“Karen, where are your me-made jeans?”

"Karen, where are your me-made jeans?"

Today is the start of Fashion Revolution Week (yesterday having also been Earth Day) and I thought it seemed like a good time to answer a question I’ve been hearing a lot, not at all surprisingly, which is always some variation on “Karen, do you wear the jeans you made?” Of all the old fast-fashion habits that have posed assorted challenges as I’ve rewired my brain these past few years, jeans have been one of the biggest hurdles — and victories.

In January of 2016, I bought my first pair of jeans since the decision to try to create a more responsible wardrobe. They came from J.Crew’s made-in-LA line called Point Sur, and at something like $125 (I think I got them on sale), they were a big leap for me, as I’d always bought a lot of jeans, cheaply. When I gave in to stretch denim for a few years, I bought the $45 kind at the J.Crew outlet store, and for real denim I would buy $20 men’s jeans from Old Navy. Neither of which would last very long — so how much was I really spending to feed my jeans habit, right? I just checked that great closet clean-out post that set me on this path, and at that time I had 13 pair of jeans, which was probably fairly average, and I would guess most were less than 2-3 years old. They were donated or taken to the consigment shop at that time, and only two pair made the move from CA to TN — the two ultra-faded pairs you’ve seen me post about mending over the past few years. One of them (made of good denim) is now 15+ years old, and the other (the cheaper Old Navy variety) more like 5 or 6, but neither of them is reinforced enough to be wearable at the moment. So back to Jan 2015: I needed jeans, could not imagine making them or investing in even more expensive jeans with even more transparent origins, so I went with the Point Sur pair. And I made the commitment to wear them for weeks or months between washes and really make them fade in a very personal way, and more important, really make them last.

In January 2017, having not bought another pair of jeans in the year since, I made the bigger leap and bought a pair of men’s jeans from local brand Imogene+Willie, whose jeans are now sewn under their supervision in LA rather than still here in Nashville, using Cone Denim from North Carolina. (Cone NC has recently closed, sadly — so I’m not sure what happens next.) These were a whopping $235, but with them came a discount code for another pair at 40% off, so I reasoned that if I averaged the costs of two pairs, another year apart, I could do it. Same thing: Wear without washing as much as possible, making the fading and degrading process a slow one. (A year later when the discount code arrived, I decided it was counterproductive to buy another pair just to get the discount, when I didn’t need them. Such a grownup!)

Then in September of last year, I sewed my own jeans, again out of rigid dark denim. At that point, I realized — because I was taking such good care of the other two, they were both still quite dark and new looking — that I now had three pair of dark blue jeans, and no faded old friends to wear. I want each of these three to last me for years — remember I have a 15-y-o pair awaiting another round of mending, so that sets the bar — and I don’t want to be in the position again where my jeans are all at the end stage at the same time.

So I decided to phase them in. This winter, I basically only wore the first pair, the Point Sur, wearing them any time I was in the mood for jeans, and washing them next to never so they could start to take on my personal wear pattern. Which they are! They’re starting to get good, and are no longer that stark, dressy blue.

The I+W’s have been worn enough in the past 15 months that they’ve softened a bit and are starting to feel more like mine, but are so far showing no real break in the dye at all — they’re still a perfectly even dark blue, just not quite as dark as they started out. So as the Point Sur pair continues to lighten up, I’ll start to wear the I+W’s more. (I did choose them for my 10×10, you may recall.) And not until they start to show some wear and some fade, probably another year from now, will I really start to phase in my handmades. So that’s why you haven’t been seeing them in my wardrobe planning or outfit posts.

They’re in waiting.

The other day, Bob came into my little workroom holding a pair of rigid denim jeans he had bought from J.Crew a year or two ago. (As I recall, they were actually made in the US, of Japanese denim.) “Do you want these? They’re too small for me.” I exclaimed that I most certainly did not! My three pairs are feeling like an embarrassment of riches to me — more than plenty. But he knows me. “They seem like they’ll fit you, and they need a new owner … .” So I tried them on, and omigod, they fit EXACTLY like my beloved old 15-y-o mended pair do, my all-time favorites. Like replicas. So of course I agreed to give them a home in my closet. But they’ve been added to this slow-rotation plan of mine, so it may be a couple of years before they start to see the light of day …


PREVIOUSLY in Slow Fashion: 10×10 Challenge: Lessons learned


38 thoughts on ““Karen, where are your me-made jeans?”

  1. Great post, Karen! I’m super fussy about my jeans too and plan to attempt my first pair of handmade jeans in the next couple of years. I think it could be life-changing – I never can find the shape of jeans I want in REAL denim.

    I hear that Blackbird Fabrics bought up much of the remaining Cone denim from NC, so it might be worth looking into, if you plan to make more jeans in the future!

    • I can’t abide stretch denim and am so glad there are people making real denim jeans again, but I definitely struggle to find any that fit me! Both of which explain my lifelong men’s jeans habit.

      • Karen, what fit issues do you have generally with non-stretch denim. I’m in the beginning stages of an alternative denim brand (as sustainable and transparent as possible, non stretch, dramatically improved fit for a variety of body types) and looking for people who prefer rigid denim but can’t find the fit they want. Thanks!

        • I’m pretty straight up and down, and have muscular calves. (Apparently larger than the average lady!) Any women’s jean that fits me in the lower leg is guaranteed to be enormous in the hips and waist. This J.Crew pair (at left above) are the anomaly, but it’s because they’re drafted to have that little bit of kick/flair in the lower leg.

          It was better during the boot-cut era!

  2. I think it is OK to accept the perfect pair of hand-me-down pants – that is still slow fashion, after all.

    I wish I could find jeans that fit me and were comfortable. I am not ready to take the step of trying to make them, but you tempt me to explore the idea…

    • Oh for sure, definitely slow fashion to adopt what’s already in the world (or in this case, already under my own roof). Which is why he knew he could tempt me into at least trying them on. My resistance was only that I don’t want anything taking up room in my closet if I don’t actually need it or won’t wear it. But it turned out they’re worthy of a place in the stack, and will hopefully have a long and useful life!

        • It was in part the hazard of having a big closet. It wasn’t even a walk-in, but bigger than the tiny old-house closets I’m used to (or lack of any kind of closet in the raw spaces we’ve lived in).

          I think the prevalence of walk-in closets is a huge contributing factor to how many more clothes people buy now than we used to. That seems obvious, but I think most people probably think it’s the other way around — that we need bigger closets for all our clothes, not that we’ve expanded how many clothes we expect to own because closets have gotten so huge.

        • I’m also curious — for you and Jan both — do you wear jeans to work? I think that’s probably a big factor in how many pairs a person owns — whether you wear them all week or if they’re weekend wear. I’ve never worked anywhere I couldn’t wear jeans every day if I wanted to.

    • Correction: Looks like the national average is 7 pairs https://www.statisticbrain.com/denim-jeans-industry-statistics/

      I remember being surprised to find 13 of them in my closet when I did that big clean-out, and the reason I say they were probably largely on the newer side is that was a rough time — the era where absolutely nobody would make a pair of women’s jeans in non-stretch denim. So I was buying a lot of the wrong jeans, trying to find SOMETHING I could stand to wear.

  3. I think I have 7 pairs of jeans. I’m surprised at that number!

    3 wideleg jeans, all of the same cut. I first bought one pair, then when I realised that they were really good for what I wanted, I bought another. And then I bought another in the sale – they turned out to be a slightly different fabric. Pair one is perfectly worn in, but waiting on some knee reinforcements. I’m afraid if I wear them any more they’ll tear! they’re perfectly soft now. Pair two is my regular seen-in-public jeans. Pair three are stashed for the future. I don’t feel guilty about this, as the company don’t do this cut any more.

    Then I have an older bootcut pair for backup, when main jeans are unavailable. The fit is okay (comfortable) but they have stupid stupid stupid small pockets.

    Then there are backup backup jeans, which have better pockets but I shortened them about two or three centimetres too much. Aagh, so cross with myself about that!

    Then there are my two pairs of ‘gardening jeans’. These are very wideleg, loose fitting jeans that I’ve had for over 16 years now. They’re proper carpenter jeans (hammer loop, long pocket for ruler), although I got them from Gap. They’re very frayed around the hems, because I first had them when it was acceptable to have them too long and walk holes into them! So the holey bits eventually got trimmed off, but apart from that they have worn like iron.

    I think some of the problem with modern jeans is that they’re usually tight fitting, and this means a high lycra/elastane content for comfort – and so a shorter lifespan as the stretch eventually gives out. I personally can’t stand tight jeans – I’ve tried them on in shops, but they drive me crackers! I read somewear that ‘proper’ jeans like 501s, with no elastane, are coming back in as people like the longer life and the better fit (no bagging out after one wear).

    • The thing about the fabric being different on your second pair —

      A lot of the mega mall brands require multiple factories (in different countries) to make as many jeans as they sell, and often the factories are doing the patterning and the fabric sourcing. So you can pick up two pairs of the same jeans in the store and take them into the fitting room and find they fit differently and the fabric seems different, even though they’re ostensibly the same size in the same jeans. They are literally not the same.

  4. I’ve got two pairs of jeans, one winter (no holes) and one summer (major holes – my sister tells me I could get $500 for them in Manhattan). And I wash my jeans maybe every 5 – 6 weeks, and that’s with doing chores etc in them. Never wore stretch jeans, or ‘girl’ jeans (hate high waistbands, and what I call girl pockets, ie useless). I’m strictly a 501 person. Although I’d love to try making my own next time I need a pair, yours are very nice….

    • For years, all I wore was men’s 501s, which I would slightly alter through the leg. At some point, that stopped working for me — they had evolved the design just enough that they weren’t what they once were.

      During those years when stretch jeans were all anyone was making for women, I went everywhere asking “Do you have any jeans in here that aren’t stretch denim?,” and they would look at me like it was the craziest thing anyone had ever asked them. Like they couldn’t even formulate an answer because the question was so bizarre. Even at the Levi’s flagship in Union Square in SF. I thought surely there, of all places, there would be at least one style of women’s jeans in real denim. Nope, same look.

      That was five or six years ago, and the last time I re-tried men’s 501s. Someday I’ll try again …

  5. Jeans are playing a dominant role in my current wardrobe debate, in which I am radically changing climates AND leaving a very strict work dress code. I had one pair of jeans that I’ve owned for at least 3-4 years, maybe 5-6. They are perfect, but they have lycra and were a bit pre-distressed, so I’m a bit afraid they’re going to move from “perfectly worn” to “completely destroyed” any day now. I bought a pair of Imogene+Willie jeans to supplement, and I’m trying to decide if I need a third pair. (We’re moving internationally, and I am trying to acquire my US made things before we leave.) I think the answer is no, given my enduring love of bizarre pants like State The Label’s. But two pairs of jeans in a cold climate seems very minimal.

  6. Curious about this – “So back to Jan 2015: I needed jeans, could not imagine…..investing in even more expensive jeans with even more transparent origins” – why not? Was it exclusively because of the price? Because sustainability/transparency hadn’t yet become more of a priority? I’m assuming you’re in a different place now, based on the I&W jeans you bought later on. Not judging, just very curious about thought processes as people invest in jeans.

    • I’d never paid anywhere near $235 for a single garment in my entire life, and it was also just financially out of the question at that time. But then by not buying multiple pairs of jeans in the meantime — and with that promise of a discount on a second pair — I was able to make a case for it the following year. It still shocks me, though. Good thing I love them! And know they will last.

  7. So interesting to read these discussions. I wish some of these were even options for me.
    As a plus size woman, the transparent origin – sustainably produced clothing – non-elasticized denim thing isn’t even a consideration. This stuff barely exists in my size, if at all. I’m just happy to find pieces that aren’t 100% bullet-proof polyester. “Sigh”

  8. So you don’t make your own jeans. No big deal. It would be pretty damn time consuming to make every item of one’s wardrobe. I can’t seem to bring myself to make underwear, and finally caved and bought myself a raincoat this week. I figure I make so much else that I have a pass for those pieces. Kinda like carbon credits….
    I’m at three pairs of jeans. Two which see regular rotation in the Winter, and one pair that I use for dirty work. The two regular pair are Cone Mills, but stretch, so will need to be replaced in another year or two. But I get SO much wear out of them that they will be paid for ten times over by the time they die. I have Cone Denim for three more pairs in the stash, so figure I’m good for the next decade. We all have to make choices about our footprint, the important thing is to be considering it.

  9. Karen, In my opinion, based only on experience, the thing that causes the most wear on all clothes, not only jeans, is not the washing but the drying in a dryer. Although we have a dryer (it’s at least 35 years old) we rarely use it. All our clothes are hung on the line outside or on in the winter when the weather is unbearably frigid for days on end, on a drying rack in the living room. We put a load on it in the evening, turn on the ceiling fan, and by morning they are almost always dry. Jeans are put on pant stretchers before being hung or stood up in the living room You might have to google that item. Pant stretchers are a flat, metal, rectangular frame which you slip into each leg. and then open up to put resistance on the fab, not a lot, but just enough so that the denim dries smoothly and appears to have been ironed. By drying our clothes naturally, we have extended the life of each piece of clothing far beyond what most people experience with their clothing. I took think that most of us have far too many pieces of clothing. I find myself reaching for the same items over and over so regularly get rid of things I wore before I retired. I think I would have made a good (Protestant) nun back in the old days of the convent…open closet and grab the nearest habit…no choices or thinking involved!
    Thank you for giving all of us something to think about

    • I just lay everything over the backs of my dining room chairs to dry — or put them out on the screen porch if the weather is favorable. (I.e. neither frigid nor so humid as to be counterproductive!)

  10. I worry about being in a room full of people who only wash their jeans every 4/6 weeks/years/never (especially on a warm day……eeeeeewww). Sorry but I can’t get on board with that….and I like my jeans with Lycra too (being a shape that apparently weirds manufacturers out). I have the pattern & (stretch) denim for my own me-mades but I’m also about to have a new knee so will have to wait for swelling & changes to subside. And, btw, not sure you answered the question…do you wear your me-mades or are they at the end of your rotation?

    • Here’s the key part of the post: “So as the Point Sur pair continues to lighten up, I’ll start to wear the I+W’s more. (I did choose them for my 10×10, you may recall.) And not until they start to show some wear and some fade, probably another year from now, will I really start to phase in my handmades. “

  11. I do not own many pairs of jeans as it is, and I want to own even fewer. I think 2 pairs of blue, and 1 black, would be ideal for me. My biggest challenge in this regard, is that my weight and shape have been in constant flux lately (for health reasons), and I am still not sure where everything will settle in the long run. Understandably, there is not much in the way of advice out there regarding forming a minimalist, longevity-oriented wardrobe under such circumstances. But reading your posts in this series gives some food for thought nonetheless.

    • I totally get why woman who deal with recurring pregnancies, weight fluctuations, and so on often just choose to leave jeans out of the mix. (I’m not someone who has ever found them *comfortable* and I’ve often wished to leave them out for that reason, but I just can’t quit them.) Several others have mentioned they keep two or three pairs in the closet in the different sizes they fluctuate between. If that’s any help!

      • Yup, that’s pretty much what I do now; I basically own several ‘sets’ of jeans for different weight situations. Alas this does clutter the house!

  12. Okay, I’m going to ask. How do you get away with not washing your jeans that often? Mine stink after a few (4-5) wears? I’ve heard you can sometimes put jeans in the freezer to deodorize, but have never tried it. Also, do you just spot treat stains as needed?

    • Mine don’t stink, not sure what to say about that! But it’s only a matter of whether they’re dirty or not. If I were to spill something on them, or whatever, I would go ahead and put them in the wash. I wash on delicate and air dry.

    • Can’t speak for others, but I live in a rural area, and I air my jeans by simply hanging them out the window after every wear. So my jeans tend to smell of grass and trees, and they only get laundered if stained.

      I should add though, that this only works on jeans with zero synthetic content. If the fabric has even a tiny amount of nylon or polyester mixed in, the airing-out method is insufficient, as synthetics trap odours in a way that cotton and wool do not.

  13. Karen, can you comment on size to purchase for rigid jeans so that once they are washed, they aren’t too small?

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