A Story of Denim Jeans
Fashion has a habit of adopting workwear and uniform into the everyday, from military dress to manual work to sportswear, denim is no exception. Originally developed by Levi Strauss back in the 1860’s to accommodate miners working in San Francisco with durable and affordable workpants, denim jeans soon became the uniform of choice for many manual workers in America, including lumberjacks, cowboys, ranchers, farmers and factory workers.
Jeans become fashionable almost a century later, denim jeans were adopted as a means of rebellion in the 1950’s by the likes of Marlon Brando and James Dean, giving them an association with cool Hollywood glamour. In the 1960’s/70’s they became more mainstream, with more variety in style, fit and colour. Today, denim jeans are seen as reliable and iconic, transcending trends, gender, class and taste, they are a classic for a reason.
Original denim was originally created (and often still is) with durability and longevity in mind, a great slow fashion garment. However as with anything mass produced on a huge scale, there is always the risk of exploitation. The main issues relating directly to denim are the production of conventional cotton, finishing techniques and chemical processes, and textile waste.
The Lifecycle of a Typical Pair of Denim Jeans
Cultivation of Cotton:
Conventional cotton requires great consumption of water, fertilisers, pesticides and defoliants. The machines used in cultivation also burn diesel. Find out more about conventional cotton here.
Cotton spinning produces a yarn consisting of disorganised fibres, using electricity.
At this stage, some yarns are washed, dyed, drought then having starch applied, making the yarns more resistant for weaving and requiring chemical substances and energy.
This gathers diverse stages of finishing to obtain denim, consuming energy and generating water effluents.
Includes manufacturing linen, double yarn, rivets, buttons, and also includes tailoring and the making of the jeans.
Jeans often undergo extra treatments to make them look washed out or worn, requiring harmful processes such as bleaching or sand-blasting.
Use and Maintenance of Jeans:
Most of the environmental impact is a result of how we wear and care for our jeans, as this consumes a lot of electricity, water and washing powder.
Jeans’ end of life:
Approximately one in two customers dispose jeans in household waste, which are then incinerated or end up in landfill.
“Almost half of the 200 million pair of jeans exported from Bangladesh each year are sandblasted.”
(The Deadly Denim report)
However, there are some denim brands doing things differently.. Some examples are:
It may come as no surprise that as the pioneers of denim manufacturing, Levi’s are embracing new technologies to limit their environmental impact and become more ethical. Their ethos is ‘By putting people and the planet first, our goal is to continuously create more good than harm.’ So far they have been able to save more than 1.8 billion litres and recycled more than 129 million litres of water due to recent innovations, and they also focus on cultivating quality cotton that benefits farmers. From a socially conscious perspective, they have set up a ‘Worker Well-Being Initiative’ to protect the rights of their workers and give back to the community.
Mud Jeans were founded in 2013 when Bert van Son, who had spent 30 years in the fashion industry and seeing how dirty and unfair it was most of the time during manufacturing, decided this was something he wanted to change. Mud Jeans aim to make good quality ethical jeans more accessible to more people, and they embrace the notion of a circular economy. Old jeans are recycled into new ones and are currently blended with organic cotton, they use processes such as screen printing the labels to avoid using and upcycling leather keeping them vegan-friendly, and also offer free repairs. Mud Jeans are stocked at Uncaptive, and are available to buy here.
The ethos of G-Star? “Sustainability is a condition for doing business at G-Star and a process of continuous improvement”. They design for the future with environmental and social impact in mind, future-proofing denim by ‘investing in sustainable innovation’. They are the first brand to be officially recognised for achieving a ‘Cradle-to-Cradle Certified™ Gold’ standard, and have set up GSRD to empower local communities.
It’s amazing to see a number of major businesses adopting authentic greener and fairer methods when it comes to production, but let’s not forget that the shift towards a more ethical and sustainable fashion industry is also down to a large number of grassroots brands, and it’s so important to champion these! It’s one of the reasons Uncaptive and I have teamed up to put on the first event in the North-East to celebrate the globally renowned Fashion Revolution Week, to provide a platform for a number of local brands (including ourselves) that are doing things a little differently and making sustainable fashion more accessible.
Just Harry is a new denim brand on the scene, and works 100% upcycled denim with t-shirts that are 60% recycled cotton with 40% recycled polyester. She transforms what were once tired unwanted jeans into a youthful contemporary collection of tasselled skirts, patchwork jackets and panelled accessories, rescuing from landfill and giving them a new lease of life. Based in Newcastle Upon Tyne, she was one of the brands featured in the Northern Sustainable Fashion Revolution. You can bring your old denim to Uncaptive’s Newcastle store and they’ll get them to her!
Darned Fine are another denim brand local to Newcastle. Craftsmanship is key, with their specialist knowledge and skills when it comes to creating jeans (from quality Japanese denim), their ability to repair and alter, and lovingly restoring carefully sourced vintage denim. They also offer bespoke and customisation, handmade to commission (and we all know when we find a pair that fits like a glove, they’re pretty hard to part with!).
Taking Better Care of Denim
Firstly we need to wash them less, Levi’s recommend no more than once every ten wears. By spot-washing with a damp cloth or old toothbrush, we can prolong the shape of our jeans!
When we do decide to machine wash them, cool wash inside out, as this will help to maintain the dyes and prevent shrinking. Also, very importantly, do not tumble dry your jeans! They break down the lint in your jeans, weakening the fibres and potentially shrinking or warping the denim, choose to dry on a washing line or clothes horse instead.
Finally, remember that as denim inevitably wears in and gains creases and marks, it becomes more unique and personal over time, becoming a unique map of memories. Some may choose to repair or enhance, others are happy to let the jeans do their own thing. Whichever you choose, be assured that any pair of quality jeans are the ultimate slow-fashion, story telling garment!
This article was written by Melanie, who is the director of Melanie Kyles. She is a contemporary embroidery artist based in Newcastle-upon-Tyne.
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