The chemical reason the original jeans were blue | World

The word “jeans” could be considered synonymous with omnipresence.

Except for a few places in the world where its use is restricted, jeans seem to be everywhere, from Australia to Zimbabwe, from Greenland to the southern tip of Chile.

The Global Denim Project at the University of Manchester in the UK has analyzed the history, scope, economics and consequences of denim’s worldwide dominance. And the project claims that, every day, most of the world’s population uses at least one article made with this fabric.

Historians still question the place of its creation, but one of the most widespread opinions is that jeans were born in Nimes, in the south of France. And one of the factors was chance, as often happens in moments of creation.

The weavers of Nimes were trying to reproduce a tough cotton fabric known as jean fustian—a strong medieval cotton and linen fabric made in Genoa (now Italy). At the time, Genoa’s name was Gene or Genes, and in mid-16th-century France, Jean.

They couldn’t reproduce the fabric, but they realized that they had developed another material—unique and stronger than all the rest.

It was a woven cotton twill, produced by passing the weft under the warp threads (those that are placed parallel on the loom to form the fabric).

Indigo dye is originally extracted from the plant Indigofera tinctoria — Photo: Getty Images

Weavers used indigo, one of the oldest dyes, to dye the warp threads blue, but left the weft threads their natural white color. This process gave the fabric a unique blue color on one side and white on the other.

They named the new fabric Serge de Nîmes (“denim”). But the main thing in this case is that the expression entered the English language in the 17th century as “twill denim”.

A fabric similar to denim had been around for some time, dyed with indigo from Indian plantations.

But the jeans we know today arrived a little later, with the association between the Latvian Jākobs Jufess and the German Löb Strauß. Like many of the immigrants who arrived in the United States in the 19th century, they changed their names upon arriving in their new country, becoming Jacob Davis and Levi Strauss.

In the 1870s, Davis, who was a tailor, was tasked with producing sturdy work pants. And he had a feeling that if he took a small metal rivet and placed it in the tension points of the pants, around the pocket area, he could create pants that would last a long time.

Drawing of the patent for securing pocket openings, granted to Jacob W. Davis on May 20, 1873 — Photo: Getty Images

Davis’ hunch was right. The pants were so well received that word began to spread. He received so many requests that he decided to write to his fabric supplier, Levi Strauss, in San Francisco (California, USA), to ask if he would be interested in getting a patent.

Strauss took the opportunity, invited Jacob Davis to move to San Francisco, and together they made the world’s first jeans.

Originally, Strauss and Davis offered two types of pants: brown canvas and blue denim. But few people wanted to buy the brown pants, while the blue ones came out like hotcakes.

According to historian Lynn Downey in A Short Story of Denim, probably “whenever someone wore a pair of jeans, they felt […] how she got more comfortable after each wash [e] I didn’t want the canvas ones anymore, because with these, you always feel like you’re wearing a tent” — hence the reason for consumers’ preference.

The strength of denim and its ability to become softer with washes has made denim an ideal garment for workers. — Photo: Getty Images

But that doesn’t fully explain why the preferred color was the same indigo used centuries ago by the weavers of Nimes.

The original denim was dyed with dye extracted from the Indigofera tinctoria plant. Its difference is that while most natural dyes penetrate directly into the fabric fibers at high temperatures, indigo only adheres to the outer side of the yarn.

When rough denim is washed, some of those dye molecules are washed away, taking minuscule amounts of yarn with them—but because it’s so strong, losing a few fibers doesn’t spoil the material. In fact, it is improved because the more the denim is washed, the softer it becomes.

And for workers, a garment tough enough to withstand strenuous work that was more comfortable without fraying was ideal.

This quality of adaptation to each person’s body, becoming a second skin that becomes softer over time, has made jeans become ubiquitous. And in a way, a fabric that gets better as it ages is the perfect invention.

– This text was published in

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