Ever since I first visited California and Nevada in 2009 to join our friend Michael Allen Harris on his search to cover the early history of denim workwear in 19th century west North America I have been wanting to make a reconstruction of a pair of the jeans found in the desert.
The fact that I ended up looking for old jeans in the abandoned mines was actually caused by my eagerness to understand the history behind blue jeans to its fullest. I always liked to learn the history of products and I remember that I thought for myself that the only way for me to really understand what it takes to make a pair of good jeans today is to start studying the history behind them! So back in 2009 me, my brother Hampus and our friend Viktor Fredbäck traveled to visit Mike in California for the very first time.
From that journey sprung quite a few different projects inspired by the early history of blue jeans, but it wasn't until 2016 that we made our first full reconstruction of an original pair of jeans dating back to the 1870's. This pair were found by Michael and the age of the pants are determined by looking at it's details combined with the history of the region where it was found. During a few years in the mid 1870's it was occupied by a mining company that extracted ore from the mountains, and combining these facts allows us to guess that these particular pants were made back in 1874.
They ended up in the collection of Viktor Fredbäck, who now have one of the best denim/workwear collections known to exist. It includes garments dating back to the very early history of workwear, such as these pants, and cover most parts up until the 70s. Viktor is a dear friend of ours and a great source of inspiration which is why we were happy to team up with him to make a reconstruction of these jeans. The idea was basically that Viktor wanted a pair of jeans that he could wear, and because these jeans are fragile and the fact that old jeans are both rare and have a high collectors value it's not to recommend wearing the original ones. So we decided to make him a reconstruction!
We started the project by studying the original pair closely and also taking all the measurements from them to make up the pattern. The fabric was sourced by Viktor on a trip to USA and it's a vintage plain line selvedge fabric in a thin and tightly woven denim that we believe was used by the us army in the 40s. However, it is very similar to the original fabric used in a time before denim and work wear was synonyms with heavy weight fabric.
As you probably can tell from the pictures, the originals have been going through quite a "restauration". When the pants were found the left leg ended at the knee, and the right leg ended mid-calf. Smaller parts of other jeans dating from the same time has been added to the original pair in order to make up an entire pair and that gives an idea of how the original might have looked.
One can have different opinions about this kind of restauration work, and mine is that I believe its best to just leave the garment in the same condition as it was found because that gives us the most honest idea of the garment, especially since they wont be wearable anyway. I have talked to Viktor about it and he also agrees that the best way to preserve them is to just keep them as they are instead of trying to restaurate them in this way.
It has to be mentioned that due to the fact that we know that some parts of the pants aren't from the original ones, we can't be 100% sure that this is how they actually looked back in 1874. However, the pieces that were added (mainly yoke, chinch strap and the lower parts of the legs) are added in a way that makes sense, both from a wearers perspective and in comparison with old denim patent drawings from the time.
As for the manufacturer of the original pair, for all I know it's hard to determine the maker since there is no makers mark and the details of the jeans are hard to match with any specific patent letter from that time. The details are quite similar to a lot of the work wear produced back in the 1870's though.
As for the leather reinforcements by the corners of the pockets I have been told that they couldn't be protected by a patent because they were not considered to be an invention that improved the construction of a work garment. Nor could one get a patent for a stitch design that fulfilled the same purpose, for the same reasons.
The so called "chinch strap", used to adjust the width of the pants at the back of the waist, is quite obviously one of the additions that have been made after the pants were found. The denim is different in fabric and coloring compared to the original pieces, and the way it is placed makes it quite useless for it's actual purpose but we made our version accordingly because we had decided to reconstruct the garment as it looks now.
If you look closely you will also see that the waistband on our reconstructed version has a vertical join right above the chinch, and you can't see this on the original. The explanation for it is that the fabric stretched out more than we could ever expect when Viktor started to use the new pants so after a while we needed to make the waist smaller for the jeans to fit him, and that is also the reason why you can see two small folds in the fabric on each side of the back underneath the waistband. We tried to do the alternation as close to as it probably would have been made back in the days and a split waistband was actually pretty common when you look at old jeans, most likely because it was easier to save fabric this way when cutting the pattern pieces.
The plain selvage runs on the back of the reconstructed chinch, just as on the original one.
Fastening the back pocket was my favorit part of making these jeans. As you can see on the original pair, the corners of the pocket have no preserved leather pieces but on my last trip to visit Micheal in the summer of 2015 I was fortunate to be able to go through his collection and in it he had pockets that had been found on the same location, with the same triangular stitching, that still had the leather pieces intact!
The most interesting thing to me was the way the pocket had been stitched, as the pocket and the leather pieces are attached to the pant in one continuous seam. This is most visible on the leather piece by the pockets left corner, were one can see that the pockets outer seam goes up onto the leather and makes a turn that eventually will end up as the pockets inner seam! This detail is made in the exact same way as on the original pocket pice that Michael had in his collection.
The front pockets has a decorative seam in the shape of a curved V. This was quite commonly used on jeans and other trousers from the era and in this particular pair it holds the pocket bag in place but I believe that the main purpose is a decorative ornament.
This kind of stitching is also what ended up being the trademark synonymous with a pair of Levi's up until today, in the so called "arcuate" stitching located on the back pocket (Visible in this post about a tiny pair of Levi's). The design was used by other brands up until the late 40s when Levi's were able to have it as a registration trademark. But it's still unsure if Levi's actually was the first brand to use it. I find it highly unlikely.
The front closing with three buttons and the buttons holes are hand stitched, a detail that also tells us that these ones wear made prior to the invention of the button hole machine. As you can see by the picture, these button holes aren't especially meticulously sewn and that also tells us that this was a rather cheap workwear garment back in the day and it's main purpose was to be worn as protective clothing.
As you can see we also made the button holes quite sloppy to be as close to the original ones as possible.
Detail of how the front part looks when buttoned. You can also see that the fabric is aging in a good way after two years of use by Viktor.
And the side seam of the leg is also made to be as close to the original ones as possible. Back when the original was made it was common that the selvage edges were felled to one side and stitched down as these ones are. This made the seam as tough as possible and preventing it from ripping.
I like this detail, especially in view of todays denim scene where a turned-up cuff showing the selvage is the preferred way of wearing selvage jeans. This seam here still shows the selvage but it's not as much about the fact that it's there, its just a detail used to save as much fabric as possible.