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Denim, unlike many types of cloth (which are woven in one place and sent to another for dying), is woven and dyed at one location.
Preparing the cotton yarn
There are several steps between ginned cotton (cotton after it has been picked from fields and processed) and cotton yarn. The incoming cotton is removed from tightly packed bales and inspected before undergoing a process known as carding. In this process, the cotton is put through machines that contain brushes with bent wire teeth. These brushes—called cards—clean, disentangle, straighten, and gather together the cotton fibers. At this point, the fibers are called slivers.
Other machines join several slivers together, and these slivers are then pulled and twisted, which serves to make the threads stronger. Next, these ropes are put on spinning machines that further twist and stretch the fibers to form yarn.
Some cloths are woven (see step 5 below) and then dyed, but denim is usually dyed with chemically synthesized indigo before being woven. Large balls of yarn, called ball warps, are dipped in the indigo mixture several times so that the dye covers the yarn in layers. (These many layers of indigo dye explain why blue jeans fade slightly with each washing.) Although the exact chemicals used in such dyeing procedures remain trade secrets, it is known that a small amount of sulfur is often used to stabilize the top or bottom layers of indigo dye.
The dyed yarn is then slashed; that is, it is coated with sizing (any one of a variety of starchy substances) to make the threads stronger and stiffer. Once this operation is complete, the yarn threads are ready to woven with undyed filling yarn threads.
Weaving the yarn
The yarn is then woven on large mechanical looms. Denim is not 100 percent blue, as the blue dyed threads forming the warp(long, vertical threads) are combined with white threads forming the weft (shorter, horizontal threads). Because denim is woven with the blue threads packed closer together than the white threads and with the blue threads covering three out of four white threads, the blue threads dominate. (By examining a piece of denim closely one can detect the steep diagonal pattern that results from this process, which is known as a three-by-one right-hand twill weave.) Although mechanized looms make use of the same basic weaving procedure as a simple hand loom, they are much larger and faster.