Everyone has that one pair of jeans they refuse to throw out. I’ve been wearing the same pair of high-waisted cigarette jeans for nearly ten years — they’re faded to perfection, and have been patched up in the most embarrassing places at least a dozen times. My seamstress laughs when she sees me walk in the door. Despite the wear and tear, they’re still the jeans I put on whenever I want to feel most like myself, the best version of me I can muster up effortlessly.
Good denim jeans and jackets get better with age. Their faded glory and patchwork are like badges of hard-lived memories. The shape fits you and only you, like a second skin. I’m hardly the only one with an emotional attachment to denim.
Twill weave fabrics have been around for centuries, but iconic American blue jeans were first made for the likes of miners, ranch hands and farmers. They were durable and a man could spend all day panning for gold or lassoing cattle without giving a thought to his pants. The twill weave made dirt and stains less visible, and the cloth flexible and comfortable. The riveted pockets (famously patented by Levi Strauss in 1873) made them even sturdier. Jeans were synonymous with the rise of the West, and along with it, the rugged, purely American pioneer spirit.
These original jeans were made of selvage denim, a type of denim woven with one very long, continuous cross thread. This method keeps the edge from fraying, hence the “self-edge.” So durable was this material that most manufacturers made denim this way up until the 1930s. But in just twenty years — by the 1950s — cheaper and faster ways of making denim had almost entirely taken over.
WEFT AND DIP
The self-edge denim is made on shuttle looms, the weft (the continuous cross thread) is weaved back and forth, back and forth, all the way down the length of the bolt (the roll of fabric). When the weft reaches the edge of the bolt, it loops back in and starts the process all over again, instead of ending and leaving an open edge that needs to be stitched, which is precisely what happens on modern projectile loom with separate wefts.
This process of making denim began in the mid-1800s at American mills, like Cone’s White Oak Mills in North Carolina, the original producer of Levi’s. The looms used varied from model name — from the Whitin to the Draper — but all are rare and ancient machines that used three yards of fabric for every pair of jeans. It’s a lot, but it resulted in a denser, more robust denim. To maximize yield on these cost-absorbing jeans, the mills would use all of the fabric, right up to its self-edge. The sewers used red, yellow, brown, white, or green thread to stitch up the inseams on the inner leg. Each color represented a different weight of denim or number of times dipped in indigo, for the manufacturer’s reference. When cuffed, the colored inseam is a true indicator of vintage, selvage denim.
The original production of selvage denim used pure indigo dye — the rich, purplish-blue color associated with classic jeans. Denim manufacturers used ropes of 100% cotton (typically grown in the South) which they would hang from the ceiling and dip into vats of indigo. The ropes were then hoisted up to the roof to oxidize in the fresh air. They would repeat this process, dipping and re-dipping, until just the right shade of blue was reached.
SELVAGE OUTLASTS EVEN ITS OWN UTILITY
Deemed archaic, costly and time consuming, denim mills stopped making selvage denim in the 1950s, but the transition was a couple of decades in the making. Wider shuttle looms were introduced in the ‘30s, and by the ‘50s much of the weaving was done on 42-inch projectile looms. They were faster, but produced a looser denim, one that would tear, fray and fade. Even the use of indigo — the very color of denim — was axed from the production process. Indigo was limited and expensive, so naturally the mills sought a chemical dye that was effective yet cheap. Sulfur dye was introduced, and color loss accelerated.
Selvage denim all but disappeared on the garment trail.
Lucky for the manufacturers, wearing beat up jeans became a trend that started with James Dean in Rebel Without A Cause and exists to this day. Manufacturers’ slacking adherence to quality coincided with a waning need for jeans that wouldn’t wear out at the face of hard manual labor.
By the fifties, the denim pants that were immensely popular among the working class were fading from the market, and teen culture, in all its rebellious yet consumerist glory, picked up where the workers left off. Middle class teens embraced the fabric but weren’t exactly working in the fields. They didn’t need such a sturdy denim. Manufacturers took note.
By the ‘60s and ‘70s, countries from Belgium to Germany and Japan, began outranking American denim mills in quality, reproducing narrow shuttle loom models that were superior to the original American selvage machines. The ancient machines, however, had a lack of precision in the cast iron and harness springs that gave the resulting bolt of selvage a beautiful character. These subtle imperfections were impossible to reproduce.
Sensing an opportunity, the Japanese bought many of the old machines off of American mills in the 1980s. It probably seemed like a good idea to the American manufacturers at the time. Many of these looms were just rusting out in the fields or scrapped for parts — the old behemoths were taking up too much space in the factories.
American mills didn’t have the foresight to imagine that one day these machines would be the top producers for the high-end denim market. Not to mention they would be priceless artifacts in the history of denim — the very fabric of American culture.