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Denim innovations: How brands are cleaning up the industry

By Veerle Versteeg

Apr. 14, 2021

The denim industry, as a part of the wider textile industry, which is one of the most polluting industries in the world, has come a long way since Levi Strauss developed its first pair of blue jeans for gold miners in the San Francisco area in 1873. Note that the first Levi’s blue jeans were reserved for men. Women had to wait until the next century, the year 1934 to be precise. The jeans developed by Levi’s were made out of a sturdy type of cotton fabric. To prevent this ‘jean’ fabric from ripping, Levi’s added rivets, and the first jeans were born.

Today’s consumers, especially the younger generations, demand more transparency and have generally become more critical when it comes to their purchases. Major fashion brands such as Levi’s have taken steps forward in reducing the water used during the production process, as well as making an effort to incorporate sustainability into other parts of the production process, from adapting their fabric dyeing techniques to taking a closer look at the raw materials used and their supply chain practices. But the industry still has a long way to go.

In this article, FashionUnited takes a look at the step by step process of denim production, and the innovations brands are using in each of these stages.

Cotton Cultivation

The production process of jeans and denim starts with cotton. The cotton needs to be cultivated, a process that uses a lot of water, energy and chemicals, and a process that often exposes its workers in the field to harmful pesticide residue and a number of other health hazards.

But brands are working to improve this part of the industry. Denim brand Wrangler, for example, has been working on making jeans from regeneratively grown cotton and is looking for cotton farmers that can demonstrate and document positive environmental benefits such as improved soil health after adopting regenerative agricultural systems.

Photo credit: courtesy of Wrangler

Dyeing process

After cotton has been cultivated, it is subsequently washed and different types of cotton are blended together. The cotton blend is stretched out to be made into yarn and traditionally it is then twisted into a rope. Next comes the dyeing process. The rope made from cotton yarn is submerged in an indigo paint bath. The number of times this submerging process is repeated will eventually determine the darkness of the yarn.

International company The Lenzing Group is one of the companies looking to make this dyeing process more sustainable and efficient with its newest innovation. In February, the company announced a new Tencel branded modal fibre that delivers indigo color while using fewer resources, all in a one-step spin-dyeing process. The new fibre meets high environmental standards and has been awarded the EU Ecolabel Standard for textile products.

Photo credit: Courtesy of The Lenzing Group

Weaving and washing process

Using a technique known as twill weaving, the colored threads are woven into diagonal lines. During the weaving process, one white thread is woven with three blue threads, over and over again. This technique makes the jean fabric very sturdy and durable. The woven fabric is then pulled and warped by the producer in order to prevent a rotating pant leg in the final product. The final step is a technique known as preshrinking which ensures the jeans model stays the same after purchase. When preshrunk, a pair of jeans will shrink 20 percent less after washing.

The finished denim fabric is now ready to be made into an actual pair of jeans. The denim is cut out into several sections based on a pattern drawn by a pattern maker. The sections are then marked so they can be sewn together accordingly. After the pair of jeans is sewn together, it is time for washes and finishing, or everything that happens to a pair of jeans to change its eventual look and feel such as bleaching the garment and other effects. The term finishing refers to the entire process of beautifying jeans, and includes wet and dry techniques. Stone-washing is the oldest treatment for giving jeans a 'worn' look. It is a method that requires the garment to be washed with volcanic pumice stones in an industrial washing machine. Brands are also reimagining this part of the production process.

Pakistani denim company Soorty, for example, has been investing in developing denim laundry systems in an environmentally friendly and socially conscious way. The company created one of Pakistan's most complex laundry spaces for wet denim processing and later opened its own spinning space and an in-house recycling unit to recycle both the water and the fabrics and fibres it uses.

Photo credit: Courtesy of Soorty Denim

The Jeans Redesign Project

But cleaning up the industry is a team effort, not something brands can do by themselves. In the face of growing consumer concern over the environmental impact of fashion, players in the denim industry are working together to launch new programmes and initiatives.

Back in 2019, the denim industry made a joint effort towards producing garments that are less harmful to the environment through the introduction of the Jeans Redesign Program, which promotes a circular economy within the denim industry. Leading fashion brands and manufacturers such as H&M, Gap and Tommy Hilfiger got the ball rolling when they joined forces with Make Fashion Circular, an initiative from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. The brands that have signed onto the initiative commit to creating a product or multiple products in adherence to the Jeans Redesign Guidelines. Over the past few years, more brands have signed on to this initiative. The majority of participating fashion brands have already debuted their most recent denim innovations under the project.

Photo credit: Courtesy of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation

The Dutch Denim Deal

Similarly, in fall 2020, Dutch and international brands signed the Denim Deal in Amsterdam, a pledge to reform and recycle jeans. The project, which is an initiative by House of Denim and the Dutch government, looks to create a circular economy and reuse more old denim garments. 30 brands have already signed on to the Denim Deal, including Kings of Indigo, MUD Jeans, Kuyichi and Amsterdam apparel brand Scotch & Soda. Acting as a blueprint for making denim garments from other materials, the 30 participants in the Denim Deal have agreed to produce three million jean garments that contain at least 20 percent recycled textiles, with the goal to eventually make at least 5 percent recycled textile in all denim garments the norm.

Another international collaboration was launched last week, when global platform Fashion for Good announced that Levi Strauss & Co. is the newest addition to its network of brands. Fashion for Good has its own museum in Amsterdam which explores the concepts of sustainability and innovation in fashion and collaborates with fashion brands and producers to make these concepts accessible to the broader public. By joining Fashion for Good, Levi’s hopes to deliver on an industry-wide scale when it comes to sustainability and innovation. Fashion for Good offers a platform where the industry can collaborate on an international scale, offering businesses the resources to expand and maximize their sustainability commitments. For Levi’s, the focus will be on addressing the plastic challenge, fiber transparency and traceability, and the potential of shifting from wet to dry fabric in finishing processes.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Levi Strauss & Co.

Belgian chemical textile finishing company Devan and technological company Jeanologia, which specializes in sustainable finishing techniques, recently announced that they have joined forces to reduce water use by evaluating the application of Devan garment finishes via the patented e-Flow technology that is more cost-efficient and more sustainable than traditional application equipment, according to Devan and Jeanologia. e-Flow technology can accomplish a number of finishing effects on garments and minimize the amount of water used while generating zero discharge, according to the companies who note that e-Flow can be used in every industrial washing machine. The e-Flow technology provides an alternative to the traditional abrasion process that forms a part of the finishing process for garments. Instead, e-Flow uses micronization and nebulization, meaning that it uses nano-bubbles instead of water. This method ensures that the right amount of chemistry stays in the garment instead of ending up in the water as residue.

Photo credit: Courtesy of Devan Chemicals

Homepage image: Courtesy of H&M / Ellen MacArthur Foundation