Denim fabric was not born in the USA, but in Nimes, France, where it was originally referred to as Serge de Nimes. But jeans as we know it were born in the USA. 

In 1870, Jacob Davis, a tailor in Reno, NV made riveted work pants made from cotton canvas and denim. The fabric was purchased from San Francisco dry goods merchant, Levi Strauss. The highly durable pants quickly became popular with railroad workers, and Jacob Davis approached Levi Strauss to help keep up with the demand,

In 1873, Jacob Davis and Levi Strauss patented the process of making riveted pants and soon after, mass produced “waist overalls,” later known as jeans. These jeans provided comfort and durability for laborers, especially miners of the Gold Rush. In 1890 Levi Strauss trademarked them as the 501®. Jeans as we know it evolved from there.

Denim is now made all over the world. But why are denim jeans that are made in the U.S. particularly in California, the best? It’s because of the link between the history of denim and sandpaper.

Denim in its raw state is a stiff fabric and jeans were originally sold this way. Over time, raw jeans would break into the shape and character of its owner. Lines on the upper thighs were caused by sitting; knee areas faded from constant bending; some had the outline of a wallet or pack of cigarettes in the back pocket; and some had pressed-in creases which led to a light line down the middle of each leg,

It probably didn’t take long for gold miners and cowboys to break in their jeans. But for decades, consumers needed to wash their jeans at home several times until they broke them in. Some wore their raw jeans in the ocean to speed up the process. Levi’s accommodated for these launderings by sizing their jeans as “Shrink to Fit.” Lee Jeans used a softer left-hand twill weave instead of the traditional right-hand twill denim construction, so that the raw jeans would start out less stiff.

Since the 1980’s though, jeans have been going through a stonewashing process to break down the fabric for consumers. Through stonewashing and now other chemical treatments, not only is the fabric softened up, but the jeans are also made to look worn-in. Certain areas of the jeans are hand sanded or lightly sprayed with indigo-fading chemicals before getting stonewashed. After washing, these areas become more faded than the rest of the jeans, and have high and lows of indigo blue shades instead of one flat, even blue.

This sanding is done by hand; no two pieces are exactly alike. The sander works with dark blue raw denim, and does not see the results of their sanding until after the jeans are stonewashed. The end result should be jeans that look authentically worn-in, with fading and creasing in areas where they would naturally appear over time. This is a nuanced process that requires practice, skill and understanding of the finished product in order to be done, IMO, well.

Have you ever seen jeans with bright white thighs and tiger-like whiskers around the crotch? This is a result of over-sanding and over-spraying. All of the hand work is done on dark raw fabric that looks nothing like the finished product, and it’s easy to overestimate the levels of treatment needed. So, to be great at sanding and spraying, the worker needs to imagine what the final product will look like during the early, unfinished stages of wash development.

Ripped and jeans with holes might look easy to produce, but this style is even harder to achieve in a way that looks natural and authentic. The size, placement and intensity of the rips and holes are key. Why should the natural and authentic look be the standard? Because otherwise the look is equivalent to pants with a bad print. And if someone is willing to wear bad-print pants, they would be better off finding pants that are literally just printed, instead of buying labor- and water-intensive artisanal stonewashed jeans.

The craftsmanship involved in the stone washing process is the reason why the best denim jeans are made in the USA, especially California. Envisioning the end product is essential to the quality of the stonewashing process, especially during the sanding phase. Who knows what authentic, naturally broken-in jeans look like better than the people in the country or even state where they were invented, over 150 years ago?

Denim has always been a part of our lives. Over the years we have owned dozens of jeans and have seen worn-in denim everywhere — in movies, pictures, vintage shops, flea markets, and on each other. Our heroes wore denim.

International garment manufacturers look for formulas to mass produce jeans. But there’s no formula for a collective cultural, fashion, historic, and visual memory.