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SUSTAINABLE DENIM
 

Sustainable Denim is an inquiry into the viability of engineering a domestic, organic artisanal denim. Denim is one of the most common fabrics produced in the apparel industry.  The twill weave, cotton yarn, and indigo-dyed warp are usually produced overseas were farming, sourcing, dyeing, and labor practices go unseen by consumers.  

This hands-on investigation was designed to inform and educate on the materials and processes involved to make denim fabric. The initial plan was to have a pair of jeans as an end result. Fate had another plan.

OBJECTIVES
 
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VISION

My MFA practicum titled Pastoral: Growing regional clothing from sheep to shoulder investigated the processesand viability of sustainably made wool garments. This expanded my role from weaver and textile designer to visualizer and systems creator. Just as I developed and created woolen textiles for garments, I knew I could approach denim in the same manner. The goal of this project was to develop a pair of denim jeans where all components were organic, traceable, and handmade in the US.  

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PROCESS

SOURCING

The first step in producing a sustainably made garment involves yarn sourcing, a frustrating endeavor due to
the lack of American grown and milled yarn in the marketplace. I searched for a suitable cotton yarn
to weave denim. The thread had to be US-grown and organic. I was surprised to find several sources, including Fox Fibres and New World Textiles. I chose New World Textiles. They had yarn that was the US-grown, organic, and in green and brown varieties! I bought a cone of each.

DYEING

After referring to Levi’s website, technical papers, and looking at my jeans with a pick glass, I determined I would need to dye my warp with organic indigo. Since the finished cloth was going to be used for clothing, I needed significant width. I determined 24 inches was perfect. Based on finished width, length, and ends per inch calculations, I needed approximately 13,000 yards for the warp and weft. I would dye the warp half of the yardage with my organic indigo vats.

WEAVING

Denim is a left twill weave structure that can be woven as a 2/1 or 3/1 twill. I chose to incorporate a 2/1 twill. This proved astute due to the compact threading of the warp and the weight it took to lift the harnesses for weaving. Before I could begin to weave, I had to thread each yarn of warp through the loom. 

This task was daunting.  The twist in the yarn was low, producing a weaker thread, causing many warps to break.  In addition, the warp yarn started to tangle on itself and required continuous tension.  I engineered C-clamps to hold pressure on the back of the loom so I could untangle yarns on the front.  

Once I prepared the loom, I started to weave the fabric.  The warp yarn was too heavy and difficult to incorporate at the calibrations I needed to produce hefty denim.  I decided to weave the material backward, so I had to lift less yarn each time I worked the loom.

As I wove, threads broke. This project was the definition of Slow Fashion. I took my time (weaving and repairing threads) and eventually wove 3 yards. I cut it off the loom and handed the yardage to Portland designer Adam Arnold.  

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OUTCOME

The yarn properties influenced the project's direction.  The denim fabric was soft and buttery, not rigid enough for jeans. Adam chose to honor these characteristics by constructing a dress. 

This dress is a personal wardrobe item that I have worn for nine years. I have altered, repaired, and embellished parts of this garment to fit my needs.  

The most successful aspect of the project has been hands-on education. I have shared these in a self-authored article for Hand-Eye magazine and have taught this as a course at the now-closed Oregon College of Art and Craft.