LB-V: So when I dunk it in you’ll see, like, I’ll just try to make minimal splashes. There it goes!
AT: Artist and curator Lukaza Branfman-Verissimo.
LB-V: Do you want to put on some gloves and put things in?
AT: We’re in her backyard in Oakland, making an indigo bath. Which is to say, we are making a natural blue dye, using powder from the indigo plant; and it’s kind of complicated. This is actually our second time trying to make indigo because the first time we didn’t get the ratio right. It’s tricky.
AT: Alright, take two!
LB-V: Yes, I have better help in it this time!
AT: Lukaza begins by stirring the indigo powder and the other ingredients together in this vat of hot water.
LB-V: I’m moving it very slowly because we don’t want the oxygen to get into the vat.
AT: You have to stir it kind of lovingly and slowly, and then if you actually do it right and all goes according to plan, it’s amazing.
LB-V: Yaaaaay! It’s doing what I want it to do!
AT: The indigo mixture seems to come alive in the water. It starts fizzing and glistening as you stir it.
AT: It’s so psychedelic. like these metallic shimmery bubbly chunks are swirling around in water. It’s like we were mixing a cauldron of deep swirling purple potion. And then when we dunked in some white t-shirts, they came out deep green. And then as we let the shirts dry in the sun, patches of blue gradually emerge, and slowly spread over the cloth. Like we had conjured it. It’s pretty cool.
LB-V: Yeah, I mean, I think it is really like a magical process. It also just like, makes a really beautiful color? It’s like, who doesn’t like indigo blue?
AT: Nobody. Nobody doesn’t like indigo blue. Or at least, I can’t imagine anyone hating it. It’s so ubiquitous. That would be like someone hating water. Indigo is everywhere. Because indigo is what put the blue in blue jeans.
TP: What’s great about blue jeans, we like to say that we pioneered them; and we claim being the inventor of them.
AT: This is Tracey Panek, the corporate historian at Levi Strauss and Company.
TP: They touch on the roots of the blue collar workers, they became a canvas for self-expression in the 1960s. So in many ways, they hit on key cultural moments that go across our society.
AT: This is the difference between denim and jeans: denim is a fabric that can be used in jackets, shirts, dresses, tablecloths, upholstery, you name it. Blue jeans are a very specific kind of pants. And they have a couple of hallmarks. For the most part they are blue, and they are worn in. They basically look like this.
TP: This that you’re looking at, is the oldest pair of blue jeans in the world. It dates to about 1879, and this is the blueprint for all blue jeans today.
AT: The world’s oldest pair of blue jeans. They looked, classic. Meaning they don’t really don’t look very different from the kind of jeans you’d find in a thrift store today. They’d held up well. Yes, they were patched and a little stained, but if I wanted to, I could have totally put them on right there, walked out of the archive wearing them, and the security guard wouldn’t even have noticed, because they’re still just jeans. The differences are subtle.
AT: This one only has one pocket in the back!
TP: We didn’t add the second pocket on to the back until 1901.
AT: And here’s the really cool thing about old blue jeans. With most of our clothes, we try to keep them pretty pristine and avoid spills and rips and tears. But denim is so hard wearing and hardworking that it just kind of amasses more and more signs of wear. So you can dissect a pair of old jeans like an archeologist. You can actually see how someone walked or sat.
TP: You’ll see all of this wear, this honeycombing, as we call it. That’s simply wear and tear from the people, the men who were wearing it. And we think that there were as many as three men who wore this particular pant.
AT: You can tell by looking at the impressions on the knees.
TP: The knee marks go up and down in several places because they are in several locations, we know that several people wore them.
AT: And that was common with jeans! They’d get passed around.
TP: They were sturdy enough that you could do that.
AT: Which is kinda romantic right? Because this is still how we like to think of our blue jeans today: broken in, durable, something to be worn and re-worn and passed around just like these original jeans. But the jeans you and I wear today may look like those original Levi’s. Hell, they may even say Levi’s, but they are NOT the same kind of pants. In between 1879 and today, pretty much everything that makes blue jeans blue jeans, from how they’re made, to what they’re made of, to where they end up, has changed. Because Blue Jeans reveal our wear patterns, our values. They show the movements we make over and over again. They show our true color. So denim was around before Levi Strauss. And blue denim trousers were around before Levi Strauss. But here is what Levi Strauss did that made the blue jean. He patented the rivets on the pockets.
TP: The innovation of the rivets is that you could take a little tiny piece of metal, add ‘em to the pockets, and they became much stronger. So if you’re putting your hands in your pockets, they’re not going to tear.
AT: The rivets were the big selling point, not necessarily the denim. And when they used denim, it wasn’t always necessarily blue. It doesn’t have to be; blue is just tradition.
LD: Denim can be any color…
AT: Lynn Downey is a biography of Levi Strauss and the former Levis corporate historian, before Tracey.
LD: Over the years the company did make blue and gold denim products. I think there was even…yes, there was even a red denim. Like red and white denim. But it was indigo, indigo blue-dyed thread that was easiest, that seemed to last the longest, and people just gravitate toward it!
AT: It’s hard to explain why humans are so attracted to indigo. Historically, the dye had massive power. Indigo used to be very rare and expensive, especially since that process of dying is so special and magical. Blue was a symbol of status and/or wealth all over the world, indigo has it’s roots in India, hence its name, and variants grow in Vietnam, and West Africa and the tropics. Anywhere where it’s humid.
LD: It needs humidity, you know, heat and humidity. The same conditions as rice.
AT: So indigo was also able to thrive in South Carolina.
LD: Indigo had first been cultivated in the United States in the 1740s by a woman. Oh, by the way, Eliza Pinkney.
AT: She was really a girl; she was 16 years old!
LD: Born on Antigua and her family then had plantations in South Carolina and she and her family moved there. …And her father had sent her some indigo seeds from the Caribbean. And she thought, “Hhmm let’s try this!” and she was able to cultivate enough indigo to make it a cash crop.
AT: In that way, American indigo has a cool, feminist success story. But when indigo became a cash crop, it became mass produced. And so that labor-intensive, magical process of making indigo was scaled up with slave labor.
AM: And I can just imagine the slaves, and the women especially, are stirring these indigo vats as they are processing this dye! And their hands were blue….
AT: Before the American revolution, before cotton became king, indigo was the second largest cash crop in the colonies after rice. There were indigo plantations all across the south, and some of them lasted well into the civil war.
AM: Virginia, South Carolina for sure. This story takes place in Georgia.
AT: This is Ann Masai. And she has this amazing story about her grandfather’s grandfather, who was born as a slave on an indigo plantation.
AM: His name is John, John Henry, and it was very common for them to swaddle the babies in the blue cloth.
AT: So when Baby John was born, his parents decided to escape. So they wrapped baby John in indigo and headed North.
AM: They crept through the underbrush, creeping their way up.
AT: About an hour after they left, they heard dogs barking in the distance.
AM: And the screaming of the voices that they recognized was the overseer. So they ran into the brush, they found a place to hide, they secreted themselves. And baby John started to whimper and fuss. Somebody came over and was investigating this noise.
AT: It was the overseer.
AM: He looked down just as the moon came out, and the baby John jumped and screamed out and suddenly the overseer ran away like, “Oh get out get out! The Yankees are here! The Yankees are here! The blues are here!”
AT: The blues of the union army uniforms.
AM: “Get out! Get out! The blues are here!” He saw baby john swaddled in the blue cloth, the indigo cloth, and the overseer thought that that was a Yankee in his blue cloth hiding and they’re going to be ambushing this group, and they got out.
AT: This story that Ann has is a rare one, passed from generation to generation. And hearing about an indigo plantation nestled in the land the cotton plantations presents a sad readymade symbolism. Because cotton and indigo go really well together.
LD: Cotton loves indigo. The cotton really loved soaking up that indigo.
AT: And this, according to Lynn Downey, is part of why jeans are blue. Not only was indigo a beautiful color that humans have always been attracted to. It was the color that could cling to fabric best, and it was a color that was very present in the united states, and relatively easy to procure.
LD: By the time that Levi was buying denim, which was the 1860s, there was a system in place for textile manufacturers to get their indigo.
AT: And this is where our idea of blue jeans kind of got frozen in time. Made to last forever. 100% cotton, 100% Indigo.
AT: Are jeans still made with actual natural indigo?
LD: Not really big lines of them, no.
AT: Indigo’s magic concoction is too fickle, and expensive, and complicated for a massive industrial scale.
TP: Most denim now is synthetic indigo.
AT: But synthetic indigo is not without its own kind of cruelty. It’s often made with petroleum, mixed with heavy metals, and other chemicals.
AK: Lots of chemicals that are used in the processing of this fabric is hazardous to humans.
AT: This is Ada Kong, the toxics manager at Greenpeace East Asia. She says the textile industry discharges the third most waste water in China. And this runoff chemical water gets disposed in the rivers and basically poisons them.
AK: The thing is that the waters might be used for the local farmers for irrigation. They might have a problem growing their crops.
AT: Lots of dye colors have harmful chemicals, it’s not just synthetic indigo. But, here is the other thing that makes denim especially noteworthy in terms of production. Jeans use up a lot of water.
AK: They’re actually all washed in China multiple times and all this washing wastewater goes to the rivers multiple times. That’s the special thing about denim.
AT: Yes, we expect jeans to be blue. But we also expect jeans to come soft and worn in.
EM: No other textile en mass is being purposefully broken down in this way before it even goes on a shelf.
AT: This is Emma McClendon associate curator of costume at The Fashion Institute of Technology. And she says after the jeans are dyed, they are washed, and maybe washed again, and maybe washed again. They are being broken down, being made softer and given that touch of white that emerges as the top layer of blue cotton is worn away. To get that worn-in look, manufacturers actually pour bags of rocks into industrial washing machines to pummel the jeans while they spin. This is stone washing.
EM: Literally washing jeans several cycles after they’re made into jeans. Washing them in giant industrial washers with varying sizes of stones. Pumice, you know this volcanic stone.
AT: Now I know, I know, you might be thinking, “No, no, I don’t wear pre-distressed jeans! I just wear simple sturdy well-made jeans and I hate all those artificial holes all over the place!” Well, here’s the thing. You probably do wear pre-distressed jeans. If you have bought jeans within the last 4 decades, they’ve been processed.
EM: When people bring up stonewashing, people think its something very 80s and that’s just not the case. Every jean on the market today that is not a raw denim jean has been stonewashed.
EM: Denim, raw denim, is incredibly stiff.
US: Feel this.
AT: It’s really heavy.
US: And hard, and raw. That’s not necessarily something you want to put on your body.
AT: This is Ulrich Simpson, a designer, and owner of the small independent denim brand UBi-IND, short for Ubiquitous Industries. He is showing me the raw, unprocessed denim fabric which is very thick and heavy, and it’s just a uniform dark, dark, dark navy blue. It has no stretch it whatsoever. No give. Jeans like that first pair of Levis from 1879 started off as raw just like this, all old jeans did. They only got soft because the men, or the three men, who owned them wore them down.
US: A lot of people don’t go there.
AT: Today, Ulrich is one of the few patient people who will actually wear raw, unprocessed denim.
US: I’m sure I’ve been chafed (laughs) but yeah, I mean, it’s just part of the process. It’s like breaking in a pair of shoes. Anything.
AT: I dunno, it kind of seems a little more extreme than that to me. Breaking in denim means you have to wear these thick, heavy, scratchy jeans for like six months without washing them.
EM: if you get something on it, you maybe try to vacuum or brush it off.
AT: And after all that time, after those many many weeks of chafing, you finally wash those jeans for the first time… And that first wash will reveal all the marks you’ve made. All the crinkles around your hips when you sit, the imprint of your iPhone in your back pocket, and then they will finally have that soft, worn-in feeling that we all associate with denim. But this is so much work! Only real denim heads bother to break in their own jeans.
US: It’s the, maybe 3% that will actually wait and go through that process to get it to then feel like this.
AT: And this is the one that’s been artificially processed?
US: Yeah, artificially processed.
AT: Denim makers artificially process jeans to break them down for you.
US: So that, you know, you don’t have to go through the breakdown period to look like that.
AT: And stone washing is one method for this, but also there are also manufacturers who will break the jeans down by hand.
US: You sand it down.
AT: People like physically…
US: They’re physically hand-sanding. They’ll hand sand all of this process with the fine sandpaper.
AT: Workers will sandpaper each individual pair of jeans to make them look like they’ve been worn in, to create marks and fades, even slight ones so that denim has that authentic, worn-in look and feel of those archetypal 1879 jeans worn in by three different men over the course of decades. So, in mass pursuit of this comfort and authenticity, blue jeans have become a completely different garment.
EM: The colors are different, they are synthetic and stretch elements in them. Like, what does it even mean to call something denim?!
AT: The labor of breaking in jeans has been transferred from the customer to the manufacturer. The blue is not indigo, and the cotton is not exactly cotton.
EM: I mean, denim has stretch. What do you think stretch is? denim increasingly has synthetic fibers in it. Denim is not cotton anymore.
AT: Lycra, nylon, polyester, it goes by many names, but let’s call it what it is. It’s plastic!
EM: This is as much applicable to denim as any other part of the industry.
AT: Emma McClendon says we’re at an unprecedented phase in clothing history. We’ve never had so many clothes available, with so much plastic in them. And no one knows what these leggings and sweat-wicking jackets and super stretchy jeans are going to look like 30 years from now.
EM: Plastics don’t age well and we don’t see it, because we throw it out before we see it at that stage.
AT: In the future, our jeans, which we’ve gone to such great lengths to make appear loved and worn in, will probably not age like those jeans in the Levi’s archive.
EM: This is what people need to realize: plastics sometimes age in such a way that they are attempting to go back to a gas, or they want to go back to a liquid. So that means that if you feel your sneaker sole that you’ve had for a really long time begins to stick to the floor, you should get rid of it because it is what we would call, weeping. Or other terminology, it’s going back to its liquid state. It’s toxic, you don’t want to touch it. Same with something if you keep a plastic comb or barrette or a Tupperware container you never know, in an airtight drawer. Say you don’t open it for years, and then you open it and you find shards; it means that it exploded. It literally combusted at some point and you will smell it. These things are giving off noxious fumes, and again, we don’t see this because we see plastic as disposable but that’s what this stuff is doing in these landfills.
AT: And the vast majority of clothes do end up in landfills. Even if you donate your clothes, you’re only delaying the inevitable. And again, this is not just jeans. There are plastics, and harmful dyes, and damaging processes in a lot of our clothes. Denim isn’t even the worst culprit.
EM: No, I mean, not more than necessarily any other particularly. I mean, like, leather is an industry with a whole lot of problems. Denim’s just one because you know you can isolate it so easily.
AT: Denim is easily isolated from the rest of the clothing industry because it is SO goddamn popular.
EM: On any given day, over half the population of the world is wearing jeans. So, when you have consumption numbers like that coming from one faction of the industry, that’s when that’s when this kind of environmental impact starts to become so significant.
AT: The average American owns seven pairs of jeans.
EM: Where these jeans are going to end up, what it took to create them? It’s just staggering.
AT: It’s also dizzying because in examining jeans, you realize that it’s nearly impossible to create a morally perfect piece of clothing; at least one that’s affordable.
US: There’s hypocrisy in everything we do.
AT: What do you mean?
US: Well, let’s take jeans for instance. You say, “Ok we’re buying organic jeans” and then you add petroleum-based indigo.
AT: So denim makers have to pick and choose their priorities. Whether those priorities are local labor…
EM: Some poeple are all about “local.”
AT: Or natural fibers…
EM: Not using pesticies or chemicals.
AT: Or comfort, or affordability, or trendiness…
Em: Obviously the ideal is that it’s all completely sustainable, that we’re all buying local, whatever. But the reality out there in the world is that it’s very difficult, or nearly impossible. So I think what people should do, who are listening, is that they should pick what’s most important to them.
AT: And your dollar is the vote you cast. Ada Kong at Greenpeace says companies directly respond to our buying habits.
AK: The American customers actually have power on the brands. And the brands actually have powers to influence the factories and suppliers in China. And this is what has been happening.
AT: Clothing manufacturers have been hearing a real consumer demand for sustainability.
TP: Well, we’re very excited.
AT: Tracey Panek at Levi’s says that the company is working on this technology where the jeans will be worn in with lasers, rather than stone washing and sanding.
TP: Using lasers to work on those finishes to cut down the time, and all the chemicals that are used. We have been working on ways to reduce the amount of water needed to create a pair of blue jeans and we’ve not only done that in our processing, the way we manufacture, saving water, but also in sharing the message that you don’t have to wash your blue jeans as much!
AT: And it’s true, you don’t have to wash your jeans as much. Really, you can wash them every 5th wear or so. And you can patch them, and stain them, and wear them and tear more than you can with other clothes. On the user end, within our closets, high-quality jeans are a very sustainable garment. As long as we don’t throw them away.
EM: What everybody should just do, is stop buying as much. The crux of the issue is that we should learn how to keep our clothing. Think of clothing as something to have and to mend, don’t automatically get rid of something.
AT: And if you do keep them around long enough, and really let them walk through your life with you, your jeans will start to express how you move through the world.
TP: Our pants and our clothing will continue to tell aspects about ourselves based on how they’ve worn!
AT: Arguably, blue jeans should be a thing of the past. But in modern times, without real cotton, or real indigo, or real years of hard labor wearing them in, we still want our jeans to look the same as they did in 1879. So in all these hidden ways, jeans have changed in accordance with society. In the ways they’re made and how they’re worn and they will continue to evolve, even if they continue to appear unchanged.