It never occurred to me until one of Levi's competitors started running ads for "plain pocket" jeans, but that stitching on the back pockets of Levis is very distinctive. So distinctive, in fact, that it looks downright frivolous. What motivated the manufacturers of the world's most purely functional clothing to indulge in this flight of fancy? As near as I can tell, the extra stitches play no practical role at all. Are they symbolic, perhaps? Or did some high-minded artistic type manage to insinuate himself among the stern pragmatists on the Levi Strauss staff at a crucial moment in jeans history?
Illustration by Slug Signorino
The pocket stitches were the brainchild of the man who virtually invented the Levi’s jean, a Russian immigrant by the name of Jacob Davis. Working as a tailor in Reno, Nevada, Davis hit upon the crucial concept of the riveted seam — a dramatic advance in work clothes technology that doubled the durability of the product. In 1870, Davis approached the wholesale company that sold him his denim, offering to sell the west coast rights to his riveted jeans in exchange for the cost of securing a patent — a matter, in those day, of $68. The wholesaler was Levi Strauss, and the rest is history. Davis joined the company in 1873, presiding over the final design of the product. His two primary contributions were the orange thread used in all stitching (to match the copper rivets) and the inimitable curved stitches (known as “arcuate” in the trade) on the back pockets. Originally, the pocket flourishes had a practical function: early Levis featured cotton-lined back pockets, and the stitches were intended to keep the lining from buckling. Although the lining was soon dropped, the stitches lived on, so distinctive a part of the Levis look that the company was able to register them as a trademark in 1942. Their survival was threatened only once, during the material shortage of World War II. As their contribution to the national emergency, Levi Strauss decided to stop wasting valuable thread on idle aesthetics. For the duration, the design was not sewn, but carefully painted on every pair of Levi’s jeans.
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