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Is Designer Denim Worth It? — A Tale of Two Gingers

***WARNING: My inner fabric snob will be showing in this post — apologies in advance. ***

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us…”  Well, you get the picture.

I conducted a completely inadvertent experiment a few months ago.  Inadvertent because when I spent the considerable time and effort to make a pair of jeans, I try to make sure that project is going to be as successful as it could possibly be.  And of course fabric is a huuuuuuge part of that!

So let’s just set the scene, shall we?  You’ve decided to make yourself the perfect-fitting pair of jeans.  You’ve chosen your pattern, printed the 1,000,000 pages of the PDF pattern file, diligently taped it all together and cut out your size, blending where necessary.  You’ve made all your fitting adjustments, maybe even a muslin or two to make sure you got it right.

Now you’re ready to get to work!  You’ve mentally psyched yourself up for the laborious task of cutting your denim in a single layer (the only way to cut jeans, I might add), and the hours of sewing and precise topstitching required to get that perfect pair of handmade jeans.

You go into your fabric stash, and find a couple of yards of denim.  You purchased it from some store (you can’t quite remember where) a while back (you can’t quite remember when) and you’re pretty sure that they’re a cotton/spandex blend (but you can’t quite remember the fiber content), and you’re pretty sure you paid about $9 per yard for that random unknown denim.

… And this is where the film reel screetches to a stop!  Put down the scissors, back away from the denim.  Because no matter what anyone says, all denim is not created equal!

Whenever I see people recommending Joann’s denim for handmade jeans, I cringe on the inside.  It’s no secret that I’m not a big fan of Joann’s.  While their stock is getting better, and there are some fabrics that I have no qualms at all about purchasing from them from a quality standpoint anyway (I still have fundamental issues about shopping anywhere you are expected to have a 40% off coupon to get fabrics down to market price and where at least half the store is on sale at any given time).  Cotton  shirting comes to mind, but not denim.

Until recently, I had nothing concrete to back up my suspicion, other than my own experience with RTW jeans.  I was an inexpensive jeans-wearer for most of my life, but I bought myself my first pair of designer jeans after I passed the bar exam in 2004 (a classic pair of bootcut Sevens).  That experience taught me a very important lesson — all jeans are not created equal.

When you look inside a pair of $250 designer jeans versus a $20 pair from Target, you won’t see a lot of differences in terms of construction.  There may be small differences, and a flat-felled seam or two, but they’re basically the same.  So what justifies the $200+ price difference?

I’m not going to get into labor costs and ethics, etc. here, even though that plays a big role — the other big part of the price jump from the economy jeans to the designer ones is fabric.  Those designer jeans are made from really high-quality denim usually milled either in the US or Japan.  And the difference shows.

But what does all this have to do with my jeans?  Well, a lot actually.  Below are 3 pairs of my handmade jeans.  On the left are my straight-leg Ginger Jeans, made with American-milled Cone Mills denim.  In the middle are my Birkin Flares, made with American-milled Pacific Blue denim.  And on the right are my skinny Ginger Jeans, made with stretch denim from Joann’s.

Creative counselor: Denim comparison
Left to right: (1) Straight-leg Ginger Jeans, (2) Birkin Flares, (3) Skinny Ginger Jeans

I’ll save you the suspense and say that there is a huuuuuuge difference in the denim on these three pairs of jeans.  And as you may suspect, the high-quality American-milled denim came out waaaaaaay ahead of the stuff from Joann’s.

Creative counselor: Denim comparison
Left to right: (1) Straight-leg Ginger Jeans, (2) Birkin Flares, (3) Skinny Ginger Jeans

Here’s a quick rundown of how the three compare:

Stretch

  • #1 (Straight-leg Gingers):  The Cone Mills denim that I used has 2% spandex, which is pretty typical for stretch denim.  It has a nice amount of stretch for jeans, but certainly not enough to make jeggings, if that’s what you’re after.  It is nice and sturdy for jeans.
  • #2 (Birkins):  Like the Cone Mills, this Pacific Blue denim also has 2% spandex, and like the Cone Mills, it is nice and sturdy for jeans with enough stretch for movement.
  • #3 (Skinny Gingers): The Joann’s denim is definitely the stretchiest of the three, even though it also has 2% spandex.  It was an immediate red flag when the denim stretched significantly just from handling while I was sewing it.  I had to sew a dart in the waistband so that these jeans didn’t fall off my butt.  The starting measurements were exactly the same as my other Gingers, for reference.

Recovery

  • #1 and #2 (Straight-leg Gingers and Birkins): Recovery on both of these jeans is really good.  I went 6 months without washing the Gingers, and they held their shape perfectly.  I would have gone that long without washing the Birkins, but they ended up super muddy after I wore them in my backyard after a rainstorm, so they had to be washed.
  • #3 (Skinny Gingers):  This is where I see the biggest difference.  The recovery on these jeans is horrible.  As I indicated earlier, they stretched out so much with handling while I was making them that I had to sew a dart in the waistband so they didn’t fall off.  If I wear these for a whole day (which I never do because I am constantly having to pull them up), they would absolutely need to be washed and dried before I wore them again. This denim doesn’t recover at all.

Handling during Construction

  • This is an area where I didn’t notice significant difference among the three.  Denim is a heavier weight fabric, which generally makes it a lot easier to work with than knits or lighter wovens.  All three of these handled just fine.  However, as indicated earlier, the Joann’s denim had horrible recovery in comparison to the other two, which looking back on it, was evident when I was doing some of the topstitching.

Washing

  • I try not to wash #1 and #2 very often — my goal is to wash about every 6 months.  Both work just fine with this frequency, and I’ve had very little bleeding.  With #3, I have to wash them after every wear so they’ll shrink back down to where I can wear them again.  I did have a little more issues with dye rubbing off with these jeans, but after the first couple of washes, that cleared up.

Cost

  • #1 (Straight leg Gingers):  Cone Mills denim costs either $14 or $16 per yard at the two online stores I know that sell it by the yard, plus shipping.
  • #2 (Birkins):  Pacific Mills denim is $14 per yard at the online store I know that sells it by the yard, plus shipping.
  • #3 (Skinny Gingers):  Joann’s denim typically carries a list price of about $15-16 per yard.  But of course, it’s expected that you go with at least a 40% off coupon, making it about $9 per yard, give or take.  No shipping if you buy locally.

Bottom Line

  • I’m sure this will come as no shock — the denim I used for #1 and #2 is faaaaar superior to the cheaper denim.  Recovery is probably THE number one consideration for me in stretch denim, and there is absolutely no comparison.  The lack of recovery in the cheaper denim makes them downright unpleasant to wear.  When I discovered my mistake, I was kicking myself for wasting HOURS of my time making jeans that I could have picked up for $20 at any Target.
  • The cost difference between the two different types of denim is not that much.  Threadbare Fabrics and Fancy Tiger Crafts both carry Cone Mills denim for $16 and $14 per yard, respectively.  Fancy Tiger carries Pacific Blue for $14 per yard.  By contrast, the denim from Joann’s was significantly lower quality but still about $9 per yard after applying a 40% off coupon (don’t get me started on stores that intentionally mark up their prices but then expects everyone to have coupons and think they’re getting a “deal”).  In my opinion, that $5/yard savings is not worth it.  Jeans take too much time and effort to scrimp on fabric to save $10.

21 thoughts on “Is Designer Denim Worth It? — A Tale of Two Gingers

  1. Thanks for the super interesting post. I have never made jeans (I’m a dress gal primarily) but this is great information.

    I, too, have owned a pair of Seven jeans which I purchased at Goodwill and was truly impressed with how well they fit & the quality. It never occurred to me it was the fabric.

    I am a bit of a fabric snob also. I believe the better quality of fabric you purchase the better quality garment you will make. I prefer to sew in natural fibers and think they do last longer. I purchase cottons from JAs but most of my fabric comes from Colorado Fabrics here in Denver. I am surprised that the denim at FT is not so expensive. I rarely go into their store as I have felt I don’t have enough tattoos or am quite ironic & hip enough. 🙂

    Keep up the great posts.

    1. I generally agree, particularly on garments that are meant to last for a long time like jeans. I go for cheaper knits if I’m making a basic t-shirt, but I don’t skimp on something like denim!

  2. Thanks for this very informative post. I too am embarking on the arduous process of sewing my own jeans. For my muslin I bought some cheap denim but am looking around for deep indigo denim for my 3rd pair . 3rd because I reckon thats how many goes I will need before fit is perfected. I really appreciated your post.

    1. Good plan! I also sewed up a pair or two before I cut into my Cone Mills, if for no other reason than to make sure I was confident with the techniques like installing the zip fly and alllllll the topstitching. I don’t wear those first pairs very often, but my nice pairs look really nice now!

  3. That is super helpful. I am not a fabric snob because I have never been a clothing or shoe or bag snob… but now that I sew more for my actual wardrobe, I try to pay attention. Not going to lie though. Spending 50 bucks on fabric for me to make 1, maybe 2 items if I am lucky kills me every time. Which is why it is a rarity. Rarity would be so disappointed in me.

    1. Haha! I don’t spend $15 per yard on all of my fabric. For knits in particular, I definitely go the cheaper route — anything over about $6 and I think twice. But then I don’t plan on a knit t-shirt lasting more than one or two seasons, which is about how long it will be before the cheaper fabric starts to get nasty and I need to replace it. But for me, jeans are another story. When I make a pair of jeans, I plan to wear those jeans for the next 5 years, if not longer. And not just every now and then, but almost daily wear. So I really don’t feel bad spending more money for really quality materials on a piece that will get hard wear for a long time. Same thing with something like a coat or blazer — if I’m putting in that level of work for something that I plan to wear for a long time, I don’t see the point in skimping on materials 🙂

  4. I enjoyed reading about your experiment with denim! I appreciated the thorough comparison. I have also been reading your tutorial about the dartless FBA–hoping to fit a Scout tee.

  5. I usually try to divide total price by the number of times you expect to wear the garment unless it’s going to be something fabulous for a special occasion. Having said that I have never attempted jeans so well done you!

    1. That’s a good way to look at it! It fits in well with my general philosophy of spending more on garments that I plan to wear frequently for a long time and that need to hold up.

  6. Getting ready to sew my first Birkin flares (which will be my first ever jeans), and your comments on fabric are easing my mind just a bit. If I end up hating them, it might not be me, it might be the inexpensive denim…phew!!

    1. Haha! I’m sure there is varying quality among the inexpensive denim, but I just figure when I’m putting in that much time, I might as well make them awesome.

    1. Actually there is a whole subset of people who never wash their jeans. Ever. If they get dirty they spot clean them and put them in the freezer if they get smelly! But I am not completely against washing my jeans, I just try not to do it too often. My reasons are really twofold. First, with good denim, it will relax and shape itself to your body. And if it has good recovery like my Cone Mills and Pacific Blue denim, it will keep that shape and I’ll have perfect fitting jeans that are broken in and adjusted to my body. Washing ruins that and they have to mold to my body all over again. Drying is worse so even when I wash them, I hang them to dry. For me, needing to wash and dry my jeans for them to fit right is a sign that either (1) I used cheap denim or (2) they are too big. And the second reason I try not to wash very often is because the jeans will last longer that way. Washing and drying will break down the fibers in the fabric and shorten the life of the jeans. Or any garment really. So I try not to wash them very often.

  7. Hello, wise lady of all things denim,
    I was just wondering if you knew anything about Kaufman denims. I’ve seen a lot of them around and they’re more widely available where I am, but I can’t find any info ien the quality. I’m like you – if I’m going to put that much time into a garment, I’d like it to be with quality materials.
    Thanks, Katie!

    1. I have never used Kauffman denim before but I know that generally Kauffman fabrics are pretty good. There are definitely more buying options than for the Cone Mills and Pacific Blue. My guess is that it’s an in between option. Probably a lot better than Joann’s and Girl Charlee and not quite as good as the high-end American milled ones.

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