A university of Minnesota study confirms what most men have long suspected the waist and inseam measurements on jeans labels often are wrong.
Only 18 of 240 pairs of men's five-pocket, pre-washed jeans surveyed at 23 stores in the Minneapolis area came within a half-inch of all their label measurements, according to a study conducted by Wanda Sieben, assistant professor in human ecology at the university.
While men may be heaving a sigh of relief that their waistlines aren't really expanding, Sieben says the waistbands are just as likely to be larger than the stated size as they are to be smaller.
Even high prices and brand names are not reliable factors, Sieben says. "Some of the highest priced brands had more discrepancies in them, especially at the waist," she says.
Levi's, the largest apparel manufacturer in the world the company sells 397 million pairs of jeans every year in the United States alone "didn't have any better record than other manufacturers," Sieben says.
In an earlier study, Sieben examined garment shrinkage using Levi's brand only. That's when she started noticing the label inaccuracies.
For this study, Sieben surveyed five brands: three major names (Levi's, Lee and Calvin Klein) as well as two private labels manufactured for retail chains (Itc. by Ironwood and Plain Pockets). She selected a variety of sizes and three price ranges under $25, $25 to $40 and $40 to $55.
The discrepancies are the result of several factors from the cutting and sewing to the washing process but it finally comes down to poor quality control, Sieben says.
"In manufacturing, they set up tolerances you can't always get it on the money every time, so tolerances are what they consider reasonable," Sieben explains.
In the case of jeans, a half-inch plus or minus tolerance is the norm on waistbands and up to an inch plus and half-inch minus on inseams. Sieben says many major manufacturers achieve these standards regularly in the case of rigid jeans (not pre-washed).
But pre-washed jeans are more unpredictable because of uneven fabric shrinkage.
"They are discovering there can be variations in the shrinkage within a bolt of fabric and there are differences between how one loom operates vs. another loom," she says.
Labels listing inseam and waist measurements are attached before the jeans are washed, not after. Manufacturers assume shrinkage is within an acceptable range, which they specify to the supplier.
"It's known with woven fabric that even a 3 percent shrinkage rate can reduce a garment one size," Sieben says. Measuring the garments after washing and then attaching labels would seem to be a simple solution, but it's unlikely to happen.
It "would be very costly," she says, because many companies contract the washing process out and a change would involve additional steps something she says manufacturers "don't want to deal with."
Mike Johnson, director of quality assurance for the Lee Co., isn't surprised at Sieben's findings.
"We have some inseams we ticket at 32 inches, but because it's designed to be a low fit it's only 31 inches. If it was 32 inches, it would be too long, but if a man normally wears a 32 he's going to fit in this 32."
Debbie Gasparini, marketing specialist for San Francisco-based Levi's, says the company doesn't have details on the survey so "it's hard to comment."
However, she says, "Everyone is aware quality is No. 1 here. We strive for zero defects and doing things the way they should be done. There's always going to be some defects, but we believe it's a fraction of 1 percent of what our total output is."
Sieben's study focused solely on men's pre-washed jeans, but she says she believes the same problems exist with women's jeans.
"It's the same manufacturers and they don't do things differently for women's jeans. They just don't. They use the same specifications, so I would expect the same variances."
Until consumers become proactive, rather than reactive, Sieben doesn't expect things to change.
"Consumer feedback could have a significant impact on apparel manufacturers' willingness to address this problem in their quality control programs," she says. "A lack of consumer feedback is frequently cited as the reason industry has focused on the aesthetic qualities of garments without aggressively pursuing tighter quality control."
So what is Sieben's advice to consumers? It's simple: "Try it on before you buy."