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Raghu Rajappa
Raghu Rajappa
Research & Development Manager, Scotts Garments Pvt Ltd

The Evolution of Denim Washes in Fashion Retail

From the Industrial Revolution till date, denim in all its diverse forms, styles, and washes, has become an essential component to complement any outfit. This versatile fabric was initially worn by miners in the US before it became a symbol of timeless fashion.

While several technologies and innovations are credited for giving denim its iconic status, one innovation that stands out is the process of denim washing. Washing denim is a crucial step in the fabric’s production chain, mainly due to the multitude of effects that consumers seek for their jeans.

Denim washing – a critical process in the production of denim garments – involves various techniques and methods to achieve the desired look, feel, and finish of the denim fabric. It helps enhance the appearance and comfort of the garment and also helps achieve various effects, such as softening the fabric, removing excess dye, distressing, and creating unique finishes like fading and whiskering.

Denim Washing
The process of denim washing is divided into three parts – dry, wet, and spray washing. Dry denim, as opposed to washed denim, is a denim fabric that is not washed after being dyed during its production. Wet and spray washing involves raw denim to give it an aesthetic finish to enhance its appeal and provide strength. In the first half of the 20th Century, denim was sold in its raw form. Soon brands and companies started washing their jeans before selling them because consumers desired a ‘lived-in’ look.

Pre-1980s, pioneers in the denim industry in Europe and the United States started experimenting with washing denim with stones, resulting in a faded look and the invention of the ‘stone washing’ technique.

Soon after, companies started testing out newer methods of creating worn and soft appearances for their types of denim. Some popular methods were ‘acid washing’, ‘hand sanding’ for rips and tears (a now banned treatment), and ‘spraying bleaching and oxidizing chemicals’ such as hypochlorite or potassium permanganate onto the jeans.

Techniques like ‘whisker’ and ‘chevron’ – a style of creating mustache-like worn-out lines or impressions by natural wearing on the hip and thigh areas – also became popular. Many of these techniques are trending to date. In recent years, the denim laundry industry has gone through a major transformation.

Manufacturers have adopted new and sustainable ways of washing and distressing jeans. Laser machines have replaced humans to reduce errors, ozone machines have reduced the use of chemicals and front-loading machines have led to less water consumption per pair of jeans produced. New technologies have also reduced the run time to create a denim garment.

The Evolution of Denim Washes in Fashion RetailThe Evolution of Washes
Raw Denim: The earliest denim was typically raw and untreated. It was stiǹ and had a deep, dark, indigo colour. Over time, wear and washing would create natural fades and distressing patterns.

Stonewashed Denim: As technology progressed, capitalisation became rampant and consumerism grew, customers wanted more than just raw denim. They wanted jeans that were stylish, soft, and looked designer. Innovators understood the task at hand and started working on pioneering techniques to cater to consumer demands. Stone washing, the earliest and one of the most well-known and widely used denim washing techniques was thus discovered. In this process, denim garments are washed with pumice stones or other abrasive materials in large industrial washing machines. The stones agitate the fabric, removing the indigo dye and creating a faded, worn, and soft appearance. Stone washing, which became extremely popular in the 1980s, is usually used to achieve a vintage or distressed look in denim.

Acid Wash or Bleach Wash: Also from the 1980s, on the heels of the stone washing technique came acid wash, a trend that involved using chemicals like chlorine or acid to create a highly distressed and faded appearance, often with a bleached-out effect. Acid washing or bleach washing uses bleach or chemicals to lighten specific areas of the denim fabric, creating a distressed effect. This method is often used to achieve high-contrast designs and unique patterns on denim. It can create a striking, bold appearance and is popular in fashion for its unique and edgy style.

Enzyme Washing: With environmental concerns becoming a reality, manufacturers started factoring in more eco-friendly methods of treating denim. Thus began the Enzyme Washing era. Enzyme washing is a gentler and more environmentally friendly method. It involves the use of enzymes to break down the indigo dye and soften the fabric. This process is especially effective for achieving a natural, worn-in appearance in denim without the abrasive effects of stone washing. It is known for its ability to create soft, comfortable denim with a subtle vintage look.

Vintage Wash: With the demand for a vintage look growing, a ‘Vintage Denim Wash’ was developed which refers to a specific washing technique applied to denim fabric to create an appearance that resembles the well-worn, faded, and classic look of vintage or aged denim. It generally involves fading around the seams, pockets, and knees, giving a well-worn appearance to new jeans. This style has been popular in fashion for its nostalgic and timeless appeal.

Whiskering /Hand Sanding (Dry Washing): With the vintage look came the need to create ribs and patterns on denim garments to mimic creases and patterns that develop with natural wear from movements like sitting over time. Whiskering was thus born. This dry finishing technique involves creating subtle, faded lines around the crotch, front pocket, and thigh areas. It works to remove the outer core of the indigo-dyed yarn to reveal the white core underneath the surface. On pre-washed or commercially processed jeans, fabricating whiskers is very difficult to achieve. They are artificially created by ‘hand sanding’ or ‘sandblasting’ the jeans before they are washed, although the former is a tedious, strenuous, and time-consuming job. It is also risky since it generates both fiber and sand grit. The technique must be perfect or unwanted inconsistencies in the worn pattern can occur.

Chevron Wash: Chevron wash denim is a specialized denim washing technique that creates a distinctive chevron or V-shaped pattern on the fabric by manipulating the dye and wash process. This is usually done during the dyeing process, by applying dye in a way that leaves areas of the fabric untouched thus creating a chevron pattern. Various resist techniques are used to prevent the dye from penetrating certain areas of the fabric. These techniques can include tie dye, wax, or other materials that block the dye.

After the dye is applied and the resist techniques are in place, the denim is subjected to a washing and finishing process. This typically involves several steps, including rinsing, washing, and sometimes stone washing, to achieve the desired color and contrast. This technique is often used to create a visually appealing and trendy look.

Laser Technology: Laser technology is a very popular tool for creating distressed denim. It allows for precise and customizable distressing, including intricate patterns and designs, without the need for manual labour or abrasive tools.

Sustainable Washes: Eco-conscious consumers are driving the development of more sustainable denim wash techniques that use less water and harmful chemicals. Sustainable denim washes are environmentally conscious and responsible methods of washing denim which aim to reduce the negative environmental impact associated with traditional denim washing processes, which often consume excessive water, energy, and chemicals. Some innovative water-saving technologies include ozone washing and laser washing, both of which allow for distressing and fading with very little to no water and chemicals.

Some sustainable denim washes employ plant-based or organic dyes, which are planet-friendly and also use energy-efficient washing machines to reduce energy consumption during washes. Closed-loop systems are also designed to recycle and reuse water and chemicals in the denim washing process, reducing waste and pollution.

Sustainable denim washes represent a growing trend in the retail fashion industry as it strives to reduce its carbon footprint.

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