The evolution and devolution of denim

Denim is a curious fabric. I can’t think of any fabric that is currently so torn with regards to which way it should develop. On the one hand the traditional denim companies are doing what they do, continually creating a better and more technical and high quality product. On the other hand you have the heritage-orientated companies taking development back to the roots, using vintage looms and reversing the evolution in the name of a more distinct denim.

Imagine if you suddenly had a sub-culture that decided that 1920’s cars are totally superior to todays cars. We can obviously relate to how the vintage car was simpler to make, easier to maintain and in retrospect had a more distinct style, but we can’t quite get by that it was slower, less reliable and vastly more dangerous than what is todays state of the art.

While denim isn’t a method of motorised transport, but I’m fascinated by how development can vigorously proceed in to quite different directions. Where companies like Wrangler and Rapha are pushing the envelope with regards to the fabric properties, creating fabric that is strong, insulating and water resistant, you have a huge amount of small companies pushing development back to the roots, intentionally creating fabric that looks, feels and wears like it was hand woven on a ancient loom. And there is a market for both right now.

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Modern weaving loom in India (courtesy of Peggy Osterkamp’s Weaving Blog)

I’ve previous written about Rapha and their cycling jeans, how they put major effort into developing fabric technology that would advance the functionality of their jeans for active use. Now Wrangler are doing similar work, developing their line of “Born Ready” denims to have insulating properties as well as being water proof. And they still look like jeans, not some space-age crinkly-foil ravers gear.

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Wrangler “Rain ready” technical denim (Courtesy Wrangler)

Of course, it’s not only the tech features that are being developed. It’s also the more fundamental issues of fabric production that are being developed. It’s no secret that the production of cotton is a major environmental issue, with the huge amounts of water, pesticides, nutrients involved in producing the basic cotton. Organic cotton has been a way forward, recycling existing fabrics another. Even the dying comes under scrutiny, as there isn’t enough natural indigo to go around, and the traditional processes involved are from a time when health and safety meant don’t lose a finger in the loom.

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Image courtesy Anders Helseth/Steel Feather

What gets the most press though is the back to the roots gear. Using old Toyoda looms and traditional techniques, the denim should be heavy of weight, have selvedge edges, be slubby of texture and laden with natural indigo, preferably woven on narrow vintage looms in Japan. Heck, I don’t have any problem at all getting behind that at all. A thick, blue denim with lots of character in the weave is great, no doubt about it. Even though I occasionally shake my head when I hear about how the looms are diddled so as to add even more “character” to the fabric. Bu then, for this type of denim, the story or narrative that accompanies it is a big part of the product.

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The clubby 18oz heavyweight Japanese selvedge denim used by Companion Denim.

For one part of the business it becomes a question of how can we make a bad product better, for the other par it’s a question of how can we make a good product worse, so that it becomes a better product. If that makes any sense at all? It’s a strange old world.

A superb 18oz denim by Pure Blue Japan.

A superb 18oz denim by Pure Blue Japan.

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