June 8, 2021
Fabric Care Guide: Denim
First invented in the 1800s, the iconic denim jean has been adopted by cowboys, Hollywood legends, rock stars and high fashion designers alike over the last two centuries, and this Denim Fabric Care Guide will keep you up to date on how to care for your favorite pair of jeans for years to come.
Denim is simply a woven cotton fabric. What makes it different from other cotton-based fabrics is the specific weaving technique used to produce denim in which two different threads are crossed in a twill to produce the characteristic diagonal lines. This particular technique is also the main reason why denim is so firm, thick and resistant. Denim was originally manufactured in the French town of Nîmes, and was referred to as bleu de Nîmes. The word ‘denim’ is an English colloquialism of the French term: “de nîmes” (from Nîmes) referring to the origin of the fabric.
Denim has been exported to and worn in America since the late 18th century. It was first used for clothes worn by workers because of its high durability. In the 1800s, in the time of the Gold Rush, American gold miners needed clothes that were strong, lasted longer and did not tear easily. Levi Strauss, a businessman, and Jacob Davis, a tailor, supplied miners with denim pants that were made from durable material and reinforced with rivets at the places where pants tended to tear which prolonged the life of pants. This marked the beginning of the legend of jeans and brand Levi Strauss that is still hugely successful today. Hollywood helped romanticize denim in the 1920s and 1930s by putting the trousers on handsome cowboy types, like John Wayne, and in the 1960s celebrities like Marilyn Monroe and James Dean made the utility wear jeans a fashionable item when they wore them in films.
The blue cloth from Nîmes was adapted for work wear in France in the late 19th Century and became the uniform of the manual working classes. The French workers wore bleu de travail (blues for work) in the form of jackets, overalls, and trousers (but not jeans—those are distinguishable by their use of copper rivets, orange stitching and close fit.) Bleu de travail garments are still popular in France, particularly in rural areas and continue to be favored by manual workers whilst jeans have become popular for everyday wear.
Because denim is a woven cotton fabric, the production of cotton is the first step in the process. (read all about that in our Cotton Fabric Care Guide!) For denim, cotton is also often mixed with Lycra, a synthetic fiber adding elasticity to the raw material.
Here are the next steps in the denim-making process:
- After cotton fibers are harvested and spun into yarn, the yarn is then dyed. (Denim is often indigo-dyed, making them the classic blue color.)
- Once the blue yarn is dyed, they are woven on a large loom in the iconic twill pattern.
- The finished cloth is cut into pattern pieces from stacks 100 layers thick. High-speed cutting machines are used for this process.
- Once the pieces are cut, they are sewn into completed pairs of blue jeans. Sewing is done in assembly-line fashion using human-operated sewing machines.
First thing to know, denim is one of the most environmentally harmful fabrics to produce. Here’s why:
An impressive number of countries are involved in denim manufacturing. Denim manufacturing actually takes place on all continents. In the end, our garments probably travel the world more than we ever will before finally landing on our shelves. In this hyper-globalized process, each region has a specialization and a precise role to play. The Indian subcontinent and Africa grow cotton; Europe, North America, and Japan weave the fabric; North Africa and China are in charge of sewing denim pieces together, while India, South-East Asia and the Middle-East then dye and add extra features to the fabric. Finally, once it is ready, denim is distributed and purchased throughout the entire world.
An ultra-globalised production and many trips from one continent to another result in an important carbon footprint for every denim piece we wear. Before they land on our shelves, each denim garment travels a distance of 65,000km, emitting 20kg to 40kg of CO2. The amount of energy needed to animate the entire supply chain is hard to assess but it should not be forgotten, especially in a world that still relies mostly on fossil fuels.
Also, 7,000 to 10,000 liters of water are needed in order to manufacture a single pair of jeans. Although blue jeans are traditionally dyed with indigo, their color is now most frequently obtained through synthetic, chlorine and heavy metal-based dyes. In South-East Asia, such chemicals are sometimes disposed of directly into the local rivers. Farmers are the first to be affected by the negative effects of denim, but the industry involves millions of other workers across the world and can also be held accountable for their working conditions. Sandblasting is one of those infamous techniques, widely-used to create the “worn out” jean look we all know. The blue color of our jeans actually fades naturally with time but it may take a few months or even a year for the erosion process to occur. Sandblasting keeps us from waiting by rubbing it out before garments even get worn. Sandblasting consists in propelling abrasive materials at a high speed directly onto the fabric. Thin particles, mostly silica powder, are released into the air and inhaled by workers, contaminating their lungs and causing respiratory problems and cancers. Sandblasting is now illegal in most Western countries.
Denim was originally made popular because of its durability. If we kept this in mind when wearing and caring for our denim, our overall consumption would decrease and would have the potential for a more sustainable future for denim.
Again, thoughtful care is the most important part of caring for your denim for the long term. Here are some tips to help you:
- Most importantly: don’t wash denim a lot! It is a very durable fabric and thrives with use. Save water and think about wearing them one (or 10!) more times before washing.
- Most dye can transfer in the wash so make sure to wash denim with like colors on the first wash.
- Wash denim in cool water and hang to dry.
As soon as possible, use white vinegar to dampen a clean cloth and blot the stained area thoroughly. You’ll see that the vinegar will eliminate most of it. With bigger stains soak the garment overnight in a solution of 1 part vinegar to 1 part water and then wash.
COFFEE & CHOCOLATE
Apply a small amount of baking soda onto a wet, clean washcloth. Gently rub the baking soda-covered cloth onto the stained jeans. You may need to repeat this process if the stains are set-in or cover a large portion of the jeans.
Lay your jeans on a flat surface and sprinkle cornstarch onto the grease stain until it’s completely covered. Then let it sit for at least an hour. Once the time is up, brush off the cornstarch with your hand and remove any residual powder with a damp sponge.