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What is Denim Fabric: Properties, How its Made and Where

by Boris Hodakel  • December 11, 2019 • 6 min read

Fabric name Denim
Fabric also known as Serge de Nimes
Fabric composition Dyed cotton yarn woven in warp-faced style
Fabric possible thread count variations Dense threads result in low thread counts
Fabric breathability High
Moisture-wicking abilities High
Heat retention abilities Medium
Stretchability (give) Low to medium
Prone to pilling/bubbling No
Country where fabric was first produced France, then USA
Biggest exporting/producing country today China
Recommended washing temperatures Cold, warm, or hot
Commonly used in Jeans, jackets, shirts, suits, skirts, hats, belts, shoes, aprons, duvets, etc.

What is denim fabric?

Denim is one of the world’s most iconic fabrics. The moment you say the words “denim jeans,” everyone around you knows what you’re talking about. Denim is popular across national and cultural boundaries, and the denim jean has become a symbol of American culture the world over.

What, exactly, is denim, however? Where did this fabric come from, and why has its popularity endured unabated throughout the decades? We’ll dive into all these questions and more as we tell you everything you need to know about denim fabric.

History of denim fabric

The word “denim” comes from the French serge de Nimes, which refers to a particular type of fabric that was produced in Nimes, a town in France. Over time, this warp-faced cotton weave style became popular throughout the region, and this popularity spread into neighboring Italy.

The city of Genoa rapidly became the world’s biggest producer of serge de Nimes. Since the French name for Genoa is “Genes,” the name “jeans” stuck when this fabric gained renewed popularity during the American Gold Rush.

Gold miners liked the durability and repairability of denim-weave cotton, and though other dye colors were widely available in the American West, manufacturers like Levi Strauss continued using the indigo blue dye that Genoan fabric merchants originally resorted to out of necessity.

Denim fabric today

Denim fabric has remained in wide use in jeans since the 1850s. No other clothing item has endured within American culture like blue jeans, which makes that pair of Levi jeans in your closet something of a heritage artifact.

Over time, American textile producers started making other apparel items out of denim, and these days, you can even purchase home decor products made with this durable and aesthetically appealing fabric. While production of blue jeans was once limited to the United States, the late 20th-century manufacturing exodus saw the majority of denim production transfer overseas.

Denim fabric now has too many variations to list, and it has been mixed with other fabric and weave styles ad nauseam as designers have worked feverishly to develop the latest trends in denim fashion. All the same, traditional Levi 501s remain incredibly popular around the world, and a niche industry has emerged that revolves around “raw denim,” which is part of every hipster’s lingo book. Global interest in denim remains strong, and it’s likely that this weave will still be produced as long as cotton remains a major textile product.

How is denim fabric made?

There are a few stages that culminate in the production of finished denim fabric products:

Cotton cultivation

The denim production process begins with the cultivation of the cotton plant. As a protective measure, this plant develops a thick ball of fibers around its small black seeds as it grows, and these fibers can be collected and separated from their seeds to make fabric.

Processing into yarn

Cleaned cotton fibers are combed and made into long, thin strings. Then, they are spun into yarn using an industrial machine. Throughout this process, a variety of washes, dyes, or treatments may be applied that change the attributes of the finished denim product.

Final production

Once cotton yarn is produced and dyed, it is woven into the iconic warp-faced denim style. This fabric is generally produced in bolts that can be purchased by the yard and shaped into finished consumer products.

How is denim fabric used?

This cotton product is used in several sectors:

Apparel

The majority of denim fabric is used in apparel. Examples of denim apparel items include:

  • Jeans
  • Skirts
  • Shirts
  • Blouses
  • Jackets
  • Vests

Accessories

Denim is also commonly used in accessories like:

  • Shoes
  • Belts
  • Purses
  • Hats

Homewares

As denim has become a fashion icon as well as a practical fabric, this textile has found its way into the homewares market in the following categories:

  • Drapes/curtains
  • Upholstery
  • Blankets/duvets
  • Pillows

Where is denim fabric produced?

According to Statista, India is currently the world’s largest producer of cotton. This Asian nation is closely followed by the United States with China in third place. These statistics mark something of an upset in the global manufacturing order; mere years ago, China’s authoritarian regime was the world’s largest cotton producer by a wide margin, but geopolitics have shifted.

How much does denim fabric cost?

Among the natural fabrics, cotton is one of the most inexpensive, and it is even comparable in price to cheap artificial fibers like polyester and rayon. It doesn’t cost that much extra to make cotton yarn into denim, which puts denim fabric in the middle range of fabric pricing.

Certain types of denim, however, can be quite expensive. Raw, organic denim, for instance, can cost dozens of dollars per yard, and in general, cotton products that were produced sustainably and ethically cost slightly more. Supporting good companies is worth the increased cost, however, and consumers are increasingly on the lookout for safe, organic textile products, which provides more profits in the long run.

What different types of denim fabric are there?

Over the years, quite a few forms of denim have been developed. Here’s some information on a few of the most popular options:

1. Raw denim

This type of denim has not been washed or treated. Generally, it is worn for six months to a year without washing to make sure it forms to the wearer’s body. Raw denim enthusiasts often resort to putting their jeans in the freezer overnight to kill off microbes and bacteria.

2. Sanforized denim

Most types of denim have been sanforized, which is the washing process that has resulted in modern denim fabric. While sanforized jeans are softer, they are also less durable, and they aren’t as personalizable as raw denim jeans.

3. Stretch denim

With this type of denim, cotton has been mixed with spandex or a similar material. The resulting fabric is stretchier than normal denim, so it is commonly used in form-fitting applications like skinny jeans.

4. Crushed denim

This type of denim features a weave that’s similar to velvet. It has a permanently wrinkled appearance that makes it appealing for jackets and skirts.

5. Selvedge denim

Selvedge denim has a fringe at the end, and this fabric is commonly used to make jackets.

6. Acid wash denim

This type of denim features an iconic mottled appearance. It’s made by washing raw denim in a strong acid that eats away at the dye.

7. Poly denim

The term “poly denim” is widely used to refer to denim products that are made with a mix of cotton, polyester, and any number of other artificial fibers. Along with polyester, materials like lyocell and nylon are sometimes added to cotton to make denim products. Some purists would say that poly denim is not “real” denim.

How does denim fabric impact the environment?

A variety of factors can affect the way that denim production impacts the environment:

Materials used

As a natural fiber, cotton has the potential to be a non-polluting substance. Like all plant crops, however, corners are often cut to produce higher cotton yields with toxic pesticides and fertilizers.

Much of the denim on the market is contaminated with toxins that could harm your health. What’s more, using chemical fertilizers and petrochemicals in the cotton cultivation process poisons ecosystems and causes health complications in local plant, animal, and human populations.

Moreover, some “denim” products contain percentages of polyester, nylon, or other artificial textile materials. All textiles other than natural fabrics were created from petrochemicals or similarly artificial substances, and these materials release incredibly dangerous toxins into the environment. These toxins are often genotoxic or hormone disruptors, which causes multi-generation genetic damage similar to the mutations observed after exposure to nuclear radiation.

Manufacturing practices

Once the raw materials for denim reach the factory, they may be washed, treated, or exposed to any manner of chemical agents. During this process, human workers may be exposed to airborne or transdermal toxins, and the general rule for overseas labor is that human beings are treated as slaves by major manufacturing corporations to increase profits.

Focus on sustainability

To avoid the negative environmental impact that always results from keeping people in slave-like conditions, it’s necessary to choose manufacturers that focus on free trade and sustainability. A growing number of textile producers around the world are coming into harmony with their communities and nature, and Sewport is the best place to connect with the right textile producer for your next project.

Denim fabric certifications available

There are quite a few organizations that provide certification for denim products. Only a few of these groups, however, are universally respected:

Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS)

Whether it’s cotton, wool, or silk, GOTS has made it its mission to determine the authenticity of organic, natural textile products. The GOTS logo is widely recognized as a sign of quality.

Supima certification

If you produce your cotton in the United States using organic cultivation processes, you might be eligible for Supima cotton certification. This group is highly selective with its licensing, but Supima cotton denim products are renowned the world over for their connoisseur allure.

Cradle to Cradle

This group makes sure that natural textile manufacturers follow struct sustainability and safety standards.

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About the author:

Boris Hodakel is the founder and CEO of Sewport - an online marketplace connecting brands and manufacturers, former founder of various clothing manufacturing services. He is passionate about e-commerce, marketing and production digitisation. Connect with Boris on LinkedIn.