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Jeans and denim: everything you need to know about jeans

By Esmee Blaazer


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Image: HNST campaign FW22 via Nightingale PR

Jeans are one of the most popular types of trousers in Western culture that have become a fundamental component of the casual wardrobe. However, while all jeans are denim, not all denim are jeans, and the two fashion staples are often confused with each other. While denim is most commonly used for jeans, denim can be used to make a number of garments and accessories, including jackets, shirts, dresses, skirts, and bags. But jeans still drive the multi-billion US dollar denim industry, with Research and Markets forecasting that the global market value of the denim jeans industry will be worth 95.2 billion US dollars by 2030, up from 64.5 billion US dollars in 2022.

But, what you might not know is that denim is a complex product and the manufacturing process consisting of many steps, which translates into a hefty price tag.

In this backstory, we answer questions such as: what is the difference between jeans and denim? What distinctive details do jeans have? What jeans models and fits are there? What is meant by washing, dyeing and after-treatments? What is involved in maintenance and care? And, finally, a history lesson on the birth and rise of jeans.


  1. Defining jeans and denim
  2. Composition of denim/jeans
  3. How are jeans actually made? (The weaving, dyeing, washing and after-treatments)
  4. Characteristic details of a pair of jeans
  5. Jeans models, leg shapes and fits
  6. Jeans sizes
  7. Distinction, pricing structure and marketing of jeans
  8. Maintenance and care
  9. History: How jeans were invented and became a popular garment

Chapter 1. Defining Jeans and Denim

Jeans and Denim: What's the difference

Jeans are a type of garment typically made from denim fabric and are characterised by double-stitching and rivets on the seams.

Denim is a fabric. It is made of firm cotton in a twill weave and dyed with indigo. A characteristic feature of denim is that the blue threads are on the outside and the natural threads are on the inside. Denim fabric is used to make a wide variety of garments, including jackets, overalls, shirts, and jeans.

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A distinctive detail of denim is that the blue threads are on the outside and the natural threads are on the inside. You can see that in this picture at the rolled-up trouser leg. Image: Kings of Indigo FW22 via UPR PR NL.

Chapter 2. Composition of denim/jeans

2.1 Composition of denim

Denim, as we mentioned in section 1, is made of cotton. Cotton is strong (and therefore suitable as workwear, see history lesson in section 8) and also very suitable for dyeing with indigo (see paragraph 'dyeing' in section 3.1).

Increasingly, stretch is being added to jeans. This involves polyurethane elastomer (also known as under the brand name Lycra) which makes the fabric stretchy or 'stretchy'. Blends with 1 percent elastomer are slightly elastic. No more than 5 percent elastomer is usually used in jeans. Fabric that stretches both lengthwise and widthwise is called bi-stretch.

"What is good to know is that if there is Lycra (elastane) in the fabric, the trousers may stretch a bit," Milene Tjong of Denim City told FashionUnited. "It is then important [to advise the customer] to buy the jeans just a bit tighter."

2.2 Denim is woven

Denim is woven using a twill weave. (Clothing) fabrics are usually knitted or woven. Twill weave is one way of weaving. (Other ways of weaving are e.g. plain weave and satin weave). In a twill weave, the warp and weft threads cross at least one up, two down, or vice versa. You can recognise a twill weave by the diagonal lines in the fabric.

2.3 Weight

Denim is available in different thicknesses. The thickness is determined by the weight. Weight is indicated in ounces (oz.) Light denim (4-8 oz.) is smoother and is usually used for shirts. Heavy denim (13-15 oz.) is stiffer, suitable for machining, and therefore often used for trousers.

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In this picture, you can see all kinds of denim garments: not just jeans, but also a denim jacket, denim waistcoat and denim skirt. Image: Levi's® x GANNI collaboration via Finally Comunicaciones PR.

Chapter 3. How are jeans actually made?

There are many technical aspects involved in the manufacturing process of a pair of jeans. In this section, we talk more about dyeing, washing and post-treatments.

3.1 Dyeing

In original denim, the warp threads are dyed with indigo blue while the weft threads are left undyed (or natural).

Dyeing uses indigo, a plant - the Indigofera - that gives off a beautiful blue colour. Indigo is a dye whose special property is that it does not soak into the fibres, but 'sticks' around them. When a yarn is dyed indigo, the dye sticks around the yarn and thus the core remains slightly natural. Friction during wear and washing wears down the dye and the jeans discolour or fade in certain areas.

The dye bath with indigo is repeated until the jeans have a dark, deep blue colour.

Nowadays, most indigo is synthetic (i.e. artificial or diluted), denim head Stacy Denzel Janmaat told FashionUnited. Other companies dye naturally with indigo, but of course, that comes at a price.

From the (dyed) denim fabric, jeans are then made.

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Image illustrating production. Property: HNST via Nightingale PR.
Image illustrating production. Credit: HNST via Nightingale PR

3.2 Raw denim and Customisation

A dark, deep blue pair of jeans is called raw denim, which is the English trade term for unwashed denim. Other trade terms are dry goods and virgin. An unwashed pair of jeans is also called an original denim. "As a denim layperson, you can recognise unwashed jeans because the trousers are very dark and often a bit stiffer," explains denim expert Stacey Denzel Janmaat.

The appearance of most jeans is [subsequently] changed. The term customisation is used when people edit their jeans themselves with, for example, bleach, scissors or abrasives, or make them personal(er) by decorating them.

Decorating and/or 'ageing' is done by the jeans brands factory by additional treatments that often involve water and/or chemicals (more on that in a moment in paragraph 3.5).

Good to know: an unwashed denim is a more sustainable choice you can make as a consumer, or advise as a jeans consultant! In fact, less water is used for raw jeans than for 'washed' jeans. "It means that the cotton has seen water the last time, during the dyeing of the yarns," Janmaat adds.

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Image for illustration. Credit: HNST via Nightingale PR.

3.3 Washing and treatments

Washing and treatment is everything that is done to a denim to change the look and feel [of original denim, see section 3.2]. This often involves water and/or chemicals.


The jeans go to a special laundry where the indigo blue of the yarn is partially washed away. The more intensively washed, the lighter the colour and the higher the (production) price of the jeans. The method of washing causes different effects or wear. The washing methods differ by brand and affect the price.


Stone-wash is the oldest treatment to give jeans a "worn" appearance. The technique using stones is not sustainable, which is why some laundries have replaced the stones with eco-stones: plastic or plastic stones with a rough surface. Another alternative is enzyme wash, which is done with enzymes. This is also known as a 'chemical stone-wash'.

There are also other finishing operations. One can bleach jeans with bleach water, or for example ozone, a technique in which jeans are bleached by gas. Another is brushing or sanding with sandpaper for particular wear spots and/or an "older" look. "Another process is damaging, or damage, through a grinder," Mirjam Choufoer, Jeans specialist TMO/Detex tells FashionUnited. "And you have resin, used to make wrinkles (creases or wrinkles, for example)."

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Distressed jeans with a 'worn' look from Levi's. The right photo shows a distressed jeans (see terminology box below). Credit: Levi's Buy Better, Wear Longer FW2022, via Finally Comunicaciones PR.

Definitions wash and finish

Finally, it is good to know the difference between washing and finishing. "By [the term] washes is meant all 'wet processes'. So all washes that involve water," denim expert Maarten Wentholt of Denim City clarified to FashionUnited. Finishes, or post-treatments, is the name for the entire process of embellishing jeans. Wet as well as dry techniques. Wentholt adds that it "also means 'the final finishes'. Like adding a softner to make the jeans softer."

Chapter 4. Distinguishing details of jeans

Distinctive details of jeans are:

  • The zipper fly or button fly, a zip fly or button fly.
  • Tag: a small tag with the brand name, usually stitched on the back pocket. Often the tag is in a striking colour such as red or orange.
  • Leather tag: this a rectangular tag, traditionally made of leather, on the back of the trousers, usually on the waistband above the right back pocket. The tag often shows the logo, the size (size) and some text or illustration (at Levi's, for example, you can see two horses trying to tear apart a pair of jeans, to indicate that a pair of the brand's jeans is indestructible)
  • Rivets: mainly copper-coloured nails
  • Stear button: button on the waistband. The seams and stitching often stand out because contrasting colours of yarn are used (Levi's has orange yarn, for example)

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In the left image (and right image at the very top) you can see a leather tag and in the image on the right you can see a tag on the back pocket. Image: Levi's® x Naomi Osaka, via Zeno Group
In this picture, you can see a coin pocket, rivets and contrasting yarns. Image: Levi's Buy Better, Wear Longer FW2022, via Finally Comunicaciones PR.

Chapter 5. Jeans models, leg shapes and fits

5.1 Models and pipe shape

The classic pair of jeans is the five pocket. This model has five pockets: two front slit pockets and two patch pockets at the back. The fifth pocket is small and is in the right front pocket (pictured above): it is called the coin pocket, or ticket pocket.

The pipe shape may vary.

  • Straight leg: a straight leg model with a medium width
  • Bell bottom: a style with wider flared legs from the knees to the ankles resembling the shape of a bell
  • Flared: a style with gradually flared legs
  • Bootcut: the leg is more or less straight, but tapers slightly wide at the bottom to allow the trousers to be worn over boots
  • Cigarette leg: super-tight five pocket, tapering narrowly downwards (to wear inside the boot if necessary)
  • Baggy jeans: model that runs very wide from a fitted waistband, but with a normal foot width (baggy means oversized or roomy).

The jean also comes in different versions apart from the model. Those different versions are the result of different washes and treatments (as we explain in section 3).

5.2 Fits

The way fit is described may vary from brand to brand.

Commonly used terms are:

  • Slimfit: tight, fitted ('slim' means 'slim', 'fit' means 'fitting')
  • Loose Fit: relaxed and roomy style that should be worn with a belt
  • Comfort fit: fairly roomy, easy fit
  • Tight fit: fairly tight
  • Regular fit: regular, classic (fit) shape
  • Relaxed fit: classic fit in wide fit

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Image: HNST Women high rise loose ecru jeans (left) and HNST men relaxed tapered nostalgia blue jeans (right). Credit: HNST via Nightingale PR.

Chapter 6. Jeans Sizes

The sizes of jeans are traditionally given in inches. An inch is approximately 2.5 cm. In addition, the waistband width (waist) and the leg length (leg) are indicated.

"The band width indicates the waist of the wearer," explains Mirjam Choufoer, jeans specialist at TMO/Detex. "W28 indicates that the waist of the wearer is 28 inches." Although the waistband width actually depends on the fit. "A low hip (low hip trousers, ed.) has a wider waistband width than what the label indicates," the specialist explains, "but whether you buy a baggy or a slim model, you always buy "your" trouser size."

Chapter 7. Differentiation, pricing and marketing of jeans

Denim brands offer similar models, there is not much difference between them in practice. Whether a classic five-pocket model pair of jeans comes from Levi's, Wrangler, Diesel or G-star, often the only visible details are decorative stitching on the back pocket or the label with the brand name.

With advertising, brands try to create their own image to differentiate themselves from other brands.

Pricing structure

The way of weaving, the washes, the details, the treatments make each pair of jeans unique and contribute to the price structure (as we explain in paragraph 3).

Top brands are more expensive due to higher-quality fabrics and more expensive treatments. An expensive brand of jeans may have undergone as many as 35 different post-treatments, resulting in a high(er) selling price.

"Sometimes 80 hours of workmanship is put into a pair of jeans," the marketing manager at Denham the Jeanmaker told FashionUnited in 2016.

Read more in:

Chapter 8. Care and maintenance

Jeans generally have a long lifespan.

A pair of jeans can last a long time because they are made of sturdy fabric (see paragraph 2.1 'composition of denim').

Many people find jeans nicer and more comfortable the more often they have been worn. Wear is therefore often not seen as a disadvantage with jeans.

Denim is easy to maintain. Jeans can be washed and ironed hot. But, jeans don't need to be washed often at all. The less often you wash it, the nicer it stays. “When washing, always put jeans in the washing machine inside out and never in the dryer," adds Milene Tjong of Denim City.

Some jeans you'd rather not wash at all. "Selvedge trousers buy unwashed with the intention that you also leave them unwashed. That way your own way of moving in them comes out," Maarten Wols of Groningen denim shop Ebb18 recently told FashionUnited. He recommends wearing the trousers a hundred times before washing them. Because when you wash it, the colour changes. This is called colour loss (see paragraph 3.1 'dyeing' for more information).

It is also recommended to bring raw denim to the dry cleaners to have it cleaned to retain its unworn character.

Stretch trousers also preferably not be washed hotter than 40 degrees because they contain elastomers. Elastomers should not be put in the dryer.

You will probably recognise that jeans feel stiffer after washing. This is because the cotton fibres have absorbed moisture and therefore become slightly shorter. This is called swelling shrinkage. After wearing them for some time, the fabric becomes more supple again.

Chapter 9. How jeans were invented and became a popular garment

The fact that a street scene without denim is now unthinkable is actually quite surprising when you consider that over two hundred years ago, this fabric was seen as the typical fabric for workwear.

"Originally, jeans were intended for prospectors and miners and later as workwear. In the second half of the 20th century, jeans would become the most widely worn garment and permeate all population groups and all parts of the world," according to omniscient Wikipedia on its 'Jeans' page.

Image: Wrangler - For The Ride of Life campaign September 2022. Credit: Wrangler via KMB Creative Network

9.1 History: from work trousers to everyday jeans

Here's where the name denim and jeans comes from

It begins in 1852. Levi Strauss goes to California (America) to search for gold. When the prospectors complain about the quality of the local trousers, Strauss decides to make copies from the rolls of tarpaulin and canvas he brought for the covered wagons. His trousers soon become in high demand and Strauss runs out of fabric and starts looking for a material suitable for decent work trousers. He then imports a twill from the French city of Nîmes called serge de Nîmes. The term ‘denim’ derives from the French "serge de Nimes", meaning "serge (a sturdy fabric) from Nimes".

At first, another problem is that the pockets of the trousers tear out. Tailor Jacob Davis hammered nails (or actually metal rivets) on the weak spots and in 1873 Strauss and Davis patented the first 'jeans'. That is the start of the Levi & Strauss Co brand as we know it today.

In fact, the first trousers were undyed or light brown. Strauss decides to have the fabric dyed in the same colour as the trousers of the sailors who brought the denim from Genoa. The name ‘jeans’ is believed to have derived from the anglicised word for Genes, the demonym for people from Genoa in Italy. Indigo is used for dyeing (see paragraph 3.1 'dyeing' for more information).

Competitors appear on the market only after 1900, Wrangler (1905) and Lee (1911). Lee introduced the zipped fly instead of buttons in 1920.

Read more here:

9.2 Fast forward: Jeans after 1950-1960: Denim becomes fashionable

After World War II, the function of jeans changed: the trousers were now seen more as leisure wear (rather than workwear).

Film stars, including Marilyn Monroe and James Dean, were seen sporting jeans - paving the way for a new understanding of denim.

Young people started wearing jeans, also to set themselves off from classic fashion.

After 1960, jeans become common for young people, partly due to the influence of American culture on European culture. (Jeans are in fact mainly seen as an icon of American culture, because the garment originated in the US as we explain in paragraph 9.1)

As we explain in paragraph 9.1, jeans are seen as an icon of American culture.

There is another social development that has a major influence on dressing behaviour: women's emancipation. Girls and women are starting to wear (denim) trousers. Furthermore, the hippie period influenced the success of jeans. Jeans acquire the image of freedom and self-determination and a youthful casual look.

9.3 The popularity of jeans

The jean grew to become one of the most popular and beloved garments. Why? "[A pair of jeans is popular because it is a classless, practical, durable and affordable garment," states Maaike Feitsma in her research on Dutch fashion identity with which she obtained her PhD in Nijmegen in 2014.

This popularity seems borderless. "Globally, the popularity of denim is growing," according to Research and Markets in its report 'Denim Jeans - Global Market Trajectory and Analytics' in January 2023. According to the research firm, the global market value of the denim jeans industry was 64.5 billion US dollars in 2022, and will grow to 95.2 billion US dollars by 2030. "Jeans can be worn on various social and official occasions, and have proven to transcend age and gender barriers. Growing interest in a casual look is driving sales," the July 2022 report said.

Image: Wrangler x ILGA World, via KMB Creative Network
Image: Wrangler x ILGA World, via KMB Creative Network
A few more denim terms:
  • Ripped jeans: jeans with rips and holes.
  • Distressed jeans is a term for a pair of (very) worn jeans. These jeans have undergone excessive wear, which has not only changed the colour of the fabric, but the trousers also have rips and holes. Also, the hems and seams are often frayed.
  • Whiskering: Whiskers - also known as 'moustache' or Japanese-style 'hige' - are the horizontal crease lines at the crotch, thighs and knees of jeans.
  • Black denim is the term used for deep black denim. "For black denim, people do not use indigo, but sulphur dye," Mirjam Choufoer, TMO/Detex jeans specialist reports to FashionUnited.
  • Coloured denim is the term used for denim that is not black or blue.
  • a jegging is a pair of leggings made of denim.
  • The mom jeans is a looser denim model, with a high waist, a relaxed fit at the thighs and a tapered leg. The trousers are usually without stretch. The model was very popular in the 1990s and is also currently back in fashion.
  • Dad jeans is used for jeans that fall higher in the waist and have a wide-fitting cut and a straight leg. The cut is roomy and loose-fitting the hips and thighs. Like mom jeans, the name comes from the 1990s and refers to the fit of the jeans models that fathers mostly wore back then.
  • Boyfriend jeans is used for jeans models with a lower hip, loose-fitting straight leg with a cropped length.
  • Patchwork jeans: a pair of jeans with a variety of patches, making it look like the jeans have been repaired or customised.
  • The terms Selvage/selvedge and selvedge jeans are still sometimes used interchangeably," Choufoer explains. "They are actually two things: selvage/selvedge is a denim fabric made on old looms, using a large shuttle for the weft yarn, which shoots back and forth between the warp threads. The zigzag movement of the weft thread creates a closed edge to the fabric: the well-known 'self edge'," says Detex's jeans specialist. "Selvage jeans are trousers where the side seam of the trouser leg is laid along the self-edge of the fabric. This results in high fabric consumption (which is why these types of trousers are expensive, among other things). This self edge is visible when the trouser leg is rolled up," Choufoer adds.
Image: a pair of selvage jeans (see terminology box above) by Oficina Reserva, a brand of Brazilian fashion group AR&CO. Credit: Oficina Reserva via Multifato (PR).
Further reading:
Image: Jeans made entirely from post-consumer recycled fibres, developed by Mud Jeans and Saxion University of Applied Sciences. Credit: Mud Jeans and Saxion via Mediatic PR


  • Detex Opleidingen, a Dutch training agency for fashion and retail.
  • Mirjam Choufoer, lecturer Fashion Products and Production at TMO Fashion Business School and Jeans Specialist at TMO / Detex Opleidingen
  • TMO Fashion Business School study by the author of this piece and specifically the book 'Fashion Advisor' by Mirjam van den Bosch, Astrid Hanou and Hans van Otegem, publisher Stichting Detex - Opleidingen, 2003, second edition, chapter Jeans (published here with permission of Detex)
  • Content from the FashionUnited archive by authors Yasmine Esser, Marthe Stroom, May-Anne Oltmans, Caitlyn Terra, Vivian Hendriksz, Anne Buis and Don-Alvin Adegeest (the original publications can mostly be found in the linked article text).
  • Wikipedia page 'Jeans'
  • Video from the University of the Netherlands 'Why have jeans become the standard?', October 2015.
  • Research and Markets research report 'Denim Jeans - Global Market Trajectory & Analytics', July 2022.
  • Research and Markets in its report 'Denim Jeans - Global Market Trajectory and Analytics' in January 2023
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