In The Studio With Eric Yelsma Of Detroit Denim Co.

BY Taylor Rebhan

Manufacturing American selvedge jeans from the Motor City isn’t an easy task, but then again, nothing worth doing is. Detroit Denim Co.is a design studio and shop located on the second floor of Detroit’s Ponyride, a 30,000 square foot warehouse-style collective of artists and entrepreneurs. In addition to the brand’s staple 13 oz. selvedge “Heritage” straight-leg men’s jean—complete with hand-hammered copper rivets, copper buttons and gold contrast stitching—Detroit Denim Co. produces tote bags, leather bags, belts, aprons, and small leather accessories.

Eric Yelsma, the man behind Detroit Denim Co., took a few minutes from his workday to chat with us.

When did you start Detroit Denim Co.? 

We got in here (Ponyride) about two years ago. Prior to that all of my equipment was in my house, in my basement and my garage (laughs). I’d been looking for a spot in Detroit proper for about a year before this. Originally I was going to go at it alone, find a vacant building, but that proved to be hugely overwhelming. You’d be an electrician, a plumber, everything else before we ever made our first pair of jeans. So, finding this place was fantastic. You just kind of move in, set up & start focusing on the business. 

So you source all of your stuff from the United States?

Yep, everything is U.S.-sourced. 

Is that difficult for you? How does that affect the process? 

A little bit. It took a ton of work on the front end, you know, like finding the hardware. Finding the thread, not so bad, even the denim. But, yeah, finding the right outlets and finding the right denim for what we needed, that was not impossible, but challenging and it limits what we can do.


Why is sourcing from America so important to you? 

The fact that I own it, I can call all the shots. From the very get-go, I set it up how I would want to have it. If I were a customer, this is how I’d want the experience; this is how I’d want everything to be. I think it’s kind of a cop-out to go source it somewhere else. I get tons of offers like ‘we’ll make your jeans in Pakistan or China or all these off-shore places for so cheap’ and you go to the mall and look at the jeans and they are cheap. Everything about them is just cheap. Really, nobody else can make denim like we do in the U.S.; we kind of perfected it. Other than the Japanese, they got it down … but Chinese denim, no. Indonesian, Turkish, Italian and all that, some of it’s good, but not fantastic.

Let’s talk about the denim.

The denim we get is from Cone Mills in North Carolina and that’s the only mill left in the country that produces the type of denim we want. 

Do you use only selvedge?

Yes. I use a little bit of non-selvedge from Texas for bags, but by and large 95% is selvedge. I think it wears much better. I think it looks a lot nicer. It’s much more expensive (laughs). For jeans, it’s just better material. You get a lot of nice contrast, it just lends itself to jeans. The old denim mills are much shorter — the width of denim is about 30 or 32 inches — whereas a new mill making denim today is twice the width and I’m sure more than twice the speed so you kind of lose the depth and richness is lost on new denim.


What’s manufacturing in Detroit like for you? 

Good, quite good. But it’s my number one challenge, too. And that’s to make enough. The labor pool is what’s been a real challenge. There aren’t any skilled sewers left here. 

How many people work here? 

There are four plus myself, two full-time, two part-time. We are increasing the team next month, actually. We’re bringing two veterans on board for a training program, we’re teaching them how to sew. With the expectation of all of that going well after six months, then they’ll come on board as staff so we’re working with a local veterans group for that. I was thinking about going down south or putting out some sort of ads to find skilled sewers and bringing them up here. Then I was like, ‘no, there’s plenty of people here that want to work, let’s just train them.’

That’s really great. And difficult.

We never choose the easy route (laughs).


Can you share some pointers on how to properly care for the jeans? 

The one thing I found that people can understand, there’s the obvious don’t-wash-and-dry thing, but all the stuff we do is made to be used and it gets better with age. Whenever anyone comes in and buys a pair it’s like ‘abuse ‘em as much as you can, that’s the best thing you can do for them.’ Just wear them. We have a saying, ‘work hard, wear often, wash rarely.’ Don’t wash them for the first six months, no matter what.

No matter how bad they stink?

Yeah! We’re clean people. I’d say Americans are a little hygiene obsessed. We pretty much bathe everyday, so it’s not too much of an issue. And there are a lot of little tricks you can do, some people put them in the freezer, you can wear them in salt water, some people wash them in vinegar, knock yourself out. Just wear them! I’ll wear my pair for six or eight months and then I’ll say ‘ok, let’s wash them,’ I’ll stick them in the wash, hang-dry and just keep going. Don’t get too fussy with them.

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