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The Fascinating History Of Levi Jeans
The origin of Levis actually does not start with Leob Strauss – yes that’s Leob – who later changed his name to Levi. This fascinating story begins with his partner Jacob Davis. Leob was a dry goods merchant in San Francisco. Davis was a clothing maker who bought his supplies from Leob. Davis approached Strauss in 1872 with a new idea for making work pants known as overalls much more durable. Davis was responding to the complaints of miners that their clothing just didn’t last very long in harsh working conditions. The seams of their pockets and the buttons that closed the waist and fly tore too easily.
In 1871 Davis tried using copper rivets to reinforce the seams. With rivets he could also hold together layers of thicker material. His new sturdy and durable work pants became an instant hit not only among miners but other “hardworking men of the American frontier” such as farm workers and cattle herders. The little copper rivet revolutionized work clothing.
In 1872 Davis agreed to partner with Strauss in exchange for Strauss financing the application for a patent on the rivet idea.
In 1873, with the patent approved, Davis and Strauss immediately began to mass-produce their work pants. They formed Levi Strauss & Company. The “LS&CO” was embossed on every copper rivet. This still appears on Levi rivets to this day.
Levi Strauss & Company purchased their cotton denim fabric from the Amoskeag Manufacturing Company in Manchester, New Hampshire. It was the most durable line of fabric known as “XX”. This became the name of the first style of Levi jeans. It was also a very inexpensive fabric as the blue indigo dye came from a plant grown and processed by slave labor in India, and the cotton was mass-produced by plantations in the South. Within years this plant-based dye from India would be replaced by an even cheaper synthetic dye just invented in Germany and massed produced by the BASF corporation.
The next jean innovation appeared in 1886 when Levis started to be manufactured with a distinctive leather patch on the back waistband of the jean. The first image or logo was a pair of jeans being pulled between two horses without being torn. This leather logo patch on the back waistband of a pair of jeans is now a common feature of nearly every jean manufacturer to this day.
These first jeans were originally called “waist overalls”. They had two pockets in front and one in back along with an additional small “watch pocket” sewn inside one of the front pockets – a feature still seen on jeans today. They also had a strap and buckle on the backside of the waistband which acted like a belt to hold the pants firmly on the waist. And finally they also had rivets on the waistband to attach suspenders.
Another distinction of the Levi jean is the bow-tie stitch design seen on the back pockets of virtually every Levi jean to this day. It is called the “arcuate” stitch design. It is believed to have held cotton pocket linings in place in the early manufacturing process. But no one really knows for sure since all records were lost in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.
During WWII thread was rationed and thus this unnecessary stitch was discarded. However it was so popular that the design was painted on the back pockets. Rare specimens of these jeans sell for tens of thousands of dollars today!
Levi Strauss & Co. has since trademarked many styles of jeans – slim, taper, boot-cut, relaxed, form-fit, and two-way stretch to name a few. There are currently 15 styles. When each patent expired others manufacturers quickly copied the designs. However, Levi Strauss & Co. remains the world leader in the manufacture and sales of jeans.
Today Levi Strauss & Co. along with Gap Jeans lead another important challenge in the garment industry. These two jean manufacturers are top in their industry in advocating for workers’ rights, higher wages, and an end to child labor, according to the watchdog organization Free2Work.org. You can support these efforts by only purchasing jeans from manufacturers that are highly rated by this organization.
Credit for information in this article goes to Birgit Lohmann’s “Denim”, Levi.com, and Free2Work.org.
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