Seams of Japanese selvage denim jeans. (Image courtesy of Oneculture)

14-oz rope dyed Japanese selvage denim. (Image courtesy of Oneculture)

Everyone has that one pair of jeans they refuse to throw out. I’ve been wearing the same pair of high-waisted cigarette jeans for nearly a decade — they’re faded to perfection, and have been patched up in the most embarrassing places at least a dozen times. My seamstress laughs when she sees me walk in the door. Despite the wear and tear, they’re still the jeans I put on whenever I want to feel most like myself, the best version of me I can muster up effortlessly.

Good jeans and jackets get better with age. Their faded glory and patchwork are like badges of hard-lived memories. The shape fits you and only you, like a second skin. I’m hardly the only one with an emotional attachment to denim.

Worker in Denim Coat and Overall (Dungaree), possibly Farmer, 1940s

Denim work pence & coat, circa 1941. (Image courtesy of The Library of Congress, via The Selvage Yard)

Twill weave fabrics have been around for centuries, but iconic American blue jeans were first made for the likes of miners, ranch hands and farmers. They were durable and a man could spend all day panning for gold or lassoing cattle without giving a thought to his pants. The twill weave made dirt and stains less visible, and the cloth flexible and comfortable. The riveted pockets (famously patented by Levi Strauss in 1873) made them even sturdier. Jeans were synonymous with the rise of the West, and along with it, the rugged, American pioneer spirit.

These original jeans were made of selvage denim, a type of denim woven with one very long, continuous cross thread. This method keeps the edge from fraying, hence the “self-edge.” So durable was this material that most manufacturers made denim this way up until the 1930s. But in just 20 years — by the 1950s — cheaper and faster ways of making denim had almost entirely taken over.

Loom made by Draper Corporation in 1904, which produced the original XX denim for Levi's 501. (Image courtesy of

Model E Loom, Draper Corporation, 1904, used to make Levi’s 501 original denim. (Image courtesy of


The self-edge denim is made on shuttle looms, the weft (the continuous cross thread) is woven back and forth, back and forth, all the way down the length of the bolt (the roll of fabric). When the weft reaches the edge of the bolt, it loops back in and starts the process all over again, instead of ending and leaving an open edge that needs to be stitched, which is precisely what happens on modern projectile looms with separate wefts.

This process of making denim began in the mid-1800s at American mills, like Cone’s White Oak Mills in North Carolina, the original producer of Levi’s. The looms used varied in model name — from the Whitin to the Draper — but all are rare and ancient machines that used three yards of fabric for every pair of jeans. It’s a lot, but it resulted in a denser, more robust denim. To maximize yield on these cost-absorbing jeans, the mills would use all of the fabric, right up to its self-edge. The sewers used red, yellow, brown, white or green thread to stitch up the inseams on the inner leg. Each color represented a different weight of denim or number of times dipped in indigo, for the manufacturer’s reference. When cuffed, the colored inseam is a true indicator of vintage, selvage denim.

Woman wearing a denim overall, 1943. (Image courtesy of Shorpy)

Mrs. Marcella Hart, mother of three, employed as a wiper at the roundhouse. Chicago & North Western R.R, April 1943, Clinton, Iowa. (Image courtesy of Shorpy)

The original production of selvage denim used pure indigo dye — the rich, purplish-blue color associated with classic jeans. Denim manufacturers used ropes of 100% cotton (typically grown in the South) which they would hang from the ceiling and dip into vats of indigo. The ropes were then hoisted up to the roof to oxidize in the fresh air. They would repeat this process, dipping and re-dipping, until just the right shade of blue was reached.


Deemed archaic, costly and time consuming, denim mills stopped making selvage denim in the 1950s, but the transition was a couple of decades in the making. Wider shuttle looms were introduced in the ’30s, and by the ’50s much of the weaving was done on 42-inch projectile looms. They were faster, but produced a looser denim, one that would tear, fray and fade. Even the use of indigo — the very color of denim — was axed from the production process. Indigo was limited and expensive, so naturally the mills sought a chemical dye that was effective yet cheap. Sulfur dye was introduced, and color loss accelerated. Selvage denim all but disappeared on the garment trail.

Film poster from the 1956 film, Giant.

James Dean kicks back in the film poster for Giant, 1956.

Lucky for manufacturers, wearing beat-up jeans became a trend that started with James Dean in Rebel Without A Cause and exists to this day. Manufacturers’ slacking adherence to quality coincided with a waning need for jeans that wouldn’t wear out at the face of hard manual labor. By the ’50s, the denim pants that were immensely popular among the working class were fading from the market, and teen culture, in all its rebellious yet consumerist glory, picked up where the workers left off. Middle class teens embraced the fabric but weren’t exactly toiling in the fields. They didn’t need such a sturdy denim. Manufacturers took note.

Looms at the Cone Mills Company. (Image courtesy Cone Mills Corporation Records, via Southern Sources)

Cone Mills. (Image courtesy Cone Mills Corporation Records, via Southern Sources)


By the ’60s and ’70s, countries from Belgium to Germany to Japan, began outranking American denim mills in quality, reproducing narrow shuttle loom models that were superior to the original American selvage machines. The ancient machines, however, had a lack of precision in the cast iron and harness springs that gave the resulting bolt of selvage a beautiful character. These subtle imperfections were impossible to reproduce.

Sensing an opportunity, the Japanese bought many of the old machines from American mills in the 1980s. It probably seemed like a good idea to the American manufacturers at the time. Many of these looms were just rusting out in the fields or scrapped for parts — the old behemoths were taking up too much space in the factories.

American mills didn’t have the foresight to imagine that one day these machines would be the top producers for the high-end denim market. Not to mention they would be priceless artifacts in the history of denim — the very fabric of American culture.Denim ripped up, 1980s-style.

A pair of ripped-up and acid washed denim.

Life Cycle of a Jean, Levi Strauss & Co.
– Endless selvage denim and vintage clothing: Riveted

and tagged , , , , , , , ,


  1. sarah
    Posted December 29, 2010 at 7:32 PM | Permalink

    that last picture is incredible in so many ways. thanks for the article!

  2. Posted December 30, 2010 at 11:42 AM | Permalink

    Beautiful article written with great heart that makes me see just how connected denim is to the enduring American character.

  3. greg
    Posted January 3, 2011 at 2:51 PM | Permalink

    great article

  4. Edgar
    Posted January 4, 2011 at 6:41 AM | Permalink

    Oh jeans, how American you are. That poster of James Dean is classic.

  5. Conrad
    Posted January 4, 2011 at 7:27 AM | Permalink

    This article is really fascinating. I always wondered what happened to the high quality jeans I bought in my boyhood. Hopefully they will come back someday. I still wear jeans and can’t throw any of them out. I have jeans for each decade of my life after 20. I can tell which decade I wore them by looking at the size of the waist. Thanks for this one. Now I will start looking for selvage jeans.

  6. j
    Posted January 7, 2011 at 3:06 PM | Permalink

    Where exactly can one get high-waisted cigarette jeans?

  7. Posted January 10, 2011 at 12:06 PM | Permalink

    The best ones in the world are made by Judi Rosen New York, and they're the ones our dear writer has been wearing for nearly a decade.

  8. Steve O
    Posted March 8, 2014 at 4:08 PM | Permalink

    GREAT ARTICLE! Thankfully Levi's (LVC) have been reproducing replicas of their original selvaged denim, made in the USA at Cone Mills! I am obsessed with my 1944 501's.

  9. alexredgrave
    Posted March 10, 2014 at 2:15 PM | Permalink

    Glad you enjoyed , Steve!

  10. Bob
    Posted November 11, 2014 at 10:40 AM | Permalink

    Great article. I've worn Levi's for many years, and still love my levi's.

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared.

Click here to subscribe (via RSS) to the comments of this post.