There are pivotal moments one never forgets in life. It could be your first kiss or the time you learned to ride a bike without stabilizers. If you’re a menswear aficionado of a certain age, the first time you ever squeezed yourself into a stiff pair of raw, selvedge denim jeans is probably right up there. For a lot of guys, this is the point where they grew up sartorially, the jeans serving as a potent gateway drug into a brave new world of esoteric materials and Japanese craftsmanship.
If you're new to all this and wondering what exactly raw denim (sometimes called “dry denim”) even is, then it's simply jeans are simply jeans made from denim that hasn't gone through this pre-wash process. But we'll get to that later.
In 2019, it's not unfair to say the raw denim craze has been and gone. In a time where baggies and zipper pants reign supreme, Kanye’s A.P.C. capsule feels like it came a lifetime ago (in fashion years, it kinda did). A lot of youngsters have moved on, preferring the comfort and versatility of track pants.
But the truth is that, particularly in these times, where style is fluid and one can navigate looks from prep to junkie chic to street rat in the space of a week, having at least a couple of pairs of jeans in your wardrobe should be a prerequisite. Those Vans Slip On’s you just copped? They’d go great with some dark indigo jeans. Or how about some fudge Clarks Wallabies with a pair of stonewashed slim cuts? Fashion might be fickle, but good jeans are forever.
So, whether you're a lapsed raw denim head in need of a refresher course or someone new to the game, we spoke to the folks at expert Canadian denim label Naked & Famous to find out exactly what is raw denim, what is selvedge denim, and how to care for your new jeans after that critical first wash.
Firstly, what is raw denim?
Raw denim is the starting point for all denim fabrics, it’s the untreated denim fabric as it comes off the loom. It’s characteristically rigid, as starch is applied to the yarns to add strength during the fabric weaving process. After weaving, fabric finishing processes such as sanforization (pre shirking), anti-skewing (preventing fabric twist), and singeing (burning off stray cotton fibers) are often applied.
These denim fabrics would be categorized as sanforized denim, while denim fabrics that do not go through these finishing processes fall under the category of unsanforized denim.
Raw denim jeans are made from raw denim and do not go through any of the distressing or washing processes that are made to artificially “age” the jeans.
And what is selvedge denim?
Selvedge denim is a type of denim that is woven on machines that utilize a shuttle for its operation called shuttle looms. The shuttle is a small wooden device that travels back and forth horizontally across the loom, setting the interior weft yarns in a continuous strand while interlacing with the vertical warp yarns. On each pass of the shuttle the yarn seals the edge of the fabric creating a “self-edge”, or Selvedge, hence Selvedge Denim.
The edge or “ear” typically contains a colored line, red being the most common. Historically denim mills used this colored line “Selvedge ID” to identify which customer the denim was produced for. These days the Selvedge ID is a detail that can be played with in a multitude of creative ways, as seen above.
When did these processes become popular?
Shuttle looms were the standard for weaving denim until around the 1950’s. As demand for denim rose, manufacturers were looking for ways to produce more of it. Since projectile looms could produce more fabric faster than shuttle loomed denim, they quickly became the industry standard. Shuttle loomed denim did not disappear completely, and in the ’80s a resurgence for this type of “old world” style denim started up in Japan.
So why do people prefer shuttle loomed denim to projectile loomed denim?
Well, shuttle looms are old, and slow, they rattle and shake and require the skill of master artisans to constantly maintain to operate. It’s because of all of this that the physical quality of the fabric has an unevenness and texture that cannot be mass produced.
Because of the manual nature of shuttle loom operation, skilled operators can manipulate the machines to produce a wider variety of textures. The most beautiful examples of this would be low tension, slubby fabrics that have the look and feel of handwoven textiles.
It’s the rarity of the textiles that shuttle loomed denim produces which make it highly prized. That’s not to say that all shuttle loomed denim is on equal footing, the uniqueness of an individual fabric is what sets it apart.
Why is Japanese denim so sought after?
Japan possesses a rich cultural history of indigo dying and textile production. One of the reasons Japanese denim is so special is the way that it’s dyed, which is a process called rope dying.
Rope dying is done on impressively tall machines that extend up to the second floor of the factory. The exterior warp yarns are suspended from the top of the machine and sent down to be dipped in a bath of indigo waiting below. After each dip, the yarn travels all the way back up, allowing the dye to oxidize and adhere to the cotton yarn. This process is repeated along the machine multiple times to obtain the desired shade of indigo.
What’s key is that because the yarns continuously travel up and down this long machine, and are never simply left in a large vat, the dye does not completely saturate the core of the yarn. Instead, only the outer layer is dyed, and the core remains white. Over time when worn, these layers of indigo begin to fade away revealing new layers and shades of blue, until you reach the center white core. Rope Dying is the core reason why Japanese raw denim is so highly praised for its fading properties.
What’s the point of wearing raw denim?
As raw denim ages, they take on the personality of the wearer. The fabric reacts to you, they fade, rip, wear and tear according to your lifestyle. So that jean ends up being a representation of the time you wore them. Simply going to the mall and buying a pair of jeans doesn’t capture that.
If your body type isn’t the same as the model they based the jeans on, then the simulated wear and tear they put on the jeans won’t line up with your body. Notice how many people wear jeans were the creases behind the knee are actually sitting somewhere lower calf.
Can the dye on my raw jeans stain chairs etc.?
Absolutely, this is part of the reality of waring a garment that evolves over time. Indigo will transfer onto other things. So be mindful of white couches, but depending on what it is, the indigo transfer won’t be noticeable, like black or darker colored materials.
How will my jeans fade and when do I wash them?
Knowing the right time to wash your jeans isn’t dependent on how many months old your jeans are, but rather on the frequency of wear, and how dirty they have become. Some people prefer to wait as long as they can before the first wash because this allows the denim to crease and fold to the contours of your body. Then, after the first wash, you will be rewarded with higher-contrast fades at the points of strain. Washing your jeans after a shorter period of time will produce a fade with a more uniform color.
There are several schools of thought when it comes to washing raw denim jeans. The more distress you put on the fabric while washing, the more indigo loss will occur. The hotter the water, the more detergent you add, will result in more indigo loss. If you prefer to keep the jeans darker for longer, then the easiest way to wash your jeans is in cold water, inside-out, and hung to dry.
Others may prefer the soak method:
1. Turn the jeans inside out, fasten the front buttons or zipper (this is to avoid abrasion to the denim while washing).
2. Soak the jeans in a tub using cold water to minimize indigo loss (if the jeans are very dirty, you can use a small amount of detergent).
3. Gently scrub the jeans and let them soak for about an hour.
4. Remove the jeans from the tub and rinse with water to remove any leftover dirt, dye or detergent. Ring out any excess water, and finally, hang to dry.
The jeans may feel a bit tight after washing, but they will soon stretch back out to normal with wear.
At the end of the day, jeans are not indestructible; no other garment is worn as frequently or as hard as a pair of raw denim jeans. Longer wears between washes can cause an accumulation of sweat, oil and dirt, which will weaken the cotton fibers and allow holes to form. It’s important to do maintenance from time to time as not only will it prolong the life of your jeans, but repairs add a great deal of character.
Patch up any small holes that form using a small piece of denim (patch the jeans from the inside for a cleaner look, patch the jeans from the outside for a more vintage look) or try using a contrasting patterned fabric for more personality.
If you've still got burning questions regarding your raw denim, Naked & Famous' Youtube channel is the home of online denim discourse. They'll also answer any burning questions you might have on denim on Fridays at 5:00 p.m. CET on Instagram live.