Without the presence of a cotton twill, fondly coined “blue jean” in 1873, American sportswear as we know it today might well have developed into something quite the contrary. For the sake of this post (and as a little mental exercise on my part), I’ve tried to envision a denim-less scenario that doesn’t leave me absolutely terrified. But alas, I cannot seem to get beyond the cesspool of khaki coolats, track pants, and velour sweat suits that filter into my mind. I shudder and then remember I’m not in middle school anymore. The fact is, it’s hard to imagine a world devoid of one of western society’s most prized and prevalent materials. Denim, so it seems, has yet to disappoint.
Which is why I’ve enjoyed watching Nicholas Schmidt’s custom denim business expand primarily by word of mouth over the course of this past year. Schmidt is a Madison, Wisconsin based craftsman of bespoke denim jeans (as well as leather goods) and creates products that are informed by heritage, a hardworking mentality, and a penchant for quality. After questioning the local denim defender myself, I’ve been able to glean a bit more on the history of denim and asked him to share some of his insight with us in the Q&A to follow.
Let’s hear what he had to say on the subject:
Madison, Wisconsin’s denim dude, Nicholas Schmidt.
Down and dirty origins
The first pair of jeans, referred to as rivet pants by the inventor, Jacob W. Davis, was made of a cotton duck material (also known as duck cloth, duck canvas, and canvas). The closest living relative, in terms of fabric choice, to early jeans is the duck dungaree Carhartt work pant. Denim, a coarse, rugged cotton twill textile, was later adopted and used as the main fabric for jeans. It differs from duck cloth, in that the weft goes under two or more warp threads. This particular weaving process gives denim a very distinct diagonal ribbing on the opposite (or “wrong”) side of the fabric.
Denim was originally employed in clothing for the purpose of being a heavy, durable fabric that would be used for work wear. Denim was not a fashion statement. Blue collar workers (miners, blacksmiths, etc.) were the people wearing denim. Over the course of time, however, denim has become an integral part of worldwide fashion. “For the learned though,” Schmidt emphasizes,
“Denim will always represent something more…the blood, sweat, and tears that have gone into weaving the fabric of the United States of America. Denim stands for hard work and freedom. Denim is the American fabric.”
What about the history of denim stands out to you?
A pair of denim jeans at its core is a compilation of the work of many people from various cultures. The rivets on the pockets are thanks to the ingenuity of Jacob Davis and the monetary/manufacturing backing of Levi Strauss. Using denim as the jeans fabric of choice is thanks to many others. Elias Howe and Isaac Singer are to thank for the lockstitch sewing machine that was used to create jeans. The point I’m trying to get at is that jeans are no one man’s creation. They’re the product of many artists’ work.
Why is denim your material of choice?
I’m an American working man…and denim is the epitome of American fashion. Denim reflects my life and the roots of America—hard work and determination.
How/when did you get started sewing?
I used to watch my mom sew and “help her” when I was younger. I never had any concrete sewing skills though. It wasn’t until I quit drinking that I started sewing my first pair of jeans. I was quickly becoming a useless drunk, like many of my forefathers. Two months before my daughter was born, I quit drinking and started attending a 12-step program. Someone in a meeting mentioned finding a positive hobby to take the place of drinking. I decided to make jeans. I’d have given up on my venture if not for the love and support of many people.
How are bespoke denim jeans different from the average ready to wear? Pros/cons?
Pros: Bespoke custom denim is really cool. I have the privilege of meeting with customers and turning their dreams and desires for a pair of pants into a reality. I get to meet with customers, take measurements, and draft a custom pattern based on each customer’s unique size and desires. The end product is an extremely well-fitting pair of jeans.
Cons: I rely on word of mouth. My business currently consists of customers that want custom jeans, along with a sparse amount of customers wanting leather goods. One week, I might have 40 hours of work to do; other weeks I might only have a few hours of work. Bespoke, at this point, means inconsistent.
Another con is the amount of time it takes to create a pair of custom jeans or a custom leather item. As a result, I have to charge customers $300+ for their first pair of jeans. Comparatively though, I’m pretty cheap. Custom jeans elsewhere sell for $1,000+ dollars.
Who is your customer?
My customer is anyone that wants to embrace a unique corner of American culture: custom selvage denim and vegetable tanned leather.
How long does it take to make a pair of custom jeans?
Approximately 8 hours.
How do you recommend caring for denim?
Don’t wash them. If they start to stink, freeze them. A good old ziplock clothing storage bag and a night in your freezer will kill stink and bacteria—more than your washing machine. Spot treat them if you spill on them and stains annoy you.
If you have to wash them, use a very mild soap and hand wash them in very cold water. Air dry!!!!!
This is personal preference, but selvage and raw denim is a privilege and necessitates a caring relationship. Washing them bleeds out the indigo dye and not only weakens the jeans, but it also robs you of the ability to create a work of art with your jeans.
Contact Nicholas Schmidt USA via his website, facebook, or phone for more info or to place an order. Custom jeans are $360 – $390 for the first pair. Subsequent pairs are $270 – $300. An online shop is set to launch mid-October including other leather goods and accessories at nicholasschmidtusa.com.