Durable jeans? (Also, did somethign happen to Levi's?)
August 8, 2016 11:05 AM   Subscribe

Since my teen years, I've only bought Levi's jeans. I could always find a cut that looked good and they had that famous Levi's durability. However, in recent years they've been wearing out quickly. The fabric feels really thin and the jeans start to fray and wear out early. Can anyone recommend a new brand for me?

I'd like a jean that really holds up and comes in various cuts so I can find one that fits me well. Does anyone know if Levi's changed its manufacturing or the fabric it uses in some way that would explain what I've been experiencing?
posted by Alluring Mouthbreather to Clothing, Beauty, & Fashion (34 answers total) 42 users marked this as a favorite
I have some Wranglers that were cheap and seem pretty durable. I don't love the fit, but they might have more than one style (I bought these expressly for "dirty" jobs around the house so I don't mess up my day to day jeans, so I didn't spend a ton of time looking around).
posted by primethyme at 11:11 AM on August 8, 2016

I've got some basic Gap jeans that have survived far more abuse than I ever thought they would.

Duluth Trading Company also makes some pretty darn durable stuff - and the gussets in the crotch are a nice touch.

If you're looking for a little more fashion, and you want durable, look for selvedge denim (I think that's what it's called) - it seems to be heavier and more durable, but also more expensive. And if you live in a warm, humid climate, probably not that comfortable.
posted by Thistledown at 11:23 AM on August 8, 2016 [6 favorites]

Levis product varies greatly based on where you buy them. Target Levis are not the same as Macy's Levis are not the same as Levis store Levis. So it depends.
posted by GuyZero at 11:25 AM on August 8, 2016 [10 favorites]

You need to buy "selvedge" denim which is a lot more expensive. This is what Levi's (and everything else) kind of used to be until they moved to cheaper production. A lot of the smaller Japanese "boutique" brands are essentially making old-school jeans since they bought a large amount of the American looms formerly used to make decent American jeans. Levi's itself has a pretty broad range of jeans, you might just need to up your budget to their own line of selvedge/higher quality denim.
posted by bradbane at 11:28 AM on August 8, 2016 [5 favorites]

And don't forget LL Bean. They have durable jeans in several styles.
posted by donaken at 11:34 AM on August 8, 2016 [2 favorites]

I have good luck with Lee brand jeans.
posted by COD at 11:43 AM on August 8, 2016

I asked a similar question about Levis in particular. I never found out why Levis changed, and despite the good answers I received, I haven't found a good replacement.

I'd suggest Wrangler or other riding jeans. Here's a selection. Also, Duluth Trading Company.

ETA: Sorry, thought you were a lady!
posted by cabingirl at 12:01 PM on August 8, 2016 [2 favorites]

I highly recommend Eddie Bauer.
posted by invisible ink at 12:06 PM on August 8, 2016 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: cabingirl, no worries. That's my fault. I should have mentioned that I am a man.
posted by Alluring Mouthbreather at 12:12 PM on August 8, 2016

You're not alone. I'm a Levi's, uh, fetishist? But most of their products are poorly assembled anymore. I took a pair to the flagship shop here in San Francisco after a recent crotch blowout, because they have a repair shop inside! And the very bored worker there flat out said they wouldn't repair my pants because they have a "really rigorous esthetic" and they didn't want me walking around in jeans with visible patching. Unless I wanted some sort of glamour patching, in bright colors, that is, in which case they'd happily do that for twice the cost of the pants.

So now I'm at near boycott. I still buy old 501s and a couple others used, but the new stuff is just disposable garbage.

I've joined in a couple of Kickstarter campaigns over the last few years that aim to make durable stuff, but so far none have impressed me (in terms of comfort, not durability). Nevertheless, these might be what you're looking for.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 12:12 PM on August 8, 2016 [2 favorites]

I haven't tried these personally because I can't wear man pants, but Kirkland makes men's jeans that are similar in style to Levi's but seem to hold up better. I know a couple of guys who swear by them, so I got a pair for my husband a while back, and they seem to be holding up better than usual so far.

They're something ridiculous like $13, so it'd be an inexpensive experiment.

Also, you're not wrong about Levi's. I have learned, at least with women's, that you need to steer clear of the gossamer versions they sell at Target and places like that. But yeah, they're all getting worse. The official, non discount versions are less bad than the cheaper ones, but they're still pretty bad.
posted by ernielundquist at 12:20 PM on August 8, 2016 [2 favorites]

My boyfriend has several pairs of bonobos and they seem super durable.
posted by pazazygeek at 12:21 PM on August 8, 2016

Levis, made in the U.S. realized they could no longer compete with the cheaper jeans made in China and so they now have their jeans made in China too.
posted by Postroad at 12:36 PM on August 8, 2016

They have a high end & a low end fabric. If you buy jeans etc from stores like Walmart, Target or any big chains they will have arrangements to have products with the brand on that are made to meet a certain price points not quality levels.

My husband has better luck buying jeans at Sams/Costco & higher end department stores, but it is still a bit of a crap shoot.
posted by wwax at 12:42 PM on August 8, 2016

I buy my Levis at the Levi's store. I haven't noticed a change in quality over the past 15 years.
posted by zippy at 1:03 PM on August 8, 2016

also if you want Levis as they were made in 1960 or earlier, both cut and fabric, Levis will sell you a pair for about $200.
posted by zippy at 1:04 PM on August 8, 2016

The (kinda hipster) high watermark for for durable jeans is Japanese Selvedge denim.

Jeans made of this are expensive, and hilariously, kinda uncomfortable for the first few weeks as they need to loosen up. Once broken in, they will last a long time and be your favourite pair of jeans for forever.

I like Montreal brand Naked and Famous, as they have skinny leg, low rise waist that works for my weirdo body.
posted by Sleddog_Afterburn at 1:11 PM on August 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

Unbranded Will sell you selvedge jeans in a variety of cuts, and a variety of weights. I wear 14.5oz, but they'll sell you 21oz denim, which would be basically bulletproof.
posted by Kreiger at 1:17 PM on August 8, 2016 [3 favorites]

See if you can find a good jeans retailer. Here in NH, there's a store, Birth of the Blues, that focuses on blue jeans, and as @GuyZero says, different retailers actually stock different qualities. He focuses on their highest quality blue jeans, and the Levis 550s I buy from him easily weight twice what a pair of 550s from Kohl's way. And last a lot longer.

So see if you've got a local jeans specialist.
posted by kaszeta at 1:21 PM on August 8, 2016

The jeans with stretch are much less durable over the long haul. I'm not sure if it's the stretch itself or if stretch is used in cheaper fabrics. For instance, I can't remember a single pair of my old Levis pilling, but the stretch ones get thigh-rub pilling almost immediately. If your want to get Levis, then look for the no stretch options with the 501 Selvedge probably being the best option. Its a $148.00 bucks, so perhaps more than you want to spend on work jeans.

If they are really work jeans, I'd buy the Costco 100% cotton Kirkland brand. They are nearly indestructible.
posted by 26.2 at 2:03 PM on August 8, 2016

What happened to Levi's? Walmart.
posted by Dashy at 2:05 PM on August 8, 2016 [3 favorites]

I swore off Levis 501s several years ago, and that was the only brand of jeans I wore. At the same time I bought a pair of button-fly selvedge denim jeans from The Gap (they usually sell for $100US or so, but you can get them on sale for $65).

I am wearing these selvedge jeans as I type this; they fit me perfectly, are soft and comfortable, and I do not doubt they'll last another ten years.
posted by the matching mole at 2:10 PM on August 8, 2016

I think the last pair of "real" denim jeans that I purchased is a pair of Lucky jeans from Marshall's, about 8 years ago. They are pretty durable and have that old school denim feel (no spandex shit).

I hear you about the change in denim; I seriously lament the loss of old Levi's (I remember when I could get them for like $35/$40!).

I keep my eye open whenever I'm at a thrift store, but haven't had any luck yet. Good luck, though. Try Lucky, I guess. Unless they've gone half spandex, too :(
posted by foxhat10 at 2:38 PM on August 8, 2016

Dickies jeans are great. They last FOREVER, and they now come in a variety of cuts.
(They're not just that one carpenter/painter style anymore!)
posted by mdrew at 2:54 PM on August 8, 2016

The FAQ from Indigo Proof, a denim repair shop in SF, includes some advice on making jeans last as long as possible.
posted by Lexica at 2:58 PM on August 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

I've had mixed results with Carhart denim jeans--they seem to tear out at the rear pockets for me. Carhart duck jeans are hella strong though. Of course, it's duck so it's not as comfortable as broken-in denim and can be a little warmer in the summer than one might like. After a few years of good wear though they'll soften up enough to feel like a quality denim. And they'll last long enough to hit that state too.
posted by Fezboy! at 3:00 PM on August 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

I have an adamantium crotch, and the only jeans that have stood up to it for a substantial amount of wear are Diamond Gusset. They're high quality in other respects, too, and I've found they make excellent workwear for manual labor.
posted by ursus_comiter at 5:03 PM on August 8, 2016

Best answer: So, I work at the Levi's HQ in a non-product capacity. (This is all gleaned from plenty of corporate communication that I'm hopefully not butchering, so please don't fire me HR person who found this through google)

This is not a cotton vs cotton blend quality issue, which most people try to boil it down to. And when people talk about this, they usually are conflating 100% cotton with very dense/rigid fabric. But cotton blends can just as dense and rigid. Especially when various polyesters are now more durable than cotton. This is especially true with the current trend of recycling fabrics. Cotton has proven very difficult to recycle, because it creates a fabric made of short fragile fibers.

The biggest factor is the finishing process. Which is driven by market segmentation, cost considerations, environmental factors, but more importantly consumer demand. Sure, people say they want the durable long lasting jean. But their favorite part of the durable long lasting jean is when it's completely broken in and only has a short lifespan left.

So it goes through a finishing process designed to beat it all to hell. And my understanding is that it started out more cosmetic. Which would leave a more durable jean, but also be terrible for the environment. And then they switched to fewer chemicals, and more water. Which would cause genuine wear. And now, companies are trying to reduce their water impact by switching to o-zone blasting. This seems to be shifting towards a jean that is genuinely broken in, instead of carefully crafted to look/feel broken in.

So if you're wanting more durability, go with jeans that have a simpler finishing process. Darker washes with less feathering.

Right now, consumers are entranced with stretch. So most of the innovation I've seen have been centered around stretch and recovery. Basically trying to get as much stretch and recovery out of a pair of jeans until the consumer doesn't recognize the fabric as denim anymore. When durability comes up, it's about creating a vintage feel for a nostalgic consumer. Not a consumer demand in it's own right.

That said, I'd suggest giving the Commuter or 541 a try. The 541 is a more athletic fit, so it's made for guys with larger thighs to waist. So while made more durable, will only suit a certain person. And look to our owned and operated non-outlet stores for the highest quality. Kohl's wants a 501 cut they can sell at 40 dollars. So we source fabric/washes in line with their price point. It might be similar fabric at a similar density. But it uses the cheaper chemicals to soften the jeans, which makes it more fragile.

And since Mefi is a global website, I'll also mention that this is mostly a US issue. Somehow All American became synonymous with 30-40 bucks (which is in line with good, on a scale from Value/Good/Better/Best). Overseas Levi's is able to command a much higher price point. Because of this, those wholesale partners buy our Best product.
posted by politikitty at 5:13 PM on August 8, 2016 [89 favorites]

I have some Wranglers that were cheap and seem pretty durable.
There is actually a Jonathan Richman song which addressed the specifics of this askMe a few decades ago. I guess the concerns are not so new.
posted by rongorongo at 2:39 AM on August 9, 2016 [3 favorites]

Late to the party, but Diesel jeans are pretty durable as well.
posted by Enchanting Grasshopper at 12:32 AM on August 10, 2016

Best answer: That reminds me!

To give you an idea of how much the finishing process matters, Diesel uses something like a dozen denim fabrics year after year. I've seen these pages with 30 different swatches that go from stiff and unwearable to almost jersey softness in various blues. And they're the same fabric. I found this list of explaining a few of the washes because this scratches my How Stuff Works itch.

Also, we just put up the display for our 505. We're gearing it towards our rock and roll heritage, so a lot is distressed. But it's specifically not trying to be stretch, and the nostalgia factor means a heavier weight (compared to today's avg jean, less sure where it compares to 80s/90s). There were quite a few washes that seemed closer to raw denim.
posted by politikitty at 10:27 AM on August 10, 2016 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: politikitty, thank you so much. In addition to the practical advice, I appreciate all the insight. I find this topic oddly fascinating. Is Rigid the finish I'm looking for?
posted by Alluring Mouthbreather at 7:43 AM on August 11, 2016

The finishing process is typically not advertised. Part of that is intellectual property, the rest is that consumers don't want to know how dirty the fashion industry is.

If you want something that has never gone through the finishing process, you want raw denim. Preferably something released for fall/winter, because that will be a heavier weight. This is usually pricey, and overkill.

There's also shrink to fit. That's basically stopped at the finish cycle that pre-shrinks the denim.

Otherwise I would just check out the jeans in person. Any reference to stretch and recovery is going to be thinner. Any marbling/fading/distress/whiskers are going to show that it's gone through more aggressive finishes. Instead of noticing the thickness, notice the stiffness of the fabric. The stiffer, the more durable. The downside is that you're buying for a jean 3-6 months down the road, and might consider the jean boring until it builds that character naturally.

And stop washing and drying them. Ok, not completely. But our detergents are harsh, and the heat/agitation is basically just speeding up the process. Added bonus, this is the biggest environmental impact of the denim lifecycle just because it's the longest. So you're doing good the longer you wait before washes and if you can air dry.
posted by politikitty at 10:50 AM on August 11, 2016 [4 favorites]

Just dropping in to link to Aalfs Manufacturing. They are one of the last manufacturers of denim & twill fabric in North America. They list some of the brands that use their fabric. I found out about this when I was in Sioux City when my mother was in the hospital & I spent a lot of time looking out the window. About every third thing, including the public library, is called Aalfs.

Just another piece of denim info.
posted by Nosey Mrs. Rat at 4:17 PM on August 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

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