Denim, chambray, cotton duck, hickory stripe and more workwear fabrics have become well-known but one fabric that continues to fly under the radar is indigo pincheck.
The aforementioned fabrics all have some degree of documentation regarding their history, but precious little exists regarding the origins of indigo pin check cotton fabric; in fact, I’ve never encountered any writing that mentions its making or history. Yet fragments do exist here and there so what’ve I’ve done is piece them together in an attempt to create a picture of how this unique fabric came to be.
First, I should explain briefly what indigo pin check is: it’s a plain weave base fabric, in this case indigo dyed, that has white threads woven through it. The resulting dots are the size of a pinhead, thus the name. It’s a lighter fabric, often about 8-9 oz., that breathes very well and makes for just about the best work pants fabric for summer, not to mention warm weather jacketing and hats.
The Origins of Pincheck Fabric
But where did this fabric originate and why has it flown largely under the radar in some respects?
Our journey takes us to the city of Nîmes, in the Occitanie region of southern France, the very same Nîmes that is allegedly the birthplace of denim (as in “de Nîmes”, but the origin place of denim is debatable as others claim it comes from Genoa, Italy). At an exhibition there at the Musée du Vieux Nîmes displaying 17th- and 18th-century denim and other indigo-dyed work clothing, Heddels editor David Shuck spotted these fabric swatches:
Another kind of proto version of indigo pin check can be found in these plain weave cotton pants found by Cory Piehowicz that might date to the Civil War era:
The above could be considered to be a kind of “slave cloth” or “Negro cloth”, which were a variety of simple, coarse cotton or wool cloths, usually in a plain weave, given to enslaved African Americans.
Below is a hemp fabric from a 1910s French rucksack that is almost in between the above fabric and a true pincheck:
The next example of indigo pin check I’ve found comes from a wholesale catalog published in 1904:
Although it’s listed as a shirting fabric here, most instances of indigo pin check would be for pants, overalls, coats, and hats, as it generally comes in at about 8-9 oz., which is a bit too heavy for a shirt. There’s no saying what ounce weight the fabric in the 1904 swatch is but it might have been 6-8 oz.
The 1910s holds the next example of indigo pin check that I’ve found thus far; this is when it was being marketed by both Carhartt/Larned Carter and Crown Overall Mfg. Co. as a fabric option for bib overalls, chore coats, and work pants. One 1910s salesman fabric swatch made by Carhartt lists indigo pin check as a “favorite in the South.” This makes sense given how well this fabric works in hot weather.
Otis Pincheck and the Town That Can’t be Licked
Another salesman fabric brochure from 1911, produced by Crown Overalls, lists indigo pin check fabric as being made by “Otis Goods”. This is most likely a reference to the Otis Company of Ware, Massachussets, which was founded in 1839 and by 1845 had built its first of three fabric mills in Ware. The Otis Company "became a major producer of textiles, including checks, denims, and cotton underwear,” according to the Otis Company Records held by the University of Massachusetts.
Otis was a great boon for the town of Ware but by the late 1930s Otis was feeling far too great a pressure from mills in the southern US, both local Southern mills and those run by northeastern companies that had relocated to the south. Southern-based mills had various business advantages over northern ones: they were closer to cotton fields, the weather was warmer there, and labor unions were weaker in the south with resulting lower wages that needed to be paid, according to Abandoned Alabama.
Southern operations had been working this way since the late 1800s and could thus offer textiles at a lower price. Otis’ owners had finally succumbed in the 1930s and were ready to shutter operations up north. Otis was Ware’s largest employer, though, with roughly 1,700 of the town’s 8,000 citizens working for the mill. Thus, in 1938, Ware’s citizens organized to raise enough money to buy Otis and keep it in operation, earning Ware the nickname the “Town That Can’t Be Licked”.
Mill No. 3, Otis Company, Ware, Mass. Gelatin silver print, [1885-1900?]. Image courtesy of the Digital Commonwealth of Massachussets.
Enter the Pepperell Dragon
Despite Otis falling on hard times in the 1930s, it was actually around the time of their founding, in the 1830s-1840s, when New England mills began running into trouble, at first from overproducing fabrics, causing the price to plummet. In the 1850s, the railroads expanded south, and production and investment there increased. Then, during the Civil War (1861-1865) northeastern mills faced shortages of manpower and material. The end of the Civil War brought more changes as slavery was abolished, the railroads expanded even further, and the south embraced industrialization. It seemed that sooner or later, production would shift to the south.
A pair of 1930s-40s indigo pin check work pants in my personal collection.
By 1930, another New England-based mill, Pepperell Mfg. Co., was producing indigo pin check fabric used in work clothing. While Pepperell operated its first mill out of Biddeford, Maine, starting in 1844, it opened another mill in Opelika, Alabama, in 1926. Clothing makers over the next few decades that used Pepperell’s pin check would sew the distinctive Pepperell tag, with its red Welsh dragon logo, onto their clothing as an assurance of quality.
A 1945 ad for Pepperell fabrics depicting the tag.
Pincheck in the Catalogs
In their Spring 1928 catalog, Sears began listing pin check work pants for men in two levels of quality, a standard one and a higher-quality Otis mills pin check. This lasted until 1929:
Then in Spring 1930, Sears started offering pin check work pants without mentioning the mill instead of Otis-milled ones:
In spring 1931 it explicitly offered Pepperell pin check pants:
In Spring 1932:
In Spring 1934 Sears offered Pepperell pin check alongside a narrow pinstripe:
Although listed as a type of hickory stripe, this fabric on the right sold by Sears in 1935 more closely resembles pin check:
Here is one from Sears in 1941:
In Spring 1946 the illustration was printed in full color along with a color image of a fabric swatch:
The listings continued in 1950 but by this time Pepperell wasn’t always being mentioned anymore. It’s unclear to me at this point if they used fabric from another mill:
Indigo pin check briefly found its way into Coast Guard uniforms too, as evidenced by this light jacket in my personal collection they could be as old as the 1930s judging by its mother of pearl buttons:
The chest pocket was taken off at some point as can be faintly seen on the jacket’s left side.
A plastic replacement button; this button style first appeared in the late 1930s and was very popular into the 1940s.
The End of the Line?
Indigo pin check would continue to be used in work clothes until the 1960s, at this point primarily in work pants. Pairs from this period often featured tonal blue stitching, blue buttons, wide belt loops, crotch gussets, and zipper flys, like the below pair from Washington Dee Cee:
After, or during, the 1960s indigo pin check seems to have unceremoniously disappeared, only to reappear in recent decades when it was reproduced in Japan.
The last listing I could find for pin check work pants in Sears catalogs was in 1965:
In a bid to keep indigo pincheck items in production, we’ve produced the sample pair below; given enough interest I could put it into full production!