Jeans – American born, but American Made? Part I

Mainpoint – The examination of jeans, their history and where to find jeans made in America.

Jeans have been the American fashion icon for over 60 years with its myriad of styles and cuts. It is a wonder that work clothes made for farmers, mechanics and cowboys could ever become the height of fashion. On Part I, we will go into what are jeans, the history of jeans, and how it first became fashionable. Part II will be about the modern progression of jeans and the subsequent various cuts, styles, and names that now make it so confusing in trying to purchase jeans and where American made jeans can still be found.

The Origin of the Word

So let us exam where the word “jeans” came from. There is an old wives tale that the word “‘Jeans” came from the Italian city of Genoa 500 years ago, but more and more tend to doubt this origin. In fact, jeans was a type of fabric separate from denim. How about “denim”?  Also, the name is of doubtful origin, supposedly from the place Serges de Nimes in France. Serges means twill. But, in France, the fabric itself was made out of silk and wool, not cotton, which is of American origin.

Technical stuff  (you are free to skip this part if you would like)

So, let us temporarily flee the discussion of jeans and denim, get a little more technical and focus on twill and what jeans are made up of.  Twill is a fabric woven in a pattern that produces an effect of parallel diagonal lines. If you want to break it down even further (kind of like under the microscope), let us say you have an old fashioned loom. There are length wise threads (called the warp). And you have the horizontal threads (called the woof). In the loom, the horizontal thread inter-weaves in the following manner: One over the warp and then under two threads under the warp, etc. Then the next horizontal thread down does the same pattern but starts one thread over. This gives the effect of diagonal parallel “ribs”.  In classic denim, the material is made of durable cotton fabric. The length wise fibers, the warp, are dyed an indigo color, while the woof (the horizontal fibers) are white. The question then still remains, if denim was first made in France, it could not be made of cotton, but made of a different fabric in a twill pattern. So is that really denim?

More technical stuff

Jeans in the 19th and early 20th century, was actually a  separate fabric from denim altogether. It tended to be used for uniforms, both threads (warp and woof) were colored, and it was not as durable as denim. If you wanted fabric that wouldn’t tear easily, that would be denim, which was more expensive and extensively used in overalls and work clothes. So, jeans are separate from denim. Confusing isn’t it? Later in this blog entry, we will put these loose ends together.

The origin of jeans

Jeans had evolved from overalls. In fact, jeans for many years were called waist trousers until 1960, when Levi Strauss officially called them jeans. Overalls were introduced in about 1750. They were used as a protection to prevent work related wear and tear to breeches and stockings. They were primarily made of linen. For warmth, sometimes overalls were made of wool.

In the early 1800s, cotton became cheap, and overalls were then made of cotton canvas, duck, which is like a canvas and denim. The next big step in jeans (waist trousers) happened in 1873.  A tailor, Jacob Davis came up with the idea of adding rivets to add to the durability of the fabric overalls. However, he did not have the money to secure the patent. He, thus enlisted a business associate, and partnered with him to obtain the patent. His partner was Loeb (Levi) Strauss, a clothing manufacturer. The Levi Strauss historian described the 1873 Original pants (waist overalls) as having one back pocket with the Arcurate stitching design, a watch pocket, a cinch, suspender buttons, and a rivet in the crotch. Clearly, overalls and waist overalls (jeans) were work clothes, not in fashion at all. In the 1920’s, the duck and canvas in overalls were gradually phased out, most probably due to canvas is very hot, it doesn’t “breathe” and because over time, these fabrics do not become more comfortable, unlike denim which does. And for those of you who don’t remember, there wasn’t any thing called pre-washed jeans, so you had to purchase brand new, unbroken in jeans, which would be very stiff at first. Then, the jeans, after wearing them many times, finally became comfortable.

Jeans as Fashion

It does seem a stretch to think that jeans would ever be fashionable. Why would anyone want to dress like a farmer.? For fashion, you would have to thank Hollywood for turning people’s thinking around. First, in the 1930’s, Hollywood movies showed Hollywood cowboys wearing jeans. Because of this, some people in the East, bought jeans and found they were comfortable. But the biggest push for jeans came as the result of a movie called “Rebel Without A Cause”. It caused a national sensation. By 1958, a newspaper article reported “about 90% of American youths wear jeans everywhere except ‘in bed and in church’. There was just one style, the “classic style”: jeans went over the hips, crossed a couple of inches under the navel, straight cut (14 inches circumference at the leg end), and blue. There were no jeans made for one sex or the other – it was unisex. There was one great improvement in the 50’s – the zipper, introduced in 1954. Because of the popularity of jeans especially with the teenagers, there was a backlash against jeans, as some people felt that  jeans meant rebellion & anti-establishment and therefore banned them from certain venues like schools which lasted until the late 1960s. Waist trousers during the 1950s were being called “jeans”, for unknown reasons (they were made of denim, not jeans material). This name stuck and Levi Strauss officially named the waist overalls “jeans” in 1960. And, it went without saying, all jeans were made in the USA at that time.


From the history we can now conclude that the official definition of jeans are that it is a pair of trousers, made of denim, a cotton fiber made in a twill pattern, dyed indigo color, and reinforced with rivets. Part II will resume the story starting in the 1960’s.

“Jeans represent democracy in fashion.” – Giorgio Armani


2 Responses to “Jeans – American born, but American Made? Part I”

  1. 1 Gina
    April 10, 2018 at 10:24 am

    I have a question for you! What does “fabric made in the USA mean?” on my used Levi’s care tag? Thank you!

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