Denim is basically a sturdy, durable textile made out of cotton fibers using twill weave. It is typically used in apparel manufacturing, but, it also finds alternate usage as application based textiles in seat covers, mobile cases, insulation textiles, etc. In denim fabric, the weft yarn passes under two or more warps. The warp yarns in this fabric are typically dyed in indigo and the weft yarn is white, which gives denim fabric its traditional blue color.
The word ‘denim’ is derived from the French word “serge de Nimes”, a name given to a fabric that originated from the city of Nimes (History, 2008). Denim fabric’s usage dates back to 17th century. In the 1800s, the need for strong lasting fabrics for mining workers led to the origin of this fabric (Strauss , 2018). Levi Strauss (businessman) and Jacob Davis (a tailor) came together to invent the denim pants, which were made from durable fabric and reinforced with rivets at high-pressure points to further elongate its life.
Levi Strauss Jacob Davis
In the 1930s then, Hollywood’s cowboy movies brought denim fabric in vogue.
In the 1950s, denim became an expression of rebellion for the younger generation. The rest is history, now, when denim fabric is no more of just an expression, but an essential part of everyone’s closets.
The denim fabric manufacturing process
- The process starts with cotton harvesting, ginning, and processing into bales. Bales then are separated into small tuffs, which then go into carding. Carded cotton is then converted into slivers, which go into spinning machines that form yarns out of these slivers (Jeans, 2018).Part of this yarn is then dyed, traditionally in chemically synthesized indigo dyes to give it the blue denim shade. Dyed yarn is then ‘slashed’ by coating it with sizing to make the threads stronger and stiffer.
- The dyed yarn and the white yarn are then woven into the final denim fabric, where blue threads form the warp, which is packed closer than the weft of the white thread to give the fabric more blue shade.
- Once woven, this fabric is ready for finishing processes like removing loose threads, lint removal, and skewing. The resultant fabric is then rolled into fabric rolls ready for shipment.
- At garment stage, this fabric is stacked in layers and cut into desired patterns, which are then sewed depending upon the design requirements. The sewed garment is then sent to prewashing or stone washing as required.
- Prewashing is done to make the denim softer, using industrial detergents. While the stone-washing gives the garment the sought after faded look. Sand or chemicals are also used in the washing process to create the worn-out appearance as the design demands.
- The finished pair is the packaged as per packing requirements and shipped.
“Originally Levi Strauss had their jeans made using the Canvas Sail Cloth from the many abandoned sailing ships moored in San Francisco Harbour that brought the Gold Rush Pioneers to America. The fabric was also used for Gold Rush Wagons as their roof cover.
Levi also had to cease using the Rivet placed on the cross seam located between the legs on his jeans as the Miners would burn them selves when stooping while cooking over their open fires “
– Frank Lomax
Advantages and qualities of denim as a fabric
Denim fabric is mostly used for its strength and durability properties. Traditionally, denim is woven with solely cotton, however, when blended with polyester, shrinkage, and wrinkles in the fabric are reduced. Addition of lycra adds stretchability to the fabric. This fabric is poor in color fastness, and its thickness often makes it comparatively difficult to maneuver in sewing operations (Denim, n.d.).
Patents in denim
The first patent for ‘Blue Jeans’ went to Jacob W. Davis, jointly with Levis Strauss & Co. on May 20, 1873. The patent was specifically for their copper rivet fasteners used for denim pants (Quinn, 2014).
In 2017, Nike patented its “architecturally reinforced denim”. The fabric for denim under this patent have moisture management properties, stretch material and garment will have performance zones to make the denim attractive to extreme athletes like skateboarders and BMX riders (Kish, 2017).
Recent advancements in denim
- Denim has seen many trends and fashion cycles, but the recent trend of athleisure has resulted in a decline in denim demand globally. A new brand called Acynetic is in line with this wellness movement and is offering a line of denim consisting of knitted separates and outerwear, where indigo yarn is combined with spandex through a circular knitting machine, resulting into zero seams and more comfortable wear (Bobila, 2015).
- Denim manufacturers have used Lycra in denim for years now. But, Invista has brought in a new knit denim technology, known as Lycra Hybrid, which is promised to further improve the amount of stretch and comfort traditional Lycra could offer. Apart from that, Lycra’s dualFX, extremely stretchy denim and bi-stretch denim are also some innovations in this direction (Bobila, 2015).
- The fashion industry is the second biggest polluter after oil and gas industry. This has forced the industry to make efforts to reduce their environmental footprints. VSEP technology is a step into that direction. VSEP has long been used in sanitation and filtration processes. This technology is now used in textile industry, where a vibrating membrane is used to remove indigo dye chemicals from water bodies and reverse osmosis results in water clearing. Through this process, 100% of the indigo dye being discarded is reusable, and 70% of water being used is recyclable.
- On the lines of sustainable fashion, biodegradable synthetics and bio elastomers, man-made alternatives for cotton, hemp or linen in the form of lyocell, and Refibra are some examples of raw materials that are being used in denim to seek for a more sustainable alternative to raw materials (BOJER, 27 Revolutionary Denim Innovations You Need to Know , 2018).
- Performance denim, where fibers like Cordura, Kevlar, and Dyneema are used with cotton to add strength and comfort to the garment (BOJER, 2018).
- Instead of powder indigo, a Crystal Clear dyeing technique has been developed by Artistic Milliners and DyStar, in collaboration with G-Star, which can save a significant amount of water, use almost 70% fewer chemicals and is also salt-free. Apart from this, nitrogen dyeing, foaming and spray dyeing, etc. are also being experimented with (Bojer, 2018).
- Smart finishes like foam coatings, ozone finishing, ammonia finishing, etc. are also being used.
- Smart denim that can connect to phones and other devices are also being manufactured, while the use of AI in denim designing being researched. 3D-Printed Jeans, Laser Finished jeans, ozone washing, etc. are also some innovations being used in the denim industry (Bojer, 2018).
Frank Lomax is a professional in the garment industry with specialisation in manufacturing and training activities. He has previously managed Turnkey Garment Factory Installations in the UK and in the Peoples Republic of China and later went on to become production director and MD.