Sewing New Life Into Levi's Jeans

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Jeans that have been restored by Paolo Cui using the ancient Japanese technique of sashiko. Cui's work is part of the Levi's 501 Experience at the Armory in San Francisco.  (Idle Worship/Instagram)

If I were asked to name some of San Francisco’s technological contributions, I’d probably cringe at the immediate examples: self-driving cars that cause pile-up crashes on the Bay Bridge and an artificial intelligence platform that thinks Eazy-E is from the Bay Area.

Yet, one of the dopest local innovations has nothing to do with computers or startups. It’s actually something much simpler, though equally revolutionary at the time, and with a massive worldwide impact: Levi’s blue denim jeans.

Yes, some longtime locals have never forgiven Levi’s for shifting production overseas and closing down its Valencia Street plant in 2002, resulting in 100 people being laid off. Now, four blocks away, the company is looking to stitch up any damage.

The 501 Experience is a 10-day pop-up with workshops, vendors, music and a 150-year retrospective on the influence of Levi’s jeans. The event includes a full-sized loom that can pump out customized jeans, live musicians and DJs, and a rotating cast of artisans and designers who embody the brand’s creative spirit.

One of those makers is Paolo Cui, a Filipino San Franciscan whose independent clothing company, Idle Worship, specializes in dyeing clothes. In his spare time, Cui upcycles tattered jeans with Japanese techniques like sashiko — an ancient geometric quilting method for repairing ripped materials.


For Cui, working with Levi’s is a way to showcase his niche passion while leading workshops for others to learn about his craft and mission.

“It’s called visible mending,” Cui says about the art of repairing jeans. “It’s about giving new life to [fabric] that has been shredded. Repairing brings more years to materials that are old. It’s literally sustainable. It’s expressive. It’s custom. It’s one-of-one.”

Cui will have seven specially made jeans available as part of the pop-up with Silverlake Market, an LA-based outlet that offers vintage denim. Other vendors include ReLove, a Black-owned consignment shop in SF and Oakland, neighborhood food makers like Humphry Slocombe Ice Cream and Verve Coffee Roasters, and Ocean Beach outpost Tunnel Records.

Naturally, the iconic work pants with rivets and pockets, patented in San Francisco after the Gold Rush in 1873, are the event’s main focus. From Harvey Milk’s actual jeans to never-before-seen garments being made in real-time, the anniversary celebration is a reminder that San Francisco’s tech developments shouldn’t always be measured by the height of the Salesforce Tower or the algorithmic potency of an app; there are many creators here who are cutting edges with their hands, too.

“It’s something I really enjoy because it takes a long time to do. You can’t do it by machine really, and you can tell when it’s by hand,” says Cui. “If you’ve ever worn a pair of Levi’s, you should go to this exhibit. It’s like a full-circle thing.”

The Levi’s 501 Experience runs daily through Saturday, May 27, at the Armory in San Francisco, with a closing performance on May 27 by Tommy Guerrero. Admission is free. Details here.

Idle Worship is available online. Cui also leads “Softwear Patch,” a denim sustainability and upcycling workshop, this summer in San Francisco. Check for updates on times and locations.