Blue jeans are casual pants made from denim, noted for their strength and comfort. They have been worn by sailors and California gold miners as sturdy work pants, by the young as a statement of their generation, and by the fashionable, who are conscious of the prestige conveyed by designer names.
Denim cloth itself has an unusual history. The name comes from serge de Nimes, or the serge of Nimes, France. Originally, it was strong material made from wool. By the 1700s, it was made from wool and cotton. Only later was it made solely from cotton. Originally, it was used to make sails, but eventually, some innovative Genovese sailors thought it fit that such fine, strong material would make great pants, or "genes."
The name for blue jeans was derived from the color of the fabric used to make them. Denim was treated with a blue dye obtained from the indigo plant. Indigo had been used as a dye since 2500 B.C. in such diverse places as Asia, Egypt, Greece, Rome, Britain, and Peru. Blue jean manufacturers imported indigo from India until the twentieth century, when synthetic indigo was developed to replace the natural dye.
Blue jeans in the form we know them today didn't come about until the middle of the nineteenth century. Levi Strauss, an enterprising immigrant who happened to have a few bolts of blue denim cloth on hand, recognized a need for strong work pants in the mining communities of California. He first designed and marketed "Levi's" in 1850, and they have stayed essentially the same ever since; there have been only minor alterations to the original design.
Original Levi's did not contain rivets. A tailor by the name of Jacob Davis invented riveted pants at the request of a miner who complained that regular pants were not rugged enough to hold his mining tools. Davis subsequently granted Strauss the use of his rivet idea, which was patented on May 20, 1873. Few other changes were made over the next century. Zipper s replaced button flies in 1920 (although later button flies had a resurgence of popularity) and in 1937 the rivets on the back pockets were moved inside in response to complaints from school boards that the jeans students wore were damaging chairs and from cowboys that their jeans were damaging their saddle s. In the 1960s, they were removed entirely from the back pockets.
Blue jeans started becoming popular among young people in the 1950s. In the year 1957, 150 million pairs were sold worldwide. This growing trend continued until 1981 and jeans manufacturers were virtually guaranteed annual sales increases. In the United States, 200 million pairs of jeans were sold in 1967, 500 million in 1977, with a peak of 520 million in 1981. When jeans first caught on, apologists reasoned that their low price determined their huge success. During the 1970s, however, the price of blue jeans doubled, yet demand always exceeded supply. Sometimes manufacturers met the demand by providing stores with irregulars; that is, slightly defective merchandise that would not normally be sold.
Although the demand for jeans actually decreased in the 1980s, a brief surge occurred with the introduction of designer jeans to the market. Despite the apparent success of designer jeans, however, they did not capture the majority of the market; jeans have not
Although blue jeans have remained basically the same since they were first designed, they have always been versatile enough to meet market demands. Since futuristic, yet familiar, "Levi's" appeared in the movie Star Trek V, it can be surmised that manufacturers as well as the public, expect blue jeans to be around indefinitely.
True blue jeans are made out of 100 percent cotton, including the threads. Polyester blends are available, however, the over-whelming majority of jeans sold are 100 percent cotton. The most common dye used is synthetic indigo. The belt loops, waistband, back panel, pockets, and leggings of a pair of blue jeans are all made of indigo-dyed denim. Other features of blue jeans include the zipper, buttons, rivets, and label. Rivets have been traditionally made of copper, but the zippers, snaps and buttons are usually steel. Designers' labels are often tags made out of cloth, leather, or plastic, while others are embroidered on with cotton thread.
Denim, unlike many types of cloth (which are woven in one place and sent to another for dying), is woven and dyed at one location.
The process of cloth making involves treating the fabric with a number of chemicals in order to produce clothing with such desirable characteristics such as durability, colorfastness, and comfort. Each step of finishing the cotton fabric (dyeing, sanforizing, etc.) produces byproducts, most of which are biodegradable.
Byproducts of denim manufacture include organic pollutants, such as starch and dye, which can be treated through biological methods. These organic wastes may not be dumped into streams or lakes because of their high biochemical oxygen demand. To decompose, such waste materials utilize so much oxygen that the lifeforms in the body of water would be denied the oxygen necessary for survival.
Denim manufacturers process their own wastes in compliance with all relevant government regulations.
Cotton is a desirable natural fiber for several reasons. Cloth made from cotton is wear resistant, strong, flexible, and impermeable. Blue jeans are only as good as the cotton that goes into them, however, and several tests exist for cotton fiber. All bales of cotton are inspected by the denim manufacturer for the desired color, fiber length, and strength. Strength is the most important factor in blue jeans. It is measured by using a weight to pull it. When the fiber breaks, the force used to break it is measured. The cotton's strength index (weight of weight divided by weight of sample) is then calculated.
The finished denim cloth is carefully inspected for defects. Each defect is rated on a government-defined scale ranging from one point for very small flaws to four points for major defects. Although government regulations allow cloth with a high defect rating to be sold, in reality customers will not accept denim with more than seven to ten defect points per square meter. Poor cloth is sold as damaged. Denim is also tested for durability and its tendency to shrink. Samples of cloth are washed and dried several times to see how they wear.
Blue jeans are also inspected after they are completed. If a problem can be corrected, the jeans are sent back for re-sewing. The pair is then inspected again and passed. The buttons are inspected to ensure that they and the buttonholes are of the proper size; the snaps, metal buttons, and rivets are checked for durability and their ability to withstand rust. The zippers must be strong enough to with-stand the greater pressures of heavy cloth, and their teeth durability must be checked as well. This is done by subjecting a sample zipper to a lifetime of openings and closings.
Cray, Ed. Levi's. Houghton Mifflin, 1978.
Fehr, Barbara. Yankee Denim Dandies. Piper Publishing, 1974.
Finlayson, lain. Denim. Simon and Schuster, 1990.
Henry, Sondra and Emily Taitz. Everyone Wears His Name: A Biography of Levi Strauss. Dillon Press, 1990.
Adkins, Jan. "The Evolution of Jeans: American History 501," Mother Earth News. July/August, 1990, pp. 60-63.
Brooks, John. "Annals of Business: A Friendly Product," The New Yorker. November 12, 1979, pp. 58-94.
— Rose Secrest