Material Matters: Denim Dissected

Material Matters Denim Levis Air Jordan 4 3

Denim is everywhere. Not only is it one of the most common fabrics on the streets today, it may also be one of the most mythologised. As with anything that’s been talked about for so long, some of the stories are true and some of them aren’t. The woven cotton has become a common material in the sneaker world, thanks to its ubiquity in the wider fashion sphere, so it’s about time we got the story straight – what’s so amazing about denim?

Nowadays, denim and jeans are synonymous. But denim was all the rage long before the first pair of Levis rolled out of a factory in San Francisco. The earliest denim trousers were made in Genoa, Italy – or as the locals called it, Genês. They used a type of serge, which featured a two up and two down weave structure that made it extra tough in comparison to a regular one-by-one weave. It was dyed blue using natural indigo, which is a pigment extracted from the leaves of certain plants. Having originated in the south of France's famous Nîmes textile region, this blue, two-by-two woven fabric became known as serge de Nîmes (serge from Nîmes). Before long, serge de Nîmes was cut short to ‘denim’ and the pants from Genês were simply ‘jeans.'

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The original Levi's patent
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Jacob W Davis and Levi Strauss

The next big step in the life of denim came in 1873 when a man named Jacob W. Davis, a tailor who had emigrated to the United States from what is now known as Latvia, was asked to reinforce some work pants. At the time, canvas and denim workwear needed to last. Lumberjacks and miners couldn’t afford to constantly replace their beat up gear, and although the fabric was tough, their garms tended to fall apart at the seams. Plenty of people were seeking ways around this problem, but Davis’ solution of reinforcing stress points with metal rivets was the best by far.

Demand for the riveted five-pocket pants grew so quickly that Davis was unable to keep up. In the end he approached Levi Strauss, from whom he’d been buying bolts of denim, to ask if he'd like to buy the patent for the riveted design. Strauss was so impressed that not only did he buy the patent and list Davis as the inventor, he also hired him to oversee the mass production of the first ever Levi's riveted jeans.

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New Balance 990v3
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Detail on denim Converse

Denim jeans remained a workwear garment until massive cultural shifts after the Second World War brought them into the public consciousness.  Jeans had become the downtime trouser servicemen wore when out of uniform, and when they returned home, they stuck with them. For the newly empowered female workforce, jeans became a mark of pride as many continued to work and support their families while their returned husbands struggled to find jobs. Whichever way people looked at it, the indigo pants had become a symbol of modern America. Their break away from tradition gave the trousers an air of rebellious cool, which was catching among the youth.

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Steve McQueen
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Dennis Hopper (Left)
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Japanese Toyoda loom

Denim jeans eventually became firmly routed in the wardrobe of the American youngster thanks to iconic rebels such as Steve McQueen and Dennis Hopper in the late 60s. Other countries soon followed their example – Japan, for instance, where kids were desperate to get their hands on the old, beaten up jeans of the occupation GIs. Interestingly, once the Japanese textile industry discovered that they could repurpose their locally built Toyoda shuttle looms to produce brand new denim, their original love of beaten up Levis prompted manufacturers to create the first pre-distressed denim as an attempt to mimic the authentic style.

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Indigo dyed warp yarns on a loom
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The Reese Forbes SB Dunk High uses both the blue warp side and white weft side

The most common type of denim you’ll find today is woven using a three-by-one pattern. All woven fabrics are made using two different yarns, the one that goes up and down and the one that goes side to side; otherwise known as the warp and the weft. A three-by-one weave is characterised by the fact that each string of yarn will run over the top of three perpendicular yarns before ducking under one, then back over three, under one, etc. Because the standard method for indigo dyeing denim is to colour only the warp yarns, the side that shows more of the warp appears blue, while the side showing more of the undyed weft yarns stays white.

There are a huge number of factors that can contribute to the strength of a piece of denim, such as the length of cotton fibres used, the direction in which the yarns have been twisted, weight of yarn and tightness of weave. Nevertheless, even the wimpiest of denim fabrics will prove to be tougher than the equivalent of a lesser weave. Knitted loops will unravel, regular one-by-one twills will get runs, but denim holds up to all kinds of abrasion and wear. So naturally, it’s a good thing to consider if you want to build some shoes.

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Ronnie Fieg x ASICS GEL-Lyte III
Material Matters Denim Capsule New Balance 580 1
Capsule x New Balance 580
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Jordan Brand x Levi's

However, the age of denim sneakers didn’t really kick off until brands began producing more for the lifestyle consumer, as opposed to athletic. Despite all of its hardwearing advantages, the unforgiving fabric doesn’t have the same directional stretch properties that have seen canvas and nylon adopted into early sports styles. But being the quintessential lifestyle fabric, it didn’t take long to catch on.

Releases such as the Reese Forbes SB Dunk Low, Ronnie Fieg x ASICS GEL-Lyte III and the Capsule x New Balance 580 have stuck in our minds as some of the finer examples of denim sneakers, while the Levis x Air Jordan 4 has been hot property lately. So if you have a soft spot for denim sneakers, you’re not alone. We have no doubt that the material will be a favourite among sneaker designers for decades to come. Besides, if you’re going to rock the Canadian tux, you’d best make sure you’ve got matching shoes.

Material Matters is our weekly tech section where we peek behind the mesh curtain and examine the building blocks of the industry. Recently, we’ve looked at How Nylon Changed the (Sneaker) World, The Archival Inspiration Behind DBZ x adidas and Nike React vs. adidas BOOST.

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