Huddersfield-born artist Ian Berry has been exploring the history of denim, the material that made his name, and the result is an extraordinary new artwork.
Ian’s exploration took him to Italy as part of a commission for a stunning piece depicting 19th century Italian general Giuseppe Garibaldi.
What few people know is that the origins of what became denim can be traced back to the Italian city of Genoa in the 15th century – long before 1873 when Levi Strauss patented the riveted work clothes we now know as jeans.
As early as the 15th century shipbuilders and merchants in Genoa used a cheap, coarse and strong cross-weaved type of cotton to make sails and protect goods.
This kind of fabric was produced in the French city of Nimes resulting in the name ‘denim’ from Serge de Nim.
In the port of Genoa similar textiles were dyed with indigo, turned into work clothes and exported with the French name ‘bleu de Genes’ – which, translated into English, became ‘blue jeans.’
Garibaldi, renowned as the Father of Italy, is often pictured wearing an early form of denim trousers and Ian was commissioned to create a portrait of the iconic figure entirely out of denim.
The project had to be postponed in 2018 when tragedy struck Genoa. A bridge collapsed during storms and 43 people died.
Netherton-born Ian, 38, a former student at Newsome High School and Greenhead College, was asked to create an artwork to be displayed in the Museo del Risorgimento in Genoa.
The portrait would be shown alongside many important artefacts and paintings of the general, politician and nationalist.
Ian said: “It was amazing to have something so contemporary next to so many items from the time of this great man.
“And it’s also great to link denim to some of its origins, to a man who stood for freedom with a garment that would also become such a symbol.”
Few will know the history of jeans, a simple work-a-day garment that half the world’s population probably pull on without thinking every day.
Genoa wanted to claim its place in the denim story and who better than Ian, an international artist who has worked with denim for 15 years?
“The early denim may not be recognisable as the jeans created hundreds of years later by Levi Strauss with the Jacob W. Davis rivet but this is the history of jeans – before jeans!” said Ian.
Though he now lives in London, Ian remains proud of his Huddersfield roots and would love Huddersfield to have a place in the history of denim.
“The denim story is fascinating, and I know a lot of the history, but I always feel a bit is missing,” he said.
“We have indigo from India and the names of denim and jeans with the materials of Nimes and Genoa but then the story jumps so many years to San Francisco and Levi’s.
“The gap, I believe, should be filled by the Industrial Revolution. Levi would never have been able to mass produce without the technologies invented in and around Huddersfield – although cotton was more in Lancashire over t’hills wasn’t it?” he grinned.
Huddersfield is never far from Ian’s thoughts and even in Genoa he was telling people about his home town.
“I enjoy telling people about Huddersfield and the woollen history. Do you know the material first known as denim had wool in?
“I’ve said to people back there now for a decade we really need to push our textile past and recently they have started with things like the Woven festival. I’d love to one day do something for the town but it has to be right.”
Next Ian moves onto Sweden were a solo show opens next month at the National Textile Museum of the Nordics in Borås and runs until May 2022.