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What Is Denim Fabric? A Guide to the History of Denim, the Different Types of Denim, and What to Look for When Buying Denim Jeans

Written by MasterClass

Jul 10, 2019 • 4 min read

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Blue jeans have become so ubiquitous around the world that they have become almost synonymous with American style. What was once a sturdy, workman’s textile has proliferated to become an essential component of the fashion industry.

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What Is Denim?

Denim is a strong cotton fabric made using a twill weave, which creates a subtle diagonal ribbing pattern. The cotton twill fabric is warp-facing, meaning that the weft threads go under two or more warp threads, and the warp yarns are more prominent on the right side. The diagonal ribbing is what makes denim fabric different from canvas or cotton duck, which is also a sturdy woven cotton fabric.

The History of Denim Fabric

Denim was first produced in the city of Nîmes in France, and was originally called the serge de Nîmes. The word denim is an English colloquialism of the French term: “de nim.”

Denim became popular in the United States during the Gold Rush in 1853, when Levi Strauss opened up a shop in San Francisco selling dry goods along with buttons, threads, and canvas for tents. He began making durable pants for miners with big pockets for storing gold. Jacob Davis was one of Strauss’s customers, and he added copper rivets to the seams and pocket corners, adding strength. David and Strauss patented the pants and Strauss began mass producing and marketing them, helping them evolve from something worn exclusively by working men to a mainstream fashion item.

How Is Denim Made?

After cotton fibers are harvested and spun into yarn, the yarns are dyed. The jeans are often indigo-dyed, making them the classic blue color for denim. Cotton denim is woven either on a shuttle loom or a projectile loom.

  • A shuttle loom produces what’s called selvedge denim. The weft thread is passed through the warp threads in a back and forth motion, with no breaks in the weft. This creates a very smooth and sturdy selvedge edge.
  • A projectile loom produces non-selvedge denim because there is a single weft thread for every row and not one thread woven throughout. This creates a more delicate edge that needs to be sewn to keep from fraying.

6 Different Types of Denim

  1. Indigo denim: Indigo denim is achieved by dying the warp threads with indigo dye and white threads are used as the weft. As a result, most blue jeans are blue on the right side, as the fabric is warp facing, and the interior is lighter blue, almost white.
  2. Stretch denim: Stretch denim weaves spandex or another elastic component to give the fabric some added give and flexibility. Stretch denim is often used for skinny jeans.
  3. Crushed denim: This type of denim has been treated so that it has a wrinkled look.
  4. Acid-wash denim: This denim is treated with chlorine and a pumice stone to create a marbled look.
  5. Raw denim: Raw or dry denim is fabric is that is not washed after it is dyed. This creates a rougher and stiffer texture.
  6. Sanforized denim: This is denim that is treated so that it doesn’t shrink in the wash. This applies to almost all kinds of denim except for raw denim.

What to Look For When Buying Denim

There are a lot of considerations to take into account when buying a denim item.

  • Fit. Denim comes in a variety of fits, especially when it comes to denim jeans. There are options like wide-leg jeans, straight leg jeans, slim fit, and more. Different styles of jeans are on trend at different times, like flares in the 1960s, but you should always buy the style and fit you like best.
  • Wash. While blue jeans are the standard for denim, there are several washes and denim colors you can buy. Distressed jeans have a worn-in quality to them, which is often trendy. Dark wash jeans tend to be slimming, but the dye can also transfer so be careful when washing or wearing with lighter items. Light wash jeans are a nice light blue, while black jeans and grey denim are sophisticated choices. You can also find denim jacket and denim shorts in different washes.
  • Rise. Rise refers to where the waistband falls on a pair of jeans. High-rise, mid-rise, and low-rise jeans are all available, and the choice just depends on the style you’re looking for. High-rise usually falls at or above the natural waist. Mid-rise is the most common and falls slightly below the waist. Low-rise or hip-huggers rest along the hips.

Fabric Care Guide: How to Care For Denim?

Make sure to look at the care instruction carefully before washing your denim fabric or item. Most indigo dye can transfer in the wash so make sure to wash denim with like colors or alone on the first wash.

Wash denim in cool water on a medium to normal cycle. Denim can be put in the dryer and should be dried at medium heat. However, to extend the life of your denim item, you should hang to dry and only wash after several wears.

Learn more about fabrics and fashion design in Marc Jacobs’s MasterClass.