Why are overalls blue? The turbulent history of a color that grew up in the Basque Country | Fashion


Everything has a reason, even the colors of the clothes. The fabric of the military clothing of the land armies is of a characteristic khaki green (which undergoes significant variations from one army to another) because its function, in addition to protection and resistance against external aggressions, is that of camouflage. Fishermen’s raincoats are an intense yellow because on the deck of boats, in the middle of a storm, visibility is very reduced and before the invention of reflective fabrics, canary yellow was the most contrasting color compared to gray or blue. abysmal. But, speaking of the blues, why have the work clothes of masons, plumbers and operators in general been so characteristic across the world since the start of the industrial revolution?

To answer this question, you have to go back several centuries, almost to the year 1200, and land in the lands of Guipúzcoa, a natural passage between the coast and the plain of Alava, where in the time of ‘Alfonso X El Sabio were founded villas along the road that connects the Cantabrian coast to the plateau. Thus, the wool of the great Castilian flocks will begin to be exported to England, at the same time as the great innovations of perfidious Albion, such as steam engines, will return to the Iberian Peninsula. In this context, the Deva River Valley will be crucial and Villanueva de Vergara will be founded there, which will eventually become an important manufacturing center focused on the textile and metallurgical industry. What does it have to do with blue? At the beginning of the 19th century, when in the Deva valley there was already a centuries-old textile specialization, a fabric called nanquin began to arrive from China in the United Kingdom, whose obligatory stopover before entering Europe was the port of Mahon.

In the famous poster of “We Can Do It!” (1942) Rosie the auctioneer appears wearing a blue jumpsuit. Photo: Getty

Nanking, a yellowish variety of cotton, was dyed with indigo, a natural dye already documented by Marco Polo during his travels and which arrived in England from India. This dye appeared to be the perfect solution to transform the most resistant fabrics into the most damaged fabrics: that is, those whose stains were not perceptible to the human eye and, therefore, showed less damage. ‘wear. She had only one problem: their use in industrial quantities tinted the water in the region where they were made blue, and besides, not all water was good enough to carry out the necessary chemical reaction. to the miracle of indigo. And it is in this city of Gipuzkoa crossed by a river called Deva that the manufacturers of textiles naturally linked to England decided to try their luck: this is how blue denim, used for heavy work by workers , peasants, fishermen, has essentially become a Basque product.

In Vergara there were dozens of companies dedicated to this work. As José Luis López and José E. Perallón testify in The blue world of Tavexa work in which they commemorate the 150th anniversary of the main Vergara company which was dedicated to the production of yarn, weaving and cotton prints, in 1860 this company alone employed 500 workers.The energy used was hydraulic, from the Deva river, and steam, and it had “installed 54 machines for preparing and carding cotton, 28 spinning machines and 164 looms”. There was also a “bleaching, dyeing and printing department”. Some locals remember perfectly that this activity lasted until the 20th century. “Most of us who worked there were women because the work required manual dexterity which was expected of us. I remember my aunt saying that they put her to work when she was barely ten years old and they had to install a special chair for her, because she couldn’t reach the machines, ”says María Pérez , the fictitious name of a Távex operator who worked as an administrative in the company, but who belongs to a family with several generations involved in the work of their workshops.

The blue jumpsuit, symbol of workers around the world. Photo: Getty

Some of the workers in the textile industry in Vergara say that as far back as they can remember, in the town it was known that the main argument in favor of setting up this activity there was that, supposedly, the water of the Deva river had properties that favored the manufacture of a perfect denim blue. Blue which was renamed “de Vergara”.

In 1888, Vergara was making 17,000 pieces a year. At the beginning of the 20th century, its consumption continued to spread, until Catalan competition appeared in the 1920s. fabric for workwear made in Spain was produced there: in 1970 there were still 16 textile companies in the town, employing some 2,000 workers, mostly women.

It was at this time, in the 1970s, that the Spanish market burst into the Jeans or in jeans. Cotton and blue dye: if Vergara knew anything, it was how to treat these materials. Spanish cotton companies became suppliers to the North American market, but their offer was much less competitive than the large factories in Guangzhou, China, Ahmedabad, India, or Settat, Morocco. This is where the blue rivers now flow, while the Deva flows cleaner than ever. Vergara, yes, no one can take away the honor of having had his own bruise.

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