The History of Denim - From Workwear Staple to Wardrobe Icon!

The History of Denim - From Workwear Staple to Wardrobe Icon!

0 comments Emma Hunter
The History of Denim - From Workwear Staple to Wardrobe Icon!

What Is Denim?

Denim is a strong, woven twill fabric made from cotton. The twill weave consists of two yarns woven in a diagonal ribbing pattern, which differentiates the fabric from other woven cottons like canvas or cotton duck. Combined with strong cotton yarns, this weave creates denim’s characteristic durability.

How Is Denim Made?

To start the denim-making process, cotton fibres are spun into yarns. The warp yarns are dyed whilst the weft yarns are usually left white and undyed. Originally, denim yarns were dyed indigo using a natural dye extracted from plants. Today, synthetic indigo dyes are used for classic denim blues, whilst sulfur dyeing produces black and a rainbow of colourful denim tones.

To make the warp-facing twill fabric, the weft yarns run horizontally under two or more of the warp yarns, which run vertically. This means the indigo-dyed warp yarns are more prominent on the top side of the fabric, producing denim’s iconic indigo colour and texture. The weft yarns are traditionally left undyed, which leaves a lighter side to the back of denim fabrics. Light-weight denims usually run the weft under two warp threads, then over one thread.Heavier weight denims use a more dense 3 x 1 twill weave, meaning each weft passes under three warp threads, then over one warp thread. 

8 oz blue denim

Where Was Denim Invented?

The history of denim begins in the French city of Nîmes, where the fabric was originally manufactured and named the serge de Nîmes. Once the cotton twill was exported overseas, it is widely believed that it became known as “denim”, an anglicized version of “de nim”, lending a little French prestige to the new fabric.

Denim’s popularity grew in America, alongside the industrial growth of the nation. As a hard-wearing, durable fabric, denim acted like a worker’s armour for tough, manual labour.  From cowboys roping cattle to labourers toiling on machinery and building sites, denim became the everyman’s protective clothing against outdoor elements and the mechanical dangers of work.

When Were Denim Jeans Invented?

During the Gold Rush of 1853, an enterprising immigrant called Levi Strauss opened a shop in San Francisco selling dry goods, alongside threads, buttons and wholesale fabrics. Strauss saw an opportunity with the local mining workforce and began producing hard-wearing canvas overalls and trousers, with large pockets to hold gold, that could withstand the rigours of mining work. He imported a durable cotton twill from France, called serge de Nîmes, and this became the new workwear fabric. One of Strauss’ customers, a local tailor called Jacob Davis, added copper rivets to the seams and pocket corners of Strauss’ denim workwear, to strengthen and hold the clothing where it was most under stress. Together, the two men patented their design and Strauss began mass producing their denim workwear range. In 1890, Strauss created the 501 denim jean style, boosting the fabric’s popularity. At the same time, Strauss and Davis’ original patent ended allowing other manufacturers to start producing their own versions of the denim jean. By the early 20th century, brands such as Wrangler and Lee had become established and during the first world war, Lee Union–Alls were standard issue for all war workers.


the story of denim

How Did Denim Become Popular?

After becoming the working man’s fabric of choice, denim evolved to even loftier heights. The golden age of cinema in the 1920’s and 30’s launched denim onto the silver screen, being worn by cowboy heroes such as Gary Cooper and John Wayne. Publicity photos of movie stars Ginger Rogers and Carole Lombard wearing jeans romanticised the clothing into a casual, glamorous look with US Vogue calling the style “Western Chic”. In 1942, ready-to-wear designer Claire McCardell sold over 75,000 of her denim wrap dress.

However the following decade, Hollywood and rock n’roll evolved the perception of denim once more. Worn by rebellious icons like James Dean, Elvis Presley and Marlon Brando, denim’s appeal shifted to a new, younger audience. American youth adopted denim as symbolic of an anti-establishment mindset, revolution and coolness. During the ‘60s and 70’s, denim continued to play its part by representing social change across the States. Hippies and anti-war protesters wore jeans to symbolise their support for the working class and later, jeans were worn by feminists to reflect gender equality. This cemented denim as an emblem of counterculture and so the iconic denim jean was banned from schools across America. Surely the ultimate accolade for a symbol of rebellion!

yarn dyed stretch denim

The glamour of the late ‘70’s and early ‘80’s, brought denim back into the mainstream being worn by the Studio 54 set and with Calvin Klein being the first designer to show blue jeans on a runway. Other designers soon followed suit, leading to iconic advertising campaigns, such as Brooke Shields in her Calvins and Claudia Schiffer’s sultry shots for Guess. Today denim jeans belong to all parts of society – whatever your age, your job or your budget, you will no doubt have some denim in your wardrobe! Yves Saint Laurent summarized the enduring appeal of denim jeans, when he told New York magazine: “I have often said that I wish I had invented blue jeans. They have expression, modesty, sex appeal, simplicity — all that I hope for in my clothes.”

What Can I Make With Denim?

With different weights, washes and colours to choose from, denim is used for a huge variety of clothing, craft and accessories, not to mention soft furnishings and upholstery. Heavier weighted denims, such as our 8 oz denims, are great for overalls, jeans, jackets, skirts and bags, whereas lightweight fabrics, like our 4 oz denims, are perfect for dresses, aprons and shirts. Want to add a splash of colour to your project? Check out our beautiful range of yarn-dyed stretch denim, in a selection of stunning colours and woven with a little stretch for extra comfort. If you fancy adding a new denim piece to your wardrobe, but not sure where to start, our new Tilly & the Buttons sewing patterns are here to inspire and guide you!

Our beautiful chambray range is a lighter weighted, softer version of denim, ideal for summery shirts, dresses and skirts for both adults and children as well as soft furnishings like cushions and curtains. When selecting your denim and chambray, don’t forget we also supply zips, denim threads, hardware and machine needles so you have all the tools you need to finish your project!

We always love to see our customer’s creations, so please share your projects with us on our Instagram!

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