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The Anatomy of Jeans (so you can upcycle them) - Part 3

Part 3: All the Faded Parts

Part 4: Those Confusing Inside Tags (Coming Soon)

This handy guide will help you upcycle your jeans, because when you know what something is called it's easier to google it. Part 1 covered the top block, Part 2 gave you an overview of what you might find in and around the seams, Part 3 is going to tackle all the faded parts and Part 4 will discuss all those confusing inside tags.

And if this is interesting and you want to learn more, you should take my on-demand Quilt Your Jeans class that goes over all of this in much more detail.

All the faded and scrunchy parts

the inside of a pair of jeans sewing all the seam constructions

Remember those people in Part 2 who spend $400 on Japanese selvedge? Well, they are probably buying their jeans “raw” which means they are mostly unwashed and untreated. This is so they can create all those wear patterns themselves and end up with a truly custom pair of jeans.

Otherwise, all the fading and rips get added through wet and dry processing at the factory. This is also known as reason #2 why denim manufacturing is bad for the planet (reason #1 is cotton production, but that's a whole other conversation).

Good news is there are many new techniques, from lasers to ozone, that are replacing the traditional methods that were more harmful to workers and the planet. Bad news is it’s almost impossible to tell what method a brand used unless they tell you... and even then, with 3rd party manufacturing... oof.

Wet vs. Dry Processing

Wet vs. dry processing is exactly what it sounds like: one is done while the jeans are wet, usually in industrial washing machines, and the other is done once the jeans are dry, either by hand or machine.

A. Wet Processing

Denim washes and base shades

Wet processing is usually represented by a formula or combination of different techniques and time – for example "30min enzyme + stone" means the jeans have been washed for 30 minutes with enzymes and pumice stones, with the enzymes helping fade the wash and stones (yep, that's where stonewash comes from), breaking down the denim to get softness, texture and fading. Wet processing will determine if the "base shade" is light or dark and how flat or textured the jean appears (examples above). Traditionally this was done with bleach and pumice stones, but enzymes, ozone and other new technologies are more sustainable alternatives.

Besides chemicals, the biggest sustainability issue with wet processing is, well, the fact it's wet. Water consumption is a huge issue in denim production. You can only fit so many jeans into an industrial washer, and then the lighter the finish, the longer the washer runs. And then that water filled with chemicals and synthetic indigo has to go somewhere...

B. Dry Processing – Whiskers & Handsand

So once the base shade is set, all those lines, faded spots, scrunchy bits and rips are added through dry processing.

Jeans whiskers and handsand

The two most common patterns are whiskers (those lines on the top block, like a cat's whiskers), and handsand (the fade on the thigh). It's called handsand because traditionally it was done by a garment worker holding something like sandpaper in their hand to create that pattern on each individual pair of jeans. I have spent time in those factories and it’s one of the reasons I try not to buy anything mass produced.

These patterns have also been done by sandblasting, which has been banned by many brands due to how hazardous it is to garment workers.

Another traditional method of creating whiskers and handsand is PP spray (stands for potassium permanganate) a bleaching agent. Besides creating short and long-term health issues for workers, PP spray weakens the fabric, shortening the life of the jeans.

Thankfully, making these patterns with lasers has become more and more common as the technology improves. The early laser patterns looked fake and harsh, but some brands and factories kept investing in the technology because it saved time and was better for the environment.

Exercise: what was the last brand you bought jeans from? Google their stance on sustainability. Do they use the harsh chemicals listed above?

C. Dry Processing – Destruction & Tacking

Denim Dry Process - Destruction & tacking

The majority of "destruction" is done in the dry processing phase, but an intense wet process treatment can also result in fraying on the hems and pockets. There are a ton of different techniques and types of destruction, from "grinding" on the hem to large "blowouts" on the front of the leg. Traditionally these were done manually but some can now be done with lasers or other new technologies.

Probably my least favorite technique to give dimension and age to a jean is “tacking”, which is when part of the jean (like the back pocket above) is turned and tacked, coated with a synthetic resin and then baked to create a 3D effect.

Resin is a multiple offender when it comes to denim production. Have you ever seen jeans that are extra stiff and shiny? Those have likely received a coat of resin over the entire garment and then (like the tacking) are baked in a large commercial oven to preserve the effect.

Someone could write a novel (and probably has) about all the different types and techniques and combos of wet and dry processes that most jeans go through. My goal was to give you just a peak into this world to help you better understand the highs and lows of denim production. (Ha! That was kind of an inside joke because "highs and lows" is one way to describe a denim finish... sorry.)


Next up Part 4: Those Confusing Inside Tags (Coming soon!)

Who am I to tell you about jeans and why am I doing it? Well, I worked for Levi's in product development for 15 years, but mostly I really like jeans. I especially like them for upcycling because denim is a fabric that gets better with time. I also like that when you upcycle you are helping with the giant problem of textile waste on the planet.

Thanks for reading!


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