What is Denim Fabric: The History & Complete Guide (2024)

The word denim originates from a twill fabric from the City of Nimes, France in the 18th Century, but what is denim fabric and why is it so popular?
8 minute read

What is Denim Fabric?

Denim is not only one of the most recognisable fabrics, but it’s also one of the most popular materials used globally. Denim fabric was originally used for workwear in the 19th century, but since then has made its way into mainstream fashion, utilised predominantly in casual and luxury apparel.

But what exactly is denim? What is the history, properties, how it is manufactured & what makes it such an iconic fabric? We’ll dive head first into all of these questions in this article so you know exactly what denim fabric is by the end.

Understanding Denim Fabric

Denim fabric refers to a rugged and durable material typically made from cotton. It is very well known for its characteristic twill weave and is usually dyed indigo, resulting in the well-known blue colour you see on most denim products.

Denim fabric is used for jeans, jackets, shirts and other garments.

denim fabric production

The actual word “denim” comes from the French serge de Nimes, which refers to a type of fabric that originated from the City of Nimes in France back in the 18th Century. During this time, denim fabrics were mostly used for workwear such as trousers and overalls.

Despite this, denim gained most of its popularity when it was introduced to the United States in the 19th Century. Levi Strauss, a German businessman partnered with Jacob Davis, a tailor to produce a pair of denim jeans that were reinforced at stress points in 1853 - this innovation led to the creation of the first pair of that iconic blue jean pants, which was a big hit with workers and miners during the Gold Rush.

history of denim fabric
Women welders wearing denim overalls on the way to their job, circa 1943, at Todd Erie Basin dry dock.Stocktrek Images, Inc. / Alamy Stock Photo

Moving forward to the early 20th Century, denim became synonymous with the wild west of America - popularised by western movies and rodeos, the characteristics of denim were clear - rugged and durable.

The cultural significance of denim expanded again in the 1950s with the growth of youth subcultures. Popular icons popularised denim as a fabric worn by those wanting to show the symbol of nonconformity to the “standard” way of doing things.

levis denim advert from 1950s
Popular Levi’s advertisement from the 1950s. Photo: Levi Strauss & Co.

Just 10-20 years later in the 1950s and 60s, denim then became associated with the hippie movement and subsequently, began to symbolise freedom and individuality.

Since then, denim has reached every continent, been dressed up (and down) by all types of individuals and does not discriminate. Irrespective of age, gender or social class, denim is a fashion staple worn by the masses.

We’ve taken a deep dive into the history of denim, but now it’s time to answer the question - what is denim made of?

Denim fabric is primarily made up of cotton, although synthetic fibres can be added to provide different finishes. The actual composition of denim can vary, but below are some of the main components you’d usually find:

  1. Cotton: As mentioned, cotton is the main fibre found in denim production. The quality of the cotton used will usually dictate the longevity and durability of the denim material produced. For example, long-staple cotton is known to produce very high quality denim.
  2. Indigo Dye: This dye is the traditional one used to give denim that iconic blue shade. The dye itself derives from the indigofera plant (hence the name) - it creates colour fastness in denim, which gives it that unique fading effect over time.
  3. Synthetic Fibres: In some cases, synthetic fibres like polyester or elastane (spandex) are added to denim to give it certain properties. For example, adding just 5% elastane (spandex) will give the garment around 25% more stretch than a 100% cotton alternative.
  4. Finishing Agents: A variety of finishing agents can be added to denim throughout the manufacturing process to create different effects and finishes. These can include softeners, enzyme washing, and so on to give a desired look.

All of this is great, but what makes denim unique?

denim fabric swatches
Denim Fabric Swatches

Denim fabric poses several key characteristics that makes it both unique and distinguishable. Ask yourself - would you be able to identify 100% cotton on a t-shirt over polyester from afar? Now ask yourself the same question about denim and chances are, the answer will be very different.

So what characteristics create this distinguishable look?

  1. Classic Twill Weave
  2. Durability and longevity
  3. Indigo Dye & Fading
  4. Versatility
  5. Unique Ageing
  6. Timeless Style

Above all else, a huge reason behind the uniqueness of denim fabric is its cultural significance. No other fabric in the world has ties to subcultures, social movements or symbolises as much as denim has throughout its history.

denim fabric close up
Denim fabrics unique style

Denim Fabric Properties

Denim fabric is renowned for its ability to withstand copious amounts of wear and tear due to its durability and ruggedness.

There are a magnitude of reasons as to why denim is so durable, but these can generally be summarised into a couple of points below:

  1. Construction: The way denim fabric is woven provides a high level of structural integrity to the material. This, combined with the utilisation of long-staple cotton fibres creates a very long-lasting fabric which is very resistant to abrasion - as such, it is less likely to pill, rip, tear or break apart like other fabrics might after prolonged wear.
  2. Reinforced Stress Points: Throughout the denim manufacturing process, certain stress points such as pockets, buttons or seams are reinforced with twin needle stitching and rivets to disperse stress and improve the longevity of the product.

jeans buttons and rivets
Detailed shot of jeans button and stitching

Alongside its durability, denim fabric is also known for its comfort and breathability due to its natural fibre composition. As previously mentioned, most denim fabrics consist of a high % of cotton fibres, which naturally allow for air circulation and hold moisture wicking properties.

In addition to this, the style of weaving patterns within denim fabric allows for further air flow, but the general weight of denim also caters towards slightly harsher, colder climates.

As such, denim fabric is extremely versatile and combining these properties with the ability for denim to drape into different silhouettes, or the addition of synthetic fibres to provide further stretch, and you’re left with a very comfortable material as well.

Another property of denim fabric is its colorfastness. Colorfastness refers to a fabric's ability to retain its original dyed colour after extended exposure to washing, sunlight and friction from day-to-day wear.

colorfastness test
Colorfastness tests conducted by White2Label

There are a few technical reasons as to why denim fabric has great colorfastness, when compared to alternative materials like polyester, nylon or cotton.

The first is the process of cross-linking dye molecules. In short, throughout the dyeing process, the indigo dye molecules form a strong bond to the cotton fibres in a process called cross-linking. This process helps improve the longevity of the bond and as such, increases the resistance to the dye fading.

The second is the dyes' outer layer penetration. In short, the dye used on denim does not penetrate the innermost layers of the cotton fibres. This is why most jeans are a different shade on the inside as they are on the outside and in part, plays a role in the unique fading of denim over time.

Lastly, unlike most garment dyes, indigo dyes are actually added multiple times to create the desired shade. This reinforces the bond of dye to the cotton fibres and increases its colorfastness as a result.

One final property of denim fabric is its versatility. Denim is mostly known for its use in the manufacturing of jeans, but denims versatility extends far beyond this - from denim jackets, to shirts, dresses or jumpsuits, denim seamlessly adapts to diverse fashion trends which is one of the main reasons it is as popular today, as it was back in the 19th Century.

denim jacket and jeans
Denims versatility is prominent in today's market

The Manufacturing Process of Denim Fabric

One common question often asked is how is denim made?

There are actually four clear cut processes to manufacturing denim in modern manufacturing and it all starts with cotton cultivation.

Cotton cultivation is the process of growing cotton plants specifically for the production of cotton fibres which are then used in manufacturing textiles, including denim fabric.

Cotton cultivation itself follows several stages, which can be found in the infographic below

process of cotton cultivation
The process of cotton cultivation

The next stage of manufacturing denim is the process of converting the cotton fibres into yarn.

Essentially, the clean cotton fibres are combed and converted into long strings. They are then spun into yarn using an industrial machine

production of fabric
Cotton threads being spun into yarn

This part of the process would usually be where special additives are added to positively impact the performance of the denim fabric.

After the cotton fibres have been converted into yarn, it’s time to dye the fabric. The dyeing process follows many specific and unique steps, which require high level craftsmanship to ensure colour consistency, fastness and that the products arrive on specification.

Once the fabric is dyed, it’s onto the weaving. As mentioned previously, the characteristic twill pattern which is unique to denim is actually achieved through its weaving techniques.

In other words, denim fabric is woven in a certain way to improve durability, texture and to provide an iconic appearance.

The very final stage of manufacturing denim is the finishing. Different finishing processes are employed to provide the denim fabric with unique properties, which improves its overall performance.

The most commonly used finishing technique on denim fabric is sanforization, which involves treating the fabric with heat and moisture to minimise the shrinking in consumer washing.

However, this isn’t the only finishing technique often used on denim. Other methods like enzyme and stone washing, bleaching and dyeing, or resin coating are all used to provide distinctive finishes to the fabrics depending on the brand's requirements and specifications.

Sourcing Denim Fabric

Denim can be sourced from all over the world. That being said, just as Geneva is the home of luxury watches, some regions have played significant roles in the development and distribution of denim fabric and as such, can be seen as the epicentres of high quality, luxurious denim with a well-rooted history.

1908 Sears Roebuck catalogue, featuring denim pants and overalls.
1908 Sears Roebuck catalogue, featuring denim pants and overalls.

Some of the most well-known regions are as follows:

  1. Nimes, France: Obviously, denim originated from Nimes so historically, this is the literal epicentre of denim fabric and played a huge role in the exportation of denim in the early 18th Century.
  2. Genoa, Italy: Genoa is well known for its production of sturdy, twill-woven fabric called “jean” and it is believed that the word jeans actually originates from this small city in Italy.
  3. Lancashire, England: Lancashire became a major centre for cotton production during the industrial revolution. Deep rooted in British manufacturing, Lancashire played a huge role in the mechanisation of textile production in the UK and was a large producer of mass-denim during this time.
  4. Cone Mills, North Carolina (USA): Cone Mills was one of the largest denim manufacturers in the United States and for nearly an entire century, supplied denim to some of the largest US-based brands.
  5. Okayama, Japan: Okayama is known as the denim capital of Japan. It has a history of indigo dyeing and denim production dating back to the early 20th Century.

Modern Manufacturing of Denim

Despite all of this, in the contemporary landscape, denim manufacturing has shifted over to countries such as Bangladesh, China and India and exports are slowly expanding through investment into infrastructure in countries such as Mexico, Vietnam and Brazil.

Sustainable Denim Fabric

Whilst manufacturing of textiles has been pushed overseas in recent years, there is a growing demand from the current end-consumer for brands and manufacturers to adopt sustainable practices within their textile manufacturing.

This also applies to denim fabric. Innovation, led by the sustainably-conscious has seen implementation of organic cotton fibres being utilised in a traditional denim method to create a more environmentally friendly alternative to the traditional denim.

Organic cotton, which uses far less pesticides and natural resources, significantly reduces the carbon footprint of manufacturing such styles and is a great way to cater towards the new emerging market.

An Overview of Denim Fabric

We've explored denim fabrics' essential role in both daily wear and fashion. We’ve touched base on the history of denim and the cultural impact it has had over the Centuries. In short, no other fabric has the rich history, or cultural significance that denim fabric does.

We also delved into the process of denim fabric production, such as cotton cultivation and then transformation into yarn, followed by the customary method of indigo dyeing that grants denim its iconic blue tone and signature fading. Through various weaving approaches, denim achieved its distinct twill design.

When it comes to practicality, denim rises above with its breathability and comfort, conveying both fashion and function.

The potential for denim fabric in the future is exciting, with a noticeable movement towards sustainability in manufacturing. This includes conscious efforts to reduce water usage, implement eco-friendly production methods, and utilise recycled and organic materials whilst still delivering on the staple look that is denim fabric.

In addition to this, the rise of technological developments and breakthroughs will impact the denim industry in significant ways. Integration of smart textiles to improve fabric design, enhanced finishing techniques, and advancements in denim recycling offer endless possibilities for the future of this fashion essential.

About the author
Anthony Mellor

Anthony Mellor is a fashion entrepreneur, writer and consultant. Anthony writes in-depth articles about topics related to fashion, business and supply chains.

Anthony successfully scaled and exited a D2C fashion brand at the young age of 20. Since then, he's gone onto start and successfully operate two multi-6-figure clothing manufacturing businesses and currently offers up one-to-one constancy to brand owners.

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