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Detroit's Denim

The New Face of America's Jean

Detroit's Denim
The New Face of America's Jean


It started as a hobby.

“And then,” says Eric Yelsma, the founder of Detroit Denim, “it just got a little more obsessive.”

For about 20 years, Yelsma, a resident of Detroit, worked as a sales and marketing executive for a national chemical company.  About six years ago, the division he was working for shut down, leaving Yelsma with a choice: Find another job in sales and marketing--or embark on a completely new journey. He chose the latter.  

“This is something I desperately wanted to do, so I jumped into the denim,” he says. “I didn’t want to do anything else.”

This living room space at the front of his workshop matches Eric's personality, which is one of warmth and infectious joy in his work.

For years, Yelsma harbored a dream of running a small denim company. He doesn’t know exactly what draws him to denim, but the obsession was inescapable. After a brief stint running a coffee shop in the late 2000’s, Yelsma began buying the machines necessary to begin producing his line of denim. Even though he was following his dream, there was still plenty of anxiety.

“I didn’t tell my family,” he says, chuckling. “I put it off for as long as I could. I was kind of embarrassed. It was a bit of a folly, really. No one is doing apparel in the U.S. It takes a lot of time to get something like this off the ground. It took about a year to buy all the machines. I still do lay kind of low.”

Detroit Denim's production facility inside the Ponyride Building.

In 2011, Yelsma leased the facility at the PonyRide building at 1401 Vermont St. in Corktown, Detroit’s oldest neighborhood, to begin production. Yelsma sources selvage denim, a special type of denim, from Cone Mills, a leading supplier of denim fabrics that first opened in 1891.

American-made selvedge (which is alternately spelled selvage) denim is a unique for a couple of reasons. First, it’s relatively rare. According to Cotton Incorporated, a trade group that tracks the denim industry, about 98% of denim jeans available at U.S. retailers are imported, with more than two-thirds of denim produced originating from one of three countries: China, Mexico, and Bangladesh.

The word itself is actually portmanteau of the words “self” and “edge.” Unlike most forms of denim that use multiple threads, selvedge is created by threading one piece of yarn—the weft—through a shuttle loom, which was first introduced in the early 1800’s.  Essentially, selvedge is made to prevent unraveling or fraying, and has a tighter, denser weave.  Selvedge is also used to be a cost-cutting measure--by using one thread, it prevents waste. But today, the looms used to make selvedge are somewhat rare.

Eric demonstrates seam work on a custom order to one of his employees.

Lately, it’s grown in popularity among jean-makers and designers.“The immense care put into the detailing of this unique denim fabric, from the raw material to the weaving, dying and stitching, creates a jean of exceptional quality,” notes one fashion industry blog, Context. “Denim produced on shuttle looms is naturally irregular and these irregularities are enhanced as the jeans age, causing every pair to develop a unique and beautiful pattern as it fades. The deep blue color and the way the jeans fade can only be achieved by using the loop dying system. These details give the jeans authenticity and give you the knowledge that you own an article of the highest quality. Like fine wood, jeans made of selvage denim will only become more beautiful with age and wear, acquiring a patina unique to the wearer that is impossible to reproduce artificially. Each pair transforms in to a one-of-a-kind piece. Owning and wearing jeans made of selvage denim is a very personal experience that no other item of clothing can give you.”

Basic denim, on the other hand, is made of a simple twill weave.

For the true selvedge connoisseur, washing denim is somewhat sacrilegious, says Yelsma. Selvedge denim has a deep, blue hue, full of dark dye. Washing them in warm water risks making the jeans appear lighter.  (One way to wash them, however, is to turn them inside out and rinse them in cold water with a bit of Woolite Dark Laundry.)

Detroit Denim's rivets are about $0.50 each, which is significantly more than the $0.03 rivets found in standard jeans.
Belt loops in process, waiting to be trimmed and bartacked. U.S. milled denim is usually $10-$14 per yard.
Vegetable tanned leather that "ages beautifully." Depending on size, thickness, and treatment, Detroit Denim's leather can range from $8-$35 per square foot.
Thread is roughly $35 per cone and is sold by weight.

All the materials in Yelsma's jeans are American-made.  Yelsma purchases thread from American & Efird and buttons are sourced from Waterbury Button in Connecticut. It’s a labor of love. Yelsma hand-hammers each rivet on every pair of jeans he produces.It takes the use of about seven machines to make one pair of jeans, which retail for $250. Yelsma can make about 3 pairs of jeans per day, but it’s not enough.

“Demand is outpacing supply by 2 to 1,” Yelsma says. “I have to decline a lot of orders. I’m in five outlets. Three in Detroit and two in New York.”



Yelsma has also found a small niche in producing jeans for men who don’t fit into normal sizes. While the business is still growing, Yelsma continues to make time for custom orders.

In July, Detroit Denim partnered with Shinola, the Detroit-based bike shop. Detroit Denim Co. will now be sold in both of Shinola’s Flagship stores--one in Detroit’s Midtown district, and the other in Shinola’s newest shop in downtown Manhattan.

“We need jeans made in the Midwest,” he says. “That’s all I wanted to do. If it wasn’t this, I’d be selling chemicals again. This is my passion.”  

Artifact: Denim Pocket

Jaunt worked with Detroit Denim to create a custom object that would allow subscribers to feel the selvedge denim that Eric loves.  Each pocket was made along the selvedge of the fabric, which is the orange and white lining along the top of the pocket.  We designed them to comfortably fit an iPhone 5, however this is not the only way this pocket can be used.

Yelsma describes the pocket:

All of our products are meant to be used frequently as they get better with wear and age. The denim pocket has been made using selvedge denim and was sewn to utilize the selvedge edge of the material. It has been milled on a traditional denim loom (like what Levi's originally used). This process takes longer and results in narrow roll of fabric, however, the depth and quality of the denim are superior. The more this pocket is used, the better it will become.

Use the pocket to make a stylish Detroit statement with your iPhone.
 

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