Are you curious about what the terms “raw” or “stonewashed” denim actually mean? Read on to learn the denim-related terms you should know.
It’s easy to take denim for granted. It is what it is – sturdy, dependable, ever present. But not all denim is created equal.
There are different weights, fibers, loom processes, ways of dying, and technologies to distress. There is so much more to denim than meets the eye.
A Brief History of Denim
The term “blue jeans” comes from the historical beginnings in Europe. In the 1500-1600’s Italy used a fabric called Bleu de Gênes for naval work clothes. It was sturdy, indigo-dyed cotton fabric that could hold up to the work and not show stains. These pants were the style forerunner of jeans.
In Nimes, France weavers created a heavy twill woven fabric called serge de nîmes (serge from nimes). This fabric evolved into denim (de nîm). Its popularity was due to its durability and low cost so it was exported to the working classes in Northern Italy and shipped throughout Northern Europe.
Modern day blue jeans combined the style and fabric of its European namesakes for the first time. Levi Strauss was a German immigrant who capitalized on the 1860’s Gold Rush by selling supplies and clothing to the miners. He created “waist overalls” and made them out of tent canvas.
He used the styling of the Genoese sailors by making them loose fitting with a flared leg to fit over heavy boots. The canvas proved to be too stiff and uncomfortable so he switched to denim.
It served the needs of miners by being durable, quick drying, and hid stains. By this time the fabric was less expensive than the original French version because synthetic indigo had been created.
These new pants became the favorite workwear for factory workers, ranchers, farmers, and miners throughout the US.
Strauss improved upon the original Italian design by increasing the stability of the pants. He added stitching on the back pockets and copper rivets at the corner of the pockets and the bottom of the fly.
These were all the stress points for miners who would carry their finds in their pants. Levi Strauss and his partner Jacob Davis were granted a US patent on May 20, 1873. This is the official birthday of blue jeans.
The final additions were a leather patch added in 1886 and the red tag on the pocket (the very first designer branding) added in 1936. This is the exact style that is still being produced today in their 501 jeans.
How is denim fabric made?
Denim and khakis are both made from a twill fabric, yet you wouldn’t mistake the two. So, how do they differ? First, twill is made by weaving a weft thread (horizontal) through the stationary vertical warp threads.
Simple weaving goes in an under/over pattern. Twill goes over 2-3 warp threads, then under 1 forming a diagonal pattern within the weave.
In denim, the warp threads are kept their natural cotton color while the weft are dyed an indigo color. This is why denim is dark on the outside and light on the inside. The individual threads are dyed (yarn dying), not the fabric.
Shuttle Loom vs. Projectile Loom
Modern denim is made on either a shuttle or a projectile loom. Shuttle looms are the original looms. They are 36” wide and a person, or machine, would send a shuttle filled with the weft threads through the stationary warp threads.
Then the shuttle would be turned over at the outside thread and sent back. The denim was made with a continuous weft thread and left you with a cleanly finished edge. This is Selvedge Denim (the name comes from the “self edge” of the fabric).
When denim’s popularity skyrocketed after World War II, most manufacturers started using projectile looms. The weave is the same but individual weft threads are shot through the warp by bullet shaped projectiles.
This is how you get the frayed edges you see on the sides of most denim. Among the advantages of these looms are: fabric could be made in 60” or even 108” widths instead of 36”, they required less maintenance and human oversight, and they produced very uniform fabric that was less expensive.
Most US companies sold their shuttle looms to overseas manufacturers, especially the Japanese, who welcomed the looms to satisfy their domestic clamor for jeans.
Like most things, selvedge denim has made a comeback. It is now highly prized. Although the weave is more densely packed than projectile denim, the fabric is still softer and more flexible. The finished edges with their colored thread stripe is a badge of quality.
Needless to say, the Japanese have some of the most highly prized selvedge denim, although Turkey, Bangladesh, Italy and the US also produce high-quality selvedge denim.
In fact, Cone Mill, in Greensboro, North Carolina was the original producer of denim for Levi’s and still makes their selvedge denim with a red stripe for 501 jeans.
If you are shopping for vintage jeans, the colored thread at the edge can help you identify the manufacturer of the denim, and even, perhaps, whether the item is authentic.
Historically, mills would produce denim for different jeans manufacturers. To differentiate the orders, they would use a different colored thread. For instance, vintage Lee jeans should have a blue or green stripe (depending on the style) and Wrangler’s should have a yellow thread.
The denim was all made by Cone Mill’s White Oak Plant. So, if you see something labeled as vintage Wrangler’s but there is a red stripe, you know you are looking at a counterfeit.
You’ve probably noticed that some denims are much heavier than others – your denim shirt is much softer and drapier than your jeans.
Denim fabric is measured in ounces per square yard and can range from 5 to 32 oz. 5 oz, or more likely 7 oz fabric is used in shirts and very light-weight summer bottoms or lounge pants. The fabric will flow well, but won’t be as durable as heavier weight denim.
Most jeans are made in the 10-12 oz range. This is sturdy enough for everyday wear, yet gives you some flexibility.
They are easy to move around in and won’t require an overly long and possibly uncomfortable break-in period. Really sturdy jeans will be in the 14 oz range. They are the true workhorses and may feel too stiff for some people.
You’ll find the term “raw” jeans or dry jeans on some bottoms. This means that the fabric has not been pre-washed or processed in any way before they are sold.
To create the dark color, the denim won’t be soaked in a dye bath, but stretched on a 2-story machine so the fabric can be dipped in an indigo bath, then sent up to the top of the machine so the dye soaked threads will oxidize and adhere to the cotton.
There are devotees of raw denim who term themselves “denim heads”. These purists love that raw jeans become individualized as they are worn through the creases and faded areas that are created.
These markings become more pronounced if raw jeans aren’t washed immediately or frequently. The indigo coloring on the outside of the threads is worn away, and eventually washed away, to show the lighter colored interior.
For this reason, denim heads have discussions about acceptable ways to wash jeans (including laying down in your jeans in the bathtub) and how often they can be washed (some say weeks, months, or even a year before the first wash and between washings).
By starting with raw jeans, the wear patterns tell the story of a person’s life – the way they move and the type of work they do.
Buying and wearing raw denim does have a couple of drawbacks. Since the denim hasn’t been pre-washed (sanfordized), the fabric isn’t pre-shrunk.
You need to be aware that they will shrink as much as 10% with the first wash. You may need to purchase your jeans slightly large so you will eventually have the perfect fit.
Also, the indigo color will transfer to your skin, furniture, and other clothing until the excess dye has been either washed or worn away.
What is slub?
Slub is a lump or thicker place in the yarn/thread. You will usually find this in the warp threads, and it leads to a slightly irregular appearance (which is often desirable).
Slubby denim is denim fabric in which the warp yarn is inconsistently thick, which leads to an irregular texture (think vertical dotted lines, like Matrix code viewed from far away, but Indigo and white instead of green and black).
Slubby denim will produce more unique fades than non-slubby denim, which is why many raw denim enthusiasts seek it out.
What is nep?
Nep refers to fabric that has a texture or pile that goes in one direction. The fibers are purposely raised when the cloth is produced. An extreme example would be velvet.
Neppy denim has a dotted or “snowy” appearance. People who aren’t in the know may just think your neppy jeans are pilling.
Denimheads love nep denim because of its unique look and the way it fades over time.
Many people don’t want to put the effort into creating jeans that look broken-in; they want to purchase their jeans comfortably soft and looking worn.
Manufacturers started creating jeans that were pre-washed, with different finishes, and even distressed with frayed edges and rips starting in the 1970’s.
They used different techniques to achieve this, many of which were extremely hazardous to worker’s health and the environment.
Whiskers & Worn Areas
The creases that raw denim creates, especially in areas around the crotch and behind the knees, are called whiskers. You don’t need to start with raw denim, all jeans will eventually show these patterns with enough wear.
However, for those that want a head start, manufacturers will use oxidizing agents such as bleach, hydrogen peroxide and/or potassium permanganate (PP) to create these effects by lightening specific areas.
In spite of creating safe ventilation systems, PP is still a harmful irritant to workers and the environment.
The manganese that is released is a heavy metal. These treatments also harm the fabric itself by weakening the fibers and it’s hard to get consistent results using any of these chemicals.
The Spanish company, Jeanologia, is the innovative leader in creating machines that will efficiently and safely recreate these vintage effects while cutting down on waste and pollution and delivering consistent and superior results.
They use laser processing equipment to burn away fine lines and even worn patches on jeans. The laser can also create frayed and ripped effects.
Not only do these machines produce jeans with identical markings, but they do so by using less energy, eliminating damaging air emissions, and water pollution.
Lasers use no water, stones or sand to wash jeans – a concentrated light beam goes across the fabric and burns the wash into them creating a distressed or vintage look.
They cut down on production costs while increasing the output per workplace by 500% and reducing the loss of fabric strength by 50%. Lasers eliminate many of the environmental problems that distressing jeans traditionally caused.
What is stonewashed denim?
Jeanologia also created machines that mimic a stonewashed or pre-washed fabric without any of the former environmental hazards.
Stonewashed jeans were created by literally washing a pair of jeans in giant washers with pumice stones and chlorine added.
Not only did the stones damage the washers, they created a sludge that gathered in the machine and the pants pockets. Workers had to actually go in and try to remove the pumice residue from each pants pocket. The polluted water was then released into area waterways.
Jeanologia built washers that use ozone gas to create the same bleaching effect. A complimentary Airflow machine uses 1 million tiny air bubbles per cubic centimeter of water to “wash” jeans with a minuscule amount of water.
The air bubbles efficiently carry away any chemicals that were left on the fabric. Using all these machines reduces the amount of water used per pant by over 90%. All water used is filtered and recycled.
Energy consumption is also drastically reduced because no water needs to be heated and the clothing doesn’t need to be dried.
The combination of lasers, ozone washers, and Airflow machines are so effective and efficient that 35% of all jeans worldwide are made using at least one of these machines.
There is another way that companies are now getting a stonewashed look without the time and pollution. NoStone® uses abrasive stainless-steel drums that can be adjusted to create escalating levels of abrasion.
This reduces water consumption, production costs, harmful emissions, waste, processing time, and manual labor. Levi’s has adopted this method. If a greater degree of bleaching is desired, an enzyme rinse of laccases can be used.
This alters the dye through oxidation without changing the integrity of the fabric so you don’t lose strength or elasticity like you would with bleach.
Another way that jeans were distressed in the past was through sandblasting.
Luckily for the thousands of workers who have been harmed by this process, lasers plus eco-washing with active oxygen and ozone are able to recreate the vintage finish without the hours of manual work of sandpapering or sandblasting the fabric that was needed.
These new machines save 62% of the energy, 67% of the water, and 85% of the chemicals while taking less than half the time. 100-200 pairs of jeans can be completed in the same amount of time that it took 10 pairs to be manually scraped, or 30 pairs to be sandblasted.
What is denim made from?
We think of jeans as being made from cotton – and most of the time that is a correct assumption. However, today there are options that include new fabrications:
Cotton is known to be the least sustainable fabric in existence. It’s responsible for more insecticide, pesticide, herbicide, fertilizer and water use than any other crop.
One of the industry’s responses is to incorporate recycled cotton with virgin cotton. The drawbacks are that recycled cotton doesn’t have the same strength as new cotton and it uses almost as many resources as virgin cotton.
Deadstock is the term used to describe fabric produced for another company that went unused. It’s a way to keep fabric out of landfills.
Organic cotton is grown without all the harsh chemicals that ordinary cotton uses. It also means that it’s grown without all the irrigation.
The cotton itself may be of higher quality, but it is definitely exponentially better for the environment.
Tencel™ is made from wood pulp – either bamboo, eucalyptus, or beech. It is sturdy, more eco-friendly, and creates a softer fabric.
Many manufacturers are starting to make cotton/Tencel blends.
Stretch denim can be created with the addition of elastane, spandex, lycra, or other stretch materials.
The amount of stretch varies from just a bit, to super, all-over (360) stretch.
Many people feel more comfortable wearing jeans that have a bit of give in them; however, stretch denim is not as durable as pure cotton.
Beyond using technology to make denim more sustainable, companies have realized that denim is the perfect vehicle for other innovations.
After all, the average person owns 7 pairs of jeans and in many parts of the world they are worn on almost a daily basis. Over 5 billion pairs of jeans are produced annually.
Not one, but three separate companies have created ways of making jeans anti-bacterial and/or anti-viral.
- ViralOff process uses the self-cleaning Washpro technology to create cleaner jeans. They use Polygiene to stop viral activity from adhering to the fabric. The COVID-19 virus is completely deactivated within 2 hours of landing on fabric.
- Vicunha, a new Brazilian denim mill has created the V Tech Protective collection that is anti-microbial and anti-viral.
- HeiQ Viroblock technology destroys viruses with 99.9% deactivation in 1 minute. The coating lasts through 30 home washes.
Are you someone who always needs to be connected to your phone, afraid that you’ll miss an important message? How about someone who gets easily lost? Spinali, made in France, has created “smart” jeans.
Their Essential line can be connected to your smartphone’s apps through Bluetooth. You can program it to alert you to calls, texts, or emails through different vibration signals in your jeans.
It can also be used as an alarm. If you need help navigating, you can set it so either your right or left leg will vibrate when you need to make a turn.
The Future of Denim
Jeans are here to stay. Levi’s is still making and selling their original design more than 150 years after they were created. That’s an amazing statement since there isn’t another clothing item that is worn by billions of people a day that hasn’t changed over time. But the industry hasn’t stood still.
It has evolved and innovated. It’s created more sustainable methods to make new jeans look worn. You can choose from different fabric weights, washes, and fabrications to find a pair that best meets your needs.
Since jeans are such an integral part of our lives the tech industry has integrated their projects to make them a healthy fabric and the perfect vehicle for “smart” features.
This may be a far cry from Levi Strauss adding rivets, yet each innovation was a response to improve the life of the wearer.