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All about denim

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Denim fabric dyed with indigo and black dyes and made into a shirt.

Denim is a sturdy cotton warp-faced twill textile in which the weft passes under two or more warp threads. This twill weaving produces the familiar diagonal ribbing of the denim that distinguishes it from cotton duck.

It is a characteristic of most indigo denim that only the warp threads are dyed, whereas the weft threads remain plain white. As a result of the warp-faced twill weaving, one side of the textile then shows the blue warp threads and the other side shows the white weft threads. This is why blue jeans are white on the inside. The indigo dyeing process, in which the core of the warp threads remains white, creates denim's fading characteristics, which are unique compared to every other textile.


The name "denim" derives from the French serge de Nîmes, referring to the city of Nîmes.

Denim was traditionally coloured blue with indigo dye to make blue jeans, although "jean" formerly denoted a different, lighter, cotton fabric. The contemporary use of the word "jean" comes from the French word for Genoa, Italy (Gênes), where the first denim trousers were made. Denim has been used in the USA since the late 18th century. It has been introduced by Levi Strauss who in 1853 in the conquest of the West imported Denim Fabric from France and used it to create solid trousers, that would become the blue jeans.


Dry or raw denim (contrasted with "washed denim") is denim that is not washed after having been dyed during production.

Photo of denim fibers from an old pair of jeans taken under a microscope

Over time, denim will usually fade, which is considered desirable by some people. During the process of wear, fading will usually occur on those parts of the article that receive the most stress. In a pair of jeans, these parts include the upper thighs, the ankles, and the areas behind the knees.

After being made into an article of clothing, most denim articles are washed to make them softer and to reduce or eliminate shrinkage (which could cause the article to not fit properly after its owner washes it). In addition to being washed, "washed denim" is sometimes artificially distressed to produce a "worn" look. Much of the appeal of artificially distressed denim is that it resembles dry denim which has faded. In jeans made from dry denim, such fading is affected by the body of the person who wears them and by the activities of his or her daily life. This process creates what many enthusiasts feel to be a more "natural" look than the look of artificially distressed denim.

To facilitate the natural distressing process, some wearers of dry denim will abstain from washing their jeans for more than six months.

Most dry denim is made with 100% cotton and comes from several different countries. In particular USA, Zimbabwe and Japan are popular sources of cotton for making raw denim. Some denimheads prefer the denim of one country to another for its purported durability, fades, and feel.

Dry denim also varies in weight, typically measured in by the weight of a yard of denim in ounces. 12 Oz. or less is considered light denim, 12 Oz. to 16 Oz. is considered mid-weight, and over 16 Oz. is considered heavy weight. Heavier denim is much more rigid and resistant to wear, but can also take more wears to break in and feel comfortable.

Patterns of fading

Natural "honeycomb" fades

Patterns of fading in jeans, caused by prolonged periods of wearing them without washing, have become the main allure of dry denim. Such patterns are a way of "personalizing" the garment.

These patterns have specific names:

Combs or honeycombs – These are faded lines that are found behind the knees.

Whiskers – Faded streaks that surround the crotch area of the jeans.

Stacks – These are created by having the inseam of the jeans hemmed a few inches longer than the actual leg length. The extra fabric then stacks on top of the shoe, causing a faded area to form around the ankle, extending up to the calf area.

Train tracks – These appear on the outseams of the denim. This pattern showcases the selvage by forming two sets of fades which resemble train tracks.


Denim jeans showing the selvedge of the fabric joined to make a seam

Selvage is the edge of a fabric as it comes from the loom. Selvages are woven or knit so that they will not fray, ravel, or curl.

Selvage denim refers to a unique type of selvage that is made by means of using one continuous cross-yarn (the weft), which is passed back and forth through the vertical warp beams. This is traditionally finished at both edges with a contrasting warp (most commonly red); that is why this type of denim is sometimes referred to as "red selvage." This method of weaving the selvage is possible only when using a shuttle loom.

Shuttle looms weave a narrower 30-inch fabric, which is on average half the width of modern shuttleless Sulzer looms. Consequently a longer piece of fabric is required to make a pair of jeans from selvedge denim (approximately three yards).

To maximize yield, most jeans are made from wide denim and have a straight outseam that utilizes the full width of the fabric, including the edges. Selvage denim has come to be associated with premium quality jeans, which show the finished edges from the loom rather than the overlocked edges that are shown on other jeans.


Denim was originally dyed with a dye produced from the plant Indigofera tinctoria, but most denim today is dyed with synthetic indigo dye. In both cases, the yarn undergoes a repeated sequence of dipping and oxidization — the more dips, the stronger the colour of the indigo.

Rope dyeing is considered the best yarn-dyeing method, as it eliminates shading across the fabric width. The alternative "slasher process" is cheaper because only one beaming process is needed. In rope dyeing, beaming is done twice.


Denim fabric dyeing is divided into two categories: indigo dyeing and sulphur dyeing. Indigo dyeing produces the traditional blue colour or shades similar to it. Sulphur dyeing produces speciality black colours and other colours, such as red, pink, purple, gray, rust, mustard, and green.

Skinny jeans made from red denim

A mini-skirt made from purple denim

Jeans made from light gray denim


Stretch denim incorporates an elastic component, such as spandex. This creates a certain amount of "give" in garments made from stretch denim.

Only a small percentage (about 3%) of spandex is required within the fabric to create a significant stretching capacity of about 15%. However, this feature will shorten the wearing life of the garment.



  • Boots and athletic shoes
  • Capri pants
  • Dresses
  • Hats
  • Jackets
  • Jeans
  • Overalls (dungarees)
  • Shirts
  • Shorts, including Daisy Dukes and cut-offs
  • Skirts
  • Sneakers (Keds, Converse Chuck Taylor All-Stars)
  • Suits
  • Swimsuits


  • Belts
  • Handbags (purses)
  • Tote bags


  • Bean bag chairs
  • Lampshades
  • Upholstery

Between 1973 and 1975 Volkswagen produced the Jeans Beetle, which had all-denim trim. They also repeated this concept in some later models. AMC offered a Levi's trim package for its Gremlin and Pacer models, which was actually spun nylon made to imitate denim. Jeep has also offered Levi's trim packages.

Worldwide market

The dyehouse at the White Oak Cotton Mill, in Greensboro, North Carolina. The Cone Mills Corporation, which owned the mill, was formerly the world's largest maker of denim.

In 2007, the worldwide denim market equalled USD 51.6 billion, with demand growing by 5% and supply growing by 8% annually. Over 50% of denim is produced in Asia, most of it in China, India, Turkey, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

The following table shows where the world's denim mills are located.


No. of Denim Mills





Asia (excluding India & China)


North America




Latin America






Total Denim Mills (world-wide)


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