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Collecting Mania: Blue Denim

Updated on May 27, 2010

Fashion trends come and they go, but this durable cotton fabric never seems to fade out. Rugged and comfortable, blue denim is a cultural icon of the United States that gets even better over time. Through the years, it's been worn by California miners, cowboys, movie stars, trendy teens, and aging baby boomers. Today it also brings a relaxed feel to home decor with thanks to table linens, bedding, throw pillows and many other home accessories fashioned from this durable cotton fabric.

Denim has been manufactured in America since the early 19th century, but it was a Bavarian-born businessman named Levi Strauss who turned into a cultural American icon. In 1873, the San Francisco dry-goods merchant joined forces with Nevada tailor Jacob Davis, who came up with the ingenious idea of strengthening the pocket corners of pants with rivets. After receiving a patent for the process, the partners began making waist overalls from blue denim.

Initially embraced by miners and farmers, blue jeans came to denote the swaggering American cowboy during the 1930s. In the 1950s they became common fashion for teens all over the country after being trotted out on the movie screens by James Dean, Marlon Brando, Annette Funicello, and Frankie Avalon. Later trends gave birth to bell-bottoms, designer jeans, and a craze for vintage denim that continues to this day. Serious collectors such as clothing executives at Levi Strauss & Co., paid $25,000 for a rare pair of early Levi's discovered in an old coal mine.

Blue denim is ageless and unaffected wholly by fashion trends. It might take the form of a refreshing curtain fabric or a beloved pair of jeans, but it's always comforting and familiar. Everybody's got a pair of blue jeans in the closet, as it's become a part of Americana. The price of vintage denim blue jeans can range from $25 to more than $10,000, depending on age, condition, and color.

Well-worn jeans often wind up in the rag bag, where they sometimes inspire enterprising souls to create one-of-a-kind quilts. These textile pieces, however, are rare in today's market and can fetch $100 to $1,000. "These quilts are not ancient," points out quilt dealer Laura Fisher. "Some of them include remnants from jeans makers of the past few decades, but they're enchanting nonetheless."

The tab on Levi's jeans can be used to date a pair of jeans or a jacket. The tab was first used in 1936; the word Levi's was stitched in capital letters until 1971. Many people don't realize that entire 40 foot FCL containers of used jeans are available for as little as a couple of thousand dollars. Although the vast majority of these jeans are simply semi trash which is suitable only for either being sold for a dollar or two each at flea markets or outright being donated to used clothing thrift stores, I know of one person who swears that they find enough high quality collectible jeans in each container that it pays for the entire purchase, with the money derived from the sale of the rest of the jeans for a buck or so each, being pure profit. Not a bad business!

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