We’ll say this upfront: The best work pants don’t exist. Rather, the occupation, location, and physical comfort all play a role.
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Reflecting this, if you ask a machinist, a construction worker, a warehouse supervisor in a cold environment, or someone spending their entire day outdoors, their answers will all vary.
Someone’s favorite work pants may include the decades of sturdiness Carhartt has provided with their cotton duck material, and others may want the expansive array of features Dickies adds to its work pants.
The Basics of Work Pants
Workwear extends back centuries, but one common feature persists: It includes sturdy, tough garments that hold up to repeat wear. Into the early 20th century, denim fulfilled this purpose, but today, jeans and ordinary khakis rarely provide the strength for day-in-day-out usage in an industrial, agricultural, or another otherwise demanding environment.
Today, finding the sturdiest and most comfortable work pants comes down to the following factors:
No, you won’t come across skinny jeans as work pants – and nor should you. The spandex added to this form of denim makes its susceptible to tearing. Instead, as a baseline, work pants for both men and women offer varying degrees of room:
- Classic Fit: You’ll see this term used for both Carhartt and Dickies work pants. Although for the fashion minded, Classic Fit indicates retro, timeless style, it’s a descriptor for work pants that means not too wide and not too form-fitting.
- Slim: A slim fit has become the default for work-to-casual styles, especially work pants for machinists. These sit closer to the skin – but aren’t necessarily tight or skinny – and have the pockets and technical treatments needed for the job.
- Relaxed: These work pants offer extra room in the areas that may feel tight or constrict the wearer, including around the seat and thigh. Keep in mind that “relaxed” doesn’t always mean loose, and instead may better fit individuals with more muscular or burly body types.
The best work pants walk a thin line. On one hand, it’s expected that the material will be tough and durable. Abrasions, stains, and dirt won’t affect its composition. On the other hand, especially if you’re someone working outdoors, heavy canvas materials simply lock in heat. The best work pants, in this scenario, offer a degree of breathability without tearing or showing signs of wear too soon.
Addressing this spectrum, work pants are typically made with the following fabrics:
- Denim: These aren’t your ordinary jeans, keep in mind. Rather, they’re more like the classic, 100-percent cotton, indigo-dyed variety of decades past, often made with a greater thickness and workwear features, like pockets for knee pads, tool loops, and stain- and water-resistant treatments. For cooler weather, you’ll also spot fleece, flannel, and even quilted-lined options.
- Cotton Duck: Purists will call this Carhartt’s material, but this type of wax-coated, ultra-sturdy canvas is considered the strongest option out there. In turn, work pants for construction typically start with cotton duck fabrication, and are then enhanced with water and stain resistance and equipped with multiple tool pockets. Understand that because of the thickness, cotton duck requires some breaking in and won’t always feel comfortable at first.
- Synthetic blends: Nylon blends, often incorporating cotton and polyester, have seen a surge in recent years. Used prominently for Dickies work pants, these blends tend to feel lighter but bring nylon’s strength and durability into the picture. Flame-resistant varieties, as a note, typically feature nylon-based construction.
The right features often give good and inexpensive work pants a leg up over a higher-dollar but ordinary pair, packing in the essentials at a lower price point. As well, features determine which jobs a pair of work pants is better suited toward. Pairs tend to have a combination of the following:
- Triple-stitched seams: Traditional jeans and cargo pants have double-stitched seams. For a greater degree of durability, triple-stitched seams help the pants last through rough, rugged conditions. These may then be reinforced by rivets and bar tacks.
- Heavy-duty zippers: Whether on pockets or the fly, these won’t jam and better withstand dirt and debris.
- Durable water repellant (DWR) treatment: This performance property, added to the material, allows moisture to roll off rather than seep through. For outdoor use, DWR offers a compromise between heat-locking waterproof fabrics and pervious but breathable materials.
- Extra loops: On the belt and legs, these offer a spot for holding onto and quickly grabbing your tools. These may be accompanied by additional pockets, for both tools and your smartphone.
- Hi-Vis: Designed to meet ANSI standards, high-visibility properties – or casually called “hi-vis” – allow you to be seen better in low-light and dark conditions. Hi-vis work pants may be in a neon shade like yellow or green and will be accompanied by reflective strips.
- Wind resistance: Also for outdoor use, wind-resistant or windproof fabrics block the chill and gusts from passing through the material.
- Insulation: Lined with a quilted material, flannel, fleece, or Thinsulate™, insulated work pants add an extra layer for working outdoors in late fall and winter.
Carhartt Versus Dickies Work Pants
Although Duluth Trading Company, uniform suppliers, and outdoor brands have expanded the workwear market in recent years, Carhartt and Dickies continue to dominate.
Dickies Work Pants
Whether you’re talking about something classic and traditional, like Dickies cargo work pants, or a more modern work-to-casual style, Dickies began as a bib overall company. Started by C.N. Williamson and E.E. “Colonel” Dickie in Texas in the early part of the 20th century, the two went onto establish the U.S. Overall Company.
Later, C. Don Williamson joined the team, bought the business to share with his father and cousin, and renamed it Williamson-Dickie Manufacturing Company.
After producing uniforms for the U.S. armed forces during World War II, the company’s sales picked up, and Dickies spread overseas to Europe and the oilfields of the Middle East.
Always advancing workwear technology, Dickies not only manufacturers some of its work pants with eco-friendly REPREVE®, but the company enhances its materials with technologies for controlling moisture, regulating body temperature, improving air circulation, insulating the wearer, blocking out the elements, and allowing for comfortable movement on the job.
Carhartt Work Pants
As Dickies’ primary competitor in the U.S. and across the globe, Carhartt started in 1889 as Hamilton Carhartt & Company in Detroit with a similar mission: to produce overalls for U.S. railroad workers. Nearly two decades later, the company’s facilities for manufacturing its cotton duck fabrics and sewing bib overalls spanned from their hometown into the South and out to the West Coast. Like Dickies, Carhartt switched its operations during World War II to manufacture military uniforms.
Today, cotton duck material characterizes Carhartt bib overalls and work pants. With a yellow-brown color, cotton duck is similar to canvas in its strength and durability.
Yet, because each occupation has specific needs, Carhartt has created multiple cotton duck materials to suit a spectrum of environments, adding varying degrees of fabric strength, weight, abrasion resistance, and rigidity and multiple technologies for controlling moisture and stains.