They’re everywhere–on teenagers, farmers, middle-aged women, dockworkers, and even on business folk. They’re the symbol of America. Hardly a closet in the nation is without at least one pair of blue jeans.
If there is anywhere a uniform that establishes firmly that all women and men are created equal, it is the one made out of indigo-dyed denim. This hard-working cotton twill garment is hardly a fad, although it has had its moments. Like the sturdy folk who settled in this land sometimes far from the soil on which they were raised, jeans endure.
They are made from simple ingredients. And while no one these days gives half a thought to the jeans in their wardrobe, life has not always been thus.
Cotton, grown in cheap abundance for centuries, spun fine is the basis for this humble apparel. The journey this plant makes from the field to the form once required many hands.
Fields were tilled with mule and plow. Seeds were planted by hand. When the plant’s wide yellow flowers faded and seeds developed surrounded by a fluffy white boll, the seed heads were gathered in sacks dragged by the slaves of the land. The seeds buried deep and clinging to fluff were removed one by one in the dusk of an evening. Drop spindles twirled or spinning wheels whirred as endless threads were spun to make cloth.
Such efforts demanded long-lasting results. The weavers in Neims, a medieval town in France, made a cloth that was sturdy. Each fine strand crossed over two allowing threads to be packed tightly together. Easily identified by its distinct sloping line, it became known far and wide as the cloth “de Neims”. And so it remains; our “denim” was born.
For thousands of years plants have been used to produce colors for dyes. Indigo, found in plants from China to Africa, produces a blue that is both economical and beautiful. For the hardworking sailors of Genoa, from a time when Italy did not exist except as a collection of regions, denim was woven with the two threads of the warp dyed with indigo blue. For time and economy the threads that they crossed remained undyed white. Pants from this cloth with the dark surface up soaked up the sun, which allowed sailors trousers made wet by the sea to dry faster. From these Genoese seamen comes the name we have adopted for this tough apparel. Jeans.
Jeans, now a symbol of America, of equality, of democracy, of hard work and endurance, have roots far beyond the boundaries of our land. Take a fresh look at those jeans as you put your legs in one by one, the white side in, the blue side out. In a world where little remains of the past and little is passed on to the future, they represent a link to our ancestors and a legacy to our heirs, a common ground where the rich and poor, the native and the emigrant have no quarrel. While nothing is forever or for everyone, jeans come close.