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How jeans got their stretch

How jeans got their stretch

Thanks to the Spandex pioneers, a tough fabric became more comfortable

Thanks to the Spandex pioneers, a tough fabric became more comfortable

Josie Delap | June/July 2019

Once upon a time, the only way to get on a new pair of tight jeans was to wriggle, struggle, jump and sweat your way into them – or even lie in a warm bath – and wait for the stiff material to mould itself to your form.

Jeans were originally designed as work wear. In 1873 Levi Strauss secured a patent for the rivets used to reinforce denim trousers and modern-day jeans were born. At that point the thick denim used was made entirely of cotton, which was prized for its durability.

That all changed thanks to Joseph Shivers of Dupont, a chemicals giant. For years Shivers had been trying to develop a synthetic material for women’s underwear, something that snapped back into shape like rubber. In 1958 he came up with the miracle of Spandex, a stretchy version of polyester (the name is an anagram of “expands”).

This wondrous fibre soon transformed the fit of pants, tights and other clothing. In the 1960s and 1970s Elio Fiorucci, an Italian designer, pioneered the use of it for jeans too: “Women should not wear jeans for men, but should have their own.” Today, jeans with stretch have become the norm. The cotton fibres used to make traditional denim are wrapped around a core filament – elastane (as Spandex is known internationally) – to create threads that have the appearance of traditional denim but the give of a more generous fabric.

Mass producers of denim have benefited from the change: better fitting jeans mean fewer returns, fewer refunds and happier consumers. And though Fiorucci was designing for women, today most men’s jeans also include a comfortable touch of elastane. In 2016 Levis even launched a stretchy version of 501s, the world’s best known jeans.

Diehard denimheads consider stretchy denim an abomination. Traditional jeans are tough and rugged – and those who wear them are supposed to be too. Men’s Journal, a magazine that exhorts men to live more adventurous lives, slammed the “scourge” of such denim: “We are better than this.” But with the rise of yoga pants and athleisure wear – and the caress of new stretchy denim – fans of the tough traditional fabric are a dying breed.