Denim is one of the most popular kinds of fabric in the world, mostly because of the universal appeal of jeans. But when you go to buy jeans today, you may find the many different shades and styles of denim a bit overwhelming! This easy guide will help you understand the different denim fabric types and colors.
Denim fabric contains cotton fibers in a diagonal twill weave, traditionally made by crossing white and indigo threads to create the blue-grey denim shade. Different styles of denim use a variety of dyeing and washing techniques. Some types of denim also use a lighter or heavier weave or contain special features like slubbed threads or a waxed backing.
In this article, you will learn where denim comes from and how it is made. You will find a brief overview of 21 different types of denim. Finally, you will discover tips on how to choose high-quality denim jeans and jackets.
- What is Denim Made Of?
- Is Denim a Color?
- How Many Types of Denim Are There?
- 21 Different Denim Fabric Types and Colors
- Color Shades of Denim
- What Type of Jeans Fabric is Best?
- What is the Softest Jean Material?
- Is Denim Good for Hot or Cold Weather?
- What is the Best Type of Denim?
- How Do You Know if Denim is Good Quality?
What is Denim Made Of?
Denim fabric is made out of yarn-dyed cotton in a twill weave. The simplest way to understand this is that this fabric contains blue and white threads woven together in a diagonal pattern. The diagonal weave makes denim extra durable and a tiny bit stretchy.
Traditional denim starts its life as the fluffy balls on cotton plants. These fluffy fibers go through a fairly intense manufacturing process that turns them into yarns. Most of the time, manufacturers dye the yarns before weaving the fabric. This is why you see the term “yarn dyed” applied to many types of denim.
Regular blue denim uses a 50/50 mix of indigo-dyed yarns and white or bleached yarns. This gives the fabric its trademark blue color on the outside and the paler white color on the inside.
The contrasting colors happen because of the nature of a twill weave. Most denim is structured in a 3 X 1 twill weave with three warp yarns running sideways over every one weft yarn. The finished weave has a diagonal ribbed pattern with long, noticeable diagonals called “twill lines” running through it.
Of course, as you will see later in this article, you can buy dozens of variations on this classic color and structure these days! But traditional denim always contains 100% cotton and uses indigo dyed yarns in a twill weave structure.
This material became famous in the late 1800s when Levi Strauss launched his innovative line of workwear pants made out of denim. Of course, today we know these iconic pants as jeans! These tough pants took the world by storm and remain one of the most popular forms of clothing today.
Denim’s history does stretch a bit farther back than that, though. The first twill weave fabrics came from a place in France called Nimes, and the fabric received the name “serge de Nimes,” or “cloth of Nimes.” Eventually, the name of the sturdy cotton twill fabric we all know and love turned into “denim” in English!
Is Denim a Color?
Denim is a color name used to describe a greyish blue shade. The name “denim” did not start as a color–it began as the name of a particular type of fabric. But jeans have such universal appeal that everyone knows what denim looks like, which led to the recognition of denim as a color and fabric.
If you want to use denim to mean a color, you will need to specify that something is “denim-colored.”
Denim-colored typically means the indigo and white shade of traditional blue jeans.
How Many Types of Denim Are There?
You can find dozens of different types of denim that have unique colors or finishing washes. The major differences between varying types of denim are the weave, color, wash, and weight.
Almost all denim shares the same 3 X 1 twill weave structure, though you occasionally see a variation that uses just two warp threads over the weft thread, called 2 X 1. More common differences in weave structure use special design elements like using slubbed threads within the twill weave. You also sometimes see double-weight denim or specially lined denim for insulation.
Another key difference in types of denim depends on the weight of the fabric. Manufacturers measure the weight of the fabric in ounces per square yard. This tells you how heavy one square yard of the material is.
Why does weight matter? Different thicknesses in the yarns used inside the fabric can create a thicker or thinner, lighter or heavier fabric. If you plan to work on a ranch all day, you may want a thick, durable weight of denim!
Because jeans and denim fabric are so hugely popular, you can find the fabric in many different colors and washes.
Traditional denim uses a natural indigo dye. Modern variations also use sulfur dyes, usually applied to the finished garment. You can find dyed jeans in colors like black, red, yellow, etc.
The final factor in determining the type of denim is the wash. Some types of denim go through a wash that gives the fabric’s surface a unique appearance. This is how you get faded jeans or jeans with a softer feel.
Other names for denim include jean fabric, dungaree fabric, or blue jean fabric.
21 Different Denim Fabric Types and Colors
Check out this brief overview of the top twenty-one denim fabric types and colors! Here you can find out how the fabric weight, color, and wash all create uniquely different types of denim.
Raw denim contains 100% cotton that remains unwashed. This gives the fabric a stiff, unyielding feeling but allows it to mold to your shape as you break in a pair of jeans. This also means that it can develop its own signature “fades” better than washed denim because the stiff edges will crease and rub on each other as you break in the garment.
Raw denim also usually has a very dark blue appearance, as none of the dye has faded in its first wash yet. Some jean enthusiasts swear by this type of fabric because of its ability to conform to your unique body shape, but this untreated fabric has a big downside: it tends to shrink during its first few washes.
For this reason, you also see raw denim called “shrink to fit” meaning that you should buy it a size larger than usual, so it can shrink down to fit you!
Most denim sold in clothes like jeans and jackets goes through a pre-shrinking process called sanforization. This treatment runs whole bolts of the fabric through giant rubber rollers while moisturizing it with hot steam. This process causes the material to shrink by 2-3% before it gets made into clothing.
The great thing about sanforized or pre-shrunk denim is that you can buy clothes in your normal size without worrying about them shrinking in the wash!
Selvedge DenimSelvedge denim is a high-quality material made on a shuttle loom with unique self-finished edges. You can find out whether denim came from this type of loom or not by looking at the cuffs of jeans, which will show this white finished edge.
Selvedge denim costs more because it uses the more difficult shuttle loom. It also usually comes without any kind of wash or sanforization, meaning that it will shrink to fit you.
Stretch DenimIf you have ever worn skinny jeans, you know that stretch denim contains a small percentage of elastic! Typically, jean manufacturers include about 1% to 3% of elastane fibers in with the cotton fibers.
The invention of this fabric led to fashion innovations like skinny jeans, but you also commonly find stretch denim in slim-fit jeans and any other figure-hugging style.
Many popular brands, such as Levis, will offer various cuts of jeans in either stretch or traditional denim, so you can select the type you prefer.
Unlike most kinds of denim, polycore contains a blend of polyester and cotton fibers. Polyester costs a lot less than cotton and offers extra durability. Cotton provides the traditional look and a soft feeling.
Jeans made from polycore may also use polycore thread for the stitching, This type of thread has a polyester core and cotton fibers wrapped around it to create a weather-resistant and sturdy stitching on the surface of the garment.
If you like the classic soft fade of traditional 100% cotton denim, you may want to check the manufacturer’s label inside the jeans before buying them! This will tell what type of material is used in the fabric.
Most denim uses two different methods of dyeing. These include the traditional indigo dyeing technique and the newer surfer dyeing method.
Indigo DyeClassic blueish white denim uses a type of dye that originally came from indigo plants. Today, many fabric manufacturers use synthetic indigo dye because this allows for a cheaper, more precise coloring process.
During the indigo dye process, giant spools of cotton yarns get dyed at once. Then the blue threads are woven together with undyed white threads to create the unique twill weave of denim.
Sulfur dyes create colors like green, black, and brown when applied to plant-based fabric that contains cellulose. Since denim typically contains 100% cotton, this type of dye bonds with it very well! Different kinds of sulfur dye can also produce red and yellow shades, though you do not see this as often.
Sulfur dyeing is one of the most often used techniques for dyeing any type of cotton fabric. It does not cost too much and maintains good colorfastness.
Tinted denim goes through a different process that gives it a slight shade of color but not a true color change. The tinting happens during the washing process after the denim is made, the jeans are made, and the sanforization process has taken place.
At this point, a special tinting agent adds some color to the final wash bath. The jeans pick up a tint, or hue, of that color.
For instance, stonewashed jeans with a tint may look slightly red in the faded patches! Tinting is not technically overdyeing, but it does happen after the main dyeing and washing process.
Double Dyed Denim
Double-dyed denim goes through twice as many dips in the dye bath as classic denim. Traditional denim uses a yarn-dyeing technique of coloring half of the threads before weaving the fabric. Typically, thread spools get dipped in the dye bath 6 to 8 times during this process.
Double-dyed denim uses 12 to 16 dips in the dye bath instead, creating supersaturated, rich colors!
Of course, as with any type of fabric that requires extra steps and materials, double-dyed denim does typically cost more.
Ecru DenimEcru denim is a cotton twill-weave fabric made without any dye. It maintains the plain off-white color of undyed cotton.
Another way to look at it is that any undyed denim is called ecru denim.
In most cases, the color falls somewhere between a pale sandy shade and pure white.
You sometimes see this shade called vanilla, off-white, or cream.
One of the most popular ways to get a distinctive appearance for denim jeans and jackets is to use various washes. These washes change the surface of the material in unique ways.
Acid WashAcid wash jeans go through a chlorine and pumice stone wash to get a faded, almost-white look. They often feel very soft because of tumbling around with the pumice stones during the treatment.
The popularity of acid wash jeans stemmed from the surfer culture in the 1960s when surfers prized the lived-in look of jeans bleached by many hours near the sea and sun.
Later cultural groups like the punk rock movement appropriated this concept but took the shortcut of using bleach to get that faded look more quickly.
Laser-treated jeans use a laser beam pattern burned into denim to give jeans a vintage or distressed look. This modern process may replace traditional washes in the near future. Brands like Levis have already started using laser treatments to create famous looks similar to a stonewash or an acid wash style.
Laser treatments have two big advantages over a traditional wash. First, they do not require water, making the method way more environmentally friendly. Second, they take less time, making the process more cost-effective.
Stone-washed denim goes through a tumble wash in a large rotating drum equipped with paddles. The paddles force the fabric through the water and cause it to constantly rub against large pumice stones. The stones abrade the surface of the fabric and create a one-of-a-kind faded design on it.
Wearing away some of the surface fibers makes the fabric feel very soft. The key thing to remember about a stonewash finish on jeans is that they look faded or worn-in.
Enzyme-washed denim uses a highly advanced process that chemically removes some indigo dye from the cotton fibers, creating a faded look. Technically, an enzyme wash works because it applies cellulase enzymes to the fabric in a spray or a wash. The enzymes then react with the cellulose inside the cotton fibers, causing some of the indigo dye to break free.
This process has some advantages. It does not need as much water as stone washing. This makes it a sustainable alternative to stone or acid washing.
Waxed DenimWaxed denim has a coat of wax either on its surface or on its reverse side as a protective feature.
For a long time, this fabric mostly showed up in bags, purses, and other such items as a way to make them more sturdy. In recent years, waxed denim has also seen increased popularity for fashionable clothing like jeans and skirts.
Waxed denim in clothes has a stiff feel and looks kind of like pleather, with a matte surface of wax laid over the fabric.
Double DenimNot to be confused with double-dyed denim, double denim features an attached lining on its reverse side.
Also called thermo or lined denim, this kind of fabric provides loads of extra insulation and makes jeans comfortable during the winter!
As a fun fact, wearing a denim top and bottom at the same time also gets called “double denim”–usually in a negative way! You may also hear this look called the “denim tuxedo.”
Slub DenimSlub denim uses unevenly spun indigo threads to create a lumpy surface in the material.
The irregularities or lumps in the weave are called “slubs.”
This type of denim requires special equipment to make and does not show up as much in ready-wear fashion because of that. Despite that, it creates a really distinctive pair of jeans!
Crushed denim receives a final treatment that keeps the fabric wrinkled. The process begins during the weaving, when one of the weft yarns twists within the twill weave pattern. Then an additional washing causes the fabric to shrink and crumple up.
Crushed jeans have a hardcore vibe that some jeans-wearers love. They also provide additional cooling because of their rugged surface.
Different Weights of Denim
One of the most important differences between various types of denim is their weight. In the United States, denim weight is measured in ounces per square yard. This means that manufacturers list how much a square of fabric that measures three feet by three feet weighs in ounces.
Denim fabric that weighs less than 12 oz per square yard falls into the lightweight category. Lightweight denim typically does not fade as much as a midweight will. It feels much more comfortable in hot weather and also weighs less for activities like hiking, though!
Many fitted jeans or jeans made with stretch denim use lightweight material.
In some cases, the term “lightweight denim” also applies to plain-weave cotton fabric dyed the blueish grey of blue jeans. Technically, this fabric is not denim because it lacks a twill weave. It is often used in blouses and skirts.
Most sturdy jeans made without any elastic fibers come in midweight denim, which weighs between 12 and 16 ounces per square yard. This kind of denim will feel stiff and inflexible at first but will soften and fade over time. It provides great protection during rough outdoor work.
You generally see midweight denim used in looser-fitting cuts of jeans or bulky denim jackets.
Heavyweight denim weighs between 16 and 32 ounces per square yard. Bull denim is a special type of heavyweight denim with such a thick weave that it is mostly used in upholstery rather than clothing.
You can find jeans made out of heavyweight denim, but they require a lot of effort before they feel comfortable.
Color Shades of Denim
Denim comes in a wide range of colors ranging from the traditional indigo to deep black or bleached white. Colors in jeans can come from indigo dye, sulfur dye, tinting, or various finishes like washing or using lasers.
This is not a comprehensive list, but check out some of the most popular shades of denim here!
- Classic indigo jeans use yarn-dyed indigo threads diagonally crossing white threads to create that traditional blue-jean shade.
- Grey jeans use either sulfur dye or tinting to create a pale, classy color. These often go well with dark-colored button-downs or tees.
- Black jeans use a sulfur dye process to create solid black denim. This popular color choice pairs well with light-colored shirts and can even look dressy enough for business-casual when worn with loafers or heels!
- Brown or tan jeans also use sulfur dyeing. They look a lot like khakis and make a popular choice to pair with a blazer or blue-jean jacket.
- White jeans can use ecru denim for a natural off-white look, or they may use an acid wash to create a more bleached-white look.
What Type of Jeans Fabric is Best?
The best type of denim jeans fabric can vary depending on what kind of clothes you want. In general, 100% cotton denim feels softer and offers more breathability than any type of blended material.
On the other hand, if you need warm winter clothes, double denim has a thermal layer inside that will keep you extra warm. If you want vintage-looking, faded jeans, stonewashed or acid-washed denim will work perfectly.
The bottom line is that denim exploded into the fashion world because it offers something for everyone. Almost everyone in the world wears jeans, but everyone can choose what kind of jeans works best for them!
What is the Softest Jean Material?
The softest jean material is lightweight denim, often with added elastic fibers for stretchiness. Some types of ultra-soft denim even use a looser weave for extra airy softness. This uses fewer threads in every square inch of fabric than a traditional twill weave.
Brands known for soft jeans include Everlane and The Gap, which both offer specially designed soft jeans.
Is Denim Good for Hot or Cold Weather?
Most denim works better in warm weather than in cold weather. Lightweight denim works especially well during the summer because its cotton fibers offer excellent breathability to keep you cool. On the other hand, heavyweight denim will soak up your sweat and weigh you down in hot weather.
If you plan to wear denim during the winter, look for lined denim or go for mid to heavyweight jeans. This will provide some insulation, though denim does not keep you super warm because it breathes too well.
What is the Best Type of Denim?
Some of the best types of denim include stretch denim, selvedge denim, and raw denim.
Stretch denim has inched its way into the jeans market so spectacularly that you have to specifically look for 100% cotton jeans if you don’t like a little give in your pants! Adding a tiny fraction of either elastic or modal to the cotton makes jeans more flexible and allows for a better range of movement.
Selvedge denim uses a special shuttle weave that creates finished edges on all sides of the fabric. You can see these finished edges at the seams if you roll up the cuffs on jeans made out of this fabric. Selvedge denim does not necessarily have any special weight or finish on its surface, but many jeans enthusiasts like its unique and old-fashioned construction.
Raw denim contains 100% pure cotton that has not gone through any washing or preshrinking treatments following the weaving process. People value clothes made out of raw denim because they can fade and shrink to exactly match the contours of an individual body.
How Do You Know if Denim is Good Quality?
You can look for four key markers in jeans to tell if the denim is good quality.
- Read the manufacturer’s label inside the jeans or the product description for an online store. This will tell you if the jeans contain 100% cotton or other materials.
- Feel the denim between your fingers if possible to get a sense of its weight. Midweight or heavyweight denim will last much longer than lightweight denim. But if you want jeans for warm weather, you may want lightweight denim.
- Check the visible stitching to make sure you do not see crooked stitches or loose threads. This will help you know if the jeans had careful construction or not. You can also look at buttons and zippers to make sure they look securely attached.
- Finally, read the tags or product description to see if the denim has any special design elements, such as a wax coating or a stonewash treatment. Some design elements like slub weave, wax coating, or thermal lining can make denim more expensive. Selvedge denim made on a shuttle loom is also considered very high quality.
Ever since the invention of jeans in the 1800s, denim has remained one of the most popular fabrics in the world. This sturdy cotton material uses a twill weave to create diagonal ribbing on the surface of the material. Traditional denim uses contrasting indigo-dyed blue and white threads in its weave.
Denim can come in many different colors made by using sulfur dyes on the finished garment. Finishing treatments such as stone washing, acid washing, or using lasers can also create unique faded or worn styles on the denim. You can find denim in lightweight, midweight, or heavyweight styles.
What type of denim is in your favorite pair of jeans? Why do you like that style best? Leave a comment below to let us know!