DENIM AND JEANS ORIGIN

This post is also available in: Ita

French or Italian, never mind. If the goal was doing some sensationalism, nothing easier than opposing Genoa andNîmes in a sort of transalpine derby with up for grabs the paternity of the most famous fabric worldwide, jeans or denim (we’ll face later on the differences between the two fabrics). And if you look for news on the matter on any search engine, immediately it will jump out at you how much generalist media have played upon this presumed querelle in order to spice up the affair a bit. Instead the two cities at issue took the path, for sure more efficient, of a collaboration in quest of the mutual roots between the ‘blue de Jeane’ to one side, the Italian forefather indeed, and ‘the Nim cloth’ to the other. In the end, there was no copyright at stake…

From that cooperation, in the early ’90s it was born an initiative that gave a real twist; an exhibition dubbed ‘Blu Blue-jeans, Il Blu Popolare’ (‘The Popular Blue’), desired by Liguria Region, by the city of La Spezia and by Ville de Nîmes; both the historical and archival researches managed in the occasion of this event represent the diamond point for the study of jeans history and the main theoretical contribution for this introduction.

In particular, a foreground role is the one fulfilled by the Ethnographical ‘Giovanni Podenzana’ Museum of La Spezia, where are enshrined several popular clothing pieces from the 1800s as exciting finds for jeans origins. If you’re around have a tour there; the emotion you feel finding yourself in front of the ones that in effect are jeans and denim garments with more than two-centuries life is something only a real denimhead can understand all the way.

denim

Roots

Blue jeans history was aim of various scientific studies and educational materials; besides the already mentioned exhibition in the early ’90s, in La Spezia and Genova took place many events and conventions entirely dedicated to the story of this fabric and its dyeing techniques. Among the others, in 2005 the Museo del Tessuto di Prato (the museum of fabric in Prato) hosted the ‘Jeans! Origins, American legend and made in Italy’ show, and in 2009 another similar event animated the districts of Genoa, Albissola and La Spezia, in a three days show named ‘Blue de Gênes. Jeans are coming home’, (but this time without a counter melody beyond the Alps).

To follow the blue jeans birth and evolution means to abide by two different guidelines. The former is the one related to the textile materials history and to particularly prestigious fabrics like wool, silk and velvets on one part, and poorer cloths like linsey-woolsey and the fustian on the other. While the latter leads to the discovery of the role that the colour – indigo in this case – is going to fulfill with growing importance within the popular clothing definition.

The history both of the Corporations of Weavers and of the textile materials trade routes inextricably weaves together with the one of denim birth. In Medieval era they were wool, silks and velvets indicating the activity object of the corporations, the only ones authorized to run their sale and making. Next to those ‘nobile’ materials a certain number of cloths that to same extent already represented a precedent was circulating in the regions of Langue d’Oc, Northern Italy and Catalonia; from time to time ‘biffe’, ‘bigielli’ and ‘tritane’  showed very similar structures, materials or types of use as the ones of current blue jeans. But a fabric in particular was making way as a candidate for the role of real forefather; fustian.

Actually from the technical viewpoint jeans word defines a cotton cloth got from the twine between an indigo dyed warp yarn and a rugged weft, that together constitute a wide range of knits and twists, among which the most widespread is the diagonal one (like a twill weave). And it’s this type of twill weave indeed (diagonal lines, front side different from the back) that allows denim and jeans cloths to be such similar. Given this base definition as proven and widely common, it’s fustian indeed presenting the major number of analogies with the fabric that in all likelihood you’re wearing while reading these lines. Infact that one as well in the Medieval era was already showing a twill weave, made of a cotton weft and a linen or hemp warp.

“The most precious fustians, due to the still high cost of cotton, were the ones imported from India by Venetian merchants, and it’s precisely from Italy that this cloth spread, through France, in the whole Europe”, explains Rossana Piccioli, director of the ethnographical Podenzana Museum of La Spezia. “With the passage of time and the decrease of cotton value as a raw material, fustians became the fabrics for workers and farmers’ clothing manufacture. Imported through Venice in the whole Europe, this cloth gained ground thanks to some fundamental features. The smoothness, mostly due to the carding finishing (that softens the fibres) and the dyeing facility, essential in an era such as the Middle Ages when important and deep symbolic values were ascribed to colour above all”. Although the cotton – base ingredient for the fustian production – was predominantly imported from Arabia, Egypt or Syria, already in Medieval surrounding its plantation took root in Southern Italy, then fastly expanding in the northern regions too. But a crucial point gave a boost to the diffusion of this fabric as the wool substitute; the famine that burdened Europe in the XII century and forced to a reconversion of many grazing lands into agriculture soils. Wool was suddenly becoming rare and expensive goods likewise the increasing cotton influx from the Arabian Peninsula and Northern Africa was dramatically decreasing its price. Natural evolution of this scenario was the attempt of creating new fibres and cloths blending in wool with other materials.

And not by chance, before achieving its definitive form (that as said is made of a cotton warp and a linen or hemp weft), fustian often showed a mixed use of wool and cotton.

An inexpensive material

Jeans success is certainly tied to its pop soul, both in the sense of its distance from any elitism form, and, in a more suggestive sense, of accessibility from the viewpoint of the final product cost. And this fabric forefather as well couldn’t have had anything but similar features.

Fustian’s prominence was actually indissolubly linked to its cheapness. Differently to wool, silks and velvets, that were produced from the same corporations which later used to handle their marketing, fustian was obtained with an imported merchandise, cotton. The production and sale of garments crafted with these cloths as a consequence were monitored by the merchants setting the raw material fluxes and not by the ones in charge of their manufacturing. The latters were mostly farmers subjected to extremely oppressive working conditions, running the finishing and weaving when they were not on-the-job in the fields. That’s why the final product could have be put up for sale at very lower prices compared to its nobler ‘cousins’, wool in the lead. The key-moment for the fustian’s prominence not for nothing accords with a crisis moment for the ‘industry’; at half 1500s the Genoese cloth suffered a production breakdown and on a quality matter was no longer able to compete with its counterparts from Milan or Piacenza. But exactly the medium quality and cheap cost opened Genoa fustian the door to Europe and UK in particular, where it carved out a prominent position among the popular fabrics. And it was in this period indeed that in British land the word ‘blue de Jean’ appeared for the very first time in mercantile reports and other commercial documents.

Denim or Jeans? The difference’s hanging by a thread

In the reenactment of blue jeans history, the colour is an element as much important as the fabric itself. To face this subject it’s useful to start from another widely debated perspective, that is the distinction between denim and jeans.

In the common meaning the two words are used almost as synonyms. Beyond the etymological roots (denim comes from the contraction of ‘de and Nîmes’, viz ‘of Nîmes’ in order to define the textile industry of that city while, as seen, jeans was born in British framework to designate the fabrics hailing from Genoa), the dissimilarity between the two cloths has to be attributed to the hue of the used fibres. In denim the warp yarn is blue and the one of the weft is white or ecru, while in jeans warp and weft are of the very same colour, almost always blue, like for the Medieval fustian. The reason of the substantive superimposition of the two terms, nearly considered interchangeable by non-professional people, stands in the fact that the modern textile industry tends to use denim fabric for blue jeans making, since the wefts finishing with white yarn resulted more effective and liked to the public. Moreover it should be highlighted that already in the late 1600s the two words were used about in a parallel way, with the unique difference that jeans was bound to work clothing in general, while denim, rougher, was used for the garments to be worn on top, like jackets or overalls. Furthermore, it’s a general agreement that denim was also directed to the production both of boats sails and carts covering tarps. Legend has it that, once run out of products to sell when arriving in California, Levi Strauss have crafted his first denim work-pants with the canvas from his own cart.

Dear indigo, how much you cost us

We’ve seen that one of the reasons of the fustian prominence as a base for popular clothing was its extreme cheapness, fruit of an inflamed labour exploitation. So we should think that for dyeing as well the choice was due to the same practical reasons. Instead the blue was pretty expensive, compared for instance to brown, easily derivable from tanning plants. And so why did denim, blue de Jeane and then all the forefathers of the modern blue jeans opt for this hue not so easily producible hence more high-priced? To discover that a few steps behind should be taken.

“Regarding dyeing”, explains Dominique Cardon, one of the researchers who contributed to the enhancement of denim surveys in the occasion of the ‘Blu Blue-Jeans, Il Blu Popolare’ exhibition, “there’s only one blue which got organic origins and is really blue and solid: the indigo”. This pigment is drawn from a species of plant called ‘Indigofera’ (native to a tropical habitat), but the needed process to fix the colourant onto the fibres makes indigo a completely freestanding world. Unlike those times’ trendier colours, red above all, indigo didn’t require high temperatures to adhere to the fibres, infact differently to all the other dyes the vats where fabrics got put soaking into never passed the 50-55 degrees Celsius. That’s because blue pigment, both derived from woad or indigofera plants, didn’t dissolve in water with heat only. In order to fix it to the fibres it was actually needed to ventilate the soaked fabrics and mix them with an alkaline base, like the lime.

As proof of that uniqueness, the corporations of the ones who used to run blue-dyeing, dubbed of the Woadites because originally they worked only with woad (extract from local plants and main blue colourant before the adoption of indigo), represented apart structures, separated from other professional dyer associations. “The word woad”, continues Carbon, “derives from a germanic root, ‘waisdo’, that already appears in the Dark Ages. In Europe, during the Middle Ages, the woad, that needs rich and fertile lands, was the prototype of the industrial culture”. And woad itself, extract from the ‘Isatis tinctoria’, competed with true indigo for the first-place among the so called ‘blue dye plants‘. The reasons that sanctioned indigo’s final success are linked to the best performance of the latter compared to the ‘pastèl’ (as woad was called in French) and to a series of historical causes we’re going to analyse. However both the plants showed a common feature that is the high difficulty of the process of extracting the colourant from the plant itself. The maceration method was similar for both of them, in fact they also talked about pastèl-indigo. In order to get inside the fibres, as seen the enzymes of these plants have to enter in contact with the air hydrogen and an alkaline base. Therefore, after the plant got minced with out-and-out crushers, they used to let dry off the leaves’ paste which then was hand-kneaded into a bale form (‘coques’ in French), so they were left desiccate. Once completed this process, the balls, also dubbed ‘miche’, were crushed and wetted again in order to finish the fermentation in a process that could have lasted many weeks and required a constant labour to flip over and ventilate the product as to favour the extraction of the indigotin, viz the real colouring agent.

On behalf of indigo played a very higher performance compared to woad’s one (according to Hellot, a French chemist of the 1600s, “Six indigo pounds dye as much as a bale of Lauragais pastèl, that generally weigh 210 pounds”). Against that the fact it was a colonial good, so less easily available. In addition, obstructing the indigo’s diffusion was also the one nowadays we’d say a lobbying action by the Woadites that in medieval age used pastèl and not true indigo for wool dyeing. De facto, in countries where the Woadites were very strong such as in England, indigo was completely liberalised only in the half 1600s… And when finally the way seemed smooth indeed to substitute pastèl another arduous impasse blocked its diffusion. With the revolution wars and Napoleonic age, in France and the lands conquered by Bonaparte the supply of colonial goods almost completely interrupted due to the political isolation from the rest of Europe. A pretty big problem, considering that the imperial troops oddly enough had the blue as the service colour. The situation arrived to the point that Napoleon himself had to promise, with a decree issued in April 1810, huge rewards to the one capable of finding the way to grow a local plant that could have substituted indigo from a performance and colour solidity viewpoint.Pastèl, or woad, went on making inroads. But that was a swansong. Cultivated with low enthusiasm and still lower results in all the Southern Europe Napoleonic areas, pastèl wasn’t showing enough colouring power to please the increasing demand of the textile market. The woad relaunch in Europe hence was a flash in the pan doomed to blow out with the end of Bonaparte’s wars and indigo’s return, this time from India rather than Americas. Raw material abundance and new extracting proceeds, chemical and no longer mechanical (the stannous oxide indigo-vat and the zinc-vat), definitely opened the doors to a mass use of indigo in the textile sector. In 1869, the invention of the hydrosulphite and caustic soda vat declared the final triumph of indigo over its weaker European ‘cousin’, and the entry of the blue into mass popular culture and clothing. A ride that from Genoa to Nîmes led the popular blue overseas, where a certain Levi Strauss in those same years  was loading a cart full of goods in order to move to California and once there making business with its more and more gold-diggers. It was the gold rush era and the blue de Genes was getting set for becoming the most influential fabric in history.