Post #3153: Making jeans (and the trouble with “denim”)

I made my first pair of jeans last week – albeit without all the contrasting stitching and rivets. The Persephone Pants have been on my list, and I decided to make my wearable muslin out of some inexpensive denim in my stash before cutting into the burgundy cotton twill I have envisioned them in.

I’m pretty happy with how they turned out for a first try. Though you can’t see in this picture, they have a button fly, in-line pockets and belt loops! They are also really high-waisted which I think is flattering to my shape since I don’t have an overly-defined natural waist.

I have re-cut the pattern for my next attempt, taking out an inch of length in the crotch, a half inch out of the back waist, and an inch out of the leg width. I’m hoping these small tweaks will give me a better fit. I could have gone down a full size, but worried that might bring the waist in too much for comfort, so I tweaked instead. I’m cutting the fabric for the next pair today, and looking forward to working with a contrasting top-stitch thread and fine-tuning as I go. The Persephone is great in that there is only one piece per leg (no outside seam), and not complicated to put together as a result.

I have gotten interested in making pants lately, jeans in particular, because of the decline in quality in the ready-to-wear market over the past several years. It’s gotten so bad that even my partner Brian, who doesn’t sew or think much about clothes at all, has noticed it! I believe this turn is in large part due to the introduction of elastane (lycra) into almost all denim available to the consumer market. While this was initially driven by the consumer desire for skinny jeans, “stretch” or “flex” (depending on your gender), seems to have made its way into all fit types.

What this means is that a pair of denim jeans no longer lasts more than six months before the fabric puckers, or stretches out in funny ways. I started noticing this about four years ago. First it was a jean skirt, then a pair of everyday jeans – suddenly every denim item I purchased would get strange puckers within only a few months of use.

Recently Brian and I went into a mall in Vancouver, both of us in search of a pair of jeans that did not contain elastane. We went to American Eagle and a couple of other mall stores, and could not find a single pair that did not contain stretchy plastic. At one store we got into a conversation with the clerk about this, and he said “well, your problem isn’t the elastane – it’s because you are putting them in the dryer and the dryer breaks down cotton.”

Clearly, this piece of bullshit was delivered by someone who knows nothing about fabric properties, and was too young to remember having to “break in” a pair of blue jeans through many turns in the washer/dryer cycle. While it’s true that dryers do break down fabric, a good cotton fabric can stand up to many rounds in the dryer without falling apart.

The issue with modern “denim” is the introduction of plastic into the textile which creates many problems:

  • both the spin cycle in washing machines, and the heat in a dryer, breaks down the plastic, destabilizing the fabric
  • even if you never washed, or dried, your elastane-infused jeans, the simple act of wearing them will stretch out the elastane to the point of warping or breaking
  • if you purchase jeans with stretch that have been distressed in the factory, this process of breaking down the elastane has started before you even purchase your new pants
  • fabrics with elastane or lycra release microplastics into the sewer system (and thus the waterways of our world) every time they are washed
  • fabrics with elastane do not fully biodegrade

The upshot? By putting plastic in our denim, companies have ensured that our clothing lasts a very short period of time, and then is not fully disposable when we throw it out after barely wearing it. Honestly, consumers should be appalled at this state of affairs – but because we’re all looking for “comfort” we tend to disregard the fact that we get less and less life out of our garments.

Some jeans manufacturers, such as Levis, and Calvin Klein, are still using standard non-stretch denim (and even selvedge denim in some cases). In case you are looking around and interested in high quality – look for Japanese-made denim. Denim mills in North America have largely been bought out by Japanese manufacturers, so that’s where you look for good quality denim fabric these days.

In general, the state of ready-to-wear clothing is nothing short of deplorable. Fabrics are of poor quality, construction is rushed, and almost everything is made in Bangladesh, a country where workers trying to unionize the textile industry are being imprisoned, beaten, and killed. If you try to go the other way and source ethical fashion, the garments are not affordable, and it’s impossible to know if companies are telling the truth of what’s happening in the factories they outsource to.

Gone are the days when people spoke proudly about the amount of wear they got from a garment. That talk has been replaced by “what a good deal” was had on a tank top of pair of jeans.

Every time I go into a clothing shop, these realities are staring me in the face, and so I almost always leave empty-handed. Being able to sew for myself is a privilege of time, space, and equipment – which I realize I am lucky to have. This gives me the ability to make some choices about the fabrics I wear, and the kinds of clothing I make for myself. I still have to be careful however, because the consumer fabric market has some of the same issues of poor-quality and adulterated fabric, that the ready-to-wear market has.

After the next pair of Persephone pants, I plan to make the Morgan jeans. My hope is to find a couple of patterns that work for me so I can be free of the poor choices on the rack, and create long-wearing bottoms that can be worn and mended for more than few months.

Want to see a video of the modern jeans-making process? I found this fascinating but stressful to watch because of the volume of material being pumped out into the world every day:

8 Comments on “Post #3153: Making jeans (and the trouble with “denim”)

  1. Huh, thanks for explaining why I like the Calvin Klein’s I randomly bought at Costco better than my others (which I almost didn’t buy b/c CK is evil, but then remembered they all suck, so…)

  2. thank you that is very helpful. The other thing I’ve noticed about RTW jeans is that women’s jeans are often made with lighter weight denim than men’s jeans. I bought a pair of men’s Eddie Bauer jeans several years ago and they’ve only just started to wear out. (I know I bought them before I moved to the UK and I’ve been here almost 3 years.) No elastane. And when I went to order a replacement pair on their website recently, I noticed that they put the denim weight in the product description!! Just got another pair. And have mended the first pair (my daughter did some fancy embroider; I replaced a worn out back pocket).

  3. OMIGOD, thank you!!! I went on a rant the other day about how I cannot buy a pair of jeans any more. If they’re comfortable in the store, the crotch will be sagging to my knees after a couple of hours of wear–and I’m not gonna buy a pair of jeans that is too tight, assuming they’ll fit at some point. I never thought about the environmental impact of crappy denim, so that’s another reason to try it myself. I’ll be interested to see how your Morgan jeans turn out…I just bought some nice 100% cotton denim and the Ames pattern, so maybe we can compare notes.

    • I would like to hear how the Ames turn out. I think they do require some stretch in the fabric though (recommend 2% Lycra). That low a Lycra content should be okay – not too stretchy. It’s the denim with 5% or more I’d really steer clear of!

  4. Thanks for this. I got some regular denim for a wicked deal but the problem is most of the patterns do require stretch now. I’ve been looking at the Megan Nielsen Dawn, but there are very few reviews. Maybe apocryphal, but my dad said when he was in the navy (’48-’52) they would do all sorts of crazy things to break in their dungarees like literally tie them off and drag them behind the ship. All natural salt water wash!

    • The Morgan jeans don’t require stretch denim. That’s why I’m trying that pattern next!

  5. The video of making jeans was so interesting, I wish it had been slower though to get more detail from the processes.

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