Denim and Jeans

Denim and Jeans: Then and Now

Men’s work clothing in the form of sturdy woven cotton pants have been a staple for centuries. The term “denim” comes from the French “serge d’Nimes” or fabric of the city of Nimes. The term “jeans” can be traced to the sturdy work fabric used by dockworkers in the Italian port city of Genoa. A recent art exhibition, however traces the earliest confirmation of this fabric, by an unknown artist known only as “The Master of Denim,” to 1655 near Venice.(6) The most famous jeans in the United States have their origin with a German immigrant, Levi Strauss, who emigrated in the middle of the 19th century and found a business opportunity in California. Gold miners needed strong pants to work the gold fields following the discovery of gold in 1849. His denim jeans were developed with bar tacks and rivets at key stress points to keep pockets from tearing off the pants. His famous label, still in use today on Levi’s brand jeans, a product of Levi Strauss & Co., shows a team of mules trying to pull apart a pair of his jeans.

In Alamance County, Durham and Greensboro, NC, strong fabrics were in high demand during the 1890s. The Baltimore­based Cone family headed by sons Moses and Ceasar, decided that the supply of fabric and yarn was too irregular from the Holts and the Erwins, so they decided to take the bull by the horns and build a denim factory in northeast Greensboro in close proximity to the supply of cotton, coal from western Virginia coalfields, and the railroad for transportation of finished fabric. Proximity Manufacturing Mill was begun in 1895. Shortly thereafter in 1905, White Oak was built and grew to become the largest denim producer in the country. The Cone Denim web page states that one­third of the world’s denim came from these plants in 1910. Manufacturers of ready to wear pants such as Blue Bell Inc., also located nearby to produce the famous Wrangler brand jeans. Vanity Fair Mills purchased H. D. Lee in 1969 and became VF Corporation. Blue Bell was purchased in 1986. VF is located in Greensboro, NC

Farah Jeans for Boys
Life Magazine 1959
Courtesy TJS Labs






Wrangler Jeans Ad from
Life Magazine 1953
Courtesy TJS Labs






Jeans were important work clothes for decades but really did not capture the imagination of the American public until western movies in the 1950s that starred Roy Rogers, Gene Autry , and John Wayne in Levi’s and Lee Riders. Later, the rebellious students of the 1960s took denim as their fabric of choice after watching movies featuring James Dean and Marlon Brando. The rest is history, so they say. Denim became the symbol of youth here and around the world. Recent marketing statistics released by Cotton, Incorporated, the marketing and research arm of the American cotton farmer, tells us that the average American has seven pairs of jeans and continues to re­supply at a constant rate. A visit to any major retailer will convince you that denim jeans are here to stay. The variety of offerings will boggle the mind of anyone of us who came through the 1950s as a child. I probably had three pairs of regular straight leg denim jeans supplied by manufacturers like Wrangler, Lee and Levi’s. The two newest pairs were for school wear and the third and oldest pair was reserved for after school play. The pants got washed on Saturday morning. Today, retailers such as JC Penney and Target have no less than 20 different name brands. The number of SKUs (Stock Keeping Units) runs over 140 for Penney’s Womenswear jeans. Jeans are available in regular fit, relaxed fit, straight leg, boot cut, skinny and with hidden compression zones; regular indigo, deep dye, super wash, light wash, medium wash; distressed, be­jeweled, acid­washed – you name it. Ken Greeson of Cotton Inc. reminded me that Cone Mills re­washed and bleached flood­damaged denim and discovered a whole new product named “Pinto Wash”.

Rodeo Cowboys wore Lee Riders in this Life Magazine ad from 1954
Courtesy TJS­Labs






Where do jeans come from today vs. yesterday? American cotton supplied American denim processors like Cone and Erwin, and then Burlington, Swift (merged to form Swift Galey then merged with Denim North America), Mount Vernon Mills, American Cotton Growers and others became manufacturers. Mergers and acquisitions saw Burlington disappear when Dominion of Canada tried to buy the denim division in 1986­7. In order to defend their position, Burlington fought a long and costly battle with Dominion. They won the battle but lost the war. In the end, the denim division was sold to Swift. In the meanwhile other suppliers such as Marubeni, Columbus, GA (since 2002 Denim North America) and UCO Fabrics (a partnership of UCO of Belgium founded in 1998 in Rockingham, NC and closed in December 2008) came and went. American manufacturers looked to Mexico and Central America for alliances and especially for cut and sew. The emergence of NAFTA helped these ventures until the wave of imports from Asia swamped everyone.

Today, the jeans sold in the shopping centers by Levi’s, Lee, and other brands come from Mexico, China, Bangladesh, Vietnam, and Pakistan and from other minor exporters. The largest percentage growth occurs in Nicaragua, Vietnam, and Macau. Where will it end? Anything is possible when the government sets most- favored nation policies. Perhaps Haiti will receive more industrialization following the recent earthquake centered in Port­-au­-Prince?

We know that Guilford County, Alamance County, and the greater Piedmont region of North Carolina contributed greatly to the history of denim and jeans.



  1. Company web sites
  2. Cotton Incorporated “Supply Chain Insights” available at
  3. Personal communication, Kenneth Greeson, Cotton Incorporated, February 2010.
  4. Personal communication, Peter Hauser, NCSU, College of Textiles, February 2010.
  5. Wikipedia VF Corporation.
  6. Unknown artist “The Master of Denim,” three paintings, 1655 Venice.