Photo Essay: The Denim Factory

September 9, 2008

I shot these photos at a denim factory in Kentucky that specializes in distressing high-end jeans for a few top designers. I used to scoff at paying a premium for jeans that come with holes in them already. Then I saw just how much work goes into distressing jeans, and I realized that these people are artists. You can’t just have any loose threads, you have to have the right loose threads. They can’t just be faded. They have to be the right color. A lot of work goes into making these jeans look just right.




These are some really awesome shots.

Excellent shots that really tell the story of craftsmanship and pride.

I've never been so scared of hanging legs before.

Idiotic. I want dark blue jeans that look new, but all I can find in the shops are ones that look faded and worn. Why would anybody want that?

Coming soon: New books that look like they've been read a thousand times, food that looks like it's already been eaten. Only twice as expensive! Pre-order them now!

Indeed. I don't care how much works goes into them. I'm certain there are paparazzi that work very hard at getting the best shot possible, it doesn't make it valid.

I simply want to be able to purchase a pair of pants that, upon purchase, appear to be in better condition than the worn-out pair that I've been wearing for the past decade.

Why is it impossible to get a standard pair of medium-blue Levi 501s for about $40 (i.e. a reasonable price for a pair of jeans)? A pair that, with proper care, will last me another decade. You can't even really do that at the flagship Levi's store in San Francisco. Just very pricey models of all possible types and levels of degradation.

Also: get the hell off my lawn.

I love the shot with the chandelier hanging over the head of the haggard factory worker. The lighting seems so out of place in such a cold, industrial setting. Great stuff.

go to Macy's! Plenty of regular levi's for $40 or so. Dark blue. Medium blue. Fancy and not.

db: Wrong continent for me. Traveling to the nearest Macy's would cost me about $1000.

I went to school with the family that owns this factory. Oddly, none of the kids really wore denim. They are largely responsible for the acid-washed craze of the early 80's. Which is probably why the kids stuck to khaki...

Beautiful photography.

Great shots, and I learned something too.

Martin, the Japanese are still making denim the old way-Shuttle looms, hand dyed with natural indigo. Pricey, but worth it. Check out the following brands:

Pure Blue
Studio D'Artisan

Meh. Consumerism at its stupidest, and to think these worn-out crap goes for 150 US$ in many places. So funny! Keep powering the economy guys! Ha!

For me, only one day is required to distress my jeans. I can obtain a high quality proletarian worker look. My ass may be too large to offer my distressed jeans to the designer trade. I'm a longshoreman.

It doesn't matter how distressed they are, it can't develop that "fits you perfectly, soft and comfortable feel" that actually doing enough physical work to break in your jeans gives them. I spent summers on a fishing vessel with my grandfather - by the time school started, my jeans were pefect.

Where in KY is this?

why is it everything on the web, there has to be some curmudgeon in the comments section.

You don't like distressed denim? Don't wear it, duh. It doesnt mean everyone else with a different taste than you is an idiot.


They are meant to emulate that worn faded favorite pair of jeans.

That's why you pay extra. You don't have to wait though 5 years of daily wear to have a nicely worn pair of jeans. (that are now 5 years out of style)

I am SO not impressed. Recently I went looking for jeans to replace my old ones, and all I could find were ones that were in worse condition than the ones I wanted to dump. Costco to the rescue, though. $12, and worth every cent.

How much for the ones the workers are wearing?

It's idiotic if you care what someone else wears. Wear what you want. Make your own choice. More power to you. But if someone else wants to spend their hard-earned dollar another way and someone else wants to provide them with a product for that hard-earned dollar, then what business is it of yours?

If you choose to not be discriminating about the quality/construction/cut of your jeans, that is your choice.

Grow up, and stop acting like a child.

These are some nice pictures. I don't wear Denim but I guess this is the same for all the other factories.

geeze, we used to do our own distressing, "back in the day" (early 70s) when i was in high school.

we'd pay 15 bucks for a new pair of levi's, then dump bleach on them in the bathtub, throw them on the ground, run over them with the car, just generally abuse them for an hour or two, et voila, nice, beat-up pair of jeans.

they pay someone else to do everything these days. that's pretty goofy! at least it's giving some people work, for now, anyway...

It might be worth considering that people make things for a certain audience/clientele - and couldn't give a crap about those people who aren't interested in their products.

Consider that computer your using, or that car you drive, or TV you have, or those books you own. How much of it do you REALLY need to survive? Probably none of it.

#1 awesome photos I like the big chandelier picture
#2 there are a LOT of charity shops with PRE worn denim for less and more individual patterns + if your are DYI old dryer with rocks (don't use MOMS machine)

I think it's funny that people scoff paying $100 for designer jeans. Yeah, it is expensive but they feel 100 times better than the $25 or $50 pair of jeans I wear when I'm going to do something dirty.

Unless you have the body of model that they made the Levi's for, you're not going to look that great in them.

Whether you like consumer culture, expensive faded jeans or not, what I do like is seeing what looks to be a well-run factory operation, filled with American workers making products for America. You may not like those products, but there is a market for them in America, and I'm glad to see that it's America's labor going into that product.

As a person whose relatives worked in Kentucky textiles one to two generations before, I'm glad to see this industry isn't completely lost - even if it is "distressing."

(Also, I'd love to know where in KY this factory is.)

The poor create culture by hand, the upper class find a way to build it in a factory and sell it, and the simpleminded middle class yuppie runs up her credit cards buying it so that she can look like the poor guy that started it all.

Why not just talk to the poor guy and find out how he did it?

I wonder if American denim is better than the Chinese stuff we get in New Zealand. 99% of our clothing comes from China (we destroyed our clothing industry years ago).
I don't think I have seen a "Made in the U.S.A" or "Made in New Zealand" label on a pair of jeans for 20 years. I work in the metal trade and I used to get 12 months out of a pair but now I'm lucky to get 6 months.

"You don't like distressed denim? Don't wear it, duh. It doesnt mean everyone else with a different taste than you is an idiot. "


My such craftsmen! I have to say i'm quite impressed. What's all this jabber of job shortages and the unemployment scares? It appears that if a person applies themselves and endeavors to learn a trade that there will always be a place for those truly marketable skills.

It's so refreshing to see a fray or a hole done "just right" and when I see someone wearing those brown tinted rags I am truly impressed with the self confidence and individuality of the wearer. But don't forget the distressed shirt and underwear and the raggy sneakers... for that, you know, truly sleeping with the dogs statement. Your so hot baby!

Now how about the hair? Such a shame you've washed it.

My grandmother worked at a denim factory in KY. Most of them were laid off. They made shitty jeans that her son wouldn't even wear. It would be good to know where this place is so that I could forward the link to my hometown denim factory.

Distressed denim is in the same vein as acid wash denim- it comes predestroyed to short circuit the consumption cycle and sell more jeans. Nobody would be wearing the stuff if it weren't for years and years of marketing. Sure the punks thought it was wicked rebellious to rip their jeans to rebel against their parents generation, and workers have always been rough on their clothes but distressing is pre-packaged cool.

Environmentally distressed jeans are horrible too, you get a product that has been sprayed with bleach and stripped of thread, meaning we have to use more resources to get something uglier than necessary. Don't brag about getting jeans for $12 either, I make jeans by hand, it takes forever. Even if I had an industrial set up, there's no way to make the numbers work without using abusive labor practices.

The more interesting part of this essay is the workers though. I'm sure they're glad to have the job but they probably aren't too keen on the advancement opportunities.

And in the bleach sprayers photos; respirators are conspicuous by their absence, am I just not seeing any safety equipment or was it not there?

not impossible at all. there is a little place i know...maybe you have heard of it.. Sears. 501's, unwashed, $34-ish.

Far more fun to ruin jeans yourself. Then they take on personality.

hi david- your photographs are great- they really capture the spirit of what we try to do. for those who commented on "where is this?" -- it's in henderson, ky.

Beautiful photos. Beautiful photos, and a bewildering debate about consumerism on a photography blog.

These shots are GREAT! Ok... now can they make a pair of Jeans that fit? If they put more effort into fitting different shapes instead of paying people to rip them (perfectly) I would own stock in that company.
Thanks for sharing your excellent work.

501's in New Zealand (made in China) $150 take it or leave it.
Thats a 3rd of the average weekly wage here. Probably cost about $10 to land them. But thats the cheapest you can get.

I love the americans screaming at paying $50 for a pair of jeans. A standard pair of 501's cost the equivalent of $100 in the UK. My latest 504's (incidentally, not scuffed up too much etc) cost £80 or around $160!!

I've paid $200 CDN for a pair of jeans before. For me this is approximately 10 hours wage. I have received at least $200 of satisfaction and comfort from wearing a well-made and stylish article of clothing. Also, I know for a fact that they weren't sewn by slave children. If you don't like it go buy your jeans at WalMart, I don't care. No need to insult my sensibility.

I certainly don't mind the fact that there is a market for expensive pre-distressed jeans, but I'd personally recommend buying a decent pair of raw jeans and wearing them in yourself. A pair of really good quality raw jeans can easily cost just as much as any fancy designer jeans, but they are a lot more fun and satisfying to wear, plus they shrink to fit.

oh, and great pics btw.

Forget about the 'medium' blue, just get the raw 501's (you can still order those from practically anyone). You can be completely practical and fashionable at the same time, without looking like you're trying.

In the US, Gap is a great place to go for dark wash jeans. They've got a ton of different fits in a dark indigo raw denim. Just make sure to wash them inside out on cold before you wear them so the dye doesn't rub off.

£80 is closer to $140US now, just for those keeping track.

Those hanging legs are indeed scary. And I'm not even a fan of denim.

that's incredible, i've always wondered if that's how they do that!

Not a valid point. In the UK you get paid in pounds, probably at an equal rate, so there is no need to do the convert those currencies and scream about it. Always think first =)

I think what needs to be recognized here is the excellent photography and the overall kudos to the artists who are distressing the denim.

Sure, we all wish those kick-ass jeans that are perfectly distressed and make your ass look pa-dow were a bit cheaper, but I am appreciative of their luxury, as it appears to be employing a lot of folks in creative, meticulous jobs. Where can I apply??

and is there a warehouse sale? I'm all over it!

Half worn out clothes last half as long as they should and cost twice as much.

Actually you can. In Kansas. JC Penney stores here carry them here at that price all the time. SOmetimes they go on sale for about $28. One of the few benefits of living in what I orefer to call 'the middle of nowhere'.

By the way, can we appreciate the craftsmanship happening here?

These are obviously faked, those ripped up faded jeans are worn by the global elite, then passed down to retail after they're worn out as a joke.

This was awesome!

Nice Pics

THANK YOU. God; we're presented with a photo essay with an intriguing narrative and all we can do in response is start bitching about our own (boring) consumer desires ("brand x is way better than brand y!" "nuh-uhh!").

Like David said, "A lot of work goes into making these jeans look just right". I found the photos of the process fascinating... Can we at least appreciate how absurdly unique and skill-intensive this job is?

Have you ever seen Herbie Hancock's Rokit video? Scariest. Hanging Legs. Ever.

your an idiot

I belive this is the Sights plant in Lexington.

A few tidbits:

You can buy "rigid" styles (super dark blue, super starchy) at Tractor Supply and at feed-and-seed stores. These hold up like crazy.

Pointer Brand jeans are made in Tennessee, and their rigid styles are bombproof

Texas Brand jeans are actually made in North Carolina

We've bought loads of "destruction wash" jeans from vendors that had little more remaining than a waistband.

Bleaching is actually done with enzymes, not bleach

A bad dye job can be covered up by 45 minutes of heavy stones and a wicked enzyme wash

The washing machine is the size of a dumpster and does 288 pieces at a time.

I always buy rigids now, turn them wrong side out, wash them three times in hot water, and always use cold after that. Cleanliness is key to durability - wash them every time you wear them and they last for years.

Looks like no one else got your joke. I thought it was very funny.

Just go to any farm store and get a pair of real jeans for under $20.00.
Now you can be proud of how you look.

Excellent photo's, never really stopped to think that distressed jeans had to be 'distressed' by a person; I always thought they had machines to do that.

For those of you looking for washed, dark, comfortable and "wearing like iron jeans", I hope I'm not out of line here to recommend Peedee Jeans (made in Oregon). I'm no relation - just an exceedingly satisfied customer. They'll even make 'em to your very own measurements, and are the nicest folks you'll ever do business with. They are expert Makers in every sense!

Google doesn't tell me anything about these Peedee jeans. Link please!

I'm a little late to the party...but I did note respirators in the pictures of the two smiling fellows with the spray guns; the one has one hanging around his neck. In the other picture, a respirator is hanging on the rack immediately outside the doorway.

I love the shots. If they weren't so good, I wouldn't have been able to find the respirators!

i was just wondering who took these photographs,
and why the photographer has got no credit for his/her work,
thanx sam

LOL......that was great.....god damn whipper snappers!

The photos r original since we also do the same in india, would like to know what they spray expect kmno4 and rezin, let me know new technics if there r any

All of you complaining about distressed designer jeans are really arrogant and naive. I live, work and shop in America and I am proud to buy expensive American made jeans because I know the work that goes in to it and that workers should be paid decently. Chinese will soon stand up for themselves I'm sure, and we won't be able to ever see cheap jeans in stores because they are practically made from slave-labor!

This is yeah? Now lemme throw in a wild guess here Sam old son - you don't reckon the photographer could be David Photo do ya?

craft knife
wire brush

wot else you need?


Thass right, you Yanks don't know you're born. Everything your rip off companies sell us is more than double the price because they don't use exchange rates - they just chop the dollar sign off the front and substitute a £ sign.

Get over yourselves you poofters.

Oh, shut up with your whining, you fashion retard. There are TONS of jeans out there that aren't already worn in. Try Nudies or Levis. Look online, not at your local stores.

In New Zealand you have Ande Whall doing some
terrific jeans.

Thats Denim Teck in Kentucky. Thats the biggest and best wash house. It does washing for exclusive brands like RRL and Kentucky denim
Pretty sick

i used to work with that company
really bomb

Great pictures

i thought it was a wood working shop or something.

thimk it briiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiil

Looks like a cool place to work. Maybe I don't mind these faded jeans so much now.

Do you know the name of the company ? I am a designer interested in using them for my jeans line.Feel free to email me at

really intersting !

100% beautiful and very very sweet!

Nice photo essay on your factory.

I am looking to purchase machines to distress jeans like the above pictures. If you know of anyone that can help please email me at

nice photograph, thats a lot of denims

wow, this is inspiring photoessay

uh, never seen so many jeans all stuffed together. Denim is one of top brands. Sure they seem to need a lot of work for their final look.

Always wondered how this was done, now I know why my jeans are over $100....

Your all dumb