All you need to know about Raw Denim

Denim jeans are one of the most popular items of clothing on the planet. Odds are, you already at least have one in your wardrobe. From this comes the cultural phenomenon called Raw Denim.

If you ever hear whispers about the discomfort associated with raw denim, the allegedly high cost, or even to an extreme extent about people putting their jeans in the freezer; then this post is for you. We are going to explain what raw denim exactly is, some of its basic terminology (selvedge, fades, etc) and how to properly nurture raw denims.

Raw denim explained.

Raw denim or also known as dry denim is denim fabric that remains unwashed, untreated, and untouched from the moment it’s manufactured to the moment when you cope one from the store. It’s denim in its purest form.

Raw denim tends to have a crispy and stiff feeling when worn, also leaves traces of its indigo dye when it rubs against another surface (crocking). But always be careful on what you rub your denim against; you might leave a bit of blue behind.

The Benefits of Raw Denim

You might be wondering why go through all this hassle just for a new pair of jeans? One of the biggest raw denim advantage, and the indigo loss, is that raw denims develop and grow based on what you do in them and to them. Every mile you walk, every scrape on the concrete, every item you keep in your pocket leaves its mark. The dark indigo dye slowly begins to fade, exposing the light electric blue and eventually the white cotton core of the denim yarns. What’s left is a whole unique garment that was formed and faded to you and you only.

Other benefit of raw denim includes:

  • Greater Durability– Since the fabric has not been artificially stonewashed, lasered, and sandblasted, you get the full life of the fabric involved, hence why many vintage garments have lasted so long.
  • Eco and Labor Friendly– It takes an awful lot of water to grow enough cotton for a pair of jeans, but washing and distressing them takes even more, an average of 42 liters per jean. By buying raw, none of that water needs to go to waste. It also doesn’t expose workers to the harmful chemical often used to distress and wash denim.
  • Less Clutter– Many raw denim fans will wear the same pair of jeans every day for months or years at a time. This could very well be your only pair of pants!
  • Greater Value — Although the cost of entry is often high, the greater durability often leads to many more wears per pair.

The History of Denim

Although the vast majority of denim jeans sold nowadays are distressed and washed, nearly all denim was sold raw and crisped up until the 1970s. Denim was primarily used for working attire, hence the term “blue collar”. Denim was sturdy and tough, but still relatively flexible, soft, and comfortable.

The word denim originated from the original name of the fabric “serge de Nimes”, serge meaning sturdy fabric and de Nimes meaning of the town Nimes, France. There is some argument over whether denim was actually developed in Nimes, but we all agree that there is one event that solidified denim jeans as we know and love.

In the early 1870s, an immigrant tailor from Latvia name Jacob Davis was manufacturing clothing for miners in Reno, Nevada. Davis came up with a new way to secure the stress points on pants-copper rivets. Miners were content and thrilled with the increased durability and Davis tried to capitalize on his discovery by patenting his invention but failed several time at the patent office.

Davis called out his fabric supplier in San Francisco, Levi Strauss, a dry good merchant from Bavaria, proposing about going into business together. Davis and Strauss finally received the patent in 1873 and soon began producing the riveted denim jeans “waist overalls” that would define how we think of jeans nowadays.

Denim jeans were about as far away from the fashion world as possible at this point- it was pure utilitarian function. If anyone cared enough to look at the brand or the make of their denim, it was purely to see which one is tougher under constant abuse. This would be denim’s identity through the early 20th century.

It was in the 1920s that jeans began to expand beyond work wear. Denim jeans started to become popular when Hollywood western films started using denim jeans as a costume for their cowboy characters. At this point denim was still mere costume to most Americans, but it did serve to normalize denim to the middle class.

During WWII, American workers put on denim for the first time as they went to work in factories to produce for US war effort. Once the war is won, many soldiers and workers refused to put down their jeans. This gave denim a countercultural and anti-social bent, wearing jeans in polite company in the 1950s was considered transgressive at best and immoral at worst. Denim is also seen and linked as an anti-authoritarian movement by suburban teenagers.

The breaking point, however, finally came with the Elvis Presley film Jailhouse Rock. The ensuing popularity of the King’s hi-gyrating antics was too much for mainstream Americans to deny, and over the next couple of decades, denim gradually became accepted as a casual clothing option.

HOW RAW DENIM IS MADE

Sourcing:

Assuming the denim is manufactured with 100% cotton, the first step is to source the cotton plants. Cotton can be acquired from many different countries, from Australia to Zimbabwe; and there are a variety of breeds and strains that holds different properties like luster, softness, durability.

How the cotton is harvested depends with each location. There those that picks the cotton conventionally (by hand) while some uses mechanical techniques. Then comes cotton carding (i.e cleaning), inspecting, combing, opening, and blending — essentially making the cotton pure, clean, and chaff so that it’s ready for the next stage.

Spinning:

After the cotton has been sourced, cleaned, and packaged, it’s time for it to be spun. Individual cotton fibers are mixed and twisted in order to create the yarns that will soon be woven to create the denim fabric.

There are several techniques of spinning, this includes open-end, ring, and double ring spun. Take note that ring and double-ring spun denim is more desirable since it is thicker, which makes a stronger fade contrasts and has even greater slubbiness (uneven threads).

Warping and Dyeing:

Woven fabric made of warp yarns (length-wise, indigo dyed) and weft yarns (cross-wise, un-dyed)

Warp yarns are prepared by selecting the longer yarn from the ring-spun yarn and dyeing. There are three main methods of indigo dyeing: loop dyeing, slasher dyeing and rope dyeing. Rope dyeing is considered a superior method since it is more laborious, specialized, and yields better fades (due to only the yarn surfaces being dyed)

Generally, the indigo-dyed warp yarns are interlaced with the natural colored. un-dyed weft yarns, and there are two types of looms: shuttle looms, and shuttle-less (air-jet) looms. Although the former produces less than the latter, they are rarer, result in finished edges, and typically more coveted.

There are also a variety of weaving techniques, including right-hand twill, broken twill, and left-hand twill

Finishing:

Next, the almost finished denim sheets are rolled into drums and delivered to the brand that’s going to produce the sheets into jeans. Some denim brands finish the jeans via larger facilities, while others favor one-man operations (such as Ande Whall and Roy)

And that’s about it! Nowhere within the finishing process the denim is distressed or washed in any way. It is left in its purest and rawest state and will only fades or deteriorate with the wearer’s personal use.

RAW DENIM TERMS TO KNOW

When you first hear a denimhead talking about raw denim, it might sound very unusual for the untrained ears (slubbiness, nep, 3x1 twill, etc) As time goes by (and as long as you stayed a denimhead), you’ll definitely learn some of these words, eventually. But here are some terms that will help you understand enough to make your first informed purchase:

Selvedge

Probably the most common word that you’ve hear around raw denim is Selvedge-this refers to those little colored lines that run along the outseam of a pair of jeans. By root terminology, selvedge denim means that the denim has had the edge of the fabric “self-edged” by a shuttle loom as it was woven to keep it from unraveling; but just because it’s selvedge, it doesn’t mean it’s raw or even that it’s denim — almost any fabric can be woven with a selvedge, almost any fabric.

Selvedge textiles for the most part faded away in the 1950’s when denim demand skyrocketed and manufactures like Levi’s and Lee switched to the far-cheaper and faster projectile looms. A selvedge line doesn’t always mean better denim, but the mills manufacturing the most exquisite and highest quality fabrics are usually manufacture them on selvedge shuttle looms.

Sanforization

Other term you might have encountered is Sanforization. Almost every fabric will shrink on a certain degree the first time it is soaked. Almost all denim on the market (raw and otherwise) is sanforized, which is a steaming and heating process that pre-shrinks the fabric before it is cut and sewn into jeans.

Unsaforized denim (also called Shrink-to-fit) will shrink around 5–10% the first time it gets in water or washed). You need to be extra cautious when sizing unsaforized denim and factor that it may shrink up to two inches in the waist.

Weight

Another focus of raw denim is the weight of its fabric. The weight refers to how much a yard of the fabric weighs in ounces (oz.). Weights can range from monstrously heavy at 32oz. all the way down to the ultra-light at 5oz. A heavier fabric will be tougher, harder, stiffer, and require more effort before it becomes comfortable to wear. Most raw denim, however, will be around 12oz-15oz. This weight can be worn all year round and won’t be too much of a pain to break in.

Your First Raw Denim Purchase

Now that you know the appeal of raw denim and some of the basic language around it, how do you go about buying your first pair?

Measurement

You’ll most like going to be buying your jeans online, unless you live near brick and mortar store. To ensure that you buy jeans with the proper fit, you need to know your measurements first. There are six key measurements you’ll definitely want to take into account:

  1. Waist — Circumference of the jeans top block
  2. Rise — Length from the top of the inseam to the very top of the fly
  3. Thigh — Distance from the top of the inseam across to the outseam
  4. Knee — Distance from the inseam to the outseam halfway down the jean
  5. Leg Opening — Distance from the inseam to the outseam at the hem of the jean
  6. Inseam — Length from the bottom of the crotch to the end of the leg

You can find your ideal measurements by taking a measure tape to your best fitting pair of jeans. Almost every raw denim retailer has these numbers listed on their website. Once you know your measurements, you’ll have the confidence on buying any jean, anywhere.

Fits

Like all fabrics that you put on your body and legs, fit is especially critical. Straight Leg, Tapered, Slim Straight, and Slim Tapered are all common fit options for denims; you’ll have to take in consideration what works best for you in terms of comfort and look. It’s not worth sacrificing your future offspring to stuff your tree-trunk thighs into a pair of heavyweight skinny raw denim that feels like Kevlar. Always buy what works for you (and your future generation) and you will be infinitely happier.

Budget

Next, consider your budget. Raw and selvedge denim can range anywhere from $20 to $2000. The reason for this is the massive number of different fabrics, details, and manufacturing techniques available on the market.

Keep in mind that just because a jean is more expensive does not necessarily mean it will be more durable, many of the manufacturers at the higher price points are simply offering something you can’t find anywhere else. For example, Roy Slaper of Roy Denim makes every single pair of jeans himself on rare vintage sewing machines, Sugar Cane & Co. in Japan uses a specialty denim that weaves in sugarcane fibers with the cotton for a unique feel and fade, Naked & Famous even makes a scratch and sniff denim that smells like raspberries.

Caring for Raw Denim

Now that you’ve got your raw denims, how do you take care of them? Fades are a central part of raw denim’s lore that they are celebrated unto themselves with almost fanatical devotion. The longer you go with the first wash, the greater the fades can theoretically be. However, the often repeated adage of wearing your raw denim for at least five months without washing can be a little overkill.

Some people even go as far by putting their jeans in the freezer to eliminate the funky odor-causing bacteria, but it’s not conclusive if that truly works. What we are trying to convey is do wash your jeans when you feel like it. While no washes means more extreme fades, it’s also builds up dirt and grime in the fabric which only leads to more hole and blowouts. A safe balance is to wash your pair every month or two with an all-natural soap like Dr. Bronner’s or a detergent for dark colors, but that’s by no means a hard-and-fast rule.

The biggest takeaway from raw denim is that these particular pants grow to reflect who you are and what you do in and to them. So go on about your day, treat denims like hell, and wash them when you think it’s necessary.

The reason people are so crazy about raw jeans is because you essentially make a pair your own. As many denimheads say, “it’s a canvas that paints itself.” We hope that we’ve cleared up some of the mystery and myths surrounding raw denim so you can get to work on painting that first masterpiece.