Our “Check Before You Buy” series returns to provide some definitive tips for buying raw denim – from fit, fabric and details to proper washing techniques.

As a fabric that was birthed within the world of workwear and subsequently favored during the California Gold Rush, denim is certainly an interesting case study, whether you approach the versatile fabric for its functional appeal or for its popularity within fashion. We teamed up with Vancouver-based denim authority dutil. Denim to tackle the ins-and-outs of shopping for raw denim, so you know what to look for the next time you’re on the hunt for a pair.

Peep our checklist below and find out what you need to know before buying a leather jacket, waterproof jacket and school backpack. Follow along with dutil. Denim on InstagramTwitter and through their blog.

Fit

Fit is an important talking point when shopping for denim due to the way denim as a fabric changes over time. There are many styles to choose from when picking a pair of reliable denim  – from slim straight, to a loose taper, to a skinny jean. It is always important to know what works for your body type and finding the silhouettes that suit your proportions. Regardless of personal preferences, it is always a smart idea to buy your denim on the tight side, borderline uncomfortable. Jeans are inevitably going to stretch out – if you buy a washed jean you can expect it to stretch at least half a size, and with a raw pair you’re going to experience closer to a full waist size of stretch.

When it comes to hemming your jeans, take due care – all jeans are going to shrink slightly in length once washed. Pre-washed jeans will likely shrink by about a quarter of an inch in length, while a raw pair will see close to half an inch. Whether you plan on cuffing, pin-rolling or simply letting your jeans stack, make sure to wash your jeans prior to getting them hemmed by a trusted tailor, or ask the tailor to leave extra length – this will ensure your inseam lays properly.

Fabric

If your priority is immediate comfort, find a pair of denim created with anywhere from 2-5% stretch (elastane). However, stretch fabrics tend to wear out quicker than a 100% cotton jean, which are typically more hardwearing. Stretch fabrics also tend to lose their shape and recovery, more so than 100% cotton products. When cotton reaches its maximum stretch allowance, it retains this optimum fit without “bagging out” to an unflattering point; so if you started with the correct jean size, it will look perfect on you for the greater part of your denim’s lifetime. With stretch fabrics, the materials stretch back and forth, and over time they lose their elasticity and can become saggy in high-movement areas such as the knees.

Another major factor to consider when finding your ideal pair of jeans is knowing where the fabric was produced and being aware of the artistry added on by individual mills. The primary sources for premium denim are America and Japan. In the U.S., Cone Mills in North Carolina has been a leading supplier for brands like Tellason, Imogene and Willie, and Levi’s. Using vintage narrow shuttle looms and modern technology, their White Oak plant has set the standard for quality and innovation since 1891. Japanese denim production truly gained traction in the 1920s with the introduction of Toyoda looms (prior to becoming Toyota, one of the world’s most successful automotive manufacturers). To this day, the most prized Japanese selvedge denim is woven on these vintage looms which create non-uniform, dense and superior fabrics. Artisan denim houses like Pure Blue Japan and Samurai jeans are known for constructing their pieces from these unique rolls of fabric.

Choosing the most appropriate denim twill will also optimize the way your jeans fall and feel on your body. A twill is the method of how the cotton of a jean is woven. This is something that only raw jeans will vary on. There are three different types of twills:

– Right hand twill : The standard weaving method of jeans, where the thread grain of the the fabric runs from the top right of the fabric, down to the bottom left.

– Left hand twill (S-twill): The opposite twill to right hand, where the grain runs from the top left of the fabric to the bottom right, this creates a softer fabric in general.

– Broken twill: This weave reduces twisting of the fabric, particularly in the leg – the direction of the weave is switched every two warp ends to reduce the fabric’s inclination to twist.

To achieve a more uneven look in your jeans, keep your eyes peeled for ring-spun denim. Ring-spun denim offers a more uneven look, or slubby texture, than open-end denim (which is pressed into yarns rather than spun), but it is considered softer and more durable. Ring-spun denim uses spun yarn for only the warp (as opposed to ring-ring denim which uses ring-spun yarns for both the weft and warp).

Selvedge and Chain-Stitching?

The method of production on a piece of denim is an aspect that can get you a ton of street cred with the right folk. Many denimheads prefer selvedge denim – not only does this “self-edged” seam look a lot better, it is also better quality – when a jean is selvedged, you are much less likely to have a jean start coming apart at the seams.

Sanforized vs. Unsanforized. This is very important when purchasing a pair of jeans. Most stores only carry sanforized jeans, but if you’re at a speciality denim boutique you must be careful when purchasing your new pair of jeans. Sanforization is the process of shrinking fabric (without washing – don’t worry your sanforized raw jeans are still raw), during production. Unsanforized denim is often referred to as a “shrink-to-fit” jean – this is because you are encouraged to wear the jean in the bathtub for at least 30 minutes. This will lead to the jeans shrinking up to one inch in the waist and leg areas, and up to three inches in length. The result of this soaking process is a more customized fit, contoured to your body’s unique shape. If you mistakenly buy a pair of unsanforized jeans and throw them in the wash after a year of wear, you’re going to be sorely disappointed.

Check the hem. The hemming on the bottom of your jean is important to look for if you’re looking for a high quality produced denim. A chain stitched hem is the primo hem for denim connoisseurs – this is a hem where the stitch loops around itself securing the thread more than a regular hem.

Washing

When purchasing jeans, it will pay dividends to plan ahead in terms of how you will wash them. Washing pre-washed denim is relatively straight forward, although you want to make sure to not wash too often as this process wears down the fabric. Make sure to wash in cold water and avoid the dryer at all costs. If you want to keep your jeans dark, throw in a cup of white vinegar into the wash. Additionally, virgin indigo and synthetic indigo will affect the fading process differently.

By now you have a good understanding of what raw denim is, and probably own a pair or two yourself. There are, however, many different methods in which you should wash your jeans. With raw denim most people generally go as long as possible before their first wash (typically a minimum of six months). When you do decide to wash your jeans, make sure you do so in cold water.

Washer: Make sure you set your machine to cold water, throw in some woolite dark – and you’re off to the races! Just make sure you don’t put it in the dryer – the heat breaks down the fabric, causing the denim to drastically lose its shape over time.

– Bathtub: The traditional method for washing jeans – some people even wear them while washing. Fill the tub with cold water and a small amount of detergent. Then, swish them around to remove the dirt and let soak for about one hour. Rinse the jean, then hang to dry.

– Ocean Wash: If you want to give yourself the sand-washed look and are near the ocean, this is the method for you. Hit up the beach on a hot day, while wearing your jeans. Jump into the ocean with your jeans on, get them completely soaked, then head back to the sandy beach and rub the sand all over your jeans, then jump back into the water. Repeat this as many times as desired. Rinse your jeans with fresh water and let them dry in the sun.

Check out the rest of our Check Before You Buy series and stay tuned for future editions.

Denim courtesy of dutil. Denim and Levi’s Vintage Clothing

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  • Photography: Ryan Hursh for Highsnobiety.com/Washing picture courtesy of Norse Store

Vancouver-born, Berlin-based writer, photographer and editor with a steady hand on the keyboard.

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