The history of jeans, part 1: from the origin of denim to indigo

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The history of jeans and their fabric, denim, goes through many different cities. While the name blue jeans comes from Genoa, the origin of the word denim is in Nîmes. Over the last decades, a third place has yet become a candidate for being the native city of the most beloved garment worldwide: Chieri, where the blue fustian used by Genoese sailors was produced.

The art of weaving in Europe in the 12th century and the use of blue dye on fustian

After the fall of the Roman Empire, in Europe, weaving returned to being run mostly locally by families or small businesses. Only in the 12th century the art of weaving started to come up beside agricultural activities, the most common in the area.

In 1144, Cathars arrived in Italy through the cities of Chieri and Milan. Catharism was a Christian dualist or Gnostic movement which thrived in Southern Europe, especially in Southern France and Northern Italy, between the 12th and the 14th centuries. In France, Catharism was considerably oppressed by the Catholic Church, while in Italy, the movement was more tolerated, even if considered heretical alike. Therefore, many Cathars escaped from France to Italy, bringing their culture and habits with them.

Cathars spread knowledge about the cultivation of woad, from which they obtained the blue dye used on fustian, a long-lasting fabric made of cotton, hemp, and linen, which was sold at a low price and was pretty widespread in Medieval Europe.

The fustian from Chieri, the denim from Nîmes, and the jeans from Genoa

Some centuries later, at the end of the 15th century, weaving woad-dyed fustian was one of the main economic activities in Chieri. It seems that this fabric was sold to the sailors working in the port of Genoa, who first used it to cover wares and produce sails and then, since the 16th century, to manufacture indestructible workwear.

A. Pittaluga, Coal worker in Ponte Spinola in Genoa, Duché de Gênes, Paris

According to a manuscript about the techniques and the art of fustian, found in 1945, in the 15th century, Chieri competed with the French city of Nîmes (where the word denim originated, meaning de Nîmes, from Nîmes) in the manufacturing of blue fustian. Serge de Nîmes was indeed a woad-dyed twill first made of wool, then mixed with cotton and hemp. Differently from the denim we use today, which has a 3x1 construction and the blue-dyed yarn in the warp, fustian has a 2x1 construction and the blue-dyed yarn in the weft.

Fustian is the actual ancestor of the jeans fabric we still know today, which represents the evolution of a fabric with a blue warp and a white weft shipped to London from Genoa (and hence called blue de Gênes, blue of Genoa, from which blue jeans) in the 17th century.

The invention of the flying shuttle by John Kay based on Leonardo da Vinci’s drawings

In 1495, Leonardo da Vinci was the first to draw a mechanical weaving loom and shuttle (now on page 985 of the Codex Atlanticus). They were yet actually engineered only over 200 years later, during the Industrial Revolution, by John Kay, who, in 1733, starting from Leonardo’s ideas, patented the flying shuttle, automatically shot by a paddle. The invention accelerated the weaving process and enabled the creation of bigger fabrics than those realized by passing the shuttle by hand.

From woad to indigo dye, the color of the new route discovered by Vasco da Gama

In 1498, Vasco da Gama discovered a new sea route linking Europe and India, which made the import of indigo (from the Latin word indicum, Indian) in the Old Continent easier. Indigo dye was already known in Asia in the 3rd millennium b.C., and in the Mediterranean basin, by the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans. Before the new route was discovered, it was yet scarcely used in Europe due to the high price caused by transportation.

Indigo is obtained from the fermented leaves of the indigofera tinctoria. Between the 16th and the 17th centuries, woad producers banned indigo, called the devil’s dye, threatening death to anyone using it. Soon, experts understood indigo was better suited for fibers such as cotton and flax, and it outweighed woad.

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