How jeans are made and why sewing your own could be a more sustainable option

How jeans are made and why sewing your own could be a more sustainable option

Making my own jeans was one of the most empowering sewing projects I ever completed. After vowing I would never make jeans because a) I don’t wear jeans all that much and b) I have a few RTW pairs that fit me quite well, I finally succumbed a few years ago to the Ginger jeans mania. And I never looked back!

It looks like I’m not the only one that feels amazing in their self-made jeans! So many people in the community have been revelling in fearless sewing and just getting over any misapprehensions and worries to dive right into it. And have been more confident and happier for it!

And now I want to tell you that there are even more great reasons to feel great about making your own jeans.

You might be doing a little bit for the planet as well. Of course, as sewers, we know exactly who made our jeans: US! So all the potential ethical and social issues that surround the fashion industry are avoided this way. But did you know that you could also have a positive environmental impact as well?

I recently learned more about the denim production process that made me realise that there are a lot of steps that are part and parcel of the industrial manufacturing process that we don’t do when making our own jeans, and they are actually very water and chemical intensive, not to mention the health hazards to the factory workers. So I wanted to share this with you and encourage you to give home jeans making a go if you haven’t already!

Featured picture credit: Bruno Nascimento on Unsplash

How are RTW jeans made?

1| Denim Fabric Production

Production steps:

  • cotton growing
  • ginning
  • spinning
  • fibre indigo dyeing
  • weaving
  • fabric finishing

The name Denim comes from Serge de Nimes, a city in France where a particular type of heavy duty cotton twill canvas was produced. De Nimes became Denim, the generic name for the fabric that millions of garments are made out of every year. In fact, 2.7billion meters of denim fabric are woven every year (source).

The term ‘jeans’ comes from the city of Genoa in Italy, which produced a slightly cheaper, thinner version of the Serge de Nimes. This was traditional workwear for the lower classes of Northern Italy. It was also dyed blue using indigo.

How jeans are made and why making

Credit: Ricardo Gomez Angel on Unsplash

Did you know (I didn’t) that the term dungaree also refers to a type of fabric, not a garment? It’s an Indian twill 2by2 weave, also dyed indigo, that is considered the precursor of denim fabric.

Denim is traditionally 100% cotton, woven in 2 by 1 twill. Its signature characteristic is the different colour of the warp and weave threads, resulting in a coloured right side and a white wrong side, because only the weave threads are dyes and the warp stays its natural colour. The weave fibres are indigo dyed, which confers the characteristic blue colour. In the recent decades, stretch fibres for comfort and even polyester for durability (and cost) are being added into the weave.

From an environmental perspective, even at fabric production level, a significant impact has already taken place. If you want to know more about how cotton production affects the planet, have a look at this blog posts I wrote a few years ago. Also, if you’ve missed it, I do encourage you to watch The True Cost documentary, now free on Netflix (warming, life-changing behaviour might ensue!) Land use, impact on biodiversity, pesticide use and most importantly, water use (check out this article about how cotton production dried up the Aral sea) are some of the main concerns around conventional cotton growing. Organic and fairtrade cotton, and more recently, BCI cotton, are schemes that look to reduce these impacts, as well as the social ones.

2| Cutting + Sewing

Production steps:

  • design
  • pattern making
  • production sampling & fitting
  • fabric cutting
  • sewing
  • pressing & finishing

The first jeans as we know them were patented in 1873 by Levi Strauss Co, and were designed to be very resilient workwear for miners or cowboys. The characteristics of what actually makes a pair of jeans were innovations to make the garment long-wearing: the rivets in the corners of the back and coin pockets, the bar tacks on the side and at the bottom of the jeans, the flat-felled seams etc.

Going back to the manufacturing process, there are many things that would surprise you as a home sewer.

Cutting is done by spreading out many layers of fabric one on top of each other, then tacking the pattern pieces on top and using a laser or industrial saw to cut through all layers. This ensures both accuracy and efficiency in the process and getting as little left-over fabric as possible.

As to the sewing process, it’s crazy how fragmented it actually is in industry. No one pair of jeans is made by the same person. Each operation is done by a different worker that only does that one thing, for example, they only sew the pocket design, or only the fly front, or only the side seams etc. Same goes for attaching the buttons, rivets etc. Also, many operations are done by specialised machines. Here is a list, courtesy of OnlineClothingStudy.com.

Sewing machines:
  • Single needle lockstitch machine (with/without under bed trimmer)
  • Single needle Edge cutter
  • Double-needle lockstitch
  • Double-needle chain stitch
  • 5 thread overlock machine – side seam
  • 3 Thread overlock for serging operation, zipper fly serging
  • Feed of the Arm (FOA) – for inseam and back yoke attach
  • Bartack machine – for attaching belt loop
  • Coverstitch machine / Flatlock machine
  • Eyelet hole machine (making eyelets)
  • Multi-needle chain stitch machine (Waistband finish)
  • Buttonhole
  • Pattern sewer – for back pocket pattern making
  • Snap button attaching machine
  • Loop making (a special machine)
  • Work aids and attachments for various sewing operations
You can also add automatic machine (workstation) for the following operation
– Automatic back pocket attaching machine (pocket setter)
– Automatic belt loop making and belt loop attaching machine
– Automatic J-stitch machine
Does it not make you feel quite amazing that we can do all these things on a regular domestic sewing machine?
Guess how long a pair of jeans should be completed in? The Standard Minute Value (SMV) for a typical factory is 11.65, so about 12 minutes (excluding the time to move between operations). You can check out the breakdown here. Mind boggling, right?
Check out this video to see all this in action:

3| Washing & Finishing

Process steps (not all may be included) :
  • Sanding
  • Indigo Washing (enzyme washing, rinse washing, stone washing, caustic washing, hydrogen peroxide washing, etc)
  • Distressing (sandblasting, laser, Dremel tool, pellet shooting, etc)
  • Potassium Permanganate (PP) spraying
  • Neutralising washing
  • Finishing (drying, pressing, labelling and packing)

Credit: Haley Phelps on Unsplash

When I started learning about denim production, this was the process step that made my jaw drop. The incredible number of steps that make a jean look the way they do was really mind-blowing. Also, the fact that every single design feature, like rips or whiskers, etc, were individually made for every single pair of jeans! That’s just mad!

But what was also quite distressing was the incredible amount of water and chemicals that are being used to obtain that latest fashionable look, a certain wash, distressing design etc. Effectively, indigo dye is put on the fabric (using water, chemicals that are required to reduce the indigo, and energy for the high water temperature), only to be washed off in various designs and sprayed with more chemicals (Potassium Permanganate) to obtain a certain colour or look. And then those chemicals need to be washed off again so that they are not toxic when the jeans are worn. Efficient, right? I really recommend River Blue, a documentary about the impact of fashion, and especially denim production, on the waterways.

Have a look for yourself (courtesy of MultiCamera Boy on Youtube)

So why could making your own jeans more environmentally friendly?

Before I get into more details, I must acknowledge that buying jeans that have already been produced, through wearing what you already have, borrowing, swapping or thrifting is the best thing we can do. That is because the majority of the impact has already happened. But if this is not possible, practical or you just really really want to sew your own jeans, here is why that could be better for the planet.

Of the three steps I mentioned above, making your own jeans saves two: the sewing and the washing/finishing phase. So why is this good?

From an ethical perspective, conditions in the garment industry have long been under the scrutiny of NGOs and more and more lately, of the general public. Of course, we can absolutely support brands that offer transparency and pay their workers a decent wage. But this is quite hard to find out for most high-street brands and so there could still be question marks around where our jeans are made. If you make your own jeans, these issues are no longer applicable.

Credit: Jamie Street on Unsplash

From an environmental perspective, all industrial facilities require energy to run and in most cases, this is still based on fossil fuels and therefore releasing carbon into the environment. Also, in many cases, the garments are manufactured in different countries from where they are to be eventually sold, so there is also carbon involved in the logistics and transportation.

However, the biggest impact in the denim production is actually what is called ‘wet processing’, i.e. dyeing and washing. When we buy denim fabric, it has already been processed, so the dyeing impact has already happened. We can mitigate this a bit by buying fabric run left-overs, overstock, factory remnants or any other form of non-milled fabric (i.e. fabric that is not purpose-made to be sold wholesale or retail).

But what we do avoid is the washing phase, and this is indeed quite significant.

The more processed the fabric – designs, wash, distressing – the more water, chemicals and labour have been used to produce them. And by buying fabric that is just dyed with the original indigo dye, you are saying pass to all of the above.

Processing can also pose health risks for the workers. For example, many brands have banned sandblasting (used for distressing denim) because of the risk of silicosis (a lung disease). During this process, workers shoot abrasive sand onto denim jeans under high pressure. Sandblasting is used because it’s a cheaper process than enzyme washing, for example.

Potassium Permanganate (PP) spraying is another practice that’s harmful to workers. It is used for localised distressing, as jeans are sprayed with the solution then washed off. It is done with a spray-gun that transforms chemicals into micro-particles which can be absorbed by people who perform this technique and can result in lung problems, despite precautionary steps.

Take-aways for more sustainable jeans

PIN TO SPREAD THE WORD:

If you are making your own jeans:

  • Buy reclaimed, end-of-roll, deadstock or factory excess fabric if you can
  • Choose darker denim – less washing has been done on it, saving on water and chemicals
  • Wash less – indigo molecules do not fixate in the fibres, so every wash makes them come off; less washing = colour will last longer and you are saving water too
  • Buy single fibre denim – 100% cotton denim is easier to recycle vs stretch fabric with elastane or polyester
  • Choose raw or selvedge denim, they are more durable than lighter weight fabrics
  • Choose organic denim if you can, the cotton growing process will have had less environmental impacts
  • Use reclaimed trims, like zippers or buttons
How jeans are made and why making your own can be a more sustainable option

Credit: Nik Macmillan on Unsplash

If you are buying jeans:

  • Choose pre-loved (thrifted, swapped etc)
  • If buying new, look into the policies of the brand on sandblasting, cotton (many brands are offering BCI cotton now, which is a better option than conventional cotton), washing and finishing practices (Ozone washing uses 1 glass of water for each pair of jeans, laser replaces sanding and distressing, etc)
  • Avoid distressed
  • Remember denim is made to last for a long time, so hang on to them for as long as they serve

 


I hope you enjoyed this foray into the world of denim! I have only scratched the surface on both the technical side and sustainability side of it, even if it ended up being a 2000 words post. As ever, there is no one answer with regards to sustainability, and particular brands or factories have different processes that may be different. There is never a straight answer as to what is the most sustainable thing to do, but I tried to provide some food for thought to the best of my knowledge. If some of you will be prompted to make a small difference in how they sew or buy, I think that’s really great.

And remember, doing something towards a less impactful life, no matter how small, is always better than doing nothing!

SO, TELL ME YOUR DENIM STORIES! HAVE YOU MADE YOUR OWN JEANS? IF NOT, WHAT’S STOPPING YOU? WHAT ARE YOUR FAVOURITE PATTERNS AND WHY? TELL ME IN COMMENTS!

ENJOYED THIS POST?

SEWRENDIPITY BLOG SEWING | STYLE | SUSTAINABILITY

 

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6 Comments

  1. 11 October 2018 / 1:13 PM

    Another great post Alex, and I feel very pleased that I make my own jeans and those of my husband!

  2. 11 October 2018 / 2:14 PM

    Thank you for another great morale booster Alex! I’m taking a pants sloper making workshop in a couple of weeks with Alexandra Morgan which I’m really excited about – once I have that sloper there will be no stopping me – EVEN jeans here i come 🙂

  3. 11 October 2018 / 7:04 PM

    Thank you for this informative post! Who knew that making a pair of RTW jeans took so many different sewing machines or only takes 12 minutes? And as for the impact of the finishing processes? Once I’d finally stopped listening to the naysayers, I started making my own jeans and haven’t looked back. I’m not sure why so many people think they are so difficult and not worthwhile. Yes, they can take time, but are such a rewarding make.

  4. 12 October 2018 / 4:42 PM

    Very interesting! I’ve been making my own jeans for a while but it’s been more about not being able to find the fabric I want in RTW jeans than about being green. It’s good to know it’s environmentally friendly too. And I do wear them to shreds.

  5. Lenera
    12 October 2018 / 10:40 PM

    Where might one find scrap denim, end-of-rolls, etc.?

    • sewrendipityalex
      Author
      13 October 2018 / 8:56 AM

      I use an online shop called The FC Fabric studio for general fabrics. They sell leftovers from their garment manufacturing factory. Not sure about denim though. I would ask your fabric shop where they get their fabrics. Often they buy dead stock. Just avoid fashionable fabric, branded one, because for sure that is newly milled fabric. Indie Sew also sells dead stock.

So, what do you think?

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