A couple weeks ago, during my bi-annual stroll through market week, I got a chance to grab hold of what one brand proudly proclaimed was the world’s heaviest pair of jeans. While I thought they felt like some sort of sick summer torture device, I couldn’t help but wonder how we got here? When did denim became this complicated? Ask any denim head worth his salt and he’ll tell you the answer lies in a single word: selvedge. All in all, the term is pretty simple, it just denotes a style of denim that has a clean finish, which prevents the edges from unraveling. So then why is this little detail the stuff of denim-heads dreams?
The answer lies in the method. Selvedge denim was first created in America during the late nineteenth century on “old-style” shuttle looms that use one long continuous thread. Once this thread reaches from one side to the other, it loops back around creating the selvedge stripe (literally from “self edge”) on one side of the cloth. The mills took pride in their product so they decided to add a colored thread to this stripe as a way of showing off where it’s from, a practice that still continues today making it easy to spot those select few who spend a few hundred dollars on their jeans.
While this explains what selvedge is, it doesn’t really get to the heart of the hype, and to be totally honest there wouldn’t have been any hype without greed. From 1870 to around the 1940′s all denim was selvedge, yet in the fifties everything changed. Actors started wearing jeans, for the first time you could show up to work in them, and all of a sudden demand skyrocketed. Jean companies had to think fast, and the shuttle loom process was anything but, so they had to adapt. This meant cutting corners, streamlining production and closing down shuttle loom factories. Stateside you could now get more jeans for less money, which is of course the American dream, so we never really mourned the death of selvedge denim, but abroad things were a bit different.
Around the late seventies and early eighties the Japanese took an interest in Americana and somehow began doing it better than we ever did. A few forward thinking Japanese brands started scooping up most of the remaining shuttle looms from across the world, bringing them back home to start making jeans the good ol’ way. This fueled the denim craze that really took off in the nineties, with companies from Japan, and the few remaining mills in the states producing selvedge denim to feed the ever hungry masses. And this is where the hype comes from, throw in one part high quality, one part rarity, and one part nostalgia and you have the contemporary obsession with selvedge denim. Toss a competitive spirit into the equation and you’ve arrived at a world in which 32 ounce selvedge denim exists. Whatever you do, just don’t wear those on a hot day, no matter how tempting those “sweet sweat fades” may be.
Jake Gallagher writes the blog Wax-Wane.