An Odyssey in Denim



Back in the late nineties, I was a high-school student exuberantly indulging in exploring my own style, limited only by my budget and what I could find at the thrift store. I had settled, somewhat reluctantly, on Levi’s button-fly 501s for jeans—they were a decently close fit, didn’t have the hugest saddlebags at the hips, and were comfy. They had one major drawback, however—the waist was quite high and, me being as rectangular back then as I am now, rather snug.

Yes, this was the beginning of my quest for the low-rise jeans. At the time, at least in my backwater corner of North America, stretch-denim was unknown, and waistbands still hovered just below the navel. 80s-tight was out, but I was so done with oversize-grunge, and the 70s revival was only just beginning.

One day in gr. 12, probably during Creative Writing class, I had a brainwave. If I removed the waistband from my Levi’s, they would be lower-rise, the waist would no longer be uncomfortably tight, AND it would be a cool inversion of the omnipresent cutoff denim shorts everyone wore. And because of the button-fly, they would still stay closed.

I have rarely been so pleased with myself for any fashion innovation. I wore my reverse-cutoffs proudly. With crop-tops, of course, to maximize the amount of tummy-tan. (I tried to find a lingering crop-top to pose in, for posterity’s sake. Apparently the last of them have been purged from my wardrobe, although it occurs to me that I do still have one cropped boho gypsy blouse in the basement that I bought when I was 14…)

Mariah’s cut-off jeans

A few weeks later, I first saw this Mariah Carey video* (also a nifty article about the waistbandless-jeans phenomenon, which I have to say, in my area, was a phenomenon consisting of me and only me). I don’t think I can properly convey how crushed/angry/amused I was, to have been scooped on my fashion innovation. This did not, however, stop me from wearing my very first low-rises proudly. Two or three different pairs got the treatment.

Anyway, fast forward a year or two, and one of my pairs of hacked-up Levi’s was on its last legs. I had moved on to other jeans styles at that point—notably vintage Wranglers—but I wanted to give my “innovation” one last hurrah. So I hit upon the idea of having a plethora of friends sign, draw, and write all over them. Sometimes while I was wearing them, mostly not.

Anyway, having created this unique piece of apparel, I realized I couldn’t really wear the (rather tattered) jeans anymore. I hadn’t heard of the idea of setting Sharpie marker with an iron, and after the first or second wash the text was showing significant signs of fading. So I retired them, and proceeded to cart them around with me in the “sentimental” box over every move (and there were a lot of them) of the next dozen years.

Sometime this past winter, Tyo found them.

Fortunately for me, she’s not quite big enough to steal my jeans yet. But she did like the idea. As she and her classmates are graduating to middle school this year, and we’re moving away, so naturally she’s been feeling sentimental all around and wanting a way to commemorate her class. Not long after finding my jeans, she hit upon her solution—a messenger-bag, made out of old jeans, that she could take to school and have everyone sign.

Stitching the bag.

Now, ever since I saw these jeans of Yoshimi’s (back when I was brand-spanking-new to the world of blogging) I’ve been hoarding old jeans in the hopes of someday making my own pair. Well, that hasn’t happened yet, but the old pairs finally got put to use for this project, so I feel less guilty about the hoarding. Three pairs of my husband’s old pants (two jeans and one pair of khakis, if anyone cares) went into the making of these, plus the strap which was made from the cutoff legs of a pair of Tyo’s jeans which recently became shorts.

The bag

We made the main part of the bag from the butts—lots of extra pockets this way. The flap was from a leg area, the patch having been in use on the jeans. Tyo did the majority of the stitching, although I did a bit of additional patching as necessary, and the final stitching around the top of the bag, which was through the lining plus jeans waistband and belt-loops—pretty heavy-duty with some major changes in thickness. The featherweight handled it like a champ, although I still prefer to hand-wheel the really thick parts. I did a bit of re-stitching around the crotch to get them to lie flatter (the same thing you’d do if converting a pair of jeans into a skirt), and Tyo stitched across the bottom corners to give it a bit more of a 3D shape. And an interesting cutout in the corner of the flap. Just because.

Bag, open.

And Tyo took it away to school with a big, fat sharpie. Apparently her replacement teacher (who has been the source of much angst the last few months) was not impressed. Ah, well.

Happy Tyo

Tyo, at least, is happy.

Now I just have to manage to iron all that sharpie.

*This is one of those Lessons On the Fallibility of Memory. I would swear that I cut my waistbands off in Gr. 12, and saw the video shortly thereafter. I graduated high school in June 1998; the video apparently came out in 1999. Am I transposing my brainwave earlier? Or was the gap between my waistbandless jeans and Mariah’s longer than I remember? Who knows…



Filed under Sewing

24 responses to “An Odyssey in Denim

  1. That’s a great bag! I love it. A terrific idea and a great momento for your daughter.

  2. Amy

    What a cool project. I love the idea of repurposing old jeans and creating a lovely memory for Tyo. Are you moving after you defend? Also, those jeans you linked to are fabulous. I hope you’ll keep the idea in mind. I would also love to try my hand at something like that with the thousand pairs of jeans I’ve ruined from biking to work.

    • Yeah, we are moving home—ready to be back around the family again. I do still love those jeans… one of these days πŸ˜‰ You should definitely try it out! πŸ™‚

  3. Gemma

    Cute bag. In the UK we sign our school (uniform) shirts on the last day of school (or leave handprints in the case of the boys on the girls’ shirts!) I still have mine somewhere.

  4. I also still have a signed school shirt (also in the UK). great idea – but i am most impressed that you can still fit into jeans you wore in high scholl!

  5. You do know that you have the coolest kids, right? Also, add me to the impressed you can still fit into jeans club.

    I had a thought on the heat setting Sharpie ink, but you will want to test first. This is what screen printers used to do “in the day” for heat setting inks on t-shirts. Throw the bag in the dryer on high heat, forever, make that a long time, Like I said, I would test on a scribbled on scrap of denim. If it works it would save you a ton of time.

    PS-What is that teacher’s problem??

    • Oh, good idea on the dryer!

      Re the teacher, I can’t really tell, getting everything secondhand. Some of it is probably the kids having sour grapes over losing their old teacher—but it has not been a good couple months, school-wise. /sigh.

  6. What a great idea! My kids have signed t-shirts (after 5th grade, which is the cutoff for middle school here) but then I have to sneak them out of the closet and put them in a box. This is much more useful.

    I also used to be a massive fan of 501s, mostly because their waistband actually came in enough to keep them at my low waist (I’m part serpent in the torso, remember). Whatever happened to them? I wish they’d bring the originals back! I’m voting for the time frame being longer than you remember because I’m always shocked by how much time flew by when I was younger.

    • Now that I think of it, my kids did the signed shirt thing a couple of times—kindergarten and gr. 1 for sure.

      I don’t know what happened to Levi’s 501s, I had assumed they were still out there in the “mom jean” section somewhere ;). Another casualty of low-rise and stretch denim, I suppose…

  7. A couple of simply great ideas, here. I love the idea of a denim keepsake, there is something so personal about jeans anyway, and adding the signatures just adds to that. Your high school jeans remind me of the “pants with attitude” my eldest made one summer inspired by the punk fashions of the 80’s. He cut, pinned and patched them and then added quotes by Joe Strummer–in Sharpie, of course. As usual, one teacher was not amused, leading to requests from his friends that he make them a pair!

    Pants with attitude, that could be a really fun sew along. . .

    • Those sound like sweet pants! Tyo loves her pants with attitude, too. (She’s still wearing her jean-jacket with zippers and “bloody” patches from her zombie punk Hallowe’en costume a few years back…)

      That would be a fun sewalong…

  8. Cool idea! I can’t imagine why the teacher was bothered by this “momento” in the least–how is a bag made of jeans inappropriate? I think it’s awesome that you helped her make this up, such a neat way to remember friends and classmates. πŸ™‚

    • I don’t get it, either—unless they were trying to sign it during class time, which I wouldn’t completely rule out. I’m having a really hard time distinguishing Tyo’s legitimate grievances from the ones that are just that she’s decided she doesn’t like this teacher so anything he does is going to be interpreted as sucky and mean. But the year’s almost over so I’m not inclined to move mountains trying to unpack it all right now…

  9. brilliant use of old jeans — and I’m also going to join the way-to-fit-into-your-high-school-jeans club. I’m just going to be a big pile of impressed.

  10. Ali

    Loved this post — our memories through our clothes. I was looking at old high school pictures and I missed all my old clothes (such a 90s girl).

  11. Amy

    This will be such a cool memory for her… I love this story, and secretly hoped as I was reading that they weren’t going to be made into something else. (I have a sentimental box, too, and there are these army pants that just won’t go away… too many memories.) I don’t even remember what new jeans were like in the 90s–because most of mine had to have this straight fit and definitely fall below the belly. 501s were just about perfect, but they were hard to find in thrift stores.

  12. Wish I was cool at school. But I was NOT. Still, did do bag scrawl with sharpie, of whatever the equivalent was all those years ago.

    Perfect that The Kid likes The Bag. If she didn’t I’d fight her for it. Well, you know what I mean! πŸ™‚

  13. Pingback: Remember those orange jeans? « Sew Well

  14. Like everyone else, I am so impressed that you still fit into your high school jeans! I don’t even fit into my jeans from a few years ago, much less high school…

    Sigh, hearing about bad teachers makes me sad. I’m glad the school year is over, though, and good job with the bag, Tyo!

  15. Haha, a girl I went to school with had a pair just like those (except of course, slightly different distribution of rips and writing/pictures). And huh, you graduated only a year after me. Did I know that? I might’ve. My brain is a sieve sometimes.

    I love the bag you came up with! I hope it helps deal with the move away from school friends. πŸ™‚ And good on her, helping you out. Soon your girls will be kicking you out of your own sewing room!

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