Glossary: Cotton Jean

Cotton jean is a fabric made from cotton, a natural fiber. For more information, see the entry Glossary: Cotton Fiber. Today, the terms “denim” and “jean” are often used interchangeably, and often include fabrics with synthetic, especially spandex, fibers. Historically, there was some differentiation, though both are twilled fabrics in the drill family. Jean could be cotton, linen, wool, or some combination of the above, though cotton seems to have been most common in the nineteenth century. Denim was probably originally wool, but was likely to be cotton by the nineteenth century. As with today, denim was often woven with dark blue (or sometimes dark brown) warp and white weft, giving it a slightly mottled appearance. Twill could be white, colored, or sometimes striped; it was generally thinner and finer than denim, which was fairly coarse and very sturdy.

There are 17 instances of the word “jean” in The Workwoman’s Guide (originally published 1838), which can be found here in a list of excerpts. None of them specify a fiber, and indeed it may still have been variable at that point, but collectively they seem to imply that jean was a stable, sturdy fabric which could be quite fine (“fine French jean” is recommended for ladies’ corsets on page 81), or somewhat heavier, but was appropriate for a range of articles of clothing. It seems safe to assume to, in the mind of the author of this book, jean was not a wool fabric, because it is recommended as a washable fabric (see page 172).

Definitions of jean and denim from a variety of print resources, each of which contains further information:

Under the heading of “jean” on page 35, there is a swatch of light-medium-weight, smooth twilled cotton fabric, and the text states that “Florence Montgomery defines jean as ‘A linen/cotton, twilled cloth’ (Textiles in America, page 271). It is medium weight and, like denim, is in the family of drill fabrics. (Montgomery also includes jean in the fustian family of fabrics.) Jean could also be made with a cotton warp and wool weft, or even all wool, according to Cole’s Dictionary of Textiles. White cotton jean was convenient for work clothes, as it was durable and could be boiled clean. A pair of men’s 1830s overalls in a private Massachusetts collection are made of white cotton jean. The Workwoman’s Guide suggests the use of jean for undergarments such as men’s coarse drawers and women’s corsets.”

Under the heading of “denim” on page 31, the swatch is much heavier than that of the jean entry, with an indigo warp and a white weft. The text states that “As it is today, denim in the early nineteenth century was a serviceable, rugged, twilled cotton cloth, often with a colored warp and a white weft. It came in different weights, depending upon its purpose, which varied from men’s work shirts, overalls, frocks, and trousers, to women’s work petticoats or skirts. Denim is related to drill, a heavy twilled cotton cloth, generally white or solid-colored.”

On page 177, “jean” is defined as “twilled cotton cloth used for shoe linings, corsets, dyed or bleached.” There are no definitions for denim or drill.

On page 271, “jean” is defined as “A linen / cotton, twilled cloth of the fustian group.” I take this to mean “linen or cotton,” because among the quotes from historical sources are several that state that jean is made of cotton. Some jeans seem to have been more fine and fashionable than others.

On page 216, “denim” is defined as “‘Washable, strong, stout twilled cotton cloth, made of single yarn, and either dyed in the piece or woven with dark brown or dark blue warp and white filling; used for overalls, skirts, etc.’ (Harmuth) The term probably derives from Serge de Nismes, a twilled woolen cloth made in France; by the late eighteenth century, it was also being made of wool and cotton.”

Online Resources:

For more information about an individual fiber, fabric, or other material, select it on the right side menu for “Fibers, Fabrics, and Materials.” This will bring up all entries which have that tag, including (in most cases) a Glossary post like this one, which will offer a definition of that fiber, fabric, or material, and sometimes also offer useful links to outside sources on working with it. For more general information, visit the core entry for the Glossary: Fibers, Fabrics, and Materials. For a directory of all textile glossary posts, go to the Glossary Table of Contents.

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