The Selvedge 501 Shrink-to-fit that won’t break the bank
The Levi’s 501 jean is an archetype, the jean that all jeans sprang from. Levi’s Vintage Collection does a fantastic job faithfully reproducing the different 501s from the defining moments of its history. However, there is one jean in the 501 family that tends to get overlooked, one that could be argued to be the most authentic of all 501s: the humble red tab 501 shrink-to-fit jean.
The changes of the 501 reflect history, technological changes, fashion, practicality, and social status.
Nowadays a pair of LVC 501xx will run you in excess of €250. Fantastic jeans undoubtedly; made in the USA with fastidious attention to historical details. From the button to the rivets, thread weight and colour, to the denim itself; all aspects are the closest possible to how the jeans would have looked and felt when they were initially produced. However, not something most of us would be willing to wear around a building site.
The most basic shrink-to-fit you can find in eBay go for under €50 (they are a little more difficult to source in Europe, but I believe the price is comparable in retail stores in the US).
The Two Different Kinds of Basic Levi’s Shrink-to-Fits
Back in the day, as I am sure we are all aware, all jeans were unwashed, untreated, and shrink-to-fit. Also, they were a practical answer to work wear. Above all they needed to be durable and affordable to the working man. Although Levi’s were sold at a premium compared to other brands, workers were willing to pay the extra because they stood up to the everyday abuse of heavy labour.
Today, the standard shrink-to-fit 501 comes in two varieties. The most basic being the non-selvedge, 12.5 oz. denim and the slightly more ‘authentic’ but still affordable red line selvedge 15 oz. denim. The former is generally produced in Colombia and Mexico while the latter is produced in Turkey. Both are untreated and unwashed. The denim for the more basic version is produced on larger commercial looms, either locally or in the Far East, whereas the 15 oz. selvedge denim is sourced in Japan.
It is the redline selvedge jean that is shown in this particular article. Even though they have been shrunk they did not come close to the 10% shrinkage you are told to expect from the flasher – actually they only shrunk 0.5 inch in the inseam. The loss if indigo was minimal.
What to expect from the break-in process
The fabric itself is soft and supple after a week or so of wear. The more industrial dying processes means that the dye is more deeply ingrained into the yarn so the fading takes time and is more subtle, however it is possible to find examples online of really nicely faded shrink-to-fit 501s.
This particular pair has seen about 4 month’s continuous wear including a month long trip around Colombia. After the South American adventure they needed a wash which was done in a bath tub and no more shrinkage occurred nor any loss of indigo.
So why you ask is this the most authentic of the 501s? It is simple. It is the jean that still provides the solution to the problems that saw the creation of blue jean in the first place. It is the jean that is suitable for everyone, affordable to everyone and durable enough for (mostly) everyone.