The history of jeans, part 2: the success of fustian in England and art

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In the first chapter of the history of jeans, we have seen that some European cities contributed to the invention of the ancestor of the most famous cotton fabric worldwide: fustian. Between the 16th and 17th centuries, this item was particularly appreciated in England, which started to export overseas, and so popular to be depicted in some works of art.

The use of fustian among the dock workers of Genoa

In Genoa, fustian was produced in the 16th century. This resistant and not expensive quality emerged among all the others manufactured then, especially in Italy and France, for its yarns made with cotton instead of linen, hemp, and wool and its indigo-dyed warp instead of woad. 

The port of Genoa was, at that time, one of the most important and progressive in the world. The robust fustian was used to make sails and cover wares to allow the vessels to cross the ocean safely, but soon, dock workers decided to manufacture their workwear with the same fabric to make their clothes indestructible. The blue color could also hide the recurring spots.

The role of fustian from Genoa in 16th century England

The words jean or jeans, sometimes varied in jeanes, geanes, or jeane, appeared in the English inventories at the end of the 16th century to identify the fustian imported from Genoa. Since the 12th century, England had indeed had a pivotal role in the European buying and selling of this fabric, especially the one made in Genoa and Ulm, in Germany, which was recorded in the documents with the name, often mangled, of the city of origin.

Some examples are the 1577 inventory by Thomas Pasmore from Richmond, in which two yards of whitt jeane were cited, and the 1578 inventory recording the bestselling fustian fabrics based on their city of origin: whit holme fustian and white holmes (from Ulm), fustion in aples (from Naples), jeanes fustian (from Genoa).

In England between the 16th and 17th centuries, the need for beautiful, yet cheap, fabric grew considerably. Fustian was found as a solution.

The Genoese fustian, which was not only blue, had a slightly higher cost than that produced in Lancashire, especially around Manchester, since the beginning of the 17th century and a far lower cost than that produced in Ulm. Its average quality, together with the price, set off its success, which made the words jean and jeans become common to identify the products with the same features as the Genoese fabric, i.e., linen warp and cotton weft threads. The growing Lancashire fabric production also made the jean famous in the United States.

The Passion canvases and the Master of the blue jeans

Meanwhile, the history of jeans started to intertwine with the history of art. Among the denim ancestors we know today, a relevant role is played by the fourteen linen canvases painted with ceruse and narrating the Passion of Christ, which are now in the Diocesan Museum of Genoa and known as Passion canvases.

The main characteristic of these artworks is their blue background. Indigo had been used in Genoa since 1140, but it became widespread only in the second half of the 16th century thanks to the increasing trade with Eastern countries.

The canvases were depicted between 1538 and the end of the 17th century for the Benedictine abbey of San Nicolò del Boschetto. They had been commissioned to some Genoese artists, including Teramo Piaggio and his coworkers, who were inspired by Raffaello and, above all, by Albrecht Dürer, copying some of his engravings. The artworks were showcased during the celebration of Holy Week.

The first depictions of clothes made with a fabric looking like contemporary denim also date back to the 17th century. Although they can be found in the paintings of Flemish, French, Italian, and Spanish painters, the most famous were depicted by an unknown artist named the Master of the blue jeans. The artworks, inspired by Caravaggio’s dark colors, show the daily and modest life of different people of that age. Many of them wear a blue fabric fading in some areas, such as denim, that today is artificially processed to recreate the wear effect that traditionally marks the fabric.

The nativity figures dressed in the Genoese fustian date back to the second half of the 18th century and represent mainly shepherds and panhandlers. They are the most ancient examples of clothes, even if in miniature, sewed with this fabric and come to the present times.

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