats around a decade ago. Certainly, many of our favourite Japanese denim and workwear brands have long created various garments with loopwheeled cotton knits as part of their staple releases.
Loopwheel knitting machines are a very old type of the circular knitting machine, an antiquated technology used by many American sportswear brands from early to mid-20th century, and as such came into focus again during the Americana revival in Japan. The Japanese call it ‘tsuriami ki’ – hanging knit machine.
In a story that is similar to shuttle loom weaving in Japan, many of these old machines survived and even thrived in Japan. Today, less than a dozen factories worldwide continue to operate these legacy circular knitting machines, and (not surprisingly) most of these are in Wakayama, Japan.
Compared to modern circular and flatbed machines, these old loopwheelers – some almost 100 years old – are incredibly slow and inefficient, with older and slower models making little more than half a meter of fabric per hour. Yet, generally speaking, the resulting fabrics are denser, fluffier and wear better compared to what modern machines can produce.
Of course, not all loopwheeled fabrics are created equal – changes in cotton, yarn, knit settings, etc can all influence the characteristics of the end product – though the majority should wear much better and longer compared with the $10 T-shirt you could buy at the local discount store.
A important point of difference is that loopwheel machines introduce minimal tension in the knitting process, relying only on gravity to do the “pulling”, so to speak. This factor, along with the older types of needles used, the very low number of feeding threads (~2) and the very slow knitting speed, contributes to the dense but fluffy nature of the fabric.
In keeping with reproduction detailing, many brands commit to the old-fashioned method of utilizing the tubular shape of the fabric as the body of the T-shirt or sweatshirt, as was often done in the last century, resulting in a tubular, slightly boxy fit and a shirt without side seams. Note that modern machines can produce seamless, circular knits too, so a seamless body does not necessarily indicate a loopwheeled fabric. Further, loopwheeled fabric could just as easily be cut and sewn with side-seams for more modern fits, and therefore the lack of side-seams does not necessarily mean that the fabric is not loopwheeled either!
For the very best in T-shirt fabrics then, the source you seek will be one of the small loopwheel mills in Wakayama, and that’s where Bryan has sourced the fabric for The Rite Stuff pocket T-shirts.
Let’s have a look at the fit of the T-shirt first, before moving onto the fabric. The photos here have been taken before the first wash.
A quick note on Ts: The ubiquitous T-shirt had its start in the 19th century as various forms of Western undergarment, morphing into its current configuration as a stand-alone top during the turn of the 20th century. Workers in civilian industries and military services popularized the T-shirt as basic workwear in hotter climates during the first half of the last century, although it wasn’t until Hollywood glamorized the T-shirt during the mid-century period that it became such a widely worn garment.
As a old style T-shirt then, this shirt features a tubular body, short tubular sleeves and a crew neck opening.
This shirt has gone the route of the seamless, tubular body design, giving the boxy fit that was popular from many decades past. This means that from the shoulder down, the circumference of the shirt is consistent – the fit is literally a circular tube.
This type of cut is very different from what you’ll find on modern T-shirts, and is not designed to make you appear more muscular or create an illusion of the V-shape that is widely considered the masculine ideal. We’ll talk about this tubular fit in a little more detail later in this post.
The neck opening is a little wider than most Japanese designs, which is great for people with a little more meat, and – in keeping with most The Rite Stuff garments – more suitable for non-Asian folks.
The arm holes and sleeves are also more forgiving compared with the usual Japanese cuts, which is good for me as I usually struggle in the chest and shoulders with most Japanese shirts.
The lovely loopwheeled fabric here comes from Kanekichi Industries, the same knitting factory that produces for Tezomeya and Loopwheeler. These guys have been knitting away since 1920, and their knits are considered somewhat of an industry standard.
As far as loopwheeled T-shirt fabrics go, this one could be described as having balanced characteristics. The knit is dense, slightly fluffy and textured but not overtly slubby.
It can be considered medium to heavy in weight at around 6 oz. This is a good weight for temperatures between 20 to 30 degrees Celsius when worn as a single layer.
(Note that heavy loopwheeled T-shirt fabrics can clock in at 7.5 to 8 oz, whilst lighter loopwheeled sweatshirt fabrics come in at 9 oz.)
The colour is solid navy. It is not indigo dyed, so don’t expect it to fade dramatically.
The proof of the loopwheeled fabrics is in the wearing, of course. So, the comfort level and fabric evolution over time will be the main points of comparison against modern T-shirt knits. What I do like too, is how the fabric feels substantial but airy on the body, and holds its shape nicely. As you can observe in the photos, the fabric isn’t draping easily just yet, but I believe it will settle with some wear and start to flow a little nicer.
Having washed this shirt a couple of times, I have not observed any significant pilling on the fabric.
This T-shirt was sewn in Japan, the construct consisting mostly of tonal, double needle flatlock stitch.
The collar is a sturdy, single piece construct, created by the folding of the same loopwheeled fabric. Again, also flatlocked.
It’s not too tight, but keeps its shape well.
The pocket is created using single needle sewing.
Here, Bryan has borrowed the flap detailing of early 20th century workshirts – this flapped pocket is perhaps the signature feature of this T-shirt.
I like how the flap is actually rather sturdy, being double layered and neatly folded.
The pocket is just big enough for some cards, or a smaller sized card-wallet.
The shoulder seams are nicely locked too, folded in so that the sewing remains hidden from view.
Finally, the hem of the shirt is expertly folded and flatlocked.
Overall, the sewing is dense, neat and unobtrusive, allowing the knitted fabrics and the flapped pocket to draw attention.
All in all, this The Rite Stuff pocket T-shirt is a basic but well made garment. Basic in the sense that it is a T-shirt. Well made in terms of the solid construct and the top quality loopwheeled fabric. Bryan’s pocket detailing with the addition of the flap adds a unique feature to this T-shirt, giving it a signature flair. I don’t think it’s possible to re-invent a T-shirt, but Bryan’s version manages to be vintage inspired without being too dry.
Given that this is a solid-coloured T-shirt with a vintage-style tubular cut, the appeal would mainly be limited to those of us who have an interest in workwear or early to mid-century Americana. I think it takes a certain maturity in fashion focus or clothing hobby for someone to be able to wear a plain coloured T-shirt well, and yet its uncomplicated appearance does allow this shirt to be combined with various other garments. This pocket T-shirt could look nice with a pair of Japanese jeans or work-style chino pants.
A loopwheeled shirt like this one is an investment too. It’s slow but sturdy fashion – you’ll be able to wear the same shirt every summer for a decade, and the shirt will age gracefully over time. Durability, maintenance of shape and a solid feel on the body are all significant advantages compared to the average T-shirt.
Tubular shirts have a tendency to accentuate the particular features of your upper body build. A tubular fit can sometimes be unforgiving to the modern eye and tends to emphasize any deviations from the wide shouldered, tapered waist ideal of male physique. Many folks, nowadays, may prefer the aesthetic imparted by a ‘muscle cut’ that emphasizes the V-shape of the male torso. The limitations of a tubular shirt is not specific to this The Rite Stuff shirt of course, and will present as a challenge whether your T-shirt comes from RJB or Deluxeware.
It seems like Bryan has made adjustments where he could to make this T-shirt more Western friendly whilst keeping the seamless design intact. I specifically noticed differences in neck and armhole openings compared with my other Japanese loopwheeled T-shirts. Also, The Rite Stuff shirts are available in much wider chest sizes compared to other Japanese offerings, up to 59 cm across, whereas majority of Japanese brands will size up to only 53 cm in the chest at XXL. Good news for bigger guys then, this The Rite Stuff shirt represents a superb opportunity to finally own a Japanese loopwheeled T-shirt.
The loopwheeled fabric used here, although not the heaviest as far as Japanese loopwheeled knits are concerned, is still substantially thicker and denser than most supermarket T-shirts. This means that it will take a few wears and a couple of washes before this fabric begins to soften up and drape nicely – similar to breaking in a pair of selvedge denim jeans, I suppose. Any heavier than the 6 oz fabric here, the shirt would be too heavy for summer time wear.
Overall, this pocket T-shirt is a fantastic re-imagining of an early 20th century T-shirt, perfect for guys who have work-style or military reproduction wardrobes. The loopwheeled fabric should give this shirt many good years of wear, and similar to Japanese denim it should look nicer over time too.
At $78 USD, The Rite Stuff’s offering is around 10 to 20% cheaper than loopwheeled T-shirts offered by top tier Japanese brands. Lower tier Japanese loopwheeled Ts can be had starting from $45. As such, the pricing here with The Rite Stuff can be considered to be mid-range. Compared with Japanese makers of similar quality however, The Rite Stuff does enjoy the advantage of offering much larger sizes and possessing additional detailing with the unique flapped-pocket design.
Hopefully, as The Rite Stuff gains more steam, we might have indigo dyed, multi-toned or discharge printed T-shirt options in the years to come. In the mean time, head over to The Rite Stuff and check out this pocket T-shirt in both navy and white.