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Sanford’s war on shrinkage

One of the greatest headaches for denim aficionados is washing those dry jeans for the first time. Will they shrink? If so, how much of inseam and waistline will be lost? Today, almost all dry denim fabrics are pre-shrunk to prevent radical shrinkage when you wash your jeans for the first time. The care label says to allow about 3% shrinkage, which means that they will retract to the size they were when you first bought the jeans. Before the 30’s, jeans would shrink up to 10% after the first wash and kept shrinking for a a couple of washes after that, giving people trouble breathing and leaving their ankles visible. Buying jeans was a gamble, to say the least.

To a guy named Sanford Lockwood Cluett, the problem with shrinkage became personal. In 1919, he had joined his uncle’s business; a factory manufacturing stiff, detachable shirt collars. In the beginning business was all good, but all of a sudden people decided they wanted soft, comfortable collars. Sales were plummeting and the company tried to dodge the fall by making shirts with attached collars, but they faced problems with serious shrinkage when the shirts were washed. Cluett took it personal and set off to find a way to save the family business.

In 1930, Sanford got the patent for his controlled compressive shrinkage process, later dubbed Sanforization, after its inventor. The method was a revolution and the aim of this process was to treat the fabric in such a way that it would be pre-shrunk so that it wouldn’t stretch too drastically during the cutting and sewing, and shrink too much when people washed their clothes. During the process of making a pair of jeans, the fabric is under a lot of stress. Each thread in the fabric consists of separate, stretchable fibers that submit to the tension of stretching both lengthwise and in width. The tension is eliminated if you reduce the friction within the fabric; this happens when you wash your jeans. The detergent and the washer helps the fibers relax and contract to their original length. But a lot of people want their denim dry, so getting a pair of pre-washed jeans is not even an option.

Sanforizing is a way of pre-washing the dry fabric. The fabric is fed into a sanforizing machine where it’s moistened with either water or steam to enable shrinkage. It’s stretched through a series of belts and cylinders before it’s compressed and retracts to its final size. After this process the fabric won’t shrink too drastically during production. The jeans will stretch for a bit during wear, but will shrink back to its original size after washing.

We only use sanforized denim for our dry jeans. And so does the vast majority of the jeans manufacturers in the world.

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