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A Short History of Denim

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The primary association with jeans has never truly been the model, but the fabric of which they are so often made. Indeed, this name has come to be synonymous with the style of garment itself - denim. The general story goes that the name denim is a contraction of "serge de Nîmes" (Serge - a type of twill fabric - of Nîmes). Though other sources claim the origin of the specific fabric in Genoa, the garment has a legacy which transcends any origins. However, the place in culture and fashion, as well as the garments and fabric itself is radically different from the contemporary conception of denim, which now has come to be associated first and foremost with two things; the United States, and Levi Strauss. Indeed, while 'jeans' and 'denim' are themselves interchangeable, the term 'Levi's' has also found favour, due to the man credited with their popularization in American culture, and whose company is still the world's largest producer of denim. Just as with serge, denim is also a cotton twill, but it is characterized by the use of indigo blue warp threads, not dyed at warp, and with unbleached weft threads. This combination of threads explains the natural and progressive process of its fading.

The confusion of terms is based on the existence, in the region of Languedoc, in the eighteenth century, two fabrics, the more famous being the aforementioned serge of Nîmes, the other being a cloth called nim. Though serge of Nîmes is commonly presented as the ancestor of denim, some authors see the very fabric from which the latter derives, others consider it rather as an etymological source. 
The reputation of the fabric ensures that of its name. And then begins to function as a sales argument and no longer as a guarantee of its origin. 'Serge of Nîmes' may designate fabrics that are only related to the first-made and whose place of manufacture may differ. Though originally and famously of Languedoc, it would not be long before Leeds, Halifax, and cities Europe over became equally renowned for their production of early denim. The existence of the other woollen cloth called nim, made in the south of France, only serves to reinforce confusion around the true origin of the fabric. Archives in Hérault provide us with samples to reference. The official name is "Nims". It is stated that it is not necessarily manufactured in Nîmes. Nim is part of a large set of woolen cloth made in royal factories, for ordinary or privileged uses, manufactured around Carcassonne. This production was in competition with an old English trade also present on the edge of the Mediterranean. English woollen cloth was, at the time, reputed to be of far better quality than its French rival.

The manufacturers, in case of overproduction, sought to export their reserves to America. Numerous records of export of nims to America, such as that of the manufacturer Ayrolles of Carcassonne, helped anchor the contemporary certainty of a French origin of denim. 

Workers at a 19th century textile mill

England was, since the Middle Ages, a great importer of cotton twills , mixed with wool or linen called futaines. Designated by its place of origin Genoa's fountain, called "jean" or "jeane", was one of the most popular, which is noted in the records of the time of its large-scale import to London. The manufacture and trade of futaines were organized in Lancashire, around Manchester and the 'jeans' quickly became among the most popular products. Cotton fabrics were increasing in consumption all over the country following a change in clothing habits which then favoured cotton at the expense of wool. The development of textile consumption in the second half of the eighteenth century led manufacturers to diversify the range of cotton fabrics. It seems to us now that denim appeared in this context. That it is destined to satisfy a demand in full expansion could explain it's price higher than that of the "jean", a difference which appears from a comparative table of the tariffs of textiles of Lancashire between 1775 and 1785.

The history of denim has its collection of English samples called the Hilton Manuscript, named after one of its heights. It was made by the Manchester based Fonze Manufacturers Committee on the occasion of the signing of the Treaty of Eden between France and England in 1786. This trade treaty provided freer trade for industrial and agricultural products. between the two countries.  Four kinds of brown cotton denim are listed in this document, ranging from simple twill to more complex but still twill-based frames. The old denims have then in common with those of the twentieth century that their material, cotton. Denim samples testify to the evolution of textile consumption in England in the eighteenth century.

It was normal for denim and cotton, common and popular English fabrics, to be made in the United States from the early development of the cotton industry. The production of jeans and denim increased throughout the nineteenth century, following the development of the American textile industry and its market. The qualities and their denominations multiplied. Amoskeag, the most powerful manufactory in Manchester, New Hampshire (USA), had a very solid reputation and in 1860 provided San Francisco-based Levi Strauss with denim for the execution of his trousers.

Workers during the gold rush in denim overalls - one of the reasons for the lasting association of the denim jean with the frontiersmen of the world

In 1849 Lewis & Handford's of New York offered  coats and jackets in brown, olive, black, white and blue denim and fine trousers in blue jeans - likely in blue twill. In blue denim there were trousers, frock coats and especially "overalls", which is to say overalls, overalls and trousers, with or without a jacket, intended for work. The "work pants", or "over-pants", mechanics now don is shown in blue denim, which is described as the clothier's favourite fabric. Soft, and easy to clean, denim is also appreciated by painters for their overalls and jackets. It is the ease of use, quality, and affordability which solidified denim as the garment of the working man. Denim seemed, after it's introduction, to be reserved for workwear whose strength and comfort combined are essential. It was not until 1942 that John Hoye wrote famously about the other uses of denim. Jeans - a cotton twill in the chain and the same colour frame - is used to make overalls, work and sports shirts, shorts, uniforms of doctors and nurses, shoe liners. Denim, "the most important fabric of the group of fabrics used for workwear," appears finally in its current version, a twill with unbleached blue warp and weft threads.

It was in the second quarter of the twentieth century that the name of jeans was gradually passed from jeans to pants in this fabric, then to another pants, called "western style", slightly different and made of denim. This development coincides with the introduction of the latter in the panoply of leisure clothing. It is since then that the jean has become synonymous with many aesthetics, transcending them, and tying them together. Denim has found common use in the highest fashion, and in the poorest areas of the world as the base fabric for it's most famous style - the jean.

Shop Common's selection of denim here.

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