Cheap vs Expensive Denim - what's the difference?

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This week I break down what you are really buying when you purchase a $50 pair of denim jeans, a $100 pair, and a $200 pair.

First of all, let's bust a myth right now. When it comes to quality in the world of fashion, the truth is, you usually don’t get what you pay for.

I was inspired to write this guide after a friend sent me Refinery29's article All The Differences Between $200 Jeans & $20 Ones. Wow, the level of misinformation. After years of developing denim, working in wash houses, assisting in corporate denim development courses, giving training lessons at mills and factories on quality, and volunteering for the Fashion Institute of Technologies' Textile Development and Marketing Senior Thesis Denim Project I am going to share with you all of the denim industries secrets.

I would love to see more experts teaching consumers like this Teen Vogue video featuring Benjamin Smith - Creative Director of Jordache. This guy knows his stuff, and props to Teen Vogue for getting the advice of someone that works in the industry.

So, in the spirit of myth-busting fake news, this week we will break down my picks for cheap, medium, and high-end denim. 

Then we will rank them according to fiber content, stretch, fabric quality, indigo color, where they were made, how well they were sewn, and how advanced the finishes are.

My first pick for the best cheap jeans on the market is American Eagle Outfitters Ne(x)t Level Skinny Jeans @$49.95

AE NE(X)T LEVEL SKINNY JEAN

My mid-level pick is Madewell’s 10" High-Rise Skinny Jeans: Drop Step-Hem Edition @$135

Madewell 10" High-Rise Skinny Jeans: Drop Step-Hem Edition

And, for high-end denim, I have chosen to review Citizens of Humanity Rocket High Rise Skinny In Reminisce @$228

Citizens of Humanity ROCKET HIGH RISE SKINNY IN REMINISCE

The Denim

Guess, what? All of the brands I picked - American Eagle, Madewell, and Citizens of Humanity, buy their denim from the same group of mills. That’s right, all three brands make their denim in the same mills, and sometimes use the exact same quality of fabric. If you think the sustainable and ethical fashion community is small, the denim world is even smaller. There are only a few quality denim suppliers in the world - so sourcing crossover happens a lot more than you would think.

Content

Here is where the Refinery article got it wrong - they posture that the cotton content, organic vs, conventional, vs synthetic, is what separates the designer from fast fashion jeans. Here is why that is wrong.

Does the type of cotton matter?

Let’s start with the type of cotton. For the three styles I chose, none of these brands are using special types of cotton, they all use conventional. So there goes the theory that expensive denim costs more because of premium eco-friendly practices.

And...

Eco-Options Don't Need To Cost More

Without getting into technicalities about supply chain and how manufacturing works, we can disprove the industry notion that expensive denim costs more because of eco-friendly practices.

How?

Madewell is selling their 9" High-Rise Skinny Jeans in Comfort Stretch: Eco Edition for only $98. That's $37 cheaper than their conventional jeans I just mentioned above. The eco edition is made with organic cotton and natural dye from shrimp shells. Lastly, get this, the mill they source the denim from recycles 100% of their wastewater. 

Next, let's talk about the fiber content

American Eagle - 90% cotton, 8% poly 2% spandex

Madewell - 88% cotton, 8% poly, 4% elastane

Citizens - 98% cotton, 2% spandex

What about “cheap polyester”?

All of the poly contents are close enough not to make a real difference in price. When polyester gets into the range of 30% - 49% you will see a price decrease, but once it gets over 50% the price actually goes back up because the duties to import polyester goods are higher than cotton.

But, isn’t polyester lower quality than cotton?

NO! At 8% the polyester is being strategically used in the American Eagle and Madewell denim jeans to increase the denim's performance. Polyester helps jeans keep their shape longer - this way you look as fresh at the end of the day as you did in the morning. 

What does affect price drastically is how much spandex. The more spandex the higher the cost of your fabric, generally speaking. Even just a percent or two can make a big difference when if comes to price and comfort. Madewell has the most spandex.

The Winner for Best Content

For these three options, the contents are close enough that they should not really affect the overall price of the jeans drastically. 

When it comes to fiber content it really comes down to personal preference. Personally, I like the fact that the American Eagle and Madewell use polyester in their jeans to increase wear performance. 

madewell With a little extra stretch for added comfort that is designed to last. Perfect for when you want to look good, but feel comfy.

American Eagle For a traditional denim jean with just a bit of comfortable stretch.

citizens of humanity If you are trying to keep your closet plastic and polyester free.

Eco Tip 

If you are trying to do laundry less to help conserve water resources opt for a pair like American Eagle or Madewell with polyester - they will perform the best between washes.

BUT...

The type of stretch also matters

Spandex is the brand name of elastane (generic) stretch yarns. Spandex costs brands more than elastane. Where things get even more expensive is specialty stretch that is designed with high stretch and recovery in mind. These performance stretch fibers are what help your jeans to snap back into place when you move and stretch. Not sure if you have good stretch? Power stretch feels almost like an ace bandage or rubber band, it really snaps and pulls back when you stretch it.

Does specialty stretch play a factor in price? Yes

American Eagle - Lycra DualFX Technology

Madewell - Elastane

Citizens - Spandex

The $100 Madewell option is saving costs by using the generic elastane fibers, while the more expensive $200 Citizens have opted for premium spandex. Makes sense so far, the Citizens are $100 more after all.

What is interesting though is that our $50 pair from American Eagle is using the highest quality fiber - Lycra DualFX.

What is Lycra DualFX?

"LYCRA® dualFX® technology brand was developed in response to market demand for high-stretch denim fabrics that keep their shape. It is based on several patented technologies from INVISTA related to dual-core yarns and bi-component yarns.

Typically, as fabric stretch increases so does the tendency for fabric growth or shrinkage. By combining LYCRA® fiber and LYCRA® T400® fiber together in one fabric, you get the best of both worlds — the high stretch of LYCRA® fiber and the excellent recovery power of LYCRA® T400® fiber. So consumers can have super stretch jeans that fit all day, every day."

What is so special about T400 fiber?

Best Chlorine Resistance (to textile processes, e.g., denim bleaching), Best Polyester Compatability - This means that the yarns will stay strong during the physical and chemical denim finishing processes.

The Winner for Best Stretch 

American Eagle These are the cheapest but, they are using the best stretch and fiber technology.

Yarns

Types of yarns are what divide high-end denim from lower cost options. This is because the type of yarn is the building blocks of the fabric. Bad yarns will give you bad fabric. So, instead of thinking about what is the best denim fabric, we need to think what are the best yarns?

Have you heard of core spun yarn? Core spun means that the cotton fibers were spun around a spandex core. Cheaper jeans will not hide the elastic yarns like this, they are just twisted in.

Why is core spun better?

Core spun gives the look of 100% denim but allows for a stretch - you get the best of both worlds. Stretch fibers are shiny and do not take indigo dye well. Look closely. If there is a bit of shine on your jeans, they are not core spun. The shine comes from being able to see the elastic. 

Is it core spun?

American Eagle -  Yes, Lycra mentioned core spun in their description of DualFX yarns.

Madewell - Yes, they do not advertise this, but you can tell upon analyzing the jeans

Citizens - Yes, they do not advertise this, but you can tell upon analyzing the jeans

The Winner For Best Yarns 

American Eagle madewell citizens of humanity 

3-way tie, all three pairs take advantage of core spinning

Indigo color

None of the options I chose to review are made with real organic indigo from a plant. They all get their color from a synthetic indigo dye. If you do get your hands on some real indigo denim, the kind that is made from fermented plants, and is actually eco-friendly, that is a rarity. Real indigo is definitely worth some extra cash. For that reason, at virtue + vice, we only use real authentic indigo for our client's garments.

So, because all three brands are using synthetics there is no real differentiator between low end and high-end indigo quality as Refinery29 originally thought. And, if we go back to the Madewell Eco Edit example it is possible to have eco-friendly dyes that actually cost less.

The Winner for Indigo Color

none

No one. For me, a brand needs to be using real plant dyes or other eco-options to get credit for indigo quality.

Fabric

The Refinery article states that the best denim is selvedge, and coming out of Japan. No.

Let’s start with the selvedge trend made popular by Brooklyn hipsters. A big part of the reason that selvage denim is so expensive is that there is A LOT of waste. Not because it is actually higher quality. Smith in the Teen Vogue video also mentions how much fabric selvedge consumes.

Why is there so much waste?

Selvedge denim (if authentic) is woven on a special loom.  Selvedge looms create a much more narrow fabric. It's finished width is only about 3 meters wide (36”). Conventional power loom denim has a fabric width of about 60” - that is almost double the width.

The denim pattern then needs to be placed on the fabric in a very specific way so the seams of the garment line up with the red and white selvage on the sides of the fabric. This special way of laying the pattern is far from efficient, and basically the cause of all the waste.

Almost ½ of the denim fabric can be wasted simply because patterns don’t fit well on the narrow width fabrics. On wider width fabrics where selvedge does not need to line up with seams, patterns can be laid more efficiently so less fabric is wasted. 

You're paying for a trend, not actual quality

You as the consumer are paying for waste - not a higher quality denim. So, if you are looking for the highest quality denim, skip the selvedge. We did.

Don’t get me wrong selvedge is cool. It’s a novelty and a nod to traditional manufacturing techniques. But, that is not an indication of quality.

PS - Target makes 100% cotton selvedge denim jeans for $39.99. So, there goes the idea that selvedge is always expensive or quality.

Geography

Where was the fabric made?

Japan does have some amazing quality textiles, but they are by no means the gold standard - There is Italy, Turkey, and even the USA. Check out the denim area @ PremierVision trade show if you want to learn more about all the amazing luxury and eco-friendly denim mills all over the world.

Where did the fabric from our three styles come from?

American Eagle - unknown

Madewell - USA

Citizens - unknown

If brands are not sharing where their denim is coming from, there is probably a reason for that. Legally, they do not have to disclose this information. But, they are most likely sourcing from more undesirable fast fashion countries like China, India, and Bangladesh if they are keeping you in the dark.

Sadly, made in America denim may become a thing of the past since Cone Denim announced its closure at the end of 2017.

The Winner of Best Fabric

madewell They are transparent that their denim is from Cone Mills one of the most prestigious denim suppliers in the world. Cone is hard to beat when it comes to quality.

 

Construction and Labour

Where were the jeans made?

So if it is not the denim that makes jeans expensive, then is it the cut + sew labor? The short answer is nope.

Countries of origin for our 3 styles;

American Eagle - Vietnam

Madewell - Mexico

Citizens - Los Angeles

Refinery got one thing right, kind of. The $100 Madewell jeans are made in Mexico. But this is more coincidence then rule.

What is a verticle factory?

Verticle factories mean they do everything under one roof. They spin the yarns, dye the yarns, weave the fabric, then cut + sew the jeans. In the case of Madewell, the fabric is coming from the USA. So, they are not using a verticle factory. As a general rule fully verticle factories don’t really exist anymore. Manufacuteres specialize in one or two things usually.

At the $50 price point, you can expect your jeans to be coming from Asia, probably places like Cambodia, the Philippines, and Vietnam.

The Made in Loop Hole

Refinery, and consumers, in general, want to believe that made in the United States means higher prices due to higher labor costs. And, that made in Italy, means the best workmanship. The reality is, it doesn’t.

Made in Hoax

To start there are sweatshops all over the world, from our own backyards in LA, to Italy, to China. So for the sake of this exercise, let’s pretend that all three jeans were made in ethical factories that are up to code.

While Citizens are making their final product in Los Angeles, they are most likely importing super cheap fabrics to make them. While Madewell has their cut + sew production done overseas in a cheaper country like Mexico, they use premium American made denim. So what is better quality? Cheap materials put together in America, or high-quality American made materials put together cheaply overseas?

I do not think there is a right answer.

The Winner For “Sewn In”

citizens of humanity (not taking into account material quality)

How well are the jeans sewn?

The author of the Refinery article mentions stitch count as being an important indicator of quality. Referring to "high stitch count" and "medium stitch count"… what does that even mean? Those terms of subjective. And, not really used in the industry. When we talk about denim design we use SPI, stitches per inch, (as the Teen Vogue video also mentions). A hard number of how many stitches are literally in an inch of fabric.

In things like silks, and fine fabrics SPI definitely matters. And, just for the record, higher isn't always better, there is such a thing as too high SPI. But, in denim SPI is pretty uniform. You can see in the photo below that all three brands use the same size thread and stitch density.

FYI, the thickness of the sewing thread also affects the optimal SPI. It’s basically impossible for a customer to quickly calculate if the SPI is perfect. So, I wouldn't worry too much about SPI.

Seam Finishes

What is more important than SPI (that both sources forgot to mention) when determining denim quality is how the seams are finished. Are they "flat felled" with a clean finish? Or do they have merrowing made with a serger or overlock machine?

The secret is to look inside your jeans. High-quality denim will use a flat felled machine (a special machine that not all factories have) and have a clean finish. Brands save money by sewing garments with a regular seam and then finishing the raw edges with merrowing on an overlock machine. Flat felled seams are more expensive because they require special machines and more time-consuming work. Brands have figured out that seams are one of the easiest ways to save money that customers don't seam to realize. Get it, seem, seam to realize. 

serger seam vs flat felled seam

American Eagle - overlock

Madewell - flat felled clean finish

Citizens - overlock

The Winner of Best Construction

madewell This is the only pair with flat felled clean seams.

Are the workers rushing?

The Twisting Leg

Personally, I want to love Madewell denim so badly. They have great quality denim at a great price. But, I have never been able to buy a pair of their jeans without one of the legs twisting.

Why does this happen?

This can happen because sewers receive payment by the piece. So, they rush to get as many pieces done as possible. Madewell is able to offer high-quality denim at a competitive price point most likely because they save money on their sewing labor costs.

When factory workers sew a pair of jeans in a factory they start at one ankle, work their way to the middle then continue to down the second leg to the other ankle. What happens is that because they are rushing they start to pull the fabric through the machine to try and make it go faster. As they rush the top layer of fabric goes through the machine slower. By the end, the top and bottom layer are no longer in alignment. The workers then need to stretch the top layer of fabric to meet the bottom. This uneven stretch sewn into the fabric is what causes jeans to twist.

And, twisting drives me crazy. Having jeans that twist is a red flag. It can indicate that your denim came from a factory that does not have a focus on quality or ethics.

Zippers and Buttons

In the world of zippers - YKK is the gold standard. When you see YKK stamped into your zipper you know you are buying quality. Madewell and Citizens use YKK, American Eagle use their own brand.

Buttons. All of the buttons are engraved with the companies name and logo. This means they are not buying generic market buttons - they are sourcing them themselves, hopefully transparently.

The Winner for Best Zippers and Buttons

madewell citizens of humanity  - But, not by much, the difference in cost of a YKK zipper and a generic zipper is a couple of cents.

Finishing

Refinery and Teen Vogue both say that finishes like wash and distressing effect price - Not always.

Yes, denim with more complex washes, over dye techniques, rips, tears, and custom finishes will be more expensive - but not so much so that it should affect the price by $50-$150.

Does wash make a $20 pair of denim worth $200?

Let’s look at each of our three brands. As you can see I have selected 1 style with barely any wash, just a light rinse, and 1 style totally faded - both at the same price point. The type of wash is not affecting these garments price points.

unwashed v. washed denim

Now let’s take a look at distressing

Again, let’s look at each of our three brands. As you can see I have selected 1 style with barely any finishing and distressing and 1 style with a lot of rips and sanding- each at the same price point. Distressed or not, each of these brands is able to maintain the same price point.

non-distressed vs distressed denim

The Winner of Wash and Distress

none

Disqualified - as proven this should not drastically affect the price or quality

Expert Tip: More washing and distressing actually lowers the quality of the fabric. To create the look of worn denim, the denim has to be beaten up. This weakens the fabric all the way down to the fiber level. In theory, lots of washing and distressing actually lowers a garments life and overall quality.

But, like everything in life, this is not the full story...

The quality of finishing affects the price

The key to spotting high-quality finishing is in the whiskers.

Smith also mentions looking to the whiskers in the Teen Vogue video. Whiskers are the tiny lines on the front of pants near the zipper and inner thighs of jeans. They look like cat's whiskers. Raw denim will develop whiskers naturally if you wear it long enough. And, what makes breaking in raw denim extra special is that the whiskers on your jeans will be totally unique to your body, and no one else's. Like a snowflake.

But, in today's instant gratification shopping culture - these whiskers are made with sandpaper. Hand sanding is hard. I have spent weeks of my life working in wash houses learning the craft… and I still suck at it. It’s an art form.

Cheaper denim will use computer programmed lasers to burn in the whiskers. Lasers are currently being sold as an ethical way to produce denim. This propaganda is a bit of greenwashing. Back in the old days sandblasting was done in open environments without ventilation. And, this lead to many workers developing respiratory problems. Today most sandblasting happens inside a protective hood that prevents the workers from breathing in dust particles. Also, I am a huge proponent of job creation. Fact: there are not enough jobs in India. Why replace people with laser machines? Just make the jobs that people do safer.

How to spot cheap vs expensive whiskers

Cheap whiskers done by a hastily trained worker end up looking like straight lines across the fabric that will extend from the side seam to the fly in the center- looking more like cat scratches than whiskers. When done by a skilled hand the whiskers will have dimension, different amounts of wear, asymmetry, and curves that look natural to what a body would create. They will also stop about 2” from the center fly seams.

The Madewell pair is made by quickly trained workers. They were not given enough time or training to develop their craft. You can see that there are too many whiskers then would be natural, and they extend straight across the denim.

Laser whiskers will look very flat and not have a lot of dimensions. The American Eagle jeans use lasers. They almost have a watercolor look.

Skilled Labourers

Especially the highly trained workers you find in LA, ARE WORTH THE MONEY. The Refinery article says that LA made jeans have some wash and no distressing. No distressing? What? Their hand sanding, like on the Citizens pair, is a freaking work of art.

Quality Hack - Check the grommets

Grommets are those little round studs around the pockets of jeans. And they are a major clue as to the workmanship that went into making your denim.

grommets on jeans

grommets on jeans

American Eagle and Madewell have a bit of fabric still stuck in their grommets. Citizens have a nice clean finish. To most people, this is completely unnoticeable, but to someone looking for quality workmanship, this is a red flag.

The Winner Best Finishing

citizens of humanity ... not even a competition...

The Fit

So, this is very personal. I am 5’5” 115 lbs with an athletic body type. Here is how these three jeans fit me. They will fit EVERYONE differently. But, I can only go by what I know.

American Eagle They are super comfortable but have a lower waist then I prefer. If they had a 9” or 10” waist they would be absolutely perfect for me. If you aren’t into the super high waist (which I currently am) these are for you!

madewell The jeans really suck you in, as advertised. Madewell developed a special front pocket to act as a body shaper. And it definitely works. If you are looking for something to slim you, this pair is what you need.

citizens of humanity These are my favorites. High waisted, comfortable, and don’t squish me in too much.

 

The overall winner

High-Quality Value

American Eagle  Ameican Eagle has high-quality fabric and finishes on par with Madewell and Citizens for a fraction of the price.

Heritage denim

madewell For me, these jeans are a bit overpriced. What they are selling here is the made in America, return to old school indigo, nostalgia vibe. And, rightfully so. Made in American denim will be gone soon. Grab a pair while you still can. 

Artisan finished

citizens of humanity If you want the people who finished your jeans to be more like artists then skilled tradesmen opt for the made in LA Citizen denim.

Purchasing power

Finally,  what everyone always seems to forget when talking about quality in sourcing and development - purchasing power.

How is American Eagle able to use such high-quality fabrics and finishes for such a low price? Are all the other brands just being greedy?

American Eagle is a massive retailer. Where Madewell and Citizens are ordering thousands or tens of thousands of yards per season, American Eagle is ordering millions. Their insane order quantities give them a lot of power during negotiations. So, while the same denim may cost a small indie brand $6-$8 per yard, American Eagle can get it for $2-$3, or less. The difference in fabric price plays a big roll in the price of the final jeans.

Emerging brands generally have lower quality and higher prices

I know a lot of small emerging brands want you to believe their high costs are associated with higher quality. But, in reality, they are often buying the same thing as fast fashion brands but, have to pay more because they can not meet minimums.

The takeaway

The point of this article is that there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to buying denim as Refinery would like you to believe. It’s really about how brands mix different manufacturing options that lead to overall quality.

No one factor contributes to the quality or price of denim. And, when you pay more, you are not necessarily getting more.

Before you shop for denim decide what is important to you. Is it high-quality fabric, where the jeans are made, or who is finishing them? Then educate yourself and shop accordingly. As we have proven, you do not need to pay more to get the quality you want. Sometimes you can even get a better product for less (cough, cough Madewell Eco Edits).

This is why people who have work in product development and know how clothes are really made generally shop at larger retailers who emphasize value and use their purchasing to create quality products at low price points. Shop like the pros, and try shopping for quality denim at these places in the future LandsEnd, Abercrombie, and the GAP.

But it’s sustainable so shouldn’t it cost more?

No. As proven with Madewell's Eco Edit, sustainable does not need to cost more. Make sure to look out for my next article coming out soon on why sustainable products from sustainable brands are ripping you off.

Denim questions? Leave a comment!

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