Pop Quiz: Denim Quality pt. 2

I just realized I didn’t make an official-like announcement of the answer to the denim pop quiz last week. I did mention it in the denim laundry contractor posts (pt one, pt two) but not everyone may have seen it. For the record, the darker denim is Japanese. The contractor I interviewed thought it was better quality.

However, I wasn’t satisfied with the frame of the debate. It seemed this quality pronouncement was a matter of fashion, not fact. No one definitively explained the superiority of the Japanese goods. All anyone mentioned were preference factors, differences in weight, finish, and to some extent dyeing. A better comparison weighs characteristics across the gamut of consumer expectations for quality, price and performance. I just can’t see a cowboy working a ranch in those high dollar Japanese denims. On that scale, the latter is inferior quality. This is why I say pronouncing the Japanese denim as higher quality seemed like a value (fashion) judgment rather than a precise qualitative (fact) one.

So, knowing me as you do, I had to ask some textile engineers and manufacturers for their opinions. While all the responses I received said much as I expected, the most succinct, complete and even humorous and surprising response came from consultant John Strickland (resume, pdf), reprinted in its entirety below:

First off let me get my biases on the table. As a general rule merchandisers, designers, and stylists at the denim labels don’t know the technical aspects of fabric, constructions, or dye shades. They usually muck it up pretty good. There are a few exceptions out there but they are few and far between. For years I have heard this group spout about “x” denim being the best. Early on it was Japanese, later Italian, and now Turkish. They seem to forget all the foreign makers learned their craft from the Americans. So now you know where I stand. For many of my years at Cone Denim I was one of two who taught “Denim 101” where we brought in customers -usually merchandisers, designers, and stylists- to educate them on the history and the technical details of denim; stuff they need to know.

Denim comes in wide array of qualities to fit the price points needed for the target market. You can divide the fabric groupings into as many slices as you want but generally you can split it into three groups.

1. The $18 to $25 jean for the mass retailers is made on coarse reeds (fewer ends per inch) with coarse warp and fill yarns. The yarns are open end and are not as strong and not as soft but it fits the market. Some might call this denim crap but for a $20 jean it serves it purpose. If anyone tries to make an expensive jean out of this, more power to them. It just will not meet expectations for construction, hand, wash, etc. It is commodity denim.

2. I like to think of the second group as the jeans that fall into the $35 to $100 range at the major brands. These are more highly constructed on a tighter reed and are made from finer yarns. The low end of this range can be open end yarn in both warp and fill and the high end of this range will be ring spun yarns in both warp in fill. In between will be fabrics with ring spun warp and open end fill. Most of the stretch fabrics fall into this category as well. I will not go into it here but you need to have knowledge of denim history and how it changed from work wear to fashion to appreciate what is being done in this category. The gold standard that the denim eroticas aspire to is the old narrow fly shuttle loom fabrics with the woven selvage made up until the 1970’s that has all the flaws and character that everyone wants. The fabrics in this category use the old fly shuttle fabrics for inspiration. They are not the same but look really good anyway. The fabrics are woven on wide high speed looms. The yarns, both open end and ring spun, have computer generated slubs to give the look of the poor quality uneven yarns from the old days. The dye shades are more sophisticated/complicated and allow for some great looking washes.

3. The last group is denim made for jeans that cost more than $100. This is where the denim eroticas hang out. These fabrics will have ring spun yarns in both the warp and fill. These will include the better fabrics from the second group made on wide high speed looms AND the old narrow fly shuttle fabrics made on the old Draper X2 and X3 looms. Cone Denim still has a group of X3 looms making the narrow fly shuttle selvage fabrics. This is what the Japanese have tried to copy. There is a myth that the Japanese bought up all the American fly shuttle looms making denim as they were replaced with new technology. Not true. The Japanese loom makers tried to match the Draper loom and came close but did not get it exact. The American mills make the best denim in the world but there is no doubt that the Japanese, Italians, and Turks have done a great job in catching up.

So to return to your comments, I have to say there is no inherent superiority in Japanese, Italian, or Turkish denim. It does boil down to preference in weight, finish, and dye shade (and I will add construction to this). There are thousands of choices to pick from and matching a desired end look to the appropriate style and shade of denim to provide that desired end look can be a daunting task. It is hard to make a commodity denim look like a high end denim but it fairly easy to take a high end denim and make it look like commodity if you don’t know what you are doing.

Hope this helps,
John (Bud) Strickland
809 Courtland Street
Greensboro, NC 27401

Bud is available for consulting. See his resume (pdf) for more information.

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  1. Claudine says:

    Hmm, I just bought some Cone denim to make a pair of jeans. Hopefully, I won’t ” take a high end denim and make it look like commodity.” But I might not know if I did.

  2. Donna S says:

    Hurrah for high end denim. It makes up great in slacks as opposed to jeans, and slacks look a lot better on my 70 year old figure. Does any one besides me remember when denim wasn’t fashionable?

  3. Camille says:

    Very good post. Fills in the ‘layman’s’ way of knowing denim into a ‘not-too-technical’ ‘techie’s’ way of knowing denim. Helpful to have the benefit of this perspective.

    What I draw from this series on denim:

    Seems that the reasons for the variables to make newer denim properties are multiple.
    But largely separate from the need for strength.

    It seems even in the early days of denim wear, Levis, Lees, Wrangler, etc., to have a garment have strength, was to put strength in the construction methods; dbl ndl seams, rivets, tack buttons, reinforcement stitches, bar tacks, multi-ply thick gauge sewing thread, about 7-9 stitches per inch, and so on.

    Seems that utilitarian, work wear category apparel in denim tends to rigid, w/ large coarse threads in weave, right hand twill construction, and possibly sanforized to reduce shrinkage.
    But considering the archives of recovered vintage denim work wear, life was hard and very physical,
    and owing to not owning a trove of denim ‘outfits’, work wear got worn daily, with patching to refresh, and to make hand-down-able.

    I imagine, denim constructed any heavier than apparel end-use, (with the purpose for strength), would be in upholstery/drapes, also possibly with added coatings to make water resistant as well.

    Anyhow interesting run on the subject of denim. Thanks Kathleen.

  4. Tracy says:

    Just want to chime in here: Threads Magazine’s Nov/Dec issue has an interview with a designer who works with denim. Kathleen’s comment about added coatings reminded me of the article, because it has a photo with a model wearing a dress made of denim with a shiny finish; looks almost like leather or vinyl.


  5. Richard_C says:

    I have to disagree with the statement that the best denim still comes from the US (not that I blame a Cone employee for saying otherwise). Even from the White Oak and Blackseed Cone collections, they never breach 14.5 oz and Japanese mills have gone as high as 23 oz. Now 23 oz is slightly rediculous but a couple weeks in a nice slubby pair of 17 oz denims, going back to anything below 14 oz is just not going to happen. The Japanese have also been far far more responsive in dying techniques to match market demand, Cone denim is infamous for the slower and less contrasted fades.

    That said, even using Cones cheapest selvedge 14oz stock, I’m happy with how some of my prototypes have evolved – http://www.flickr.com/photos/paleodenim/4091984988/

  6. Julia Crow says:

    Thanks for this series on denim. Due to the poor quality of the last few pairs I purchased for my husband,I’m having to evaluate if it is worth it to sew for him out of a better quality fabric. They were one of the brands mentioned above.

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