Jeans Developed In Prison - The Story of Gaolhouse Denim

Denim sums up the art of putting in a shift. It needs very little care, can survive the wash and is fairly easily repaired. Gaolhouse Denim’s Will Unwin has been putting in a shift for the past two years, working toward the release of his maiden line of handmade jeans, which has been designed and developed in collaboration with a Her Majesty’s Prison Service.

“It’s such a great thing: Create a really original and beautiful product while providing work and opportunities to a few that so desperately want and need it.”

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The Prison Service churn out over 40,000 pairs of jeans a year purely for internal use, so tapping into this resource was just one of the many interesting decisions that lead Will on the two-year journey that we now know as Gaolhouse. “My Dad invented something called the ‘Toastabag’ and when he started out way back when, he worked with the prison service to package his product. We were talking about that one day and I had a bit of a eureka moment. It all spun off from that one conversation.”

Back in May 2012, the plan was that Will would work with HMPS to handle all design, development and production of the jean within the walls of prison. The vision was to give some of the most forgotten and disregarded members of our society a really unique opportunity to work towards something that would see real world output. Speaking with him just before the first run was completed, I got a real sense that his enthusiasm for Gaolhouse goes far beyond making some cool looking jeans. While working on and funding the entire project alongside a full time job, Will has a clear idea of what the bigger picture is and where his next steps lie:

He plans to get a development workshop together, provide jobs for ex-offendersas they re-enter society and mentor them during their reintegration. All while they work with Will to grow Gaolhouse Denim organically, becoming the established Made In Britain denim company this first pair show they deserve.The first run of jeans were designed and developed with HMPS as planned, but were later assembled in a workshop, once every ingredient was pulled from various locations in the UK and the wider world to become the GH-001 jean.

It’s safe to say this tale has certainly had it’s twists and turns; after all, the Home Office is tasked with ensuring those convicted in the UK are suitably punished. They aren’t simply going to let their inmates work together on a denim start up while so many in the UK are without work.

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“We had the samples agreed and the pocket book printed to go with the first run of jeans when the [Home Office] ministers decided they no longer liked the idea. They wouldn’t do it because this was a commercial enterprise and this whole thing might be perceived as taking jobs away from ‘the people’.”

Will was not only able to turn things around from this frankly worst-case scenario, but maintain the rigorous high standards and top quality materials that good denim needs. Selecting each ingredient of the jean as meticulously as Goalhouse have done, before working by hand and in small batches cannot come without time and monetary costs. In an age of cheap clothing and even cheaper labour, it’s great to see that Will was never going to settle for anything less that what we see today, that his vision for the GH-001 jean never wavered.

My design approach to everything, whether it be a spoon, radio or pair of jeans is that less is more. I can't stand things that are over designed, which is why I try and strip things back as much as possible so that the final product tends to be as minimal as possible.I used to be a designer at and I certainly picked up the 'less is more' ethos from there.

A pair is made with 11.5 oz of raw denim from the infamous Cone Mills in North Carolina, whose denim is used by the likes of Levi’s, Post O’alls and Tellason. The product-design lead approach of Gaolhouse shines through so obviously in every aspect of the GH-001 jean; Its simplicity and snug-yet-not-tight fit result in the sort of jean that you can spend months hunting for. Something that in time to come you can imagine people will swear by - an honest, durable pair that will last, with no unnecessary frivolities. The swallow detail on each of the rivets, buttons and leather belt loop are the detail of a company who have released the jean they originally dreamt up back in May 2012, with no efforts to cut costs along the way.

“Although it's a heavily saturated market, there are very few people doing good British denim. I'm not really that interested in making a lot of money, I just wanted to run a really 'cool' company and be able to have my name above the door. “The plan is to try and get some exposure to the brand and this first line of denim. Once there is cash in the bank I’ll be looking to develop new ranges, looking at selvedge denim as well, all still made in the UK.”

I’m really excited to see what comes next for Will and Gaolhouse, as I’m sure it’s products will exist with the same simplicity and authenticity that makes the GH-001 jean so appealing. I’m dying for my pair to land on the doormat next week, before they go pretty much everywhere with me for a good six months, before they look like they could tell a story themselves.

You can order a pair of Gaolhouse jeans here, or follow the brand on Twitter here.