The Upgrade: Denim
The Upgrade is an ongoing series about the intrinsic value of investing in quality when it comes to clothing: buying the best to buy less. Some pieces are crafted to last decades — others, to last a season. Ever wondered why there’s such a disparity in the prices of, say, cashmere sweaters or jeans? Allow us to explain.
There are innumerable rabbit holes that one might fall down while browsing the internet — from the mundane to the downright fascinating. There are those who bounce from one Wikipedia link to the next, until they’ve ended up so far from where they started that they forget what they were looking for in the first place; there are those who have read every article and op-ed on the latest headline dominating any given news cycle; and then, there are those of us who are really, really — like, really — into denim.
It’s important to clarify that, unlike cashmere — where the differences in price usually go hand in hand with qualitative differences of the same order — pricier denim tends to set itself apart in more subtle ways. For the most part, there’s nothing wrong with a pair of $100 jeans — they’ll do a reliable job for you. But once you start reading about the minutiae of weft, weave, selvedge, dyes and stitching, you’ll start to appreciate more meticulously crafted and finished jeans. The subtle differences become stark, whether it’s in how denim will age, how it’s made or where it comes from — but those differences also cause the price to rise.
As with most garments, the single biggest impact on the price you pay comes from the time it takes to craft a pair of jeans. We’ve waxed poetic about the intrinsic value of slow clothes before, highlighting the brands that take their time, not only to get things right, but to treat people — their customers and employees, alike — right, too.
While time is money, as they say, it’s often worth it. Take, for example, selvedge denim. Selvedge denim is associated with the white self-edge finish on the inner seam, but it’s the process that creates the distinctive finish which should be highlighted. Selvedge is created when denim is woven with a shuttle, which threads the weft through the warp. This is how denim was traditionally woven. The drawback is time — weaving with a shuttle can take four times longer. But a slower, gentler process puts less tension on the yarn, which can lead to a softer fabric that tolerates more slubs, thereby giving you a finished product that ages better over time, with more interesting fades and a richer patina.
In general, if you want things done the right way, it’ll take more time. On a pair of jeans the right way might mean that they’re cut well — say, straight in the thigh and then a little slimmer from the knee down, breaking just enough to be worn with sneakers, derbies or loafers . Or perhaps the finishing is done to a higher standard — think a chainstitch with a higher stitch per inch density compared to a looser lockstitch, better rivets or other metal detailing that will develop a nice patina rather than looking beat up after a few years— together these give a pair of jeans a cleaner look, but also increase their longevity.
Then there’s how your denim is dyed. Indigo has long been the colour people associate with jeans, but these days there are jeans in virtually every colour imaginable. The dyeing process has a number of outsized impacts — on the price, the way your jeans will look, but also on the environment.
There are three dominant dyeing techniques: slasher dyeing, rope dyeing and hank dyeing. Slasher dyeing is a mechanized industrial process that’s highly-scalable and designed to maximize output with remarkable consistency and an extensive range of colour options. It’s good, but not great. Rope dyeing is more labour intensive, but it tends to create more richly coloured denim that fades exceptionally well over time. It also produces significantly less yarn waste, and requires less dye and other chemical agents. Rope dyeing also involves a starching process, which gives some pairs their stiff, robust feel and look — unwashed, this is what’s referred to as raw denim. Lastly, hank dyeing is a manual method that involves hand-dipping bundles of yarn in vats of dye, washing them, and repeating the process until the desired colour is achieved. This laborious process is usually reserved for the most artisanal brands in the denim world, but the result is often incredible.
Regardless of how the denim is dyed, though, there’s one thing that all denim process have in common: they use a tremendous amount of water. And this is where the money you spend can make a real world difference beyond how you look. Take a brand like AG, for example, which has, over the last decade, repeatedly invested in making their manufacturing process cleaner, greener and more sustainable. Most notable among the eco-friendly improvements is a water recycling process that significantly reduces the amount of water required to dye all that denim. Other eco-friendly solutions include the use of natural dyes — which make associated waste easy to dispose of —, treatments that require fewer chemicals but require more labour-intensive manufacturing like air drying (similarly to cashmere), or the use of organic, sustainably-sourced cotton and alternative fibres, which is something 7 For All Mankind has heavily invested in.
Jeans are, at their core, robust workwear. That’s why there’s little in the way of difference in terms of durability when comparing different price points. What you will get, however, when you spend a little bit more, is more attention to detail, whether that’s in the finishing in terms of how the denim will age and fade over time. You’re also likely to get a pair of jeans that, on a social level, better — because investing in sustainability, environmentally-friendly technology, and the people who have mastered their craft costs money. And, at the end of the day, isn’t that more than worth it?
*Marc Richardson is a fashion writer and photographer based in Montreal. His work has appeared on Fashionista, Grailed and Garage Magazine.*