Learn the Basics

What is Denim? From Rebellious Counter-Culture to Iconic Statement

what is denim

What is Denim and what is it made from?

Denim is a sturdy cotton twill fabric, generally used to make garments such as jeans, overalls, and other clothing. Denim is typically blue in color but can have a multitude of different finishes such as being stonewashed, striped, faded, napped, and indigo. Today it is often blended with polyester to prevent wrinkles and control shrinkage when washing, although it is traditionally created from 100% cotton yarn.

what is denim

How is Denim made?

So, you might be wondering – what is denim made from exactly that gives it that unique, sturdy texture? Part of what gives denim its signature feel is the way it’s created rather than the just materials it’s created from. Denim is made by creating a tightly woven twill (which is a type of weave with a pattern of diagonal parallel ribs) to create a rugged and strong fabric. Horizontal threads of cotton (known as the weft) are passed under two or more vertical threads (known as warps). This results in a diagonal ribbing that characterizes denim and sets it apart from other cotton fabrics.

Indigo denim is the most common type of denim, where the warp threads are dyed a deep blue and the weft threads are left white. This results in the faded characteristic that denim is synonymous with; one face of the fabric ends up being dark blue and the other side is left white, which is why blue jeans are usually lighter or white on the inside. The yarns have a very strong twist to make the fabric more durable. Because the yarns are twisted, when they’re dyed, only the outer yarns pick up the dye which leaves the core white. This white thread at the center creates the typical fading feature of denim which we’re familiar with.

denim fabric

What is Denim Used For?

A pretty obvious one, but the most popular use for denim is for jeans, jackets, and overalls, with certain types of denim (such as Bull Denim) also being used for upholstery or homewares. The durable quality of the fabric meant that denim jeans were originally worn by miners and even soldiers while they were on leave before they gradually began being worn purely for fashion or comfort purposes.

Denim Origins

‘Denim’ originates from the name of a French town, Nimes, where denim was first created. ‘De Nimes’ literally translates as ‘of Nimes’, when the weavers of Nimes attempted to reproduce cotton corduroy that was famously created in Genoa, Italy without any luck. After much experimentation, they were unable to produce the corduroy but came up with the classic denim fabric that we’ve embraced to this day.

Jeans are actually named after Genoa, where this corduroy was called ‘jean’ or ‘jeane’. The term ‘jeans’ initially referred to pants created from this cotton fabric, but after being adopted by Levi Strauss became synonymous with denim. Strauss (a businessman) and Jacob Davis (a tailor) aimed to create sturdy pants for miners during the American Gold Rush – and denim was perfect for this. The duo used rivets to reinforce parts of the garments that tended to rip, and modern jeans still often feature rivets today.

weaving denim

The Denim Rebellion

Particularly in America, the popularity of denim surged during the 1930s after the introduction of cowboy films from Hollywood. Vogue even ran an ad campaign in a 1930 issue, showing two women in fitted jeans which they branded as ‘Western Chic’ – however, jeans were only specifically designed for women from 1958. Throughout the ’50s, denim fashion continued and was particularly inspired by the 1953 Marlon Brando film ‘The Wild One’ and James Dean movies, showing rebellious youths in jeans and leather jackets. Jeans became a sign of rebellion, with some schools or public places even banning the wearing of jeans because of what they had come to represent. Counter-culture youth who protested the establishment opted to wear jeans to illustrate their solidarity with the working classes.

It was only in the ’60s and ’70s that denim became mainstream fashion and popular brands like Levi’s began to experiment with new styles of jeans. The treatment of denim in manufacturers had begun improving, and blue jeans became a staple for most people at the time.


Dry Denim Vs Washed Denim

These days, most denim pieces of clothing have been pre-washed to soften up the fabric and make it more comfortable to wear and to prevent the indigo dye rubbing off. Dry denim (sometimes referred to as raw denim) is simply denim that has not been washed after being dyed and as a result, has a stiffer and heavier feel.

Dry denim will fade with wear creating that classic old denim look, with fading generally occurring wherever the denim receives the most stress. For example, on jeans, this is usually the knees and the thighs but it depends on the wearers’ daily activities. Washed denim is often artificially stressed to create that fashionable faded look, to resemble traditional dry denim. Denim lovers have been known to not be too keen on the artificially faded look, as it doesn’t bear the ‘natural’ element of true raw denim. Some wearers of dry denim don’t even wash their jeans until they’ve worn them for around six months, to ensure they ‘distress’ naturally!

Those fashionable fades even have their own names depending on the pattern, and give your jeans a personal touch. Denim enthusiasts experiment with unique fades through a variety of techniques to create an original look.

Four Great Fades on Denim Jeans

Whiskers – Streaks that stretch out from the crotch area

Honeycomb – Faded lines that form behind the knees

Train Tracks – A faded pattern that forms along the out-seams of the fabric by forming two parallel lines.

Stacks – This occurs when the jeans are longer than the leg length, and the fabric stacks up around the top of the shoe, which then rubs and creates a faded area.

denim fades

Other Types of Denim

Stretch Denim (also known as Bubblegum Denim)

Stretch Denim contains lycra or spandex to give them an extra stretchy quality; perfect for skinny jeans or jeggings.

Bull Denim

Bull denim is dyed after being woven, so has a more uniform appearance than typical denim where the threads are dyed before being woven. It also has a distinctive diagonal weave.

Reverse Denim

A slightly more unusual look, these jeans are made from reversed denim to give them a different appearance with the whiter part of the fabric on the outside.

Ring Denim

This traditional type of denim is created using ring-spun yarn for the warp. This results in a softer fabric with an uneven surface texture.

Marble Denim (or acid wash)

To create that signature acid wash look, the denim is strongly bleached to create a mottled design.

Fox Fiber Denim

Sally Fox, a Californian cotton breeder, grows natural colored cotton fiber which has been manufactured into denim to create uniquely colored – but totally natural – jeans.

Over Twisted Denim

The yarn is over twisted prior to being woven, giving the denim a crinkled surface texture.

Printed Denim

Denim which has been printed with various patterns or colors generally turned into denim jackets or jeans for a bright and vibrant look.

Why not try designing your own denim fabric? With so many different varieties available, you can even order test prints to see which one you prefer. What’s more, you’ll get a $10 gift card towards your first fabric print order, as well as experiencing how easy it is to design your own fabric.

Explore denim and over 100 other fabrics in your own swatch pack.

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