Pretty much everyone has owned and worn something made out of denim. You’ve at least worn blue jeans, but maybe you’ve also slipped into a denim jacket, denim shoes, a hat, a scarf. Have you ever sat in a chair made out of denim? Anything can be made of denim. It’s a versatile, ubiquitous material that everyone is familiar with. You see it all the time, you’ve worn it a bunch. You may have had a backpack made out of it, once. But what actually is denim and how is denim made? The story behind this fabric spans multiple countries and many different game-changing moments. You might be surprised how long denim’s history is, and how many things had to happen for you to get to wear your favorite pair of blue jeans.
What is Denim?
You know denim when you see it. Denim is one of those materials that everyone can identify. You know how denim feels and how it looks. If you have your eyes closed and you go into a clothing store and start feeling around, you’re going to be able to identify denim. You know what it looks like even when you can’t see it because the color and look of denim is just so iconic. Though denim can be dyed in any color, it’s most commonly associated with a specific few shades of blue.
But what is it? Denim is made with cotton that’s been woven in a specific way. The weaving technique is why denim is so durable. It’s wear-resistant, tear-resistant and tough. Denim is most commonly dyed with indigo fabric. Denim has a unique fit and feeling that softens and molds naturally around the body as it is worn more. Experts advise that denim not be washed too often, lest it lose that softness and shape. Denim can be brushed off and aired off for basic maintenance but only needs to be washed after every few wearings, unless the material becomes dirty or stained.
It’s a very familiar material that you may think you know very well. But the story of how denim is made, and how it came to be, actually started with an accident. No one was trying to make denim. In the beginning, denim was all a big mistake.
The Wrong Fabric
In the 1600s and 1700s, there was a type of blue cloth that was super popular. The cloth, a type of cotton fabric known as bleu de Genes, was made in Genoa, Italy. However, the biggest buyer of the cloth was Nimes, France. Lots of ribbon makers and weavers lived in Nimes and they loved the fabric, buying it in great quantities.
The weavers in Nimes didn’t want to have to rely on Genoa for their favorite fabric. They figured that maybe they could make their own. So some of them got together and made a twill cloth using raw silk and wool. They wove the two materials together with a pattern of parallel ribs in a diagonal pattern.
One of the fabrics was dyed with indigo. The other was left undyed and white. When woven together, the end result was an unusual blue color that was darker blue on the front and whitish-blue on the back. The cloth was pretty and it was durable.
However, it was not the favored Genoa cloth. It was even better. The French cloth was dubbed serge de Nimes and later became known as denim. It was all just a mistake, really. They were trying to make a specific cloth and ended up making this new fabric instead. And while the weavers liked the fabric right away, they probably didn’t know they had a worldwide phenomenon on their hands.
Denim Goes to America
The fabric soon spread throughout Europe and eventually, made its way across the ocean to the U.S. Denim became popular thanks to the Gold Rush. Gold miners liked the durable fabric, which was easy to repair and hard-wearing even in tough environments.
A German merchant, a guy by the name of Levi Strauss, sold the material out of his store. He was the main supplier for a tailor named Jacob Davis, who had been tasked with creating a strong pair of work pants by an angry wife who was sick of constantly repairing her husband’s pants. Davis bought fabric from Strauss to make his pants. It was a legendary pairing, a true meeting of the minds.
Soon, the two men took out a patent together for blue jeans. That was in 1873 and it proved to be a history-making moment. The Levi Strauss Company became known for selling the pants and for creating a trend that spread across the nation and around the world.
It’s an interesting story that took a lot of different hands and minds. And over time, the process of making denim fabric has been perfected and refined.
How Denim is Made
Though the first denim was made with silk and wool, modern denim is made with cotton. This is one of the most used and widely-known fabrics in the world. Cotton has been cultivated to make clothing for thousands of years. Cotton actually grows on a plant in very small puffs and it has been cultivated by humans for over 5,000 years, which is pretty mind-blowing. It is hand- or machine-collected and then processed.
To be processed, the cotton fibers are combed into long, thin strings. These strings are spun into yarn using special machinery. Once the cotton has been turned into yarn, it can be used to make denim. It’s during processing that dyes and washes are used to create distinct denim looks. Classic blue denim is still widely worn but denim is also treated with special washing processes that make the material lighter or give it a special, patterned look.
This is when the cotton yarns are woven into a special warp-faced style. This is that parallel, diagonal weaving technique that creates the unique double-sided look of denim. The mix of blue and white cotton yarns gives denim a unique look that’s distinct from other fabrics.
All these steps may seem complicated, but denim is affordable and easy to produce. It’s very inexpensive and that’s why it’s so beloved. Denim is tough but it doesn’t cost a lot. It looks good and feels good and fits well, even when it isn’t pricey. Some of the greatest denim items you’ll ever own will be bargain buys and secondhand items, though there are plenty of high-end designer creations you can pay big bucks to own as well. Denim is seen everywhere, from the finest homes and the fanciest clothes to the clearance rack at the discount store. And in all versions, denim looks good and it’s tough material. What’s not to love?
Turning Denim Into Clothes
To actually turn denim material into something you can wear, patterns are cut out of heavy paper or cardboard. One of these patterns can be used to create up to 80 different sizes. The denim is cut into pieces in the shape of the pattern into stacks that are 100 layers thick. A single pair of jeans is assembled from, on average, 10 pieces of fabric. That includes pockets, waistbands and belt loops.
All the pieces are put together and sewn at this point. The pockets and belt loops are placed first, then the leg seams and waistband. Zippers, buttons and rivets are added.
Different Types of Denim
Though denim is made in a specific way and specifically with cotton, there are several types of denim that are created through different washing and finishing techniques. There are many different types of denim thanks to these little touches but some are much more common than others.
Raw denim is denim that hasn’t been washed or treated any special way. It’s the classic blue indigo shade and it’s a little stiffer than washed denim. Many people wear raw denim for a year without washing it. Over time, the denim conforms to the body and becomes softer and more pliant.
Sanforised denim has been washed so that it is softer than raw denim. Many jeans and other clothing items are actually made with sanforised denim. This type of denim is also pre-shrunk, which means it shrinks less when it is machine washed and dried.
Stretch denim is often found in skinny jeans and other close-fitting clothing items. This denim is made with a mixture of cotton and spandex so that it is stretchy and flexible. The material moves with your body and stretches with you to maintain a comfortable but form-fitting design.
Poly denim is made with polyester, cotton and sometimes other fabrics, such as nylon. This allows for the denim to be thinner and more breathable than all-cotton denim. The addition of nylon and other synthetic materials can make it stretchier than all-cotton denim as well.
Crushed denim is made with a somewhat different weaving technique so that is has a texture that is a bit like velvet. This technique makes this material very soft but it also has a wrinkled look. This creates a very distinct style that is seen most commonly in jackets and skirts. Crushed denim is also found in home decor items, such as furniture and throw pillows. The denim is still tough and wear-resistant but the crushed technique makes it look more high-end.
Acid wash denim has a mottled, spotted appearance. This is due to a specific washing technique that actually really does involve acid. This is a very distinct look that is famously linked to 1980s-era fashion. Acid washed jeans are not just mottled, they are also very pale blue that is almost white in color.
Selvedge denim is finished with a little fringe at the end. You’ll see this a lot in jeans but also in jackets and skirts. Selvedge denim is very common in accessories, such as denim purses, as well.
How Denim is Made…Fabulous!
Of course, you don’t have to know how denim is made or where it comes from to learn how to wear it like a style expert. There are lots of ways to style denim, many different places to wear it on your body and all kinds of outfits you can create using denim as a basis.
Have fun with denim fashion and with denim in general. Because even though this fabric started out as a weird mistake and its story took a lot of twists and turns, denim is definitely here to stay.
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