A Guide to Denim Washes and Techniques

Let’s start our discussion of this iconic fabric with a bit of history. Ever since the inception of “blue jeans” in the 1870s as workwear for miners and cowboys (thank you, Levi Strauss), denim has evolved to become the most popular fabric in the world, bar none. It’s durable, wrinkle resistant, long lasting and looks great with practically anything.

Now, with so many fabric techniques and washes to choose from, today’s denim designers are finding ways to make tried-and-true blue jeans even more desirable than ever. Button- or zip-fly, baggy, skinny or boyfriend, dark or vintage-washed, there are few fabrics that lend themselves to more unbridled creativity than denim. And the consumer just loves it.

In fact, Revuz says: “The average American owns seven pairs of blue jeans, and approximately 450 million pairs of jeans are sold in the United States per year. The 2019 world wide denim jeans market was estimated at over 60 billion dollars.” They go on to say, “Over 300 million pairs of women’s jeans were sold in the U.S. alone. Online sales are growing in the denim jeans market, with a 32% increase in purchases made through e-commerce channels.”

Denim is definitely a fabric that’s here to stay. In fact, designers are forever finding creative ways to incorporate denim into collections that aren’t just about jeans. At Teg, we are endlessly fascinated by the myriad of creative ways emerging designers are using this staple fabric.

Fun Fact: Most denim comes from the mill “indigo dyed.” The indigo dyeing happens through a fermentation process that breaks the dye molecules into simpler substances. In this stage, it dissolves in the solution and the fabric yarn gets dyed. The magic happens next, when it’s exposed to air and the beautiful, deep blue of indigo is achieved.

But what happens after that is up to you.

Stone Wash

Towards the end of the seventies, pumice stones were discovered to accelerate the aging process of indigo-dyed denim garments. Thus, stone washing was born. Stone Wash is the most common and basic process for producing a washed-down look on denim garments. In fact, almost every denim garment you see today has some version of stone wash (unless it’s made from a raw, rigid denim).

The stone washing effect can be as gentle or extreme as you like. The degree of the “wash-down” effect depends upon several factors – the size of the stone, stone ratio, liquid ratio, duration of treatment, garment load, etc. Different stone wash names like sand wash, golf ball wash, micro wash and micro-sand wash refer to the use of various sizes of pumice stones used.

Acid Wash, aka Moon Wash (or So Totally ‘80’s)

Acid washing or “moon” washing is done by dry tumbling the garments with pumice stones pre-soaked in potassium permanganate solution. This is how the localized bleaching effect – in a non-uniform sharp blue/white – is created.

Unfortunately, this is probably the least environmentally-friendly of all denim treatments. The manganese dioxide formed out of the potassium permanganate must be removed from the fabric after the process. Furthermore, hypochlorite (also used in the process of acid washing) is a pretty harsh chemical. It can damage the fabric, resulting in severe strength loss, breakages and pinholes at the seams and pockets. And since hypochlorite is a hazardous chemical, it needs to be disposed of in an environmentally friendly manner. Sadly, that doesn’t always happen.

Rinse (or Mill) Wash

Rinse wash is the simplest among the washing applications used in denim fabrics. If you want the denim to retain the most indigo shade possible, and yet still offer a little softness, this is the wash for you.

In this type of washing, the fabric is washed in cold or warm water for a short or medium term, depending on the amount of softness – in both color and appearance – is desired.

Since rinse washing is a light washing process, it does not cause major changes in the physical properties of the fabric. However, it can (and most likely, will) cause some shrinkage. Don’t forget, even the smallest changes in fabric after washing have great consequences on the sewn product.

Enzyme Wash

Enzymes (which are molecular proteins) have opened up exciting new possibilities in denim finishing by increasing the variety of options available. What’s more, the use of enzymes makes it now possible to fade denim to an even greater degree without running the risk of damaging the garment.

This technique has some environmental advantages over stone washing. The use of enzymes instead of pumice stones prevents damage by abrasion to washing machines and the garments, eliminates the need for disposal of the used stones, and improves the quality of the waste water.

What’s more, the load of garments may also be increased by as much as 50% since stones are no longer added. Therefore, less water is used overall and more fabric is treated at the same time.

Bleach Wash

In bleach wash, a strong oxidative bleaching agent is added during the washing, with or without pumice stones. The purpose of the bleaching is to decolourize the dark blue shade by destroying the indigo dye molecules with oxidative bleaching chemicals.

While bleach wash is very effective, it does come with a bit of an impact to the fiber and the environment. Done improperly, it can damage the fabric. What’s more, the bleach used in the process has to be disposed of, creating polluted wastewater.

But it’s not all bad news for this popular technique. Ecologically less harmful methods such as laccases, potassium permanganate, potassium persulfate, sodium caustic and peroxide have been tried, with varying results. So ask your fabric wash house about which method they use. The more you know, the better.

Mechanical Techniques

  • Bullets: This is one of the more creative techniques we’ve seen. It literally involves shooting at the garment with bullets. As part of the proof, some jeans manufacturers incorporate the empty bullet cartridge in the trouser pocket.
  • Scrubbed: The surfaces of the trousers are scrubbed with brushes in this process, to effect suede and partially fluffy appearance.
  • Razor, sandpaper and Dremels:  Exactly as it sounds.

So, if you’ve read this far, we assume you’re thinking about trying your hand at denim. The real trick is to make your denim collection stand out from the other 450 million pairs of jeans sold each year. One way to do that is to take advantage of the myriad of ways you can approach this much-revered fabric. Another way is to think out of the box and get creative with your designs.

We’d love to hear about your plans for your next collection (denim, or otherwise). Feel free to reach out to us at https://tegmade.com/get-in-touch/ or give us a call at 800-916-0910.

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