Get to Know: Denim

Get to Know: Denim

An Introduction

Perhaps one of the most commonly-known fashion staples around the world - from the North America to Asia and everywhere in between - is denim. What isn't as commonly-known, however, are the intricacies of this iconic fabric.  How did it come to be? How was it originally made? How has it changed over time? As part of our continued dedication to education, we dive into the world of denim, taking you from its history to its issues, opening your eyes to the realities and foundation of your favorite closet staple.

A lot of research, intention and time went into this piece. I hope you find it impactful and informative. 

Now, without further ado...

The History

Like many great discoveries, the creation of denim was a mistake.  In 17th century Nîmes, France, the prominent André family unsuccessfully attempted to recreate a then-popular Italian variation of corduroy. This failure resulted in a legendary discovery that would alter the fabric of the fashion industry forever: denim.   

Originally, the durable twill fabric developed by the André family was made of silk and wool and was known as serge or "serge de Nîmes" (meaning "serge from Nîmes"). Cited by many as an English corruption of this French term, serge de Nîmes was shortened to the term used around the world today: denim (de Nîmes...deNîmes...deNîm...denim). 

Some scholars question the derivation and origin of "denim," as a fabric also known as "serge de Nîmes" existed in France before the 17th century and was present in England before the end of the century.  Further fueling this speculation, what we consider "denim" is a cotton twill, whereas the Andrés' serge de Nîmes was a wool and silk twill. Perhaps, then, the name "denim" is a reference only to their common twill weave. We may never know the answer. 

By the late 18th century, American textile mills began emerging as a way to reduce dependence on European textile imports.  With the rise of slave labor and technologies in farming and spinning, cotton transformed from an ornamental plant to one of the country's most profitable industries. In 1787 the first cotton mill in America - the Beverly Cotton Manufactory - was built in Beverly, Massachusetts. After visiting in 1789, newly elected President George Washington revealed that both cotton denim and cotton jean were being woven at the factory. 

Some credit Samuel Slater's Slater Mill as America's first factory. As quoted on SlaterMill.org, "Slater Mill became the first successful cotton-spinning factory in the United States." Built in 1793 in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, Slater Mill was built to manufacture cotton thread using waterpower.

In 1853, Levi Strauss arrived in San Francisco to take advantage of the recent Gold Rush.  He was a wholesale dry goods merchant whose company (Levi Strauss & Co.) earned a reputation for selling quality goods.  In 1872, Strauss received a letter from Jacob Davis, a tailor who had been creating riveted clothing to better meet the demands of miners in the Reno area.  Davis asked Strauss to help patent his rivets and manufacture the new working pants.

Why rivets? Due to the harsh working conditions, miners' pants would often rip, especially at the seams near the pockets.  Davis used rivets to reinforce the durability of the pants, seams and pockets.  

Soon, Davis received his patent and the two began manufacturing the riveted pants, first from brown cotton duck and blue denim.  These pants, now known as jeans, were originally known as "waist overalls."

By 1911, the company stopped using brown cotton duck, likely due to customer preference.

Gold miners wearing Levi's blue denim jeans, 1882.
Photo: Getty Images

Over the next number of decades, blue jeans transformed from the uniform of manual laborers to the iconic pants of authentic Western cowboys, polo players, American youth, movie stars (most notably James Dean and Marilyn Monroe), celebrities and men and women of all ages.    

Denim vs. Jean 

Although the two words are used nearly interchangeably today, denim and jean were originally two different fabrics.  In the 16th century, a fustian was created in Genoa, Italy, which was known as jean.

The jean fabric was used for the Genoese Navy to create all-purpose trousers that could be worn wet or dry.  It has been speculated that the corduroy fabric the Andrés family was trying to recreate in Nîmes was this Italian jean, which could explain the similarities between the two.

By the 19th century, versions of both jean and denim were being made in America, but they were being used in two very different ways: jean was being used to create fancy trousers and other pieces for the office place, and denim was being used to create trousers and overalls for manual laborers, such as mechanics and painters. So what was the difference?  Besides being stronger and more expensive, denim was a twill weave created from overlapping one indigo thread (the warp yarn) and one white thread (the weft yarn), whereas jean was a twill weave created from overlapping two threads of the same color.  

Today, denim is most commonly the material from which jeans are made, whereas jeans are the article of clothing itself, not the fabric.  Confusing, I know! 

The Issue: Conventional Cotton

Denim is primarily made of conventional cotton (also know simply as "cotton").  Why is this an issue? It takes roughly 2500-2900 gallons of water (from start to finish) to create a single pair of denim jeans. 

Why so much water? Conventional cotton is one of the thirstiest crops in the world - if not the thirstiest. To contextualize this, the annual amount of water used to grow conventional cotton exports in India would be enough to supply 85% of the country’s 1.24 billion people with 26 gallons of water every day for a year. By 2025, two thirds of the world's population may face water shortages, and cotton is on the list of reasons. 

Not only does conventional cotton require copious amounts of water to grow, but the water that is used is surface and ground water which has been diverted to irrigate cotton fields, resulting in freshwater loss through evaporation and inefficient water management.

The effects of water diversion are all-too-powerfully demonstrated by major ecosystems such as the Aral Sea in Central Asia: once the world's fourth largest body of water, its water levels are now less than 10% of what they were 50 years ago, due to cotton farming. 

In addition to contributing to water scarcity, cultivating conventional cotton severely erodes soil and degrades soil quality.

According to the World Wildlife Foundation, "despite the global area devoted to cotton cultivation remaining constant for the past 70 years, cotton production has depleted and degraded the soil in many areas. Most cotton is grown on well-established fields, but their exhaustion leads to expansion into new areas and the attendant destruction of habitat."

Conventional cotton is also speculated to be the most polluting crop in the world, representing roughly 25% of the world's insecticide usage and 10-15% of the world's pesticide usage. These insecticides and pesticides (as well as herbicides and fertilizers) are used by farmers to drive off or kill pests and weeds and to maximize the yield of each crop. The majority of these chemicals are listed as Category I or II by the EPA, meaning they are probable carcinogens.

The negative affects of these chemicals on society are apparent in the estimated 77 million conventional cotton farmers that suffer from toxic pesticide poisoning each year.

These chemicals don't only harm humans.  Their runoff contaminates rivers, lakes, wetlands, and underground aquifers near the cotton fields, directly affecting biodiversity by immediate toxicity or indirectly affecting it through long-term accumulation.

The Issue: Synthetic Indigo

Until the 1950s, the highest quality denim was produced in America. However, demand for denim grew so high that manufacturers switched from traditional, slower methods of manual cotton farming, hand-looming, and expensive indigo dyeing to faster processes, utilizing mechanized equipment and synthetic dyes.  The result was a process that was easier, faster, and cheaper, yes, but one that was vastly more harmful to society and the environment. 

With the birth of synthetic dyes in in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, synthetic indigo was one of the first to come to market (mauve was the very first, and was happened upon by mistake, much like denim).

In 1865, German chemist Adolf von Baeyer began working on a synthetic indigo dye. In 1897, a commercially feasible synthetic indigo dye was brought to market and overtook the indigo market.

So what exactly is synthetic indigo? Essentially, it is a dye made up of a number of different chemicals, such as benzene derivatives from petroleum (a fossil fuel).  In addition, because it does not naturally adhere to fabric, the indigo is processed with more chemicals, such as hydrogen cyanide, known as mordants. These chemicals can be harmful to both humans and, particularly, the environment.  

What’s more, the dyeing process involves multiple treatments, so the harmful chemicals are repeatedly introduced to the factory workers, who breathe the substances in, and to the area’s water supply, in which the waste is oftentimes dumped. 

In 2010 in Xintang, China - the "Jeans Capital of the World" - Greenpeace found five heavy metals (cadmium, chromium, mercury, lead, and copper) in 17 out of 21 water and sediment samples taken from wastewater polluted by chemical dyes throughout Xintang and Gurao.

The Solution: Organic Cotton

Look for jeans (and more) that are made of organic cotton.  Organic cotton is grown using methods that are safer for both the environment and society.  It is grown WITHOUT toxic chemicals or genetically modified seeds and is cultivated to sustain the health of soils, people and ecosystems.  

We love this image from AboutOrganicCotton.org explaining the benefits of growing organic cotton: 

Some additional #Fashionkind facts about organic cotton (also thanks to AboutOrganicCotton.org): 

It is 80% rain-fed.
It doesn’t damage the soil, has less impact on the air, and uses 71% less water and 62% less energy than conventional cotton.
It promotes safe work and better livelihoods for farmers and their families. 
While the price of organic cotton is sometimes higher than conventional cotton, it is because you are paying the fair price for cleaner air, water conservation, farmer livelihoods and better soil.  

The benefits of organic cotton versus conventional cotton are enormous. In 2014 alone, by growing organic cotton instead of conventional cotton, farmers potentially saved:

In that same year, by growing organic cotton instead of conventional cotton, 147,971 farmers were given safe safe work environments and sustainable incomes. This positive impacts goes beyond the farmers to their families, translating to a total of 740,000 lives that were positively impacted. 

When purchasing organic cotton, make sure it has been certified by an independent third­-party certification organization. Currently, the largest and most respected certification organizations are: Organic Content Standards (OCS) and Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS).

Shop our organic cotton pieces, such as our Kowtow Collection, Veja Tennis Shoes, Mina JumpsuitManta Poncho and Textile Two Panel Dress (the ultimate showstopper!).   

The Solution: Upcycled, Recycled and Vintage

Another alternative to purchasing a new pair of conventional cotton denim jeans is purchasing vintage, upcycled or recycled pieces (plus, vintage is in and isn't going anywhere!). Upcycled vintage denim pieces, like our Rialto Jean Project flaresboyfriend jeans, overalls and shorts, completely eliminate the additional production of denim typically required to fulfill demand -- thus cutting down on the harmful environmental and societal effects of the process. 

The Solution: Recycling and Innovative Technologies

How else can we solve the water issue associated with denim? Recycling - not only denim, but cotton and water themselves - as well as innovative technologies that rethink every step of the denim jean creation process (from growing the cotton to the finished pair of jeans).  Levi Strauss & Co. not only pioneered the modern-day blue jean, but it has also set a new precedent in the world of denim by taking strides to minimize water consumption and eliminate any hazardous production discharge that can contaminate water supplies. In 2011, the company launched its Water<Less™ finishing techniques which can save up to 96% of the water in the denim finishing process.

By 2020, Levi aims to use 100 percent sustainable cotton through sources such as Better Cotton and recycled cotton, significantly reducing its total water footprint. By utilizing their Water<Less™ innovations, they believe the apparel industry can save at least 50 billion liters of water by 2020. 

Another innovative technology is Econyl which Pharrell implemented in his line for G-Star RAW, RAW for the Oceans.  Econyl “turns ocean plastic into something fantastic” by collecting the harmful plastic polluting our oceans, breaking it down and shredding it into fibers.  For Pharrell's line, these fibers were combined with cotton to create a beautiful line of denim apparel for men and women. 

The Solution: At Home 

One load of washing uses 40 gallons of water. One load of drying uses 5 times more energy than washing.  Plus, jeans are better when they go unwashed!  If you do insist on cleaning them, try washing them by hand or putting them in the freezer, which will kill any bacteria. Hand them to dry or let them air out in the sun, as air and sun can work as natural neutralizers.  

Worried about not washing your jeans? In 2011, a microbiologist from the University of Alberta compared a pair of jeans that had not been washed for 15 months with another pair that was washed after two weeks of wearing. Both jeans had the normal amounts of bacteria present.

Once the denim is in your hands, be mindful of how you treat it, and make sure it is a piece that will last. Quality over quantity - you have the power to make an impact!

The Solution: Natural Indigo

Natural indigo dyeing has been performed for centuries around the globe. Traditionally, the ancient technique involves a fermentation vat. The leaves of indigo, a tropical shrub of which there are 900 different species, are harvested by hand, dried, crushed and composted. The compost is then macerated in an alkaline solution (which can be achieved with wood ash or lime, for instance) until the leaves release their dye, creating a bacteria-rich vat.

The indigo dye is colorfast and can be used to create multiple hues of beautiful indigo blue.  It was this process - natural indigo - that was used to give make to the first denim jeans a true blue.

Many will suggest you need to use sodium hydroxide as a mordant for natural indigo to properly dye the fabric, but this is not the case! Be careful of what you read and believe...

After the fermentation vat has been used (often for up to 9 months or more!), the liquid and residue can be composted and used as a fertilizer and the water to irrigate crops, making it a very sustainable dyeing solution.  

Natural indigo is said to offer Ayurvedic health benefits, including immune stimulation, skin detoxification and purification, antibacterial and fungal properties, and even blood purification.

More on natural indigo to come when I post about my time with the natural indigo master himself, Aboubakar Fofana! 

That's A Wrap 

Denim is an ever-trending material due to its versatility and dependability.  The harmful effects it can have, however, are definitely not in style. With informed, ethical and sustainable purchases, we can all look great in our denim - and feel good too. Talk about Fashionkind. 

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