It’s About Time – The Renaissance of Made in America Denim

It's About Time - The Renaissance of Made in America Denim

If you’re into raw denim, there’s a good chance that you’re also into heritage products; those that harken to an earlier time in history and emulate the strong craftsmanship of days gone by. In fact, many of us have a tendency to idealize the past and compare contemporary products with those made in the nebulous bygone era — leaving contemporary products to often fall short of the standards set.

The average denim enthusiast is well-versed in the birth of denim. The rise of Levi Strauss and his denim overalls in San Francisco led to the proliferation of jeans from workman’s pantaloons to a staple in first the counterculture, then into the mainstream where denim resides today. There’s no denying that jeans were born in the United States with Levi’s and their imitators one hundred and forty years ago, but an industry-wide trend of outsourcing labor to cut costs began around the turn of the millennium. Even Levi’s, the originator, closed its last U.S. manufacturing plant a decade ago in 2003.

Around 2003 it would have been easy to find denim made in Latin America and Asia, but one would be hard-pressed a few years ago to lay hands on a pairs of denim both sourced and crafted in the United States. Those days are over. We are in the midst of a renaissance of made-in-the-US artisan goods which, luckily for us, includes raw denim as a production staple.

Tellason, 3sixteen, Raleigh, and Baldwin, just to name a few, are leading the charge in the effort to offer quality goods held to superior standards. The old pioneer, Levi’s, is also back in the mix, producing some of their wares back at home in the good old U.S.A.

Just two notable U.S.-based denim companies

3sixteen and Tellason – Just two notable U.S.-based denim companies

However, what makes these brands special and why should anyone care if his or her denim is made in the United States? There are a few good reasons, two of which boil down to the meaty topics of production and quality.

Transparency of Production

When it comes to companies that mass produce in China, Bangladesh, or Mexico, it’s damn near impossible to know where and how exactly your denim has been sourced. This is not to say that these countries lack capable workers who can sew together some mean denim. Under what conditions though are these workers producing these jeans? Working standards are not as closely monitored elsewhere as they are in the United States, and employees are willing to work for much less than what would be considered an adequate living wage here.

Furthermore, when a company is designing their products in one country and manufacturing them in another, it’s more difficult to control quality. Many of the “Made in America” brands we feature produce their goods close to headquarters and can thus oversee the production of their denim from beginning to end to ensure that the product is up to snuff.

Hell, the one-man brands are the producers, so you know exactly what went into the construction of your jeans. These brands express a passion for the goods they produce, and they are serious about ensuring that each part of the process is going according to their visions.

Sure, you can find cheaper jeans that were made elsewhere, but you have to ask yourself why they’re cheaper. You can rest assured knowing that when you buy a pair of premium made-in-the-US denim, you’re supporting ethical production practices and receiving quality-controlled goods.

Quality of Goods

One of the most exciting aspects of denim being produced in the United States is that many of the companies who produce their goods in the U.S. are establishing partnerships to create jeans. They feature top quality details that not only look great, but also stand up to the test of time and heavy wear.

cone mills denim

First things first, let’s start with the denim itself. America can lay claim to housing one of the companies who form the foundation of high-quality denim production in the world, let alone America, having been in business now for 122 years.

That’s right, we’re talking about Cone Mills. If you’re wearing premium denim made in the U.S. there’s a good chance it came from Cone Mills. They supplied Levi’s with denim way back, and many of the brands today are recognizing what Levi’s did a century ago: Cone Mills is serious about their commitment to producing world class denim.

Aside from having the history to back up their business, they’re continuing to innovate and strive to produce novel fabrics. There are plenty of denim heads around the world who will swear by denim made at Cone.

This is not to say that all premium American denim brands utilize Cone Mills, but they are certainly discerning in their choice of denim. Take, for example, 3sixteen. They utilize denim from Kuroki Mills, made specifically for their company to ensure a unique pair of jeans. Kaihara Kuroki has been using vintage shuttle looms in full production for a couple decades now, and anyone who has been lucky enough to own a pair can attest to their quality.

Another detail that denim enthusiasts love is the leather patch on the back proclaiming the brand name or icon. The beauty of a leather patch – of leather in general in fact – is that it will age with the denim, adding another unique aspect to the jeans. One of the companies at the forefront of creating beautiful patches is Tanner Goods from Portland, Oregon. 3sixteen was the first to utilize their leather before many other brands, such as Tellason, followed suit.

Tanner Goods Coasters

The Bottom Line

It’s exciting to see American brands stepping up to the plate and taking a crack at producing jeans that rival anything made worldwide. Any accusations of xenophobia are misdirected; this isn’t about a fear of foreign companies taking over what the U.S. began so many years ago. Of course, the debate between supporters of U.S. denim and supporters of Japanese denim won’t be settled here. But that’s not the point either.

Rather, it’s about taking a moment to recognize that, at long last, we are seeing a reemergence of the United States as a major player in the design and production of high-quality denim. We’re no longer left looking longingly toward the past for products we can be proud of. They are all around us, right here and right now.

Jon Dalley

Jon is crazy about books, music, movies, motorcycles, and, of course, raw denim. He contends that the best method of breaking in a pair of raw denim is to ride a Triumph Bonneville T100 hard and often. Check out his newest blog project at www.hipofftheoldblock.wordpress.com

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  • Kyle

    3Sixteen’s denim is from Kuroki, not Kaihara.

    The American brands have everything in place for success – materials, craftsmanship, and so on – except for an identity. They all have virtually the same story (Made In America, Durable Workwear, etc.) with the exception of 3Sixteen and Roy. Each of these companies makes nice jeans, but Baldwin, Tellason, and the others all just blend together to me. Companies like Flat Head, Samurai, Pure Blue Japan, and Sugar Cane don’t just make high-quality products, each company has a different philosophy and story in addition to varying style and details that clearly distinguish them from each other. When American brands develop individual identities, then they’ll be truly ready to compete with the big companies – and since they can offer a less expensive product than Japan, that would give them a serious advantage.

    • AmeriCAN

      What a ridiculous generalization of American brands: to say that they lack identity because they lack a philosophy and story seems like an uninformed and uniform dismissal of a group of people who each brings a history to his or her products. And to say they lack details? You cite Tellason as an example of a brand who is grouped in your mind with the others, so I’ll use them as well: the signature t-stitch on the back pockets done in contrast colors, the red legal tab in the right back pocket, the deep blue of the denim thanks to the 40% indigo: these sound like worthy and distinctive details to me. And just ask Patella and company about their philosophy–or, hell, read it on this sight.
      And don’t you think made-in-America brands will probably have that as part of their story? That’s like saying at Japanese companies all have made-in-Japan as part of their story. A reflexive argument when pointing out a lack of identity.
      Many of the Japanese brands make it no secret that their foundation is in a reverence for Americana and vintage American style. Does this mean that they lack an identity or are biting it off predecessors? I don’t think so.
      I know you have a stake in supporting Japanese denim, as the industry employs you, but perhaps you should pay more attention to what’s happening here at home.

    • Devan Prithipaul

      I second what Kyle says, to me, all the japanese denim companies all have different stories and different niches that they try and fill, whether it be Americana, or high quality, or kind of gimmicky, or super limited edition, they all have a different purpose. Seems like all the new U.S denim brands that seem to be popping up all have the same, vintage, high quality, workwear type niche.

    • FRINGECLASS

      i agree. “our company is named after our grandfather, who was a miner by day and lumberjack by night. he also served in the us navy. he was a family man and that’s what our company represents; family. we named our jeans after him because theyre tough like he was”…

    • J. Davis

      This incessant need for some “narrative” behind denim brands would be comical if it wasn’t so pathetic. It’s denim. Nothing more, nothing less. Why the constant attempt to make it something more than it is? It almost seems as if some people’s identity is wrapped up not only in the jean itself, but in the story behind it. Jesus, get a life. Jeans are a utilitarian garment and no narrative (fictional or otherwise) is needed. Let them make a quality product and sell it at a fair price. I’ll buy it and wear the shit out of it. End of story.

      • a

        I can’t stand these “lifestyle brands”

    • http://www.rawrdenim.com Rawr Denim

      Thanks Kyle, the Kaihara reference should have been Kuroki. Article revised.

      • Richard

        Word. And good job pointing it out for the world to see how right you are, Kyle. It’s not like you could have contacted the author or editor to correct the mistake. Oh, wait, you’re a contributor… Nice oneupsmanship.

    • BillygoatsGruff312

      “When American brands develop individual identities, then they’ll be
      truly ready to compete with the big companies – and since they can offer
      a less expensive product than Japan, that would give them a serious
      advantage.”

      Agreed. However, they market at the same price point as the jap brands even though there’s no import…so its straight mark-up. I’d rather throw the same amount of money in a japanese brand thats less generic.

    • goldushapple

      Er, Kyle, the “blue collar, dirt under finger nails,” IS the identity to some American made jeans. I do agree that certain brands can blend in, and I think that shows a lack of creativity and honesty, but c’mon. To say American brands don’t really have an identity is missing the identity that’s already in place.

  • Santos

    wait, are we talking about the same company ? levis mass produce their products in China, Mexico ,Poland and many places, they claim they can bring better prices to the customers. Now, are you blame these countries ? just because now there is trend called ” American Vintage” ? that’s the SAME company and it is just about pursuing profits. don’t justify the reason and find scapegoat.

    Also, it is ridiculous to generalize every product made in outside of JP & USA is shit.
    we can find many interesting and detailed AND high quality products in England, Indonesia, Thailand and China.

    and near every American brand get their fabric from Cone Mills or from Japan, so what is the difference there?

    the same price, i would choose Japanese products.

    • Yoked

      Dude, did you even read the article? He never once BLAMES these countries; he never once claims that products made outside the US and Japan are, as you say, “shit.” And I am so sick and tired of the absolutely inane argument that because denim comes from Cone Mills, it all must be the same. First, Cone makes exclusive denim for certain companies. Second, the companies must stitch together the raw denim. Now, if we all wore raw denim around in a shapeless cape, it may be close to the same. But I do believe there’s just a bit that goes into putting the jean together: design and stuff.
      I know your English isn’t that great, but do try to focus on the details of an article.

    • BillygoatsGruff312

      “…the same price, i would choose Japanese products.”

      +1 on that.

  • hanif

    blah bllah blah… Japanese denim is still better

  • a tailor

    Cone is not the only weaving mill that is makeing denim fabric. Here are some.
    Burlington
    DNA
    Cone
    Columbus liberty
    Swift
    UCO
    Galey & lord
    ACG
    Mt vernon

    • D(g)

      You do realize you listed Cone among the others, right? And Burlington owns Cone, so…

    • Conehead

      There are few domestic producers: ITG, ACG, Mount Vernon, Galey/Swift/Lord, and DNA.

      Cone is the only domestic producer creating self-edged fabrics, as none of the others own the working capital to possess the ability to produce non frayed-edge.

      This article is interesting, but only to the point that it is inaccurate. If a company wants to be Made in America, it should make using Made in America, and therefore live up to the coined term.

      A major issue is that a lot of companies are using the same manufacturing facility (Pacific Blue) in California, labeling it ‘their own factory’ and taking pictures ‘of us at our manufacturing facility’, when in fact there is no ownership other than a contract. Buying a slated production from a facility that produces for others will only yield similar cuts and pockets and styles.

      Also– is it truly made in the USA when all of the labor is obtained by trucking over the border and finishing with labels in the states?

      If you are going to go out of your way to buy Made in USA garments, actually attempt to buy just that, none of this other ill-attempted branding.

  • zelt

    Most people don’t give two shits about fabric, philosophy, etc. If an average person buys made in America, its because they want a quality product that looks good and that was produced responsibly and ethically, and perhaps also for providing jobs here in the USA. I don’t blame a single person for thinking denim heads can geek out too much on this shit.

  • Dirty Denim

    I get so worked up about this argument. The whole identity thing is just a waste of time. The new American brands do in fact have amazing stories behind all of them. I mean think of this 1 simple fact..They are all mostly regular people who schooled themselves on denim. They are people who go to coffee shops that cut hair. Its pretty amazing that some of these brands are made by the guy u have come across in a forum . These are people (AMERICANS) who actually got up off their asses and did something about the garment industry leaving the U.S. These are people who want of course to make a buck but more importantly to make a pair of jeans eventually without having to BOLD FACE MADE IN THE USA because the only reason companies have to say that now is because all who sent the work elsewhere . I believe most Japanese brands niche/stories are in fact craftsmanship and thats it. There is no story or history or anything to them other than craftsmanship. Yea well made means a lot but please don’t say they have a better story because that’s just not true. We all remember how most of these GOD like Japanese brands started out?? They all had Levis red tabs and back pocket stitching. Before Levi’s forced them to change it they would have never developed their own identities…They would have all remained copy cat repro brands. People complained and poked fun at LEvi’s for causing such a stir over that. The Japanese brands should thank them because they all moved on towards becoming their own brands and of course their own identities.

    That said I wear most of my jeans simply based on fit 1st quality 2nd . Bad fitting great quality jeans mean jack ish to me