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At Levi’s, lasers wear your jeans

New digital process produces vintage looks with fewer chemicals

by Melody M. Bomgardner
March 1, 2018 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 96, Issue 10

A close-up from a pair of faded Levi's is shown.
Credit: Shutterstock

No one wants to be caught wearing dad jeans. And so while denim trends are always evolving, it’s clear that the vintage look has legs. Now Levi Strauss & Co. has a faster and greener process to make new jeans look old. It is swapping oxidizing chemicals and pumice stones for digital image files and fabric-zapping lasers.

To make jeans with wear attributes like whisker patterns, worn spots, or crackle textures, Levi’s designers are rolling out digital image software for placing each detail. At the manufacturing plant, the digital file will guide a laser to embed the design. Then the garment will be rinsed as usual.

See Levi's lasers at work making new jeans look old.
Credit: Levi Strauss & Co.

The process reduces the number of chemicals needed to produce today’s endless variations of worn and faded jeans, according to Levi’s. It is common to finish a pair of denim jeans using pumice stones and 15 types of chemicals, including bleaches, peroxides, enzymes, acids, lubricants, wetting agents, and softeners.

One finishing chemical Levi’s says it plans to do away with is potassium permanganate (KMnO4), a strong oxidizer. Overall, the new process will help the company reach its commitment to eliminate discharges of hazardous chemicals by 2020. In addition, using fewer chemicals in washes and rinses will help the company expand its program to recycle water at its facilities.

Levi’s says the digital process will greatly speed up its manufacturing. Until now, workers made wear patterns on each pair by hand. By using lasers, workers can produce a distressed-looking garment in 90 seconds versus 20 or 30 minutes. By making “just in time” jean designs, Levi’s can avoid waste when tastes change.

“We believe it is possible to be both agile and sustainable without compromising the authenticity our consumers expect from us,” Levi’s CEO Chip Bergh commented on the company’s blog.



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