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Denim Jeans: Interdisciplinary Approaches to Narratives and Materiality

Discarded and unworn jeans

Lead Investigator: Dr. Sophie Woodward, Dept of Sociology, sophie.woodward@manchester.ac.uk

Co-Investigators: Prof. Chris Carr, Textile Technology; Dr Pammi Sinha, Fashion Design; and Dr Muriel Rigout, Textile Chemistry.

PhD student assistant: Kanchana Dissanayake

Aims:

This project aims to explore different methodologies for investigating denim jeans, through an interdisciplinary collaboration between the School of Social Sciences and the School of Materials at the University of Manchester by developing innovative ways of combining research methods into material culture. It will build upon the disciplinary expertises in Sociology (consumption, narratives) and in Materials (in weave, fibres and dyeing).

Research context:

Denim is simultaneously one of the most globally ubiquitous fabrics, as well as being seen by many wearers as the most personal garment as it ages with the wearer. The Global Denim Project was set up by Sophie Woodward (Manchester) and Daniel Miller (UCL) to address the dearth of social science research into the subject, and it involves a range of primarily ethnographic and qualitative research projects. Running in tandem with this, is research into textile technology, (looking at, for example, the properties of synthetic indigo, the chemical testing of fibres). At present, these two areas of research exist in separate methodological and disciplinary bubbles; the potentials for an understanding of ‘technological materiality’ (Kuechler, 2009: 115) for social science have been suggested yet not yet fully realised. This project aims to explore possible interdisciplinary methods to lay the foundations for new understandings of materiality. We aim to bring into dialogue: qualitative research into material culture (consumption, practices of wearing, personalised narratives of jeans), scientific ways of knowing textiles (the properties of dyes, fibres, how they are woven) and the approach of fashion design and manufacture (methodology as practice and design).

Discarded jeans

By creating such a dialogue of methods, we aim to interrogate:

  1. Materiality as multiply constituted (i.e. dye, fibres, weave, garment construction) and dynamic as the materiality of jeans changes through personal and embodied histories of wearing
  2. The relations between multiple, intersecting narratives: personal stories, verbal narratives, material histories of the garment
  3. The life cycles of jeans, by marking new denim garments from old unwanted items, how the design cycle can be ‘closed loop’ and the implications this for transforming materiality and sustainability.

This project is not simply an analysis of the knowledge practices of scientists, nor the appropriating of material expertises, but aims to be dialogic and collaborative. It will allow both social scientists and textile experts to develop new ways of thinking about materiality, through the interactions between how jeans are worn and how they are materially and chemically constituted. We aim to challenge assumptions of either technological determinism (wherein meanings are created through design and manufacture) or the autonomy of the clothes wearer to impose meanings on clothing. By planning a mixed methods workshop, we aim to create a cycle of knowledge exchange and build towards future collaborative potentials.

Discarded Levis

Methods.

  1. Life-history interviews with participants on jeans wearing over their lives and collect the personal histories of jeans.
  2. Object based qualitative interviews of old jeans about to be thrown out will be carried out to elicit stories and narratives of the garments.
  3. Visits to textile recyclers to look at how they deal with and process unwanted denim garments.
  4. Material analysis of the jeans (characterise yarn and weave, fabric tensile strength and abrasion resistance, colour, wash fastness and handle) will be carried out. This is in order to demonstrate the types of methods used by textile technologists and chemists. The tests can be explained and the initial stages viewed by participants (one group at a time).
  5. New denim garments to be made out of the discarded and unwanted jeans. This will allow further exploration of how the material of denim can be transformed and how to extend the wearer’s life-cycle of jeans.

Once the object interviews had been done, all of the jeans were cut into 2, and one leg from each pair of jeans was given to Karen Dennis, University of Huddersfield, to remake the old jeans into new garments. She read the interview trasncripts in order to draw upon the histories and stories of the garments, and made the two items below.

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