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The Untold Story of Denim

Both American men and women have been wearing denim since the 1800s, and likely the 1700s as well!   You heard that right!  Women wore denim blue jeans were invented!   The Fashion Institute of Technology Museum exhibited a woman’s denim jacket, circa 1850!  The jacket was hand stitched, with gathered sleeves and shaped for a corseted figure.  The first American denim mill manufactured denim in Massachusetts, and was visited by George Washington.   Emma McClendon, author of Denim Fashion’s Frontier, points out that 19th century Americans valued denim garments, carefully repairing them to last many years.  Scant information exists on women’s denim garments during the 18th century, but it is likely women wore denim for farm and work tasks.  In the American West, women sometimes took on ranching and farming roles, as told in another post, “Naomi’s Pioneer Story”.   

The modern history of  blue jeans dates back to 1873, when Levi Strauss and Jacob Davis received a patent for riveted denim pants.  The first Levi’s®  were offered in  brown and blue.   Levi Strauss owned a company which sold blankets, tents, wagon covers, cloth and other items.  Jacob Davis was a tailor in Reno, Nevada.  Mr. Davis had come to Reno after several failed business ventures.  Jacob Davis crafted some sturdy pants from heavy, cotton duck twill fabric with hammered copper rivets at stress points, in response to a request from a laborer’s wife.   The pants were a success and other laborers began requesting the pants.  Mr. Davis realized he needed to patent his design and asked Levi Strauss to partner with him by contributing funds for the patent.  In 1873, the two men applied for and received a patent.

The earliest history of Levi’s® is unclear, since the company’s records were burned up during the San Francisco earthquake of 1906.  According to one legend,  the first pair of Levi’s® were made from wagon hemp cloth.  Supposedly, some of the first Levi’s® were made of brown cloth also. 

It wasn’t until 45 years later that Levi’s® made a denim garment for women.  In 1918, Levi’s® introduced the “Freedom-All”, which was a one-piece garment for women.  It was made of chambray, a lightweight denim, and resembled bloomers worn for bicycling (https://fashionista.com/2017/03/levis-jeans-womens-denim-history).  The product did not catch on well due to prevailing attitudes against women wearing pants in public.

By the 1920s it became common for young ladies to occasionally wear denim jeans for casual play or work, typically   borrowed from a male relative.  In fact, the designer’s grandmother borrowed jeans from her cousin so she could climb trees.   In 1934,  Levi Strauss & Co. introduced Lady Levi’s®  — the first manufactured jeans for women.  These jeans were made of 10 oz. denim, which was lighter weight than Levi’s® 501 jeans for men.  Lady Levi’s®  gained traction as a viable product;  other manufacturers followed suit and also started producing women’s jeans.

During World War II, attitudes continued to change towards women wearing denim.   Lee® produced a one-piece denim jumpsuit for women working in factories during World War II.  Rosie the Riveter wore a famous Lee® jumpsuit in WWII posters!  In the 1940s,  a handful of American women designers developed denim play wear for women, including Claire McCardell, and Bonnie Cashin.

From the 1940s through the 1960s, denim jeans became more popular, although worn more often by men.  It was still considered unacceptable for women to wear pants at school or work, or any formal institution.  Typically, women would buy men’s jeans, and alter them in the waist.  In fact, this practice remained common up until the 1970s.  Women also wore men’s denim jackets.   By the 1970s, dress codes  became more relaxed.  Both men and women wore jeans to school and some work places.  Also, denim companies began catered specifically to women.  Designer jeans became all the rage with both men and women wearing uncomfortably tight jeans.  Also, the popularity of denim jeans  spread throughout the world.

America was the blue jean capital of the world for over a century, from the inception of Levi’s®  jeans until the 1990s.  Back in the day, garment factories dotted the southeast, including the Appalachian Mountains of Virginia and North Carolina.  Travelers passing through the region could buy factory-direct blue jeans!  Roanoke was home to the Blue Ridge Overalls Company.  Lynchburg was home to The Favorite Garment Company, which produced men’s overalls and work wear.   Norfolk & Western railroad had a track line in the New River Valley which serviced garment factories along the New River.  Today, most of these factories are gone.  The New River railway line has since been converted into the New River Trail for hiking,  biking and horseback riding.

 In the 1990s, most major brands manufactured their blue jeans in America.  El Paso, Texas  was the blue jean capital of America, producing almost 2 million pairs of blue jeans a week during the 1990s!  After NAFTA was signed in 1994, many textile jobs were lost due to the acceleration of offshore manufacturing.   Significantly, in the last 50 years, the American textile industry lost almost 2 million jobs due to offshore manufacturing (www.bls.gov and ncglobaleconomy.com).   Many of these jobs were well paying, including textile engineers and factory jobs.   Today a pair of blue jeans made overseas sells for $19.99, which is close to the price jeans sold in the 1970s — $14.50!  If you consider inflation, that $14.50 jeans from 1973 should cost $82.20 today.   There is a cost to cheap fashion.   El Paso’s factories are now empty, and Xiantang, China is the world’s jeans capital.  Matt and Carrie Edmenson, founders of a made in USA apparel company Imogene + Willie, have expressed their concern that the demise of US manufacturing is killing the American dream. (TEDxAtlanta speech).

In recent years, there has been a resurgence of American-made goods, although not to the extent in years past.  Several premium jeans manufacturers have sprung up to meet the demand for Made in USA jeans.  Many of these manufacturers are located in Los Angeles, the South or major cities.   Many Americans are choosing to buy less, but higher quality clothing which lasts for years, instead of months.  Quality clothing is much more sustainable, as opposed to throw away fast fashion.  The designer, Vivian Westwood expresses the sentiment well:  Buy Less,  Choose Well and Make it Last!  American pioneers made their garments last! 

Denim has been around for hundreds of years!    The Italians claim they invented denim fabric 500 years ago, which they called ‘Bleu de Genes’,  popular among sailors.    The French claim they invented denim, calling the fabric “serge de Nimes”.  Apparently, denim was hot stuff even in the 1700s!  Americans began manufacturing denim in the 18th century.  In 1789  George Washington toured a Massachusetts denim mill!  Since the 1700s, American mills  robustly manufactured denim fabric until about 25 years ago.  Today, only 2 or 3 denim mills remain in America. 

Denim is typically woven from two different color threads:  indigo dyed warp threads and white weft threads.  Sometimes weft threads can be colored gold, bronze or green.  The different color threads give denim its characteristic fade.  Cotton is the primary fiber used for most denim, although polyester, wool, silk, hemp, linen, and Lycra can also  be used.  Better quality cotton consists of long staple fibers.  Legend has it that the first Levi’s jeans were made from wagon hemp cloth.

Surprisingly, hemp fiber makes a very nice denim, stronger and more comfortable!  Hemp is similar to linen, except stronger due to its long fibers.  Hemp is environmentally friendly due to natural pest resistance, and less water and land usage compared to cotton (source:  HuffPost, “Why Hemp, the Sustainable Wonder Crop, is Sweeping the Nation”, by Chloe Fox, 05/03/2014 ). Hemp fiber is cool in summer and warm in winter.  Hemp/cotton denim is made using hemp for the warp fibers, and cotton for the weft fibers.  Jeans made from hemp/cotton denim are more durable than cotton jeans, and can last many years.  Hemp denim also softens with age, making it more comfortable.  In colonial times, farmers were strongly encouraged to grow hemp.  In fact, Martha Washington sewed the first American flag out of hemp!  However hemp was used for garments in colonial times due to lignin, which made the fabric scratchy next to skin.  In modern times, the hemp is processed to remove the lignin to create a textile more suitable for garment use.

Traditionally, denim was  woven using shuttle looms up until the mid-20th century.  The resulting denim was about 28″ wide, with finished selvedge edges and slub imperfections.   Jet looms began to replace shuttle looms in the 20th century due to their greater efficiency and wider width; the resulting denim was smooth and evenly textured.  However, in the 1990s, Japanese denim fanatics took note of the cloth imperfections in vintage 501 Levi’s.   Wanting to replicate vintage American denim, some Japanese companies restored old shuttle looms which sat idle in the Japanese countryside and continue to use these looms today.   Ironically, the Japanese appreciation for vintage American denim influenced the resurgence of small American jeans manufacturers. 

The beautiful hue of denim comes from indigo dye, which has unique characteristics.  Indigo dye does not fully penetrate the cotton fiber, but is contained to the outer region of the fiber, which causes a characteristic fade.  Back in the 18th and 19th century, indigo dye was derived from the leaves of natural indigo plant (Indigofero tinctoria).   Natural indigo grows well in Asia and sub-tropical regions, but not in colder European climates.  In colonial times, indigo plant was grown in South Carolina, including a native variety — Indigofero caroliniana.  Europeans began to use the woad plant  (Isatis tinctoria) as an indigo substitute; woad grew well in Europe.   However, woad also contained less  indigotin pigment, and was more difficult to process.   (If you want to try your hand at indigo dyeing, here’s an interesting link:  http://www.allnaturaldyeing.com/japanese-indigo-indigofera-tinctoria/.)  In the late 1800s, a German scientist, Baeyer, developed a synthetic indigo dye.   Synthetic indigo was cheaper to produce and its introduction decimated the natural indigo agriculture industry.  Today, most denim is dyed with artificial indigo.  A few Japanese textile companies  use natural indigo.

There are pros and cons to both natural and synthetic indigo.  Synthetic indigo produces chemical waste; irresponsible textile companies dump these chemicals into the environment.     Natural indigo fades more beautifully than synthetic, however it costs more and requires agricultural land to grow.  Both synthetic and natural indigo must be “reduced” to a soluble form prior to dyeing cotton.  Modern methods use   sodium dithionite (hydrosulfite) as a reducing agent.  One of the problems with using synthetic dye is that sodium dithionite gets converted to sulfate and sulfite in the process, which is harmful to marine life if dumped in waterways.  Responsible mills recycle or treat their waste.  Some modern denim textile companies have pioneered new methods of dyeing indigo which reduce waste considerably.  For centuries, the Japanese have used a fermentation process called “aizome” to dye indigo, which is much friendlier to the environment, and does not use sodium dithionite.

For decades, finishes have been applied to milled denim, such as sanforization (pre-shrinking), brushing the denim for a particular texture, and other finishes to achieve certain textures and looks.  Most denim today is sanforized, or pre-shrunk.  In recent years, some denim enthusiasts have developed a preference for unsanforized denim jeans, however these jeans can shrink up to 10% after the first wash.

In the 1980s, manufacturers began to artificially distress denim jeans with pumice stones.  Later, chemical techniques and sandblasting were used to distress denim garments.  Although the distressed look is quite popular, the chemicals used are toxic to workers and the environment.  Caustic chemicals burn and irritate workers’ skin, eyes and lungs.   Chemical waste produced from these practices has become an environmental problem in certain countries.  In Turkey, sandblasting was banned due to deleterious health effects and the death of young workers (silicosis of the lungs).  The chemicals just aren’t worth it, if people become sick as a result!   Unfortunately, sandblasting continues in other parts of the world, despite its lack of sustainability. 

Several denim manufacturers are innovating to reduce their footprint.  Some denim mills use recycled plastic and organic cotton.  A Spanish denim mill now uses a dry dyeing technique for their denim, which uses little to no water.   Responsible jeans manufacturers now use ozone or laser technology to distress denim, instead of chemicals or sandblasting. 

 It’s worth examining our relationship with denim.  Do we really need umpteen artificially distressed denim garments? Why does the average American throw away 80 pounds of clothing per year, just to end up in a landfill?   Why not buy fewer and better quality garments, and let denim break in naturally?  Naturally broken in denim lasts much longer, and uses less chemicals.  Buy Less,  Choose Well and Make it Last! 

Roanoke Rags can’t fix all the problems in the global textile industry.  However we can make better choices, no matter how small.  Small changes lead to bigger changes.  We choose not to distress denim garments with chemicals.  We strive to source denim from responsible mills.  Honestly, as a small company, sourcing is challenging; sometimes we may miss the mark.  But that doesn’t mean we quit our efforts. We do our best.  Part of that effort is educating you!  We support American manufacturing and fair wages.    Thank you for your support!

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