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The Early Denim In History

Art works in the monastery of San Nicolo del Boschetto

The history of jeans and their fabric stretches across several different cities. The name “blue jeans” comes from Genoa (Genoa, a port city in northwestern Italy), but the word “Denim” originates from Nîmes (Nîmes, a province in the south of France). In recent decades, a third city has emerged as a candidate for the birthplace of jeans—Chieri, an Italian town and commune, where the blue Fustian (a coarse twilled cotton fabric) used by Genoan sailors was produced.

The Use of Woad on Fustian

After the fall of the Roman Empire, weaving returned to the hands of local families and small enterprises across Europe. It wasn’t until the 12th century that the art of weaving started to gain prominence beyond agricultural activities.

In 1144, the Catharists, a medieval Christian sect that flourished in Western Europe during the 12th and 13th centuries, traveled through Chieri and Milan to Italy from the south of France. In France, Catharism faced significant suppression by the Catholic Church, but in Italy, although considered heretical, they found more tolerance. Consequently, many Catharists fled from France to Italy, bringing with them their culture and customs.

The Catharists spread the knowledge of cultivating woad, which rendered a blue dye for Fustian coloring. At the time, Fustian was a durable fabric made from cotton, hemp, and linen. It was affordable and common in medieval Europe. A manuscript from 1945 detailing Fustian craft revealed that the fabric used a 2×1 structure, with weft threads dyed blue; whereas the Denim we use today generally employs a 3×1 structure, with warp threads dyed with indigo.

By the end of the 15th century, the production of woad-dyed Fustian had become one of the main economic activities in Chieri. This fabric appeared to have been sold to sailors in the port of Genoa, initially to cover goods and make sails. From the 16th century on, it was used to manufacture virtually indestructible work clothes.

12th - 15th century woven woad dyeing process

Fustian’s Impact on England

Towards the end of the 16th century in England, terms like Jean, Jeane, or Geane became popular on inventories to distinguish products sharing similar characteristics with the imported Fustian from Genoa. Between the 16th and 17th centuries, England saw a substantial increase in demand for attractive yet affordable fabrics, with Lancashire cloth emerging as a solution. Its medium quality, combined with a price even lower than Fustian, led to its success. The ever-increasing production of Lancashire fabric also gradually became famous in America.

Art works in the monastery of San Nicolo del Boschetto

Tracing the Legacy of Jean Fabric in Art

Meanwhile, the history of jeans begins to intertwine with art history. Among the ancestors of what we now recognize as denim, 14 linen paintings depicting the Passion of Christ played a pertinent role and are now preserved in the Diocesan Museum of Genoa, known as the Passion Canvases.

Painted between 1538 and the end of the 17th century, they were created for the Monastery of San Nicolò del Boschetto and commissioned to various Genoan artists, including Teramo Piaggio and his colleagues. Inspired by the German artist Dürer, Teramo Piaggio replicated some of Dürer’s engravings, and these artworks were displayed during Holy Week celebrations.

Evidence for the earliest use of a fabric similar to modern denim for clothing can also be traced back to the 17th century. Although similar garments can be found in the paintings of Flemish, French, Italian, and Spanish painters, the most notable were painted by an anonymous artist known as the “Master of the Blue Jeans.” The works, inspired by Caravaggio’s use of dark hues, depicted everyday life of people from that era, many of whom wore blue fabrics that faded in certain areas.

The figures in Caravaggio's paintings wear denim