In the period of 150 years, blue jeans have transitioned from workwear necessity to fashion staple. The uniquely American garment transcends social class, culture and trends. Though the birth of conventional jeans can be traced by to the early days of Levi’s, it wasn’t until the last half century that the number of boutique denim brands began to grow, and until the last couple decades that premium denim became a category. To explain the nuances that led to jeans’ worldwide adoption, we asked Paul Dillinger (Levi’s Head of Global Product Innovation) and Kiya Babzani (co-founder of leading selvedge denim retailer Self Edge) to weigh in on what kinds of construction, fabric and longevity characterize a great pair of jeans.
Think Big Picture
PD: There’s no single element that definitively makes a quality pair of jeans. The composition of a good pair of jeans relies on the relationships between components: a system of variables that are all related.
The one overarching feature of quality is intention. Is the mill committed to weaving quality denim? Is the manufacturer committed to building a quality garment? Have the designers, merchandisers and technical development specialists invested the time to make sure the fit is perfect and the styling and finishing are relevant? Everyone who touches the product — from the field to the factory to the retail floor — must have the making of a quality pair of jeans as their operative intention.
It’s All About the Denim
PD: We spend a lot of time and energy thinking about the look of denim; the features that the consumer can touch and feel. We work closely with our mill partners to get the perfect cast of the indigo and the most authentic visual characteristics — also making sure the cloth is comfortable and easy to wear.
Commensurate consideration is also given to features of the denim that can’t be seen or felt, but that are the essential building blocks of a quality pair of jeans. We scrutinize the spinning and weaving specifications, making sure the yarn’s twist and gauge are maximized for tensile strength. We assess the denim’s construction and weight to ensure the fabric can resist tearing and hold up to surface abrasion. We apply tests that simulate the wearing experience: Does the indigo easily rub off and stain other clothes? Does a stretch denim recover and return to its original shape? Does the fabric show strain or weakness at the seams?
All are just a few of the tests that we perform on each denim fabric that we’re considering for our Levi’s assortment.
KB: We recommend unsanforized denim. The reason for this is unsanforized denim is generally treated far less than sanforized denim so you get a type of wear pattern that is more defined, and also you get a little bit more contrast in the fade pattern, and that’s because unsanforized denim holds its shape a little bit better and it also holds the creases a lot harder. So you get a lot more defined fading.
When you’re looking for a new jean and you want it to age well, the things you would be looking for are if it’s pure indigo dyed or if there’s a pigment dye added to the jean, if it’s sanforized, unsanforized, calendared, singed — these are all things that happen to denim before it’s cut and sewn into a pair of jeans. We prefer our denim to be completely loom-state, meaning after it comes out from the loom, nothing is done to it. That really yields the most character in both the fabric when it’s new, and the fabric after a year or two of age.
How Will It Age
KB: We believe all garments should age gracefully, but it’s so important with denim because, inherently, people are used to seeing jeans fade over time and show natural wear patterns from the wearer. If I were to pick one thing that would really be the most important thing with a pair of jeans, it’s how it ages over a period of time. That makes it difficult for a consumer because when you’re buying a new pair of jeans, you don’t know what they’re going to look like in six months to a year.
The internet has fixed that. You just google any pair of jeans and you can see how they’ve looked over time. But when you’re in a store, it’s a little more difficult. We have samples of worn-in pairs from almost every type of denim we sell. If you come in and see a pair of jeans you like, but you don’t know what they’re going to look like in a year, we can show you.
It’s really important to understand what the jeans will look like over a period of time. Because one thing people don’t realize when they buy raw denim jeans — they only look raw for three to six months, and then they start showing some wear, and after about eight to ten months, you start seeing some serious wear on the jean. And then you spend the next few years with the jeans looking somewhat worn-in or showing wear patterns. The period of time you spend wearing the product, where it’s unworn-looking, is so short compared to the lifespan of the product.
Mind the Cut and Fit
PD: The value of strong denim and quality construction is lost if a pair of jeans just doesn’t fit. Over the years, many manufacturers have reduced or eliminated their in-house pattern-making capabilities. It’s easier and cheaper to give a finished garment specification, assigning responsibility for the actual garment pattern shape to the contract manufacturer.
At Levi’s, our fit portfolio is a critical part of the overall perception of quality. The Levi’s 501 jean is world famous, and is also made in factories in nearly every region where it’s sold. It’s important that the fit is absolutely consistent wherever it’s sold. To maintain consistent, perfect fits, Levi’s has a world-class team of pattern makers and garment developers who develop and execute every style in our denim fit portfolio.
KB: Most factories in the world, regardless of where the jean is made, can cut and sew a jean pretty well. Durability has some to do with construction, some to do with denim and a lot to do with how you care for your denim. And, I feel that the basic elements of the construction are less important than the denim itself purely because it’s gotten to a point now where mediocre jeans have pretty decent construction, especially ones made in China. So I think construction is something less to look at, and more, the fabric itself is very important.
Small Details, Long Life
PD: Since the 1870s, Levi’s has been working to perfect the unique construction of the five-pocket jean. With more than a century of experience, we know the best place to use a chain-stitch versus a lock stitch; or where to use a double-needle felled seam versus a simple single-needle straight stitch. We know where to put a rivet or bar-tack to create strength, and what type of sewing thread is best suited to each type of operation.
This extensive construction quality research that we’ve accumulated over the years is the foundation of a deep body of knowledge that is unique to Levi Strauss & Co.
KB: If you go really hardcore and you want to wear your jeans for a long time, lined back pockets are very important because that’s one of the first things to go. Your wallet wears through your back pocket. So lined back pockets are important and taped inner pocket bags are good, but those things not found on many jeans. That is something to look for in a jean. If you plan on wearing it for a long time, you don’t want to deal with repairing it as often.
Another important thing to look for is little construction details like hidden rivets. And you definitely want a button-fly. Never buy a zipper-fly jean. Zippers are prone to failing — even the best zippers in the world fail over time. It’s a lot more difficult getting that repaired than just punching a new button onto a jean.
What About the Finishing?
PD: Another important feature of any denim assortment is the finish — how we wash each jean to create the different levels of blue. From darkest rinse to the lightest aged-wash, almost every jean goes through some level of finishing before it gets to the store.
Creating a range of wash levels is one of the denim designer’s most important jobs. To achieve each wash level, we develop a unique formulation that gives the manufacturer a recipe to follow. It’s important that the processes we specify don’t degrade the physical properties of the jean. It doesn’t matter how beautiful a heavily distressed, ripped and repaired wash might look; if it falls apart the first time you wear it, we’ve failed to deliver on our promise of quality.
Take the Initiative
PD: From the beginning, Levi’s has been known for quality. We have vintage jeans in our archives that are over 100 years old that could still be worn today, so we know that our product can last. The image of the “Two-Horse Test” on the back patch of every pair of jeans represents our promise to deliver quality — always.
Once you’ve purchased a pair of our jeans, however, it’s up to you to maintain that quality. Nothing is harder on a pair of jeans than over-washing and over-drying. The laundry cycle is hard on all clothes, but especially hard on jeans. That’s why we ask consumers to wash as little as possible, and to always hang your jeans to dry. If you follow those simple instructions, your favorite pair of Levi’s will last even longer.
KB: I really encourage people to go into a brick-and-mortar and try jeans on. Feel the denim in person, try the fits on, because then you can really do a proper comparison. Even with really good photographs and descriptions online, it’s not the same as seeing it on person. The more you see the product in person, you start to get an idea of what your tastes are: what kind of shade fabric you like, what kind of weave you like. A lot of people like a flat, even weave; some people like something super slubby. But that type of thing is really difficult to tell over the internet.
You can spend days on Reddit, reading — there’s massive amounts of misinformation all over the internet. So, I really believe going in and talking to someone who sells it for a living can really teach you a lot.
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