Trade Secrets: Denim Prospector

Michael Allen Harris

The Trade 

Old West miners typically didn’t have the time or resources to launder their work clothes. They’d just get new pants and jackets, and discard the old. Harris can tell what type of work a miner did by examining the jeans’ creases.

For nearly two decades, Harris has been a jeans trendsetter. About once a month, the 43-year-old Orange house painter digs around the abandoned mines of California and Nevada for antique denim. Because designers prize the wear patterns of roughed-up jeans, his discoveries have inspired fabricators from Eagle Rock to Sweden, and he once sold an old pair of tool-pocket Levi’s for $30,000 on eBay. “When I finally wrote ‘Jeans of the Old West,’ [Schiffer, 2010] everybody went, ‘This is where that Japanese company Warehouse has been getting all their stuff.’ ”—Gary Fong 

Do you have a background in fashion? 

No, I don’t. I have a background in house painting.

Why do you search for vintage jeans? 

Most people have no idea about old clothing. When they do come across it, they might sell it to a dealer for a few hundred dollars and then the dealers will, in turn, sell it for a hundred times that amount. We’re on the research end of it and writing books about it.


My father-in-law, Russ Miller, is a geologist and old-bottle hunter. I started hunting for whiskey bottles with him about 28 years ago, digging out a cabin built into a hill. Digging up the whole building is tough, so I’d rat-hole my way back and reach in with a circular hoe and shovel. I came across a piece of clothing and, unfortunately, started tugging on it before it was dug out, ripping the thing in half. It bothered the hell out of me that I did that. Eight years later, in 1996, I found my first pair of pants.

Do companies or designers approach you for inspiration?

We get that quite a bit. We’re actually good friends with the people who reproduce the vintage clothing at Levi’s Vintage Collection because we have a unique collection of Levi’s. We’ll let them reproduce some of our items. And some other companies get inspiration, too.

Do you get a consultation or finder’s fee? 

We just get clothing. We’ve gotten many thousands of dollars’ worth of free clothing.

How do you find mines?

There’s good records of all of these mines and lots of history on them. So, we research a lot of it from 1960s and ‘70s ghost town books. Our focus is on the 1870s and ’80s because this is the period when Levi’s had the patent on the rivets. Other companies couldn’t use them, so they had to come up with other ways of strengthening their pockets. And that’s what makes Levi’s competitors’ clothing the rarest of all.

Your favorite find?

Last year my wife, Charla, says “Let’s take the kids out motorcycle riding and teach our 14-year-old daughter how to ride.” We took my mom and her husband along and camped in the back of this big mining area. Up on a hill was a lone mine—just an exploratory tunnel—and my wife says, “Let’s go up.” Inside was one of the most significant pieces we’ve ever found: a Levi’s pant. When you think of Levi’s pants back then, you think of all-riveted pants. These weren’t. They looked like a competitor’s, but they still had part of the paper label on them. It turns out that Levi’s also made a nonriveted pant—the Grizzly, with a bear stamped on it—for farmers, mechanics, miners, and hunters.

Your biggest haul?  

We hit the mother lode—as far as historical significance—about three years ago, but all of the clothing was ruined. The water pipe from the factory where we were digging drained right on top of maybe 30 pieces of clothing in the trash dump from the 1870s. And these pieces were from the people who built the factory to supply work clothing for the miners—stuff from 1876, and a full pair of pants from 1862. This find gave us a snapshot of the major companies that were competing against Levi’s at the time.

How many pants have you found over the years? 

Maybe about 25 complete pairs. We usually just find pieces, which are great because lots of times they are clues to how different brands progressed. The pants change and the manufacturers do things different. They strengthen them a little bit better; they don’t make them so intricate. Sometimes, a patent [on a particular style] is so intricate you can tell that they switched to something else because it was just too damn hard to make, too hard to sew.

Designs of the times, or wear patterns? 

I would say the designs interest me more, but we’ve found some amazing wear. Last year, I displayed some of my stuff at this industry show in L.A. called Kingpins. These two guys from a wash house, where they do “prewear” with sandpaper and Dremel tools to make “whiskers” on pants, looked at some of my old jeans. Their eyes were popping out because they thought I was responsible for making these wear patterns. They were just bewildered how the heck pants could get that kind of wear.

Do you sell most of your finds? 

I try to keep most of it, but I do have to sell things once in a while. This is a pretty expensive hobby. We were going out a couple of years ago when I still had my old travel trailer and it would cost us $1,000 in gas just to get there. We had four trips in a row where we found nothing. That wasn’t so good.

What crosses your mind when you see a design you’ve uncovered being worn?

I’ve yet to see somebody wearing something we’ve helped a designer re-create. Usually, they’ll only make 30 pairs, and the chances of me running across a person … is slim to none.

With your day job, how often is it possible to do these excursions?

We might just get one or two trips in the summer. And then in the winter, we’ll get out maybe once a month. Some mines are only 150 miles from our house in Orange, so we can spend two days on a project and shoot back home.

Your longest trek?

About 600 miles—out in central Nevada. We did that every month for a couple of years. You can go to places in central Nevada where you don’t see anybody for weeks. There’s this one place that’s 60 miles out on a dirt road.

How far down into these mines do you go?

Actually, not that far. We don’t do any rappelling. We go where they stope, where they found the ore, usually into a straight tunnel. We will go up and down ladders—if they’re there—maybe 50 feet. We’ve seen a handful of rattlesnakes, but don’t really run across them that often. I guess that’s because most of the time we’re out in the winter.

In addition to a hard hat, what other equipment do you take with you?

Lights, shovels, and hoes. Sometimes a pickax. But that’s about it. Of course, we always have duct tape.

What’s in this hobby for you?

Historians talk about the dress clothing in the 1870s, but not about what miners wore: jeans that were just thrown away. It’s a rare opportunity to be a historian, to make new discoveries.

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