From banknotes and old jeans

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by Teresa Teklic

March 27, 2014 – Did you know that banknote paper was partly made of old jeans? And that the fashion industry’s discovery of the stretch jeans had far-reaching consequences on banknote production? Here’s the whole story.

Like most currencies in industrialised countries, US banknotes are made of cotton paper. Other than ordinary paper, which we know from books, newspapers, food packaging etc., United States currency paper is composed of 75 per cent cotton and 25 per cent linen. The paper is specifically produced and supplied by Crane Currency, part of Crane & Co., for the BEP (Bureau of Engraving and Printing).

Crane & Co. has supplied the cotton blend paper for US dollars since 1879. The company bought leftover denim rags and processed the fabric until the cotton fibres could be pressed together to make new paper. For a long time, a substantial part of the fabric used to come from the denim industry, for instance from companies such as Levi’s. But when fashion designer Peter Golding invented the first stretch jeans in 1978, he made things complicated for currency manufacturers such as Crane Currency. The huge success of the stretch jeans in the 1990s led to massive problems for the company since it had no use for the new fabric.

Although stretch jeans usually contain as little as 3 per cent of spandex, it can ruin the paper entirely, as the smallest traces are sufficient to degrade the strength of the material. Crane had to find a solution to the problem. Separating cotton fibres and spandex turned out to be too complicated a process to be still profitable and there were practically no denim products available on the market that did not contain at least a hint of spandex. So Crane decided to cut out the detour via the fashion industry and started to buy cotton directly from suppliers.

While the US keeps relying on cotton blend paper, other countries have found an alternative solution: polymer banknotes. Countries such as Australia, New Zealand or Canada are already using polymer banknotes and Great Britain is planning to stop production on cotton paper and switch to polymer beginning in 2016.

You can find an article on this topic on the Washington Post website.

Read more about the new Bank of England polymer banknotes in this CoinsWeekly article.

…or about the debate around polymer money.