Sneaker brands love to introduce us to the latest advancements in the footwear world. If you compare some of the shoes out there these days you’ll notice the big brands are engaged in a technological arms race in a quest for sneaker world domination. In recognition of the pioneering spirit we’ve decided to break down some of these features, week by week, in our new Material Matters series. Each edition will talk about some teched out aspect of the sneaker game, new and old, to help build a bigger picture of what goes on behind the mesh curtain of the industry.
It can be easy to overlook traditional materials in the footwear industry – we often take them for granted because they’ve just sort of – been there. Instead, we get carried away by waves of technology, which fade away as soon as an updated version appears on the shelves. There’s one particular building block of the sneaker that has been around for longer than the rest, it stretches back to days before the sneaker industry emerged – longer than any industry, in fact. It’s played a part in shaping global trade, capitalism and manufacturing. There aren’t many materials that can claim to have had a bigger impact on the world than cotton.
Cotton is a fluffy white fibre that grows in a boll – or pod – around the seeds of the cotton plant, each boll can contain up to 250,000 individual fibres. People have been spinning cotton fibres into yarn, and then weaving it into fabric for a little over 6,000 years. Cotton plants are native to warmer climates so it wasn’t until people started travelling long distances until the rest of the world started to notice it. Once Europeans discovered the cloth it became a precious commodity, cold European cities could only produce wool, shorn from sheep, and linen, which is woven from flax fibres. It was a common belief around Europe that cotton plants looked something like a lamb sprouting from a giant flower. Cotton offered plenty of properties that the native textiles didn’t, it was comfortable next to the skin, strong, easy to clean and held coloured dyes well. Once Da Gama made his voyage around the Cape of Good Hope in 1498 he proved that it was possible to sail to the Indies, rather than travel overland – European nations could suddenly get more cotton, transport it faster and cheaper. The East India Company was set up in 1600 to make the most of the recently discovered trading routes and soon cotton became one of their main commodities.
The importation of cotton into Europe continued, mostly in the form of finished cloth until a few clever inventions in Europe sparked the beginning of the industrial revolution at the end of the eighteenth century. The price of cotton went down as production skyrocketed and growers struggled to keep up.
These days we have all kinds of fancy machinery to do the hard work and can produce huge amounts of the raw fibre – each year there’s enough cotton grown around the world to produce 21 t-shirts for every person on the planet. Cotton isn’t a commodity any more; it’s a staple fibre.
After thousands of years of fine-tuning, there are a lot of considerations that go into the production of good quality cotton fabrics. Generally the longer the staple of the cotton – the fibre length – the better the quality of the finished fabric. When long staple cotton is spun together into yarn there are fewer end points along its length so it won’t pull apart as easily or wear as quickly from friction. Yarn is produced to a certain density, spun with a determined number of twists and a certain thread count. Weaving the cotton takes a whole new set of considerations with things like density, ends per inch and the list goes on. The modern world has no shortage when it comes to variations of cotton fabric.
Canvas has always been known as one of the sturdiest weaves – long before sneakers existed people were using it for things like sails, bags and tents. Canvas was created to be tough and durable, while certain types could be woven so densely as to render them waterproof. Although the modern version is generally made from cotton, it was traditionally woven from hemp.
In 1892 the US Rubber Company had an idea to make, arguably, the world’s first pair of sneakers. The process used to make rubber shoe soles had already been invented for use on croquet shoes, so all that was left for them to do was pair the rubber sole with some kind of upper – something that would breath and flex, unlike the leather footwear of the day. The answer was cotton canvas. The densely woven fabric would be tough enough to withstand the abuse, while the breathability and absorbency of the cotton made it the perfect thing for vigorous activity. They named the shoes Keds, and by 1917 they were in mass production. That same year another iconic canvas shoe was born when Marquis Converse’s basketball shoe started to make waves, it blew up a few years later when it was endorsed by a basketball star named Charles (Chuck) Taylor.
Canvas shoes soon transitioned away from being specific to sports, as holiday-makers embraced the notion of the sand shoe and the every-day merits of the sneaker were realised. They spread across the world as military issued training shoes and soon enough, moved into fashion magazines and trendy shops. The sporting world sought to outdo canvas as our ideas about athletic footwear grew wilder. Eventually canvas was outperformed, as lighter, more breathable fabrics were developed, but it stuck around in some form.
Cotton canvas eventually became the go-to for casual footwear. As the Ivy League embraced canvas boat shoes in the 60s, peace and love saw canvas prevail over leather in the 70s, the arcades and BMX tracks of the 80s were dominated by Converse and then 90s grunge wore them until they fell apart. As Nike SB rose out of the ashes of the early 00s skate shoe scene, canvas played a big role and doesn’t seem to have wavered since. Jordan’s deconstructed canvas Air Jordan 1 is about to drop to a world of sneakerheads who don’t need to question the merits of the fabric – it’s been around for that long, it must be good.
As sneakers have grown in popularity, ridden waves of fashion and acted as a staging ground for some crazy tech, the canvas upper has remained one of the most common options around the world. Next time you slip your foot into a pair of canvas shoes just take a second to appreciate how much better off we are with cotton.
In the last Material Matters we had a look a Nike Flyknit, check it out here.