Denim

My beloved wife continues to be mystified by my interest in trivia.  I like to read and am utterly unable to distinguish between the important and the tangential.  I nodded my head in agreement when Anne Fadiman wrote that she once read a 1974 Toyota repair manual because it was the only thing in her house she hadn’t read twice.  So for this column, we’re going to explore the etymology of blue jeans.  After all, this ubiquitous cotton is one of the “fabrics of our lives”.

Denim was originally the serge de Nimes (de Nimes becomes denim), a town on the southern French coast.  The weft fibers pass under two or more of the warp fibers (making it a twill, “twi” meaning double).  This is why the reverse side shows a diagonal ribbing pattern and makes it different than cotton duck, which is two warp fibers and a single weft.  The fabric was a blend of silk and wool.  All cotton denims were an invention of the 1800s. Denim was first made into pants in Italy in the 1600s for the Genoa navy, so Genoa transmutes into the word jeans.  They used wide legs (bellbottoms) so they could be rolled up while swabbing the deck.

The blue dye was indigo, which originally came from several tropical plants (woad and dyer’s knotweed, the most popular) until July of 1897 when synthetic indigo replaced the traditional plant dyes.  In 1993, Crayola added denim as one of their 16 new colors.

Dungarees came from Dongari Kapar market next to the Dongari Killa fort, which would become Bombay (now known as Mumbai).  The first English use of the word dungaree is from the 1696 Oxford English Dictionary.  To get really obscure, Volkswagen produced the Jeans Beetle between 1973 and 1975 that had all denim trim.  Bonded Logic UltraTouch is a home insulation made from the remnants of blue jean manufacturing.  It has an R-Value of 13 to 19 (3.5” or 5.5” batting) and is used as a replacement for fiberglass batting. Ralph Lauren Paint has techniques for painting your walls to look like blue jeans, including a tool for making the characteristic seams.

You probably know that the German-Jewish immigrant Levi Strauss sold a lot of jeans to the gold miners of California (the canvas pants he started with were too uncomfortable).  But it was a tailor and customer of Levi’s, Jacob Davis, who figured out how to add copper rivets to the stress points.  Jacob couldn’t afford the patent and went into business with Mr. Strauss, which is probably why we’re not wearing Jacobs today.

How popular are these staples of youth culture?  The average North American owns seven pairs of jeans and although in 1885 a pair cost $1.50, today American’s spend over $14 billion on them.

It takes about 15 pieces of fabric (a total of about 5 feet of fabric) to make a standard pair of 5 pocket jeans.  Up to 100 layers of fabric are cut at a time.  It takes about 15 minutes and 12 steps to sew a pair and an average factory can make about 2500 a day.  Then there’s about a pound of pumice to stone wash a pair.

So why bother with this?  My point is only that even a common place object can have a fascinating, international and multi-cultural history.

And if that’s not enough trivia for you: 75% of the residents of Wisconsin were born there, the Dodgers won the 1955 World Series, Sigmund Freud died in London and the average worker ant lives for 3 months. I’m sure all this means something, I’m just not sure what.