Interview by Jon Shadel
Detroit Denim Co. talks to us about their craft, the return of American manufacturing and why your jeans need to get a little smelly.
As you step into this massive, 30,000 square-foot warehouse, you’ll hear the clinging of metal, the whir of sewing machines and the busy clamor of artisans crafting everything from jewelry to denim jeans. This is Ponyride, a co-working space in Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood that offers affordable studios — just $.50 per square foot — to socially conscious artists and entrepreneurs.
Ponyride is lauded by the media as a glimmer of hope in a city that’s been crippled by the decline in American manufacturing and countless foreclosures during the Great Recession. And certainly, the artisans working here exemplify the undefeatable and resourceful spirit of a city experiencing an unexpected renaissance, despite widespread poverty.
But there’s more to this story than economic rebirth. This thriving space is just one example of a larger maker movement that emphasizes localized economies and an intimate relationship with our material goods.
This was the topic of discussion when we chatted with Brenna Lane of Detroit Denim Co., just one of two dozen organizations occupying studio space here.
Using 100-year-old equipment and U.S.-sourced materials, the small production crew at Detroit Denim makes premium, selvedge denim jeans, hand-finished with solid copper rivets. Lane tells us about how the company got its start, the importance of knowing your maker, and why you should let your raw denim jeans get a little smelly before washing them.
JS: Could you tell us the story of how you started Detroit Denim and why you first set up shop in Ponyride?
BL: Sure, let me first give you a little bit of my background. I am one of the owners of Detroit Denim. I began working with Eric Yelsma, the founder, about a year after he started things with a bunch of equipment in his house. He began making the jeans all by himself in 2010. At the same time, I was working my way through grad school, and I was tired — really, really tired — of waitressing. That’s when I saw his ad on Craigslist saying he needed a sewer. And I thought, well, I sew! My grandmother taught me, and I’ve been sewing for my entire life. So I responded, and things worked out.
At the time, I was studying economic anthropology — essentially how we organize the management of our material resources from a cultural perspective. Specifically, my thesis was on the domestic maker sphere. And Detroit Denim is based in a collaborative working space called Ponyride; there’s so much going on there from a maker’s perspective. Just for example: There’s a metal smith studio, woodworkers and other sewing operations. Being here, in Detroit — it all kind of fit for me because I am really into our relationship with our material goods. It’s kind of my gig; it’s all I really think about academically, professionally and, well, personally.
JS: With your academic background in maker culture, what inspired you to actually get your hands dirty and start working in manufacturing, rather than just studying it?
BL: I don’t think I initially thought — oh, I am going to go out and make something. It was more — I have this skillset, and I am going to offer it to those who might find it useful. And then, once I finished grad school — it was kind of funny — my parents said, “You have a degree now; you don’t have to work with your hands anymore.”
But I had just fallen in love with the daily activity of making things. I mean, I have known my whole life that I am a crafty-ish person. There’s just something so rewarding about seeing a pile of twenty bags at the end of the day — something you made with raw materials, with your bare hands. There’s something really beautiful about that. I got the bug for it. Once you start making things, I don’t think you ever stop.
JS: Do you consider it a sad reality that, once you have a higher degree, there is this expectation that you shouldn’t work with your hands?
BL: I would say that there’s this attitude toward making things with your hands — that it’s low work, that it’s blue-collar work, that it is somehow below people who are formally educated, that it is laborious and negative in that way. But Detroit is a blue-collar town. You don’t take a shower before going out to a bar after you’ve been working on your car all day; we don’t try to hide the fact that we’re dirty from work. That’s how Detroit is. We respect people that work with their hands — people that make something.
But more and more, I think people everywhere are saying, “Wow, you can actually make that!” And I think it’s just a rebound effect. For so many decades, we’ve removed ourselves as a society from the actual making. We’ve created this hierarchy of jobs — from the laboring up to sitting in an office and using your brain rather than your manual skills.
And I do think that is sad. And I do see how this has led to these skills not being taught. The reality is that the domestic arts are not being taught in high schools anymore — the shop classes, the sewing classes, the making classes don’t really exist in the curriculum, and if they do, they are very terribly underfunded. But those eye-hand coordination skills and those tactile skills are so needed. It’s really hard for us, and many other maker friends, to find sewers because those skills haven’t been passed on.
JS: You put an emphasis on building the bridge between maker and consumer. Why does that relationship matter?
BL: I always say that I want people to have a better relationship with their material goods, and what I mean by that is to understand that they had a life before they just showed up on a store shelf — that they had a life before that, and they have a life after you stop utilizing them. They exist somewhere, even though they are out of your sphere. And this really means you need to know your maker.
There is a really strong know-your-farmer movement — to understand where your food comes from. Likewise, I think there is a growing know-your-maker movement — for example, to understand how your soap is made and where your clothes come from. And I think people are thirsty for that knowledge, whether or not they are consciously aware that’s what they’re searching for.
I want people to hear, see and smell the making happening. On the consumer side, our customers have really enjoyed that experience — seeing our workspace and how we make each pair of jeans. And on the maker side, too, our production team loves to see the consumer who buys our products. When someone comes in and tells you that they’re going to give a pair of jeans as a gift — something you’ve made with your hands — that’s really rewarding.
JS: In many ways, I wonder if what many of us describe as maker culture is really just a glimmer of that grand American working class that was once the bedrock of the American economy. Do you think this emerging movement is a reaction to a messed-up consumer culture?
BL: Yes, I do think this speaks to a messed-up consumer culture. Let me put it like this: I don’t need 30 pairs of shoes. I need two really good ones that are going to last me. But that’s not how our economy runs. Our economy operates with this continual changeover, with new styles coming out all the time. That’s the world of fast fashion, and that’s not what we’re into. We make a jean that’s been cool for 50 years and will be cool for another 50 years. We’re not offering something that’s disposable. And we offer lifetime complimentary repair. When you get a rip or tear, we don’t want you to throw them away — that’s just when they’re getting good. I mean, I run a jean company and own just three pairs of jeans.
JS: Detroit Denim sources all of the materials for its jeans from the United States. I assume that can be a difficult process. Why is that important for you?
BL: It’s important for us to source materials from the United States because we believe in localized economies. We would source entirely from Detroit and Michigan if we could, but with the products we’re making, it’s impossible to do that. And it can even be really, really hard to find U.S. suppliers. We source our denim from Cone Mills in North Carolina, and they’re the only mill left in the country making the selvedge denim we want. And as far as I know, there are only two button-makers making the types of buttons we use still left in the United States. So, yes, it can be a difficult process.
JS: Do you have some tips for how to care for the jeans from Detroit Denim? Do we really have to wear them till they’re really smelly?
BL: We encourage people to not wash their jeans too frequently. Sure, there are opinions all over the board in terms of how best to care for raw denim jeans. It ranges from hyper hygienic — oh you’ve got to wash them every time you wear them, which is the worst answer there is — to never-ever-ever-wash-them-no-matter-what. And we like to think of it more as a happy medium.
I suggest giving it a good six months before you wash them. That way, you can get some really good wear marks — yes, they will look really cool if you never wash them, but at a certain point, the dirt becomes an abrasive. So I suggest, after those first six months, to wash them when they need to be washed. We liken it to a winter coat: you don’t wash your winter coat every time you wear it. You wash it when it needs to be washed, maybe once a season. Think of your jeans like that.
JS: The company got its start before the city itself earned a national reputation for a maker renaissance and the return of American manufacturing. What made you decide to open the business here rather than some other American city that may be better known for fashion or youth culture?
BL: It was never a question whether we would start our business in Detroit. It would have never even crossed our minds to start this somewhere else. Opening up shop in Detroit wasn’t a strategic decision. This is our home, and that’s why we do it here. And Detroit really does have a history of making and creativity — whether it’s manufacturing, art or music.
This is a city of creative and resourceful people. One of my favorite things about Detroit is that the maker mentality has long been alive. A lot of people now are trying to sell their craft like us, to make a business out of it. But this is nothing new; this has been alive in the homes of those who live here — the domestic maker culture. Whether you’re making jewelry, clothes, soap or something else for yourself or for your neighborhood — engaging in that wonderful informal economic exchange, this is what we do. We are a city of makers.
Jon Shadel is a Portland-based writer and the editor of Limbo.