Explained: Denim Artisans

Walking through any boutique or department store, it is easy to see that every pair of denim is different, with variations in color, weight, pattern, stiffness and wear.

This is largely the work of specially trained denim artisans known in the industry as “wash developers”. These skilled craftsmen hand process virtually all denim in the marketplace today. Using a combination of specialized washing machines, hand held grinding tools with metal burrs, sandpaper, and a variety of (somewhat environmentally friendly) chemicals, they create, entirely by hand, what people know of as a denim “wash”.

For designers, the wash developers are one of the most crucial pieces of the denim design puzzle. They work closely with the denim designer, who communicates exactly the look and feel they are seeking for each piece. The artisans then take the constructed jeans and use their knowledge and skills to create the final product and achieve the designer’s vision. Without them, we would all be wearing raw or ‘unwashed’ denim, and everyone’s product would look pretty much the same.

Because the denim laundering process is so crucial to what we do, we took a couple of hours during a recent trip to Washington, D.C. to stop by a laundry exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History. The museum has used an actual home from Ipswitch, Massachusetts to illustrate nearly 200 years of American History. As families moved in and out, the town developed into a bustling industrial center. During the late 1800s, one part of the home was occupied by an Irish immigrant named Catherine Lynch, who ran a clothing laundering business. The exhibit details the difficult process of doing laundry in the late 1800s through a number of intensive steps:

1. Soak the laundry overnight.

2. Scrub the laundry in hot lye suds. This was a physically demanding process of rubbing the linens against a wash board to remove stains and filth. Lye is a corrosive alkaline powder; while modern detergents have replaced lye with other, more effective, less harsh materials, it is still used today in oven cleaner.

3. Boil white linens and cottons.

4. Rinse the clothing.

5. Rinse again with bluing powder. Because many stains could never fully be removed from white cloth and left a grey or yellow tinge, bluing powder served as a light dye to make the cloth appear whiter, even with the stains.

6. Dip in starch and hang to dry.

7. Iron the next day.

Laundry in the 1870's: Smithsonian Institution

Smithsonian Institution: Scrub in Hot Lye Suds

While laundry at home in 2011 is as simple as loading a machine, pouring detergent, and pressing a button, the denim laundering process is closer to the laundering process of the 1800s, with several intensive steps to achieve the desired result.

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