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Follow the Seam by Nigel Roth


As the USA finds itself fighting another civil war, this time to protect black citizens from institutional violence rather that to free them from the horror of American slavery, there is a seam running through every protest.

At first you might think it's a weak seam, but this one has been reinforced over generations, rivet by rivet, by rivet.

It began some time at the very end of the Middle Ages, when a sarta emerged from the back room of her workshop in Genoa and declared to anyone who would listen that she’d created a new material to beat off competition from her French counterparts. Proud of her accomplishment, she imagined the French market going bananas over her new product.

Those French counterparts worked hard to challenge this original, and came very close, and the tailleur in Nimes would have been just as excited to debut his own creation.

For her French customers, she called her material simply Genes, after her hometown. And in reply, he called his product de Nimes, after his.

And so, five hundred years of historic symbolism began with Italian sailors splicing the mainbrace in their jeans and French farmers swigging their saison in a pair of denim slacks.

From that point forward, jeans have always been with us. And, if you examine any of the photos from the recent protests you’ll see them being worn by protesters on all sides; peaceful marchers expressing thoughtful ideas, looters and trouble-makers, Facist counter-protesters, and those cause-oblivious people apparently drinking coffee as the throng passed them.

And yet, if I said paint your living room denim blue, you’d more than likely balk at the idea; that colour probably wouldn’t be your first choice for easy material and furniture matching, or complimentary accessorizing.

But when it comes to jeans they're apparently essential, as they match with just about everything. Imagine your closet without them. No sailor could; no farmer could, and no North American could, after 1871.

That’s because a Latvian drebnieks called Jacob Youphes, who arrived in the US in 1854, created the jeans you’re wearing today. While working in San Francisco making horse blankets and miners’ tents, he was asked to make some hard-working pants for a hard-working hardwood wood-worker, which he duly did, with a bolt of material from an acquaintance called Levi Strauss. Soon, they were in business together, using Youphe’s (who Anglicised his name to Davis, rather like Friedrich Trumpf did when he arrived from Bavaria some years later) patented copper riveting to strengthen the seams.

While the modern spelling of ‘jeans’ is down to the Swiss merchant Jean-Gabriel Eynard, who coined the phrase ‘bleu de Genes’, the stage was very much set for the jean wagons to roll.

And off they went.

They went first to farmers and farmworkers, and to wranglers and farmhands. They went to drovers and scouts, cowboys and rustlers, lawmen and sheriffs, and gunslingers like Haskay-bay-nay-ntayl, more easily known as the Apache Kid, who disappeared into the desert wearing a pair.

They went to shipbuilders and steeplejacks, stevedores and longshoreman, and dockworkers like those in Dongri, India, who lent their name to dungarees, because the British couldn’t pronounce that word correctly either.

They went to panners and miners, looking for copper and gold and silver, in the Black Hills of South Dakota and Wyoming and Mount Baker in Washington, and in Alaska in places like Nome and Fairbanks, and to the Swiss entrepreneur Johann August Sutter, who made and lost his shirt in the gold rush, but always kept his jeans.

And when they’d been around the country keeping the legs of laborers safe and warm, they came to James Dean who rebelled in them and caused jeans to symbolize something more than just laboring. Now ‘waist overalls’ became counter-culture, and although as early as 1940 some fashion houses had experimented with denim to create unique looks, nothing had prepared anyone for the hippy movement.

At some point jeans found their way from those boundary-less summers of love to the curated closets of casual Claire and laidback Larry, and allowed both to feel a little more hip on their trip to the grocery store. They wore them looser than hippies, as their waists’ dictated, and reinvented styles to match that need, using names that made them feel more industrious than they had ever been. Carpenters had come full circle.

In the 1980’s they stonewashed them to break up the color and the monotony of suburbia and feel even a twinge of rebellion, but it was too late, and the following decades saw stonewashing stonewalled. In its place, fading and ripping and skin-windows, a daily reminder of disposable wealth and plentiful bounty, and the secrets that knees might hold.

And then to now, as the human race battles to eradicate the scars of racial fallacy, and right the wrongs of prejudice and hatred, it could be jeans that might symbolize - without even trying to - some essence of cultural unity.

It's a riveting story. Let’s see how it ends.

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