On trying to buy American-made jeans: A success story.

At some point, “Made in America” passed from the realm of Sam Walton and into the realm of yuppies.

As a young kid in the eighties, I remember seeing TV ads that promoted American-made goods. Like this one:

These ads confused me. I recall asking my parents to explain it. The talk of economics was beyond me, but I remember objecting. Isn’t that unfair to people who live in other countries?

Buying American-made goods was the stuff of lower-middle-class union members, salt of the earth types. Then the nineties came and went, and not many people cared about buying American-made goods. Manufacturing went south to Mexico, and then across the Pacific to China and southeast asia. It’s made a comeback in the past few years, but without TV commercials or underwriting from American manufacturers. That’s because there basically aren’t any. It’s welled up for a bunch of reasons: distrust of foreign goods, concern for unemployment in the US, a desire for higher quality materials, and plain old nostalgia.

I’ve tried to buy locally for more than a decade now. Not everything, not all of the time, but a lot.

It’s easy to source food locally. My milk and cream comes from Homestead Creamery. My bread is from Albemarle Baking Company. My meat comes from a local butcher, who buys it from a few local producers. My flour comes from Wades Mill. For the next six months, a lot of my fruit and vegetables will come from our garden. We make a lot of our own butter, pasta, ice cream. Our eggs come from our chickens. And so on.

It was trickier when building our house last year. We were able to source some materials locally-ish—for example, the windows are from Roanoke, the wood flooring is from Madison and southwest Virginia, the light fixtures were hand-blown in West Virginia—but good luck getting local 2x4s, Ethernet, pipe, or drywall. Almost all of it was, at least, American-made.

My white whale, though, is jeans. American-made jeans fall into one of two camps. First are the cheap ones: $30/pair, advertised in the sizes of “S,” “M,” “L,” and “XL.” Second are the expensive ones: $300/pair, handmade in Williamsburg by a hipster collective, each pair hand-distressed by a trustafarian who drags them behind his fixie during his weekend job as a bike messenger. I do not want to buy either of these. I want a few decent pairs of jeans that will not need to be incorporated into my mortgage, but that are made in the U.S. with American-made denim by a company that is likely to exist next week.

Enter Todd Shelton. The Jersey City company sells shirts, pants, vests, t-shirts, and jeans. I ordered a pair of Watts Washed Jeans last fall, for $99. More than I’d ever spent on a pair of jeans, but as much as I’m willing to spend for good-quality, American-made, boot-cut jeans. I received a prompt e-mail confirmation from Todd Shelton. Not the company—from Todd, personally. He wrote a bit later to say that he was backordered on that style, and it would be a few weeks. To apologize, he sent me—entirely unnecessarily—a long-sleeved t-shirt, which I’ve worn about once a week since.

My jeans showed up a few days before Christmas. They didn’t fit—too small. I e-mailed Todd, and a couple of days later I had a new pair, and sent back to the old ones with a label he sent me. It didn’t cost me a cent. I’ve worn those jeans 2–3 days out of every week since. These jeans are the best-made, most comfortable jeans I’ve ever owned. The denim is more substantial than I knew denim could be. I got them broken in after a few wearings, and now they’re perfect. Though I was tempted to immediately order another couple more pairs, it occurred to me that if I did that, they’d all age out at once. Better to space out my purchases to avoid suffering total jean failure in a few years, leaving me walking around wearing a barrel. (Incidentally, have you priced barrels? They’re not cheap. Anybody who is wearing a barrel instead of pants has a very poor grasp of personal finances, on a couple of levels.) And it’s easy to justify spending $99 on these, since I don’t doubt they’ll last twice as long as a $50 pair of jeans.

If you’re looking for American-made jeans, I recommend Todd Shelton.

Need a belt to go with those jeans? I recommend Fox Creek Leather, right down the road in Independence, VA. I’ve worn my nickel buckle dark brown belt every day for three years, as I expect to for many years to come.

Published by Waldo Jaquith

Waldo Jaquith (JAKE-with) is an open government technologist who lives near Char­lottes­­ville, VA, USA. more »

21 replies on “On trying to buy American-made jeans: A success story.”

  1. Checked the tag on my Carhartts when I read this. Sure enough ‘assembled in Mexico from American components’. Though for $17 at Rugged Wearhouse (every now and then they have them in odd sizes) I’m not switching to $99 jeans anytime soon, as much as I might like to.
    My Levi’s 550 utility jeans are mexican tambien. Though with Nafta, for every pair of jeans they make down there, we’re making at least a half-dozen sombreros up here, right?

  2. Jeans (ones available via local retail, anyway) wear out differently now then they used to before NAFTA. When I was a kid they’d wear out in the knee and it was all right because you could wear them with growing holes in the knees and it wasn’t indecent. Eventually the hole would get so wide that you’d rip it all the way around and turn them into cut-offs. Now they come apart at the corners of the back pockets and at the seam right below the zipper. This happens way sooner than the knee holes used to open up. Once that happens you can’t wear them out of the house at all for fear of exposing yourself indecently.

    If you want the knee holes for the look, I suppose you’ve got to buy them pre-distressed because the crotch and ass won’t last anywhere near long enough for the knees to wear out on their own.

  3. Todd’s got some interesting delusions over the size of Americans. Stops at 38w? He’s elimating perhaps 25% of potential male buyers by doing that. By contrast, your preferred belt company goes up to 56w. (!)

  4. “and at the seam right below the zipper.”

    Amen. Then again, I’m the big loser in this, I guess: My favorite pair of jeans were made in China (as were my favorite shoes).

    But $99 jeans are not quite in the budget.

  5. Brian, I just ordered a pair of the Selvage jeans, and the order page only showed waist sizes of 32, 34, and 36. I’m assuming that’s because those are the only sizes available right now. At any rate, I didn’t really care that much, since the size I wanted was there.

    Or maybe you’re right, and it’s just an encouragement for Americans to stop shoving HFCS and other crap into their bodies and get fit. :-)

    Waldo… thanks for the post. I very much look forward to getting my new jeans.

  6. Being a bottom-fisher, I am shopping the Goodwills and thrift stores that help locals, that is my hope anyway.

    Lately I’ve been wearing cammo pants that look like army surplus. Gee, I wonder where them britches were made? I will have to investigate.

  7. Jackson: I noticed this too! I assumed this was because I was putting different stresses on my jeans as I changed my activities, but that may not be the case after all. The other problem is that knee holes are easy to patch, but seam holes in the butt are really tricky to fix.

  8. Good to know, Giovanni. When I was belt shopping a few years ago, I think I’d gone only into Belk or Sears, plus maybe Marshall’s, before giving up and shopping online. In those places—or perhaps at that time—I could only find significantly more ornate belts. Perhaps the style has changed, or perhaps that’s just Gap and Banana Republic’s style.

  9. I think Banana Republic and Gap have always had them, or at least as long as I’ve shopped there. I can’t speak for department stores, I very rarely shop at any. J Crew also has good belts. I don’t think they are made in the U.S., a lot of J Crew stuff is made in Israel.

  10. @publius and @waldo, I think the size thing is more nefarious than that. It’s typical for designers to intentionally not go above 36w or 38w (or a similar size equivalent for women) even though they know there’s a market there, since they don’t want larger people wearing their products. It’s considered bad marketing to have not-pretty people wearing their schwag. Happens all the time, and I suspect is happening here.

  11. Two residuals – one, it’s conclusively not that T. Shelton just is out of anything higher then 37/38w – they deliberately don’t make them. http://toddshelton.com/sizing.html. My previous comment is dead-on except that I underestimated – the average waist size for American men is actually 40, as of 2008 – http://healthhubs.net/heartdisease/waist-size-predicts-heart-disease-risk-better-than-bmi/. Your preferred vendor is deliberately not making their product available to somewhere around half the population because they don’t want their products seen on larger people. To my view, that’s not a company worthy of support.

    Two, and totally unrelated – where do you get your local wine? So many good wineries out where you are.

  12. Checked the tag on a different pair of carhartts and they’re made right here in the u.s. of a! Though they’re khaki colored, they look, feel, fit and are sized and constructed just like jeans. Not double kneed or otherwise outwardly utilitarian at all. Maybe worth considering in the future? Strangely enough their website doesn’t let me know where there different styles are made. You’d think that’d be a selling point for their blue-collar customers.

  13. Your preferred vendor is deliberately not making their product available to somewhere around half the population because they don’t want their products seen on larger people. To my view, that’s not a company worthy of support.

    I’m not sure I agree, Brian. I’ve got a parallel experience of note. I’m 6’4″, and the world doesn’t really fit me. Specifically, hotel showers. I spent the bulk of the past week sleeping in hotels in Pennsylvania and Massachusetts. Like virtually all hotels, they appear to me to have been constructed for midgets. In order to take a shower, I’m forced to either limbo or kneel. It looks as ridiculous as it sounds. (I have the same problem with counter heights, dress shirts, and basically every single couch and chair I’ve ever sat in.) On the one hand, I could complain to these hotels that they have failed to accomodate me, with a height that is not totally unheard of, and that they are not worthy of support. On the other hand, I could figure that not every business is obliged to support every potential customer’s demands or requirements. My perspective tends strongly toward the latter, and I’m pretty happy with it!

    Two, and totally unrelated – where do you get your local wine? So many good wineries out where you are.

    I don’t actually have a favorite local winery, which I think is kind of unusual around here. I think it’s because I don’t drink enough wine to be able to remember which kind I preferred. :)

    Checked the tag on a different pair of carhartts and they’re made right here in the u.s. of a!

    Unfortunately, that’s an exception, as Carhartt explains on their site. You can see in the comments that people are finding Carhartt products that are made in all kinds of countries, but not the U.S. very often.

  14. Waldo –

    While I sympathise with your plight, I’m not letting this company off the hook. What you’re describing is largely unintentional; only 5% of men in the US are taller than 6’2″ (let alone 6’4″). http://answers.google.com/answers/threadview/id/325064.html It’s reasonable for folks to not adequately consider such a subset of people unintentionally.

    Not so with an average waist size of US men of 40″, and a jeans company that tops out its sizing at 37/38″. That leaves out somewhere north of 50% of the relevant population. That’s clearly intentional, and it sucks.

  15. I think you see malice where other explanations would also suffice. (After all, I could complain about how easy it would be to simply mount a shower head a few inches higher. Why not? What’s the problem? An extra few inches of pipe? There’s no downside to shorter people.) For instance, for a small shop, a small range of sizes (and a small number of products) makes it comparatively easy to manage inventory and forecast demand. If you make just one widget, things are easy—just make a bunch of them when you get low. If you make a thousand kinds of widget, then just having one on hand of each suddenly becomes an expensive proposition.

    FWIW, though, I admit that I approach this with an agenda—my desire for more businesses to try to serve a narrower audience, rather than trying to be everything to everybody. I like the Apple approach, where they make a pretty small number of types of computers for a relatively narrow—although broadening—audience. I don’t mind if a clothing company only makes clothes for people between the heights of 5’4″–5’9″. That’s OK—they’ve got a niche, and it’s not me. :)

  16. Waldo, your explanations still don’t wash. I’d be fine with your jeans vendor if they actually identified themselves as a niche audience vendor. That’d be totally cool. They’re not doing that. Nowhere in their copy even alludes to anything like that.

    And, to be blunt, you’re not walking the walk on this, either. Your own copy says “Enter Todd Shelton. The Jersey City company sells shirts, pants, vests, t-shirts, and jeans,” without the addition “…for a niche market of folks under 38″ waist” (or whatever.)

    It’s true that I see malice where malice exists. Again, if a vendor doesn’t make a shower head higher so that a group of people who represent about 2-3% of the male population are inconvenienced, that’s a bummer but I get it. To deliberately exclude 50%+? That’s no accident.

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