The Story Behind Denim

We’ve all heard stories about Levi Strauss and how he made his fortune in California in the gold rush of 1849 not by looking for gold, but by selling pants made of denim.

The State Assembly of California has celebrated those pants by naming denim as the new state fabric.  The rationale was that denim is an important part of California’s history and the farmers, textile producers and garment manufacturer that played roles in the development of the industry.

In reality, this action pays homage to Levi Strauss.  The irony, though is that Levi is no longer a California manufacturer.  It has never used denim manufactured in California.  So, what’s the reality.  Levi Strauss and denim are not an important part of contemporary California history. While the story continues to celebrate denim jeans, it ignores American economic history.

The fact is that in 1873, U.S. patent 139,121 was not awarded “for the invention of jeans”.  That patent is requested by Levi Strauss for the rivets he used on the pocket seams.  Researching the patent further, you can discover that the tailor named in the patent application, lived in Reno Nevada.  The pants in questions were constructed from duck cloth, not denim.  

Although Levi Straus remains headquartered in San Francisco, they no longer manufacture their product in California.  The company itself has only five suppliers in California and none of them are involved in the production of denim fabric. Suppliers of denim today are international, located primarily in Mexico, China and India.  In fact, even in the beginning the denim used in the original Levi Strauss jeans came from the now closed New Hampshire company, Amoskeag Mills.

Today there are small boutique manufacturing companies that manufacture jeans.  These companies more often than not source their fabrics from mills outside of California.  Gustin, based in San Francisco, uses fabrics from Japan and Italy.  A firm in Los Angeles firm, Buck Mason, sources their fabric domestically, but it comes from a North Carolina manufacturer.

So, while California celebrates denim as the official state fabric, perhaps they should consider celebrating Levi Strauss as an original California company.

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