photos and profile by Caryn B. Davis

In 1873, Bavarian immigrant Levi Strauss and tailor Jacob Davis made the first pair of riveted men’s work pants from denim. One hundred and forty years later, the blue jean industry has grown into a $14.6 billion a year business with an estimated 450 million pairs sold annually in the U.S. alone.

Dungarees were first worn by cowboys, lumberjacks, sailors and railroad workers, and later by defense employees during World War II. Between the 1950s and 1980s, they grew in popularity amongst greasers, rockers, hippies and skinheads, and have since become a fashion statement and staple spanning all demographics and nations. The blue jean is so intrinsic to our culture that an original pair of Levi’s has been immortalized in the permanent collection of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

While we think of jeans as an American tradition and product, the truth is most are mass-produced in factories overseas including Lee Jeans, Gap, Guess, Wranglers, Ralph Lauren and Levi Strauss & Company even though they are headquartered in San Francisco, California. And all have been sued at one time or another for operating sweatshops, and other labor violations.

While one could conclude from these statistics that “handmade” and “American made” are oxymorons, at the Hartford Denim Company in Hartford Connecticut, jeans are still being manufactured the old fashion way, one stitch at a time.

Co-founders Dave Marcoux, Luke Davis and Marshall Deming started the company 2.5 years ago in a basement before graduating to a garage workshop, and then acquiring a 4,500 square foot loft in the heart of city’s downtown. Throughout the sun soaked space are long tables for cutting patterns and folding fabric, vintage Singer sewing machines for stitching panels and pockets, an array of hand tools for applying copper rivets and buttons crafted from pennies, crude wooden shelves to store the finished products, and an assortment of old bicycles hanging from the rafters. Here, amongst bins of leather and denim, a dying art is revitalized.

“There are a number of American denim brands but they are not manufacturers. We are both, so we have complete creative control over our product. If we don’t like the way a stitch looks we can go back in and fine tune it,” says Marcoux. “Everything is done by hand so there is extra care and attention to detail that has gone into it.”

The first year in business Hartford Denim sold all of the 100 pairs of jeans they made. The following year production doubled, and this year they anticipate making and selling about 500 pairs. They are now able to support the business with the business.

“Once people put them on it’s not even a question. You don’t take them off,” says Marcoux. “They are durable, ultra comfortable and we guarantee the product for the life of the product. If there is anything ever wrong with it whether you did it or we did it, we’ll take care of it.”

The company developed organically with three friends sitting around a woodstove making leather belts and wallets, and then taking it to the next level with hand sewn leather backpacks and jackets.

“Luke was more into the Japanese denim thing, and he knew how to sew. He learned in home economics in seventh grade. He started playing around with the idea of making pants while still in college. He ordered some denim and we all made a pair,” says Marcoux. “It was more of a hobby but we challenged ourselves to make more and do it better. It snowballed pretty quickly and people caught on.”

They order raw denim (material that has not been washed after being dyed during production), from a mill in North Carolina that weaves the strands of cotton on antique shuttle looms. The dyed blue threads called the warp, are woven together with the white threads or weft, which produces the diagonal weave and also causes each pair to fade uniquely.

The cutting room is where all the action begins. The denim is rolled out and stacked up until there is enough material to start making between 20-50 pairs. The patterns are placed on top and then the cutting starts. It takes about three hours to make one pair but there are always many in various stages of production. After the cutting room the jeans are placed in carts with their respective paperwork dictating what color the stitching will be and other details specific to that pair.

“These jeans are currently in production and are going to a store in Tokyo,” says Marcoux as he shows me the cutting room. “We did the Brimfield Antique Show this year and the creative director for this store was out shopping. We were set up inside a barn with our old sewing machines doing some repair work. He was attracted to the scene we created. A few moths later we met with him in New York and showed him some samples. Now we are making 70 pairs.”

The panels and pockets are stitched together on outdated sewing machines that range in age from 50 to 100 years old. Many were found on Craig’s List. Not only are they affordable but also if they break, Deming can get in there with a screw driver to make the necessary repairs, as opposed to calling a technician to fix an electronic machine.

“It seemed there was an abundance of them, and seemed to make sense. It’s more of a timeless thing. It’s what a sewing machine should look like,” says Marcoux.

In the finishing room the belt loops and buttonholes are added with the aid of a machine. The hardware (the buttons and rivets), and their logo, a back leather patch shaped like the state of Connecticut, is applied by hand.

Currently, they offer six different styles that include a classic Levi’s 501 jean to more of a stovepipe 1940s work pants, to a true straight leg. They also have a slimmer fit for a more modern look.

“This is a green canvas and we over dyed it with a natural indigo, and then put it in an old 1920s Maytag washer. It beat them up pretty good and gives them a nice texture,” says Marcoux about a particular pair of jeans.

The pants sell for $288 but can be purchased for $250 directly at Hartford Denim. In specialty shops in New York and Ohio where they did small runs of 20-50 pairs, the jeans cost between $298-$325. While they do get orders from retail stores, most of their business has come through simple word-of-mouth.

“We have some pretty strong ideas about advertising, materialism and consumerism. We definitely find ourselves in an interesting position creating consumer products while encouraging a more conscious type of consumerism. We don’t want to overdo it with advertising,” says Marcoux.

In addition to making denim pants they have added a denim tote bag with the Connecticut patch to their product line, and a new style of pants made from bits and pieces.

“We don’t throw our scraps out and are always trying to think of ways to recycle them. We accumulated these test pieces because every time you get to the machine you sew a little piece of scrap to make sure your stitch is looking good. All these pieces had a similar feel to them so we started sewing them down to panel and then made them into pants,” says Marcoux. “We have a friend who prides himself on his ability to fade jeans extremely and quickly. So he puts them on and brings them back completed faded out. Now they are works of art.”

They also do custom work like a run of denim aprons for a local coffee shop; leather check presenters for restaurant; and leather wine menus. When they receive custom orders for shirts or blazers they collaborate with Hartford clothing designer Kola Zubair, who has his own fashion line.

“He is a Nigerian guy who has been sewing since he was nine and is now thirty-two. We will call him in when we need a run of ten shirts or a couple of jackets,” Marcoux says.

Recently, they have partnered with Ron Friedson of Friedson Brothers who is a second-generation shoemaker located in Westport, Connecticut. Together they have created four styles of boots that include an engineer boot and a Victorian lace up for men, and a cowboy boot and a brown, oily, lace up boot for women.

Hartford Denim remains committed to maintaining a high level of craftsmanship even as their company grows, and continuing to create a superior product.

“I think the reason people love jeans is multifaceted. They like the color, the process of breaking them in and what becomes of that, and the ability to leave your mark on your pants because they live as hard as you do. Most people wear them everyday,” Marcoux says. “It’s a global thing. A lot of it has to do with the love of all things American.”

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