RTW Explained: Why Store Bought Jeans Fit and Feel Different From Your Me-Made Pairs
Posted by Betsy C on
Hey everyone! So I’m super excited for this series (yup, series, I finally got my act together for like 5 minutes and have blog posts ready to go for this). For quite awhile I was at a standstill on what to do with SBCC blog. It was the worst case of writers block because what could I put out there that was new and hadn’t been blogged about a million times before.
But then I got to thinking about what I have to contribute and the wheels started turning.
If you read my post on behind the scenes into my life as a professional pattern maker, you know that I live in two worlds- mass production and home sewing. There are similarities but also there are also huge differences and a lot of reasoning behind why things are the way they are.
Being able to make your own clothing can be very empowering and it gives you a different perspective and a new understanding. However, I read and hear comments that basically boil down to, "if I can do it why can’t they?" Or "the fashion industry has too many issues, why can’t someone get their act together and fix them?"
This is where I step in. I’m not trying to be an industry hero or advocate, but to instead provide some perspective. Why? Because it’s good to know stuff. It’s also important for change. There are some heavy topics that I can cover (You'll be pretty shocked to hear my views on fashion revolution) but let’s start out with something kinda fun- why your me-made jeans don’t quite match up to ready to wear.
Before all of you jean sewer enthusiasts charge at me with pitchforks let’s just say that I am in no way discouraging you to not make your own pair or throwing shade at jeans patterns. Quite the opposite. By all means, make your own jeans! I only want your expectations to align with reality if you are wondering why they don’t quite fit the same as your favorite store bought pair.
I give kudos to all the pattern designers out there who have made a success out of their patterns. Making a pattern is easy, it’s making a pattern that will work with all sorts of different fabrications, now that's the hard part. The wild card in home sewing is fabric. We don’t know what fabric you will choose. Some have more stretch than others and weight and drape can vary considerably. Tiny differences in fabric content can lead to a very different fit.
When making jeans for ready to wear we know what the fabric is going to be from the beginning (or at least we have a pretty decent idea). We may start out with a sloper pattern but that gets adjusted based on the fabrication (even a 1% content change). Sometimes the widths may need to be reduced, or they need to be slightly bigger based on the density and drape of the denim. Working on a denim line, these adjustments can be very tiny, but extra care and review is always put in for any fabrication change.
Washes, Finishes and Curing
There are loads of tutorials how to distress your jeans to get the same appearance as ready-to-wear. But for mass production this distressing process happens at an industrial level with the equivalent of giant washing machines, chemicals, stones, and even lasers. There are different techniques and applications, but washing is one of the most generic where the whole garment is basically dumped in a machine, distressed, and shrunk. This gives that softness and worn in feel. Here's a pic of the sort of machine that does this:
There is that moment when you go to distress your me-made jeans you have one shot to make the distressing look good. Maybe you know what you are doing, maybe it's all just one experiment. In the garment industry, methods are tried over and over and finished garments go through extreme testing to ensure they will last at least a specified amount of washings. Techniques are fine tuned to make it look like a garment is falling apart, but not so much that it will fall apart after wearing.
Also, anytime a garment is washed like this, the fit need to be reviewed with the correct finish/wash as it can affect the entire garment, so the pattern needs to be adjusted to account for this.
Stone washing is pretty common. For a quick peek on how the process works, check this out. (Sorry, no English subtitles, but you get the gist).
If you are like me and like to geek out, check out this 14 min video for a more in depth explanation of distressing and washing techniques.
Many machines are set up to make one pair of jeans and will be sewn in a different order then when you make yours because of different machine options. Each one is precise and fine tuned to deal with the thick denim (my home machine doth protests!).
The biggest sewing difference in jeans is that most seams are joined with either a single needle or double needle chainstitch. The chainstitch is a beautiful thing (my next industrial machine purchase!) because it makes a very stable seam, but still allows for stretch. It's not as though it will become super stretchy, but allows for just a slight amount of give so the jeans move with you. All jean rises are sewn with this because this is the #1 area we need flexibility to bend and the stability not to split our pants when we bend over.
The machines can vary based on the factories investment into technology and their volume. If they are making only jeans then they probably have lots of fancy equipment. There are machines that only make and place pockets, machines that do a lapped seam at the side seam, machines that only sew on waistbands, machines that make loops, and machines that can apply fly front zippers with the touch of a button.
Here's a quick video of a the way one factory works (just try not to get too wrapped up bopping your head to the music). You may see some things that differ from what I explain above, but like I said, it all depends on the factory's available equipment.
This machinery can be very expensive but very specific. How much do you wish you had access to this machine for when you have to serge your fly facing?
Fitting. Fitting again. Fitting some more
So you toil for hours to make one single pair. In the industry, we fit a sample at least twice (more likely closer to 3 or 4 fit rounds), as I mentioned previously. This process repeats for same silhouette different fiber content and different finishes. For those who hate making muslins and multiple fits, the fashion industry is probably not for you.
Each time a fit sample is submitted it has gone through the industrial process and therefore has been touched by many hands. You may not want to go back and duplicate a new pair. However for those of us in the chain of production and sampling it’s all part of the process and we don’t think twice about doing it over and over.
Isn’t this wasteful?
Yes, but it’s part of the investment. If a company or brand is ready to commit to producing 200,000 pairs of a single jean then they want to know the fit and details will be right. 10 samples is inconsequential at this level. Oftentimes samples are donated, put in a sample sale or discarded. This is the circle of life for apparel, say what you will but even with new technology developments having a tangible and reactive garment to review cannot yet be surpassed.
More Stuff to Read!
Now this is a super broad explanation of how the process works. There is so much minutiae that I found myself drifting off into the abyss for garment nerds as I tried to collect videos for this post. I found a lot of fascinating and informative articles along the way:
- There is nothing more American than jeans, right? Well, to have a pair made in the USA it's going to cost you. ---Read more here
- Someone once told me that the American denim factories sold their technology off to the Japanese so now we no longer have the means to make a lot of the classic denim in the US. True or not, the Japanese market has their own spin on denim and special in Selvedge denim---Read more here
- There are lots of little details that go into a pair of jeans. For mass production this means a person for each step. This person talks about exactly how many people worked on a pair of jeans and their specialized steps along the way ---Read more here
- "Low cost clothing has a high cost attached to it, one to the environment and public health." The denim industry is not a clean one, by far. ---Read more here
- For a bit of good news on what is being done to clean up jeans reputation, check out this laser that distresses denim. One word- mesmerizing! ---Read more here
- You've all heard about Cone Mills. Well, you can find out more about the reason behind their closure. "The economy is iffy, and the cheap, disposable ethos of fast fashion has made its mark. That makes it tough when you’re in the slow fashion business."---Read more here
- I love this dude's site for all sorts of industry nerdy bits. Here he details all the machines needed if you are setting up a denim factory. ---Read more here
Share this post
This is a wonderful article! Hearing (reading) firsthand experience is my favorite. I’m not a huge fan of muslins for published patterns, historically speaking, but I do love testing patterns for designers – which turns into me making several versions of the same design. I prefer to test for children’s clothing because there’s not a lot of fabric going into it. Fabric content is very important in the testing of all designs. Just recently I tested a pattern that asked for “stable knits” and mentioned CL as an acceptable fabric. After blending my sizes and making it, I realized it fit me WAAAAAAY differently than other testers who also used CL. It’s crazy!
Anyways, thank you for a good article and additional links as food for thought. <3
I just did a massive alteration on a pair of Fidelity jeans for men. They had about an inch+ eased into the back thigh, which I was pleasantly surprised a RTW pair of jeans had such care…but then they are a Nordstrom brand and he paid top dollar for them. But to your point about fabric, I have another pair to alter. The Fidelity pair is a very light weight 38%poly/62% cotton and 1. I’m wondering if I shouldn’t have gotten out my chain stitch machine…old Singer Touch & Sews came w a chain stitch option. Oops. 2. The after finishing!! I got my topstitch thread as close as I could but I won’t have the benefit of it having been smudged w blue overdye 3. The second pair is of course a different fabric composition so I’m just nodding along laughing! I absolutely cannot just copy the adjustments made on pair #1. 😂😭 Love this series. ❤️❤️❤️
This series is so interesting!
Hi! A very interesting post! Thanks for including the enviromental view points as well, for me that’s one reason I sew myself, I can choose to use eco-friendy materials. I like me made jeans way better, it’s nearly imbossilbe to find RTW jeans, or trousers of anykind for that matter, that would fit me.
Good info. I make my own jeans but don’t agonize over whether or not they duplicate RTW. They fit, which RTW usually does not. I used a combination of a Bootstrap pattern, McCall’s Palmer and Pletsch pattern and a rub off and careful measuring of the lone style of Wrangler jeans that fit me (relaxed fit Talls in 100% cotton )to get my pattern. It took four iterations before I was happy and I still tweak the fit each time I make a pair. Growing up we didn’t wear Levis, they cost too much. I didn’t have a pair of Levis until I was in college and making my own money. I’m old enough to have seen the nosedive in quality and fit over the years which is why I returned to sewing. Keep on posting; I learn something new every time.