shopping for blues


I love jeans. I've gone about this before so I won't repeat myself. I felt like I had to do this post, after a shopping expedition with my younger sister for jeans.

I don't believe in a "go-to" label/shop/style for jeans - what suits one person may not suit someone else. There's nothing to do except to try whatever you come across that appeals to you, and hopefully get lucky early. For example, my friends look great in Levis, but new or vintage, I've never found a pair I liked on me.

Jeans have become such an gold mine for retailers, to the point where spending US$200 on a pair of jeans doesn't raise as many eyebrows as you might imagine. A whole cult has also sprung up around denim, especially for men's jeans - the best mills are in Japan/Turkey/whatever; raw denim is superior; chain stitches versus loop. My favourite bit of denim bullshit has to be those Proportion of Blu jeans that claim to be cut according to the "golden ratio". Hokay. (Read this for a debunk of the golden mean.)

A lot of fancy jeans out there aren't worth the hype. At one shop in Singapore, I watched my sister try jeans from MiH, Rag and Bone, J Brand, and some of these "jeans" are 50% modal. How is that a jean? They may have a great cut but in terms of quality, it's little better than whatever you find in Topshop.

How did we get here? My first pair of skinny jeans were from Mango, a cheap buy when I was experimenting with the style. They're 98% cotton, 2% stretch, and have the thickness of canvas. They're 8 years old and awesome. I have another pair from H&M, 7 years old, thinner than the Mango ones, but also a mere 2% stretch and feel nice and substantial.

Today, I don't think you can find skinny jeans like that at both stores. It's a downer, to be awash in all this spandex masquerading as denim, with none of the grain and heft that makes denim special.

I haven't bought jeans since 2008, but if I were to shop for jeans today, I would skip most of the premium brands - J Brand, Current/Elliot, AG, MiH. They're fit great - buy them if that is your main concern. But I don't think the fabrics on par with the prices and you can find cheap versions of them in High Street stories if you care to search. And these premium brands aren't always manufactured in conditions better than your mass market brands.

I feel like for women, there's a lot of rubbish out there, designed to be fashionable but unappealing if you're more about how the material feels. One brand that still ticks all the boxes for me - ethical manufacturing, high quality denim, good price - is Nudie. That said, Nudies fit me well but they also look terrible on many people (they are unisex), because of the limited range of cuts.

I've never tried Raleigh Denim but they seem to have a reasonably sensible approach towards what can sometimes border on pretentious. One version of their women's raw denim (so rare!) has a small percentage of stretch, which is very logical if you want to sell skinny jeans in the stiffest material possible.

I don't much personal experience with other brands, so please do share your favourites.
When shopping, keep in mind...

Don’t be a brand snob – Sure, skip the brands/manufacturers that go against your personal principles (poor labour practices, offensive marketing) but keep an open mind otherwise. My impression of True Religion is pretty trashy but my sister has an all-black pair with no logos or contrast stitching or garish hardware that she found for a great price in an outlet mall. It fits great, it's made in the US, and the denim quality is pretty decent – substantial to the touch but washed to a comfortable softness.

Since no single brand fits every body type, sometimes you have to ignore the superficially objectionable things to find the perfect pair. Almost all my jeans are Diesel (mostly purchased over 7, 8 years ago) and I don't think I'm the typical Diesel customer. But there is quality to be found amid all that aggressive distressing.

Fabric, fabric, fabric - I loath jeans with too much stretch; they look and feel like leggings.  But a bit of stretch is godsend for comfort's sake. As a guide, 2% is plenty stretchy. But I have also seen 98% cotton jeans that feel like leggings, so clearly the quality of the cotton matters too.

If you want to go into fine details, ask about the weight of the jeans - usually given in ounces. The heavier jeans the more substantial the fabric, and the less likely they fall into the category of "legging-jean monstrosity". Most women's jeans should be about 11 to 14 ounces. I've seen 23-ounce jeans, but they seem incredibly unnecessary unless you plan do some really manual work.

Sizing and fit - The rule of thumb is that you buy the smallest possible size you can fit in, because denim stretches. Sanforised (pre-shrunk) raw denim shouldn't shrink much. On the other hand, like all denim, they will stretch. Extremely distressed jeans stretch more quickly because the fibres have been weakened by the process. Jeans that have a bit of stretch hold their shape and size a bit better.

Although there's a lot of talk about sizing down, almost all my jeans are a size 30 and I've only sized down once, to a 29. For the most part, they have kept their shape and not stretched to a ridiculous degree (by one size or more). A few pairs have bagged slightly at the bum and knees but it's nothing unsightly, and that sort of stretching can't be helped. 

When I try on jeans, I always walk around, sit down, and do a deep squat (in the fitting room). If the jeans are tight but still allow me to do these things without feeling like I'm about to give myself DVT, they're a good bet.

For raw denim, I don't find I have to size down, but I would never buy them too skinny or tight - raw denim by nature just isn't meant to stretch and buying them super tight doesn't make sense to me - it wears them out faster.

Workmanship - Waistbands are something I zoom in one - the best jeans have sturdy, lined waistbands and they're the foundation of good fit - they should never gap and never ride down when worn.

Stitching should look sturdy, especially in the outer and inseams. The seams should run smoothly in line that follows the curve of your leg and shouldn't twist when you put them on.

A word denim retailers like to bandy around is "selvedge". Selvedge simply means the ends of the fabric has been finished with tape to prevent unravelling (see here for visual comparison). Only one pair of my jeans has a selvedge finish - my raw denim Nudies - and while they certainly look nicer, it's not like my other jeans have started unravelling, so I've yet to see the difference made evident.

Also, as explained in the Rawr Denim post I linked above, selvedge is quite a trendy word and it's trickled down to mass market labels, and it doesn't always indicate quality.

There's always the tailor - Boyfriend jeans are easy enough to find now, but in the past I would buy skinny or straight jeans a size too big and alter them for the perfect slouchy skinny fit. I did that a pair of Sevens I found for 80% off and a pair of Diesels. If you have a tailor you trust to work denim well, little tweaks can mean perfection.

And when I finally realised bootcuts weren't my thing, I decided to alter one pair into a tapered/straight cut. They are 9 years old and in regular rotation and fit better than anything I can buy off the rack. Don't let old jeans go to waste, especially if they're good quality, like vintage Levis.

Wash and care

Denim enthusiasts will tell you to wash your jeans as infrequently as possible. This is rather overdoing it, I think, even though yes, I do wear my jeans for months before washing them. This is because you want to give it time to mould to your shape, and get comfortable. Also, for distressed denim, where the fibres are already weak, frequent washing - once a week, every week - means jeans lose their shape faster.

But on the flip side,washing once a year is a little extreme, especially for raw denim. All that dirt and grime building up isn't good for a stiff fabric like that and you risk wearing it out sooner too.

In the end, you just have to look at how your jeans look or feel after washing (not not washing) and go with your gut, and avoid extremes. Also, if they start to smell...

I wash all my jeans in a washing machine. There are very elaborate care instructions out there, especially for raw denim, but denim is a rugged fabric, and I think there's something wrong if it needs that much fuss. Generally, I'd say:
  • Use cold water, and avoid the dryer. Heat is damaging to the fabric and the rinse.
  • If you want to slow down fading, use a mild detergent, and wash inside-out. Whatever you use for delicate fabrics should work.
  • Use the "delicates" mode on the machine. Actually I use this mode a lot for all my good clothing because it doesn't spin much - hence less abrasion of the fabric and less stretching. But your clothes come out wetter.

I'm not sure how useful this post is - I seemed to have raged on about what I hate but offered little by way of solutions. But I suppose beginning with a process of elimination isn't a bad place to start?


miss sophie said…
a much needed riposte to what passes for 'denim' out there in the women's market! i felt the same as you about fabric / fit / quality when i wrote my review of my APCs.
Caille said…
Yes to these comments about the fabric -- the rise of poly in expensive jeans feels like a particular outrage. Sadly, most of the Raleigh women's jeans have poly in them.

Poly makes jeans feel softer, but it cuts down on their longevity -- and for those prices, it's upsetting.
Pret a Porter P said…
I too don't like the thin stretchy jeans. I like a jean with some weight too the 98/2 also, that feel like denim. Lately, I've been wearing my old bootcuts, but with the hems rolled up "boyfriend" style.
Joy said…
This is so comprehensive I love it. I will definitely save this to reread again in the future. I mostly wear my Bluer denim jeans right now and I still love the way they look on me (bought them back in Sept).
Amanda said…
I have such an oddly shaped body that it's hard for me to find a pair of jeans that encompasses all the perfect details - fit, material and workmanship. I find that if the jeans make me look good, I'm inclined to overlook the other binding factors. MiH jeans, Acne & CoH jeans work for me even though I think proportionately, the price I'm paying for them isn't justified.

I am tempted to try out some of the new Levis Made & Crafted which are Made in the USA and seem to be a throwback to the old denim of yore.
Kali said…
I wholeheartedly agree on the fabric point! I think it is important not only for denim but for anything. I've always checked the label for care instructions, but never so much for fabric, and realized many of my past purchase mistakes were linked to the fabric, things you can't notice in a fitting room but realize after actually wearing it for a while (the slouch was wrong, it was uncomfortable etc...)

Not being a brand snob is a good point too. I have noticed that, since I started simplifying my life, I had a tendency to adopt the opposite behaviour of a brand addict - sometimes rejecting brands just for the sake of it - and I agree it's not necessarily a good attitude either.

In the end, as you say, there is no one size fits all, and it's about finding criteria that are important for us as consumers (ethics etc.) as well as our body shape and preferences. Especially for denim, where fit is extremely important, IMO.
jamie-lee said…
I think ignoring the brand is a HUGE point when trying to find a new pair of jeans. I've bought a couple of pairs of J Brands but honestly, they aren't like the denim I used to buy when I was younger. Recently, I stumbled across Frame Denim, and without much background info, went to give them a try. The fabric is much thicker than my other jeans, and they seem pretty sturdy, like they might last the distance. Crossing my fingers at least... :)
Ammu said…
I am faithful to Levi's, mid-dark blue, straight or tapered cuts. I do own one pair of skinny Levi's, which I like a lot, but for now, I prefer a more relaxed look.
I did buy a pair of Acne straight-leg jeans, many years ago, but they lost their shape so fast that I only wear them while travelling to far-flung places for work.
petrichore said…
Yes! I totally agree about the greater amount of poly = a much shorter lifespan for the jeans. I try to go 100% cotton as often as possible.

Also, washing them inside out has really improved the dye retention. I do that on a cold water/gentle cycle.

I remember the sad day in my early 20s, back when I still threw my jeans in the dryer. Holding up a pair of year-old GAP denim next to their new counterpart at the store was a horrifying realization of what I had been doing. Also, the sales associate acted like I was mentally incompetent for doing such a thing. But I have learned my lesson, and since then I've never dried any cotton clothing in the dryer - hanging to dry instead.
Kate said…
Completely agree about the stretch - it's hard to find jeans with the perfect fabric. I alternate between stiff, indigo, straight-legged Levis and thin, cottony H&M boyfriend jeans.

I have so many pairs of jeans that I can't get rid of - with denim everything comes back in fashion eventually. I tend to rotate the same few pairs.
Jess said…
I have no idea who is buying all the jeans out there that feel like horribly lightweight leggings! Everyone here in the comments seems to agree with your sentiments about the heft of the fabric being important and the quality needing to be good as well as the fit, but it's at the point where it's difficult to find jeans that are made out of denim that actually feels like denim and feels sturdy and like it isn't going to stretch out of shape after being worn the first time.

I have a bunch of Nudie jeans (a couple of different washes of the Long Johns and also the Tube Kellies, which have been discontinued I think and have been replaced with Tube Tims which are similar but slightly different) and I agree they're pretty good. I'm assuming the reason that they're reasonably priced and they're well made and the fabric feels good is because, while being intended as unisex jeans, they seem to be more heavily marketed towards men - like I went to the Nudie repair store and all the visual merchandising was aimed at men and the shop assistants had no idea how to recommend styles for me, and even assumed that because I'm female I must need 30" inseam rather than 32", even though I'm 5'11".

I recently decided I wanted to find a slightly higher-waisted style, and since Nudie doesn't really do that I went jeans shopping, and wow, what a bunch of crap. I went to Liberty and Selfridges and could immediately ignore 95% of the options just by touching them and being like "WTF is this weird thin fabric?". And a lot of the options were £200+. I'm annoyed enough that the average price of women's jeans seems to be 2 or 3 times as much as men's jeans, but so many jeans are also just horrible quality. I guess department stores are a bad place to look for jeans these days, so I'll need to reconsider my options...
lin said…
miss sophie: I'm just relieved I'm not the one shopping for jeans.

Caille: Yes I noticed that - I guess the question is whether 2% poly is a small enough percentage to accept for the extra comfort, in a pair of skinny jeans.

Pret a Porter P: I wonder if I should bring my last pair of bootcuts to the tailor and have them taken in! I can't do a flare, cropped or not.

Joy: Thanks! I was very intrigued by your post on Bluer -- but ordering jeans online is such a risk.

Amanda: I agree fit is important! So is comfort actually - raw denim isn't comfortable at the beginning, for example.

Kali: I agree, which is why I am always stumped when asked where I buy my jeans -- different things work for different people. even if acne wasn't so meh for me fabric wise, i look terrible in them anyway, for example.

jamie-lee: Yes, even within one brand there can be differences in quality and style - for example Diesel makes a lot of crazy distressing and details but they also have some very understated options.

Ammu: Every now then I wander into Levi's, just to see what they're making. I wish more of the Made and Crafted line was available in SG - curious about the quality!

petrichore: I've had jeans with a wee bit of lycra, or elastane - not sure if those are poly but so far they're ok! But I like my 100% cotton ones best - they just feel and look better.

im glad i dont need a dryer in singapore -- i think they're just bad for clothes, generally.

kate: I tend to rotate 5 at a time and then switch over to another 5 every six mths. I know 10 pairs sounds a little much but I wear them almost every day!

jess: sadly, my sister was nearly one of them! she looked really leggy and awesome in a pair of Rag and Bones, i admit, but i couldn't get over the fact that you could make out the outline of her knee caps.

She did put them down realising how ridiculously priced they were but i know in a weak moment she might have bought them.

I agree about Nudie -- I always thought they were a men's brand, until a fateful day in a denim store in Amsterdam revealed otherwise.

Speaking of which, Amsterdam is pretty cool for denim shopping! At least, it was 7 years ago -- lots of little shops with all kinds of cult denim makers, sadly largely geared towards men. I'd never heard of half the brands but so many pairs that were a joy to touch!

I was reading jean stories for a while and then i got so disillusioned cos quite a few of the brands worn by people purportedly be fussy about denim
were so off the mark, quality wise. Maybe I'm being a snob but I think I think a lot of what makes denim fascinating for me just doesn't count for very much anymore.

I'm quite glad I'm not looking for jeans at the moment - clearly it won't be easy to find a pair.

Scent Hive said…
NSF jeans are a brand not to miss. 100% cotton with a nice feel (i don't miss the lycra). Not too heavy....just right! I love the boyfriend cut.

Madewell and Shopbob carries the brand.

Lisette said…
Good post! But selvedge does not mean "finished with tape". It means the garment was cut so that the edge of the seam falls on the edge of the fabric. Because the threads are wrapped back around to continue the weaving on the edge, they're less likely to fray out than an edge that has been cut. However, as a general rule of thumb it doesn't really make a difference. They make a big deal out of it because that's how jeans were originally made, when they did have to last you until they disintegrated. But it also means you need to work with a fabric of a smaller width so there's less appeal for companies that mass produce jeans to use this technique - it is less cost effective because you have to get the denim from a special supplier or have it custom made. The only reason it holds any water as a pro for getting a pair of jeans is that it stands as something of a testament to how far they're willing to go to make quality jeans. Think of it as a real gold label on a wine bottle. Doesn't affect the quality of the wine, it could be mediocre in fact. But if they're investing that much in a fancy label, you expect that the wine will have received equal investment.
Shannon said…
Anybody know a brand that's good for the smaller waist/bigger hips combo? The only brand I've found that fits well enough at both the hips and waist at the same time (gasp!) is Old Navy Sweetheart jeans. They're pretty low quality, though, but surely somebody out there is making something that'll fit 30/42" me right off the rack?
Ms. McCall said…
I've made a few pairs of jeans for myself, and found to my surprise that two different fabrics, both similar weights (12oz and 11.5oz) with the same fibre content (98% cotton / 2% lycra) wear very differently. One bags out a lot of the course of a few days wear, and I actually have to throw them in the dryer to get them back in to shape. The other pair feel stiff at first, but hold their shape well.

It's funny how the pair I thought would be stiff and not comfortable are my preferred pair now because they hold their shape. I can't say what the difference is really, but I guess the weave must be slightly different.

Also 'selvage' is a general term for the edge of all fabric, but in the case of high end jeans it usually refers to denim that's been woven on old narrow looms. They claim that this leads to better quality denim, I can't say one way or the other, but my experience tells me that very similar seeming fabric can react quite differently so I wouldn't be surprised to find it is the case.
A├»ssa said…
What an interesting post and such teaching comments! Most of my jeans fall in the "thin" denim range. However I kind of miss the weight and texture of the raw fabric so all the advices here will be helpful for my next jeans shopping.
irfan a.r said…
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This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Rhea Cordeiro said…
I came across this post from To Universe, With Love's recent blogpost at the right time - I've been hunting for a pair of good, practical non-stretch (or atleast limited stretch) denims in Mumbai since a year, and it's unbelievably hard. Yet to find a pair, one that won't break the bank.
Your post is wonderfully informative, I'm glad to have expanded my denim vocabulary. Even though the brands mentioned don't retail here sadly.
I am trying to subscribe to your blog, Lin, but unable to do so -- is there a convenient way? Maybe enter my email ID someplace?

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