I remember when I was a kid, probably 6 or 7, hating wearing blue jeans. They were always so stiff and rough and uncomfortable. I have a recollection of standing in my bedroom closet and being so pissed at my mom that I had to wear these stupid new blue jeans. It might have actually been my first pair of big-boy blue jeans.
As I grew up I got into developing my own personal “look” and discovered the versatility of (at that time, bootcut) jeans. My style has gone through a few overhauls since junior high, but in different iterations, blue jeans have remained a staple. I love the character you can get out of a good pair of worn-in blue jeans. They eventually come to tell the story of the owner and with wear, only get better.
This brings me to raw denim. I had come across raw denim and selvedge denim (I’ll explain in a second) in the past, but only in passing. I saw Japanese selvedge denim first working at The Gap. I had heard stories about people not washing their jeans for 6 months to a few years, if ever. The reason for not washing I thought, was that jeans are antibacterial (they’re not) and maybe they fade with washes. Turns out the real reason is a little bit more complicated. I found myself recently needing a new pair of jeans and once again came across the raw denim option. After extensive researching (an integral part of my obsessions) I decided to give raw denim a try.
Ok so what’s this raw denim and selvedge I’m talking about? Well, I’ll tell you. Raw denim is denim that comes straight off the loom and isn’t put through any wash treatments to speak of. Sometimes it is washed only one time in order to soften up the denim and make it easier to break in. Selvedge denim describes the weaving process of the fabric. “Selvedge” is a shortening of the term “self-edge”. Selvedge denim is woven on a shuttle loom – a slower and more expensive way to make denim. The shuttle loom can only make denim a yard wide, but it finishes off the fabric with a self-edge. This means the edge of the denim will not come apart or fray. Most modern denim since the 1950’s is made on a projectile loom, a faster and cheaper way to make denim. The only problem is the fabric is not selvedge so it has to be stitched over on the edge in order to prevent fraying. You can read more about raw denim, selvedge, and the history of denim here.
Go ahead and take a look at the jeans or pants you have on right now. Cuff the leg opening at the bottom and examine the out seam. You will most likely see two edges of fabric that have a complicated stitch running the entire length of the edges. Selvedge denim doesn’t always denote better quality, and not all raw denim is selvedge. But one usually one follows the other. Both of these factors point to better quality and durability.
Another difference between raw denim jeans and run of the mill jeans you can get anywhere is what happens as you wear them. Because raw denim jeans come unwashed or washed one time, the indigo dye in the jeans will wear off naturally as you wear them. Over time this reveals natural wear patterns on your lap, in your knee ditch, and at the bottom of the jeans. In the raw denim world these are called “fades”. The “sicker the fadez,” the better. Which brings me back to washing. The other main reason to go as long as humanly possible without washing your raw denim is that the first time you wash your denim, it will remove that coveted indigo dye uniformly from the entire garment. The longer you go without washing, the more dye is removed naturally only from your high wear areas: thighs, back of the knees, and around your ankles. Since the denim is stiff at the beginning, the creases are much more pronounced with the first wear and will show up much better as they fade.
These fade patterns each have their own terms. The wear lines you find on your lap are called whiskers. Wear lines on the back of the knee are called honeycombs. Lastly, lines and fading near the ankles are called stacks. This if from the stacking that happens when your jeans hit your shoes. The appeal is that with time and dedication, you can have authentic wear patterns and fades that are unique just to your jeans. You have most likely seen these artificial fades when shopping for jeans, or perhaps in the jeans you have on. Those fading patterns imitate the natural wearing and fading of raw denim. A plus is that they save time in getting those sick fadez, but a negative is that with wear you will probably develop your own fading in those pants and they won’t line up, making you look like a big ol’ chump.
SO ANYWAYS, I bought a pair of raw denim jeans from a great brand called Unbranded. This brand spends no money on advertising and even leaves off labeling on it own jeans, passing the savings on to the customer. Unbranded is one of the most affordable entry point to the world of raw denim. Most of their jeans start at $82. On average raw denim jeans will run you anywhere from $100 to $300. The one mistake I made was not really checking into the fit of the cut of jeans I bought from Unbranded and the jeans turned out a little bit too baggy for me. Fortunately I was in Austin, TX at the time of purchase and found a raw denim maker in town called Paleo Denim. They did an excellent job tapering my jeans at the bottom and hemming them to the proper length. I’m a little over two months into wearing my jeans and so far I’ve only got a wallet fade on my back pocket. It usually takes 6 months to start seeing fading on the legs and about a year for them to really start to shine.
For me, the biggest appeal of raw denim is the relationship that is created between the garment and the wearer. (God I’m a weirdo.) All I have to do is wear my jeans a lot and eventually they will show the story of what I did in them. I also appreciate the durability and quality of the denim, hoping that they will last me for years to come.
Lastly, a side-effect of getting into raw denim jeans was getting into garment construction and DIY distressing. Ever since high-school I’ve dabbled in hand-sewing patches or hand-distressing my jeans. I caught the bug again with an older pair of jeans I hemmed. I went and distressed the knees and thighs myself and they continue to be a work in progress, but I’m happy with how they look so far. I repaired one hole with a process called darning. The process of darning a hole in fabric involves recreating the weave of the fabric with needle and thread either by had or with a machine. I’ve never really used a sewing machine, so I do everything by hand. I also had fairly large scraps of fabric from when I had my raw denim jeans hemmed so I bought a zipper and made a raw denim pouch. It now contains my art supplies. I was pretty pleased with how it turned out and hopefully the denim will eventually show it’s own wear pattern just like on my jeans.
If you want to fall down this internet rabbit hole, a great place to start is a website called Heddels.com. They cover anything and everything that is raw denim.