Making Jeans

Close-up of a black vintage Union Special 43200G sewing machine used for chain stitch hemming on jeans

The Union Special 43200G: A Unicorn or One-Trick Pony?

Denim nerds, get ready for a reality check. I’m about to debunk some of the myths and misconceptions about the Union Special 43200G that have been circulated for years by brands, publications, and online communities.

As is the case with many things on the Internet, exaggerated claims can quickly become folklore by the regurgitation of stories that weren’t well thought out from the beginning.

The well-told narrative that the twisting at the hem is caused by a technical error, feed dog flaw, or differential defect in the inner workings of the Union Special 43200G is flawed in and of itself. The roping effect has been overcomplicated to the point where denim fans who don’t know any better will believe that the Union Special 43200G is the only sewing machine capable of producing twisted and puckered hems with chain stitch hemming.

In my research into what denim enthusiasts are being led to believe, I easily discovered statements that I believe are misleading or false. Here are a few examples:

“Any Union Special without the folder will not create the roping effect.”

“There is only one way to chain stitch a selvedge denim hem and that’s on a folder equipped Union Special 43200g. Why you ask? These machines create a desirable roping effect on the hem which is actually caused by a feed differential defect.”

“Roping comes from the 45 degree angle of break-in that makes the hem look like a rope. It’s become part of true denim DNA. Without it, jeans don’t look right to us. And the crazy thing is this comes from a flaw in the Union Special that makes it create a slight twist.”

“Union Special company seems to have replaced the 43200G with other machines in a quest to replicate the same stitch and make it easier to use the machine but this has reduced the tension on the thread. This means you don’t achieve the same roping/puckering as you would with the original.”

In reality, the roping effect is simply caused by seams that are not lined up.

Example of a misalignment of both seams on a jeans hem will cause a shift and rotation in the direction of the misalignment. This is the roping effect on denim.
The graphic shows how misaligned hem seams create a shift and rotation. This is the roping effect on denim.

The roping effect is simply caused by seams at the face and undersides of the hem not being lined up. Twisting occurs when the inseams shift in one direction, resulting in the roping effect. The effect becomes more visible with aging and washing. Sometimes factories do this unintentionally, and other times a brand’s designers may request a factory do it on purpose. Most factories make an effort to align the seams, which may be the reason why most jeans do not exhibit a significant degree of twisting.

Close-up example of the roping effect on a pair of light-washed Levi's jeans with chain stitch hemming and frayed hem.
Example of the roping effect on a pair of light-washed Levi’s jeans with chain stitch hemming and frayed hem.

Furthermore, the stitch type is not a factor in creating the twists and puckers, as seen in the reference example photo below. I, too, was once swayed by rumors and stated in my tapering video that the tension of chain stitching contributes to the roping effect.

Busting the myth that the Union Special 43200G does not cause roping effect by showing twisting on a hem sewn with a lockstitch machine.
These hems without chain stitching show that the puckers and twists that make up roping are not caused by the type of stitch.

Don’t misunderstand me. I think the well-beloved Union Special 43200G is a beautiful old sewing machine. However, production was halted for a reason. It was most likely not due to a differential flaw, cheaper lockstitching, or other nonsense being repeated or made up. The truth is that it only does one function. Although it performs well, some sewing machines can perform the same function as well as other operations.

Black vintage Union Special 43200G sewing machine used for hemming denim jeans.
Black vintage Union Special 43200G sewing machine. Photo courtesy of Joswick denim.

Purchasing a sewing machine that only does one thing over machines that do multiple tasks equally well or better is a bad idea for factories that must make sound economic decisions. This is most likely why production was halted, as with most discontinued products.

Faded jeans natural aging vs. factory manufactured wash
Naturally aged faded jeans vs. Factory manufactured wash

Denim fades explained: Natural vs. Manufactured

Mastering the rules that go along with owning a pair of raw denim jeans can be a chore to some. This is one reason some opt for pre-washed jeans. However, for raw denim aficionados, the rewards of naturally aging from a pair of raw jeans out weights the alternative.

Know the differences between naturally aged raw denim jeans and factory washed

People new to raw denim and those who love jeans, but only know them in the pre-washed form, often can’t tell the difference between a naturally aged pair of raw denim jeans and one that is purchased pre-washed. However, if you fall into this category don’t feel bad. You may be surprised to learn many of the people earning salaries as designers, editors, and denim buyers at some of the largest department stores, publications, and brands making the decisions on what jeans are sold, seen, and made, don’t know the difference either. I can’t tell you how many times one of the aforementioned asked about a pair of my raw denim jeans (new/unworn) and referred to them as a dark wash.

Below, I placed two jeans side by side to compare naturally aged jean which started as a pair of raw jeans and premium washed jean, which was designed to replicate dark-aged jean and then I detailed the attributes. Both are Williamsburg jeans. Although we take pride in trying to recreate really authentic-looking aged jeans, there is really just no substitute for the real thing. However, if you seek a worn, broken-in jeans and don’t have the time or patience to weather a pair of raw, please opt for washed jeans with authentic-looking attributes and try to avoid washed jeans that were meant to look aged but look more like jeans decorated with harsh white spots and lines drawn on them.

Naturally faded raw jeans (left) manufactured jeans wash (right)


Named for obvious reasons, whiskers are the most difficult to imitate and can be the defining detail that makes a wash look artificial or authentic. Real whiskers develop texture over time as the jeans tuck and fold in a repeated manner, with the highest point receiving more abrasion, removing more indigo, and the lower less fiction, which stays darker. High stress at the hip area causes the fabric to bend horizontally. In the early years of whisker reproduction, workers used clamps and tacks with resin to harden the texture in place, in an attempt to give jeans a realistic look. The drawback of making textured denim with resin is that it weakens the yarns. Too much resin on jeans may look good, but the fabric becomes brittle and easily tears. In about 2003, as I was seeking to create more authentic-looking whiskers, I created a new way to add texture and naturally shaped wrinkles to jeans, which is now used at factories all over the world. You can read more about that on the Maurice Malone website.


The second most important parts of a denim wash are the thigh and seat abrasion. In general, these areas usually take the most beating, along with the knees. In hand sanding, the factory worker usually starts out making the whiskers followed by the thigh, then seat sanding. Lower-quality washes often use sandblasting for speed. This is why with many low-priced and mass-market jeans, the aging at the thigh is bright white or looks like big spots. Sandblasting, although faster is harder to control in the manufacturing process. It also lays down an even amount of abrasion which doesn’t look natural. These areas are finished off with potassium to quickly fade sanded areas. Again, in lower price jeans, the chemical is sprayed on, while some higher-priced manufacturing sometimes applies the potassium by brush for a more natural uneven effect.


Chevrons are stretch marks on the inner thighs. They are usually more intense higher in the crotch and fade out closer toward the knees.


One of the characteristics routinely avoided in premium washes, but always seen on naturally aged jeans is stretch marks created by the stress of bending the knees. These marks usually extend over the outer seams and fade into the wrinkles at the rear side of the knees. 


Not pictured, but sometimes added to washed jeans are the honeycomb-like texture that forms at the rear side of the knees from walking and the sitting position. Wash factories tend to overdo effects more often than not and this feature is not so easy to replicate, so most of the time, the rear knees are either avoided or badly done. The worst example of this is the look of lines drawn at the rear sides of the knees, usually with the placement low on the calf.


Most often, this wearing away is seen on men’s jeans from the friction caused by wearing a belt.


Fly abrasion can take many forms, depending if the jeans have a button or zipper fly. It also depends on how loose or tight the fit of the jeans is. When you see whiskers across the fly, it is affected by the stress from the hips and this usually occurs with button fly.

Williamsburg American-made selvedge raw denim jeans with flag pocket bags
Grand Street selvedge American-made jeans produced in Cone White Oak denim made in USA

Angry voters, cheap products, free-trade & trickle-down policies

Angry voters addicted to cheaper products have finally woken up and realized free-trade and trickle-down policies haven’t really worked out well for them.

Denim manufacturing factory inside China in 2006. Jeans are hand-sanded for aging effects before washing.
Hand sanding area inside Chinese denim factory in 2006

In this super-heated political season, the one good thing politicians are finally talking about is bad U.S. trade policies (we accept goods from some countries with less restrains than they give us to export to them). Many angry voters addicted to cheaper products have finally woken up and realized Free Trade and Trickle Down policies haven’t worked out well for them. It feels like there are now more closed factories than good-paying factory jobs and both Democrats and Republican voters are angry with their Party Establishment whose main interest seems to be supporting Big Businesses and Contributors to their campaigns, which has aided in eroding the U.S. manufacturing base in exchange from greater profits for investors. Over the past few decades, the rich have gotten richer and the middle class has shrunk as the U.S. economy transformed into an Entertainment, Service, and Tech-based economy.

In a manufacturing-based economy, there is usually an economic community that flourishes around manufacturing. Factories require suppliers, part manufacturers, restaurants, travel, and other community businesses that usually thrive around them. When American businesses moved to manufacture overseas to increase profit margins, basically good-paying factory jobs were traded for retail jobs. Great, if you are a teenager but not so great if have a family to support. With few American businesses placing manufacturing orders within the U.S., factories closed and the supplier chains died along with the communities that depended on them.

For years I’ve been saying that Americans have purchased the country’s economic health and manufacturing base away. Big business, politicians, and consumer purchasing decisions have aided the collapse of our manufacturing base and erosion of our infrastructure while contributing to the sudden growth in low-labor countries now manufacturing our products.

Let me tell you a story

When I first traveled to China in the mid-1990s we drove to the factory on dirt roads. Along the roadside were old wooden homes that you would swear no one could possibly be living in. Within 15 years those dirt roads were replaced by paved highways with exits that spun off into other new highways in construction. Not far in the distance were massive new factories, apartment buildings, and whole new communities in construction. Now, juxtapose that to what has happened in the U.S. over the same period.

Hope Street American-made jeans

During the downturn in the economy, a small percentage of Americans started paying attention to where the products they bought were made. This small change in the buying habits of some has helped contribute to slowing the tremendous growth in China and other countries while the U.S. economy rebounded. During my last trips to China, I noticed business was no longer booming and many construction projects were stalled.

Many factors go into changes in economies and I know this to be true: How you spend your money makes a difference along the chain of who you decide to spend it with as much as it affects you. I can go on, but I’m not trying to be a political pundit or running for office so I’ll leave it at that.