Updated: Aug 27
Jeans date back to the 19th century and originally came from Nimes in France. The cloth which we know as denim was originally made into hardwearing clothing for sailors to wear on their travels. Denim by definition is indigo dyed in the vertical threads (the warp) and un-dyed in the horizontal (the weft). Rumour has it they designed it in a 3x1 twill (which consists of 3 horizontal threads with one under) giving a solid looking indigo face with a white back, saving them money as they only had to dye the horizontal threads and not the vertical.
The story goes on from here. Via the trade routes, fabric would be shipped from country to country. Workers in the west would buy this hardwearing fabric for their workwear pants, some of whom worked in the gold mines. Levi Strauss, the most famous man in denim world, bought both this fabric and duck canvas for his range of pants. Business started slowly and as word of mouth spread his orders grew and grew. Although these were hard-wearing fabrics it became clear that the garments suffered from strain points, so something more was needed to ensure that these garments were fit for purpose. Jacob Davis, probably the most under-rated guy in denim, came up with the idea of using rivets to strengthen these weak points. It was his idea that defined denim jeans as we know them today and he worked with Levi’s to get this design patented for them both.
Before the 1970s jeans would be worn from ‘raw’. These were unwashed jeans with stiff fabric which still contained all the starch left over from the manufacturing process. Not only were they initially uncomfortable but they would also shrink both vertically and horizontally. This could be as much as 3–4 inches in length and 3% in width!
So, you either bought them big and washed them to shrink or you bought them and wore them in the bath to shrink to your shape.
Jeans ‘give’ over time so the first wash would create the tightest fit and then the more you wore them the more they would give in the places you needed them to. But again, you could wash them and try to shrink them back to shape, although never quite back to 100% on consecutive washes.
This probably explains the wash marks you get from old jeans where you can see an almost x-ray of the body underneath. You can see where the thighs have been, the lines at the top where the jeans would crease, behind the knees etc. The indigo colouring also changes over time. Starting as indigo blue, the sun and dirt would add in yellow hues giving the jeans many different colour levels.
Today we don’t have any of the difficulties of the past when buying jeans. We pick the shade we like, the fit we like, the processing and even the price. These days a pair of jeans can vary from £10 to £300 pounds. So how is all this possible?
The last 40 plus years of denim manufacturing seems to have created an industry that has been blind to the impact they are leaving on the planet and the people that live on it.
Most customers don’t realise when they purchase a pair of pre-faded pair of jeans that:
· 10,850 Litres of water is used per jean in the manufacturing process to get that ‘look’
· The chemicals used can strip the scales from fish
· The stones used in the washing process were mined from a volcano
The thigh fades mentioned earlier used to be created using high power hoses of air mixed with sand to destroy the top layer of indigo, causing health issues for those workers exposed to it. This process was supposedly banned back in 2010 but hearsay suggests that it still continues in some factories.
These real volcanic stones used to create the ‘stone wash’ float in water (incidentally these are the same stones as you use to take dead skin off your feet) so are perfect to have in a washing machine. A lot of people are rumoured to have invented this technique but the first commercial stone wash was invented by Marithé and François Girbaud in the 1980s to get the salt and pepper look in old Levi’s.
The downfall in this technique is that for every 1kg of stone put into a washing machine only 500g is left after just one wash. The missing 500g (that has turned into sludge) disappears down the drain causing potential problems further along the waterways and sewage lines.
Ethical Treatment Plants for waste water still aren’t enforced in most countries but some more responsible factories choose to use these plants to treat their chemical, dye stuff and sludge water that would normally head straight to the outlet from the factory.
It has become obvious that the past can’t dictate the future as these processes are not sustainable for people and planet.
Our future is hanging in the balance but there are tools that have been around for a while that have slowly been improving the way that things are done. We now have technology that reduces the need to hand sand jeans by using laser beams to burn off the top layers of indigo. During washing (the most taxing process during denim production for the environment) there are now ‘dry’ washing machines that use ozone gases to discharge colour and clean off the excess indigo dye in a dry sealed process.
To get ‘washed down’ shades and various water effects there are now fog systems and nano bubbles that use only a fraction of the water to distribute the chemicals on to the products.
Chemical is a dirty word but not for all. The old PP or Hypochlorites (like home bleach but 85% stronger) would destroy waterways around the local areas if not treated.
The new systems not only save on resources but also are better for the workers health.
These new systems can now save around 96% water 80% chemicals and 70% energy with these new processes. The workers aren’t exposed to the harsh chemicals and dusty processes from yesteryear.
Future washing will be close systems, fully automated with data throughout the chain.
It will be fully transparent and could be shown with something as simple as a QR code on the inside of a jean, giving you seed to field to spinners to fabrics to garment washing to stores.
The future of fabrics will be designed to be circular with an emphasis on transparency. Meaning that once garments are no longer wanted, the fabric can be broken down and made into something new.
So can we make positive garments that can truly be classed as green?
The answer is yes. The knowledge is there and the resources too. We can learn a lot from ancestors who grew plant such as hemp, linen and nettles. These are all types of Flax fibres that have been around for thousands of years and take little effort to grow. For example, Hemp can be grown with half the land, 25% of the water and is four times more durable than cotton. Amazingly it also gives 60% of nutrients back to the soil.
And to dye this beautiful fabric you can use naturally grown dyes from flowers, roots and even the leaves. The most famous is indigo blue taken from the leaves of plants from the Indigophera family. Indigo gives nitrogen back to the soil and therefore works as an amazing rotation crop. Not only that but once the dye is fixed to a fibre it has natural properties that can help troubled skin or eczema, while also repelling insects.
Working on a direct to customer model, made to order or even getting orders before making means less waste from unwanted garments.
Sustainability and responsibility is the key.
To make jeans truly green we need to keep the future simple. How can we do this?
By investing in a sustainable and ethically responsible denim industry. Only then can we make the claim that our blue jeans are green.