It has a French name. Yet it's part of America's soul -- even though its largest maker is a Canadian-owned company.
It's denim, the original wonder fabric.
In the form of blue jeans, denim has successfully shaped itself to the backsides of most of the civilized world.
And like the restless Westward spirit, denim moves onward. Open a catalog and there are denim futon covers, trunks, dog beds, belts, sneakers, hats, log carriers, napkins, curtains and place mats.
John Heldrich, chief executive of Atlanta-based Swift Denim, says his company sells denim even for lining caskets.
"It's truly universal," says Heldrich, whose company is owned by Montreal's Dominion Textiles and claims to be the world's largest denim maker.
"There's a global teen-ager. Anywhere you go in the world, denim is recognized and understood. It's a product that you can dress up and dress down. It's a cradle-to-grave product. You're born in it and you die in it, from Baby Gap to casket liners."
Even from an objective viewpoint, denim has built a remarkable record as it evolved from cloth for humble work-a-day garments to a flag of revolution in the 1960s to a fashion statement in these latter days.
Worldwide, blue jeans rank as the most popular product from America, according to surveys by the Roper/INRA organization. Fifty-nine percent of adults surveyed in 41 counties said American-made jeans were the best thing from the United States, followed by movies, cigarettes and TV shows.
Nearly 10 percent of all cotton grown in the United States goes into making denim, enough to manufacture more than 544 million pairs of jeans, 137 million denim shorts and 15 million denim skirts, according to Cotton Inc., the cotton-promotion agency in New York.
"It is the single highest cotton-consuming fabric in the world," says J. Nicholas Hahn, president of Cotton Inc.
About 1 billion, 480-pound bails of American cotton go into denim each year, he says.
Surveys by Hahn's organization estimate that the average American now has in his or her closet more than 16 denim items, including more than seven pairs of jeans. (Though many of them might confess, like Alain Lo of Chicago, that "at any one time, I have only two or three that fit.")
Not bad for a piece of cotton that can't even hold its color.
Denim is taken from the French "de Nimes," meaning cloth that originated in the French city of Nimes. Actually, the Nimes cloth was of wool, while traditional denim is cotton.
Just to confuse things more, "jeans" derives its name from "de Genes," which means from the Italian city Genoa, where a sturdy solid cotton twill once was made.
Denim was being made in Massachusetts and Maryland as early as 1750, using an English method. But by the time San Francisco dry-goods seller Levi Strauss made fashion history in the late 1800s with his sturdy work clothes, denim had taken on a specific meaning.
"Traditionally, it's a three-by-one weave, right-handed twill," says Heldrich of Swift Denim.
One hundred percent cotton twill yarn, colored with a blue indigo dye, is woven lengthwise with naturally colored white yarn. Three of the blue strands are pulled up, and one down, to create the gap where a shuttle passes through carrying the white yarn. That's why denim tends to be blue on top, and white underneath.
The "right-handed" part of the nomenclature refers to the direction of the grain in the cloth. If you hold up the leg of a pair of jeans made of "right-handed" twill and check, the grain runs downhill from right to left.
There are also "left-handed" weaves, and "Western" jeans have long been known for their "broken twill" that creates a chevron pattern in the grain.
Jeans originally were made of "ring spun" yarn, which creates lots of irregularities in the cloth but also produces a pair of jeans that lasts forever and grows more comfortable with each washing.
The newer, "open ended" process creates a denim that has a "raspy, dry hand," but fewer irregularities, according to Joanne Cooney, who is in charge of merchandising specialty items for Swift at the New York office.
As much as the weave, though, denim's character is a function of its color -- or more accurately the way it loses color and shows the white through the blue in unique ways.
But traditional denim is hardly where American manufacturers make their mark these days.
Denim production occurs on nearly every continent, and even with the newest technology, it's hard for American products to beat foreign prices.
So despite the continued strength of the jeans market, American denim makers are weathering "a little bit of a hiccup" because they added capacity just as some new mills in Mexico came on line, says Cindy Knoebel, a publicist for VF Corp. of Wyomissing, Pa., which makes Wranglers and is the world's largest manufacturer of jeans.
To beat the competition, big U.S. denim makers depend on better quality, innovative colors, materials and finishes, plus quick response to changing trends worldwide.
The biggest hit recently are baggy jeans, seen hanging from hips around the country.
Pub Date: 7/24/97