HomeBlogThe Low-down on Denim: History, Sustainability and Future

The Low-down on Denim: History, Sustainability and Future

Denim is such a mainstream fashion staple that we may often neglect to give it a second-thought. Its presence and existence in fashion, from high streets to youth culture, to red carpets and catwalks, is as synonymous as rain to British weather.

Denim first appeared on the scene as workwear and overtime it became a culturally significant material that has been present in key historical events, like post war dressing, featuring in Hollywood and Western block busters, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and more. Today it’s a mass produced and worn material that resides in pretty much all our wardrobes. However, our thirst for denim is increasingly having negations on the environment and the people who make it. So, can we sustain our love for this iconic fabric?

A history of denim

Early denim was invented in the late 17th century in the French city of Nîmes, after a replication attempt of a cotton fabric known as ‘jeane’ (named after the Italian city of Genoa,) saw fabric weavers accidentally produce a new unique and sturdy fabric, which at the time they named ‘serge de Nîmes’.

Indigo is the most synonymous hue that comes to mind when we think of denim and is among the oldest dyes to be used in textiles. Although originally manufactured and exported from India, in 1865, German chemist Adolf von Baeyer began working on the synthesis of natural indigo, eventually paving the way for the first industrial mass production of synthetic indigo in 1897.

Of course, we can’t talk about the history of denim without addressing its most iconic and obvious form, denim jeans. In 1851, Loeb Strauss left his hometown Buttenheim, Germany, for New York, where his brother owned a textile shop. After learning the trade for a couple of years (now) Levi, headed to San Francisco to set up his own branch, ‘Levi Strauss & Co. Wholesale House’, during the California Gold Rush.

The most recognisable, classic jeans as we’ve come to know them, came to existence when Strauss partnered with tailor Jacob Davis, to secure a patent for the construction of a denim workwear pant that was indigo-dyed and riveted around the pocket seams. In 1873, the design patent was granted and the modern denim blue jean was born.

In the early 20th century, denim was adopted as the preferred workwear fabric choice for western cowboys, miners and farmers in the US. Not only was the fabric cheap, but denim was durable and sturdy which made it practical for manual labour.

As the 20th century progressed, denim jeans saw their use and popularity shift. After the Second World War, returning US soldiers rejected settling down in the suburbs, instead opting for wearing jeans and riding motorbikes. This rebellion was attractive to American consumers, and the trend soon picked up in Europe, where people were keen to buy into the comfortable post-war lifestyle that denim jeans represented.

Over the coming decades, not only would denim become popularised by Hollywood figures, and blockbuster cowboy films, it would also trickle down amongst working class youth as a political statement of rebellion and rejection of traditional authority (think hippies, punks, grunge and rock). Ironically, as more people bought into this idea of leisure and youth rebellion, jeans become so popularised that towards the end of the 20th century, they’d become a mainstream wardrobe staple.

In the 2000s, customised denim became popular, enabling wearers to express themselves creatively through their style, a big part of the Millennial mind-set. Ripped, embroidered and pinned together jeans were very common.

Denim jeans have been an anomaly against the typical short-lived trend-cycle. They’ve been cemented as a timeless staple. Today, thanks to technological advancements, denim is used in a plethora of ways to create stylish garments for both function and aesthetic.

How is denim made?

Denim was created by hand when it was first invented, involving an intricate weaving process known as weft and warp. By the Industrial Revolution, machinery had been developed for faster production of denim on power looms. 

Today, denim is typically made with the following process:

  • Step One: Cotton is gathered and put into machines where it’s detangled and spun together into strong threads.
  • Step Two: The threads are dipped several times into tubs of synthetic indigo dye.
  • Step Three: The indigo threads are woven together either through selvage or warp and weft.
  • Step Four: The denim is then sanforised, which means it’s stretched, heated, and shrunk down.
  • Step Five: The denim is ready to be manufactured into a garment.

Today, it is estimated that about 2 billion pairs of jeans are made every year. This uses 2 million tonnes of chemicals in the process, plus 2,630 litres of water – per each pair of jeans – and approximately 1.4 million tonnes of raw cotton.

The true cost of denim

Despite cementing itself as a fashion basic, the process of producing denim at such scale is complex, and is having disastrous effects on the environment and the wellbeing of those in the manufacturing process.

At the very start of the supply chain comes the actual growing of the cotton. This in itself is incredibly resource intensive. Cotton’s most prominent environmental impacts result from the use of pesticides, water consumption and the conversion of habitat to agricultural land. Diversion of water and its pollution by cotton growing has had severe impacts on major ecosystems.

On top of this, thousands of cotton farmers and their families suffer from pesticide poisoning every year and many commit suicide as a result of debt related, at least in part, to high chemical costs.

The use of indigo dye is also problematic. Synthetic indigo dye decomposes very slowly. When it changes the colour of rivers, plants are starved of sunlight which makes them unable to photosynthesise and can kill them. The water is then lacking in oxygen which leads to the suffocation of aquatic animals. 

The “authentic” and “worn in” look of denim is a huge part of what has made jeans so popular. But that look is nearly always artificially produced. Distressing denim garments endangers workers as they’re inhaling fumes and touching toxic dyes. The process of sandblasting to produce that worn-in look can also lead to silicosis in the lungs.

A post-production factor to also consider is that according to the International Fabric Institute Fair Claims Guide, the average lifespan for a pair of jeans is only 2-3 years. With all of this in mind, we can get a clear picture of how one of the most commonly worn materials in the world, is actually straining our planets natural resources and putting the health and wellbeing of cotton growers and garment factory workers at risk. To top it all off, consumers are on average only keeping these garments for a few years at a time before disposing of them.

Are there better options out there?

When it comes to denim, it still holds a place in our hearts due to its practicality, durability and versatility. But we cannot sit idle in awareness of the issues pertaining to its manufacture and existence. So, what are the better options?

Well, for starters, if you want to be sure what you are buying is grown in a truly sustainable way, certified organic cotton is the best option. Organic is the only system which eliminates highly toxic substances from the environment and instead works holistically, for the long-term benefit of people and the planet. At Veo, brands like Komodo and Rozenbroek are committed to using high-quality and GOTS certified organic cotton.

Recycled denim is also a better alternative as it reduces the volume of new cotton that must be grown, therefore reduceing the volume of water and pesticides used in agriculture. Fanfare‘s , upcycled collection takes denim that would have gone to landfill and gives each piece a new life with unique designs, cuts, and styles.

Investing in denim that’s made to last is also something that consumers can do on their part. Flax & Loom pride themselves on producing classic style jeans, that are built to last 20 years or more!

What does all of this mean?

It’s safe to say that a fabric so intwined with fashion and with such a rich cultural history, shows no sign of letting up its grip in the 21st century. We’ve never produced or worn as much denim as we have done in recent decades. But whilst our love affair with denim continues, it’s incredibly apparent that the way in which we grow, manufacture, produce and consume denim must change.

Investing in denim that’s healthier for people and the planet, whilst making a commitment as consumers to look after denim items, and to wear them for as long as possible, ensures we’re doing our bit to bring about a new denim revolution.

Our collection of ethically produced organic and recycled denim staples and statement pieces are your perfect new classics. For minimal environmental impact and maximum style impact, explore our full organic denim edit and celebrate this hero fabric whilst doing your bit for the planet!

Click here to shop the full denim edit.

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