The sustainability-focused materials science and apparel company debuted Tuesday its first denim collection made in partnership with former Levi’s designer and Unspun advisor Jonathan Cheung. True to form, the three-piece collection is made with a first-of-its-kind fabric: a 13-ounce, 92 percent organic cotton and 18 percent Himalayan nettle blend woven at low speeds on Candiani Denim’s shuttle loom.
The use of Himalayan nettle marks the first time that selvedge denim has been made with fiber, according to the brand, maintaining its mission to develop alternatives to “overproduced, resource-intensive materials such as cotton.”
When Cheung joined Pangaia in its denim effort, wild Himalayan nettle was already “on the menu.” The company had looked at hemp and agriculture waste fibers for denim, but nettle showed the greatest potential. Durable and sustainable, the fiber ticked off Pangaia’s boxes. Additionally, the linguini-shaped fiber’s hollow core provides thermoregulating properties.
It also came with a social benefit. A women-run collective supplies Pangaia with its nettle, which grows in environmental conditions in the Himalayas where not much else survives. “So, it’s this idea that they can actually get an income based on their natural environment [that] is one of those beautiful stories of sustainability, where we really are trying to optimize what’s around us,” said Dr. Amanda Parkes, Pangaia chief innovation officer.
For denim, however, the challenge was to get the fibers into forms that are soft and durable enough to compete with the cotton’s performance, she said.
That’s when Cheung stepped in to work on producing a nettle fabric that is sustainable, durable and attractive. With the help of Candiani Denim owner Alberto Candiani, he landed on a fabric that he said is widely applicable to different types of garments and has a layer of softness to counteract the nettle fiber’s toughness.
Developing the collection during covid came with “massive amounts of challenges,” but it also incentivized stakeholders to work differently. The first samples were rendered in 3D before the team moved into physical fittings, most of which took place over Zoom. “This is an opportunity for disruption, and so you can try out new things. The status quo is interrupted, so why not try something new,” Parkes said.
As with all new innovations, working with the nettle blend was not without its trials and tribulations. Though it has the benefit of being an “extraordinary strong” fiber, nettle does not have the same flexibility of cotton, which presents challenges during the weaving process. Cheung said he wouldn’t be surprised if there are “bits of broken machinery” on Candiani’s floor.
“Trial and error is an essential part of R&D,” Candiani added. “Of course, you don’t want to make too many mistakes, but you have to learn and adjust the recipe when they occur. What keeps us motivated is the reach of true circularity, thanks to products and processes that may generate a positive impact on the environment.”
Another hiccup in the process was finding out that the fabric needs time to settle before cutting. “Generally, you just unrolled [the fabric] and you put your pattern pieces on it, and you cut the pieces… but we found that when we did that, the jeans were coming in bigger than we expected. We found that the denim elongated during that process because [of] something in the weaving,” Cheung said.
The solution, it turned out, is a relaxation period leaving the rolled-out fabric untouched for 48 hours.
“I think that is one of those tiny examples that will sometimes potentially stop other companies from using it because they don’t have the 48 hours,” Parkes added. “They need to get stuff out so quickly, but we’re in it to solve this and give it that time.”
They also learned that they must sew the jeans in reverse, rather than stitching the inseam from the left leg to the right leg. The fabric’s left-hand twill ultimately influenced the collection’s entire design aesthetic, Cheung said. Elements that are normally on the right side of jeans, like the coin pocket and back patch, are on the left.
“The collection is really an example of slow fashion, being woven on shuttle looms that are about three-times slower than projectile looms,” he said. “Even the construction is slower than normal.”
And more denim made with nettle may be on the way. “Right now, denim is including more and more hemp, even linen is growing, and nettle will most likely be next,” Candiani said. “The fiber is quite magical and includes outstanding physical performances that other natural fibers don’t have.”
Sign of the times
Though jeans were famously pushed to the back of closets in early 2020 as consumers adjusted to working and schooling from home, Parkes says the turf battle between the denim and loungewear is somewhat overblown. Jeans and a sweatshirt, a jean jacket and sweats—they’re lifestyle clothing that fits together, she said. “[Jeans and loungewear] are in the same genre of product,” she said. “You want them to be comfortable, you want them to last a long time, you want them to fit well and be soft and comfortable.”
And while covid pushed the pendulum over to loungewear, Cheung anticipates consumers will swing back to denim as they come out of the pandemic. “The two categories live together hand in hand,” he said.
The collection includes a pan-sex straight leg jean and a ’90s-inspired jean jacket, and a women’s high rise straight jean, each available in a rinse and mid wash. The unisex styles, labeled with two sizes are available on women’s 25/men’s 27 to women’s 34/men’s 36. Unisex sizing doesn’t need its own language, but Cheung, who recently collaborated on a genderless collection of jeans with denim startup Unspun, is eager to change the narrative the fashion industry has built around gender.
“Gender inclusivity, gender fluidity has been very much a cultural mindset awakening over the last few years and that’s really important to address,” he said. “I generally try and think of it more as omni-sex or pan-sex, or gender-full than the unisex, which always feels more neutered to me.” If men and women are on opposite ends of a spectrum, Cheung wants to make sure that everyone in between is included.
The language of denim fits, however, is due for an update, Parkes said. For instance, if “boyfriend jeans” were called “baggy fit,” this simple switch could help eliminate the confusion that comes with glossy terms that each brand interprets differently. Using pan-sex descriptors, she said, can help inspire a universal language around styles and what people should expect from fits.
The collection is available now on Pangaia’s website, retailing for $225-$275 with more denim garments in the pipeline. Additional styles, new denim materials and processes are on the way, Cheung said.