***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.
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.
Here’s a quick rundown of how the three compare:
- #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.
- #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.
- 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.
- #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.
- 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.