Lucky Stiffs: A Guide to Raw Denim Jeans
Although the trendiest of denim wearers today are sporting moto styles or patched-and-distressed jeans that look as if they were beaten by a psychotic, belligerent bully, we still prefer our jeans to be timeless and classically masculine. They are deep blue, durable and, unlike the faux vintage models that are having a (undoubtedly short-lived) heyday at present, the jeans we love bear the honorable signs of being well worn only after their owner has donned them day after day and marked them with his own bodyprint.
To what am I referring? Raw denim, of course. Created from the fabric in its most natural state—unwashed, ruggedly stiff and free of softeners or other treatments—these beauties often employ selvage (also spelled selvedge) fabric, a style of weaving that prevents fraying and is often stitched with colored thread. Considered by denimheads to be the gold standard of textiles, selvage is woven on smaller looms than modern, mass-market denim and, back in the day, was often employed when jeans were literally workwear for miners, cowboys and other blue-collar (and blue-bottom) laborers.
With the right fit and the proper care, a pair of raws will fit like a glove, fade and conform to the wearer’s body, become comfortably soft, and last upwards of 10 years.
Are you salivating over the thought of a high-quality, long-lasting, totally unique pair of jeans? Ready to go out and buy the first pair you find? Well, hold up just a second. Finding the right pair of raw denim is an art—and we’re here to help guide you.
Because raw denim is unwashed, your jeans will shrink after your initial soak. Over time, however, the denim will stretch, and, depending on the weight and whether or not the jeans are sanforized (a fancy kind of pre-shrinking process), you need to prepare for a substantial amount of stretch.
Before doing anything else, you should take the following measurements: the waist, the inseam, the knee, the leg opening, and the front and back rises.
The first question you need to ask yourself is: how do I like my jeans to fit? Measuring the knee, leg opening and front rise will help you figure out if you want skinny fit or wide, and whether or want a high rise or low.
If you like your jeans more fitted, we suggest going down a size for sanforized denim, which will stretch about half an inch, and up a size for unsanforized, which will shrink up to 10 percent in the initial soak but only stretch about an inch to an inch and a half. If you like a little more wiggle room, pick your true size for sanforized and go up two sizes for unsanforized.
Unsanforized jeans lose inseam inches in the initial soak, so keep that in mind when you measure your inseam. If you’re going to cuff them so the world can see your selvage, take that into account when you measure your inseam.
Your denim should be snug in the waist. It’ll be uncomfortable at first, but just keep in mind that your jeans will stretch with wear and eventually conform to your body. Not to mention that your butt will look bangin’.
Always keep in mind that stretch varies depending on the weight of the denim and the brand, so whenever possible, try the jeans on in person and ask a sales rep how much stretch to expect.
A good pair of raws is worth its weight in gold. The general rule to raw is: the higher the weight, the higher the quality. Weight also plays a role in how the jeans will break in. Anything below 12 ounces will break in faster, but 12-16 ounces will last longer.
When it comes to selvage, that is largely up to your aesthetic preferences. While selvage was traditionally a means of creating a higher-quality product—the manner in which traditional selvage is woven prevents fraying—the pop of color synonymous with selvage is so popular that some companies are putting fake selvage on the insides of their jeans. Make sure, when doing your research, that the jeans you’re looking at are true selvage and not just sewn on for looks. And hey, if it’s just looks you’re going for—the subtle pop of red is a sharp detail—then selvage to your heart’s content.
If you’re looking for higher quality fabric, you should instead look for what kind of yarn is used: ring-spun yarn is more durable than open-end yarn and also fades better and becomes softer over time. That being said, open-end yarn tends to be more affordable.
Before you rush to wear your jeans, you need to soak them. Yes, soak them. This is an all-important step, because soaking will help start the customization process. There are a couple ways to do this, and it all depends on your comfort level and how much of an initial fade and shrink you want. Some suggest soaking in cold water for sanforized and hot for unsanforized, and others suggest that there’s no need to soak sanforized jeans. Ultimately, it comes down to how much you want to toy with the dye and the fit. The worst thing would be for you to perfect your fade and fit and lose all your hard work the first time you wash.
You should carefully consider how much you want your jeans to shrink and how much of the original dye you want to come out in the soak. If you want a dramatic fade with the first soak, go with warm or even hot water. If you want to keep most of the dye, go with cool or cold water. Similarly, if you want to shrink your jeans substantially, go with warm or hot water; if you want to minimize the shrink, go with cool or cold.
Fill your tub with a couple inches of water. Some denim experts suggest wearing your jeans in the tub to create the best fit; others suggest flipping them inside out and just putting them in the tub on their own. Either way you cut it, submerge those puppies, on or off your legs, for anywhere from one to three hours, depending on how much you want them to fade and shrink.
If they’re on your legs, you have the misfortune of waiting for them to dry. This is an uncomfortable part of the process, but the payoff will be a perfectly fitted pair of jeans. If you soaked them sans your body, hang them out to dry. Unless you want a more substantial initial fade, do not wring them out. You’ll lose much more dye that way. When they’re no longer sopping wet but still damp, put them on. Do a couple of lunges or whatever. Let them conform to your body. And voilà. The perfect pair of jeans.
Raw denim should be washed infrequently—though some might argue that you should never wash your raws. But, hey, sometimes you spill barbecue sauce on your pants. Your $300 jeans don’t deserve to be sticky and brown just because some jabroni on the internet told you only to wash your jeans on pain of death.
You can’t just throw your jeans into the wash like a pair of mass produced denim. In order to maintain the fade and the fit that you have worked so hard for, you have a couple of options.
The gentlest option is to spot clean with a sponge and water—and, if need be, a touch of detergent.
If, however, you need more than just a spot-clean—say, for instance, your jeans are starting to smell—you can repeat the soaking process, this time with a gentle soap. Put your jeans in the water, agitate them a bit to get the soap into the fabric, and then let them soak, fully submerged, for up to an hour. Drain the tub, then rinse with cold water. Hang dry.
If you somehow accidentally fell into a giant mud puddle or something equally questionable and you need to actually wash your jeans, putting them in the washing machine is an okay alternative. Just make sure to use a gentle cycle with cool or, at most, lukewarm water, and avoid the dryer at all costs. You might find that some of the fade creases become muddled by tumbling violently for 30 minutes, but it is a necessary evil.
Ready to buy?
Here are six of our favorite contemporary raw styles from a variety of still fairly young denim brands. All are less than $300–some significantly so. So try them out and learn that just like sushi and steak tartare, some things are best served raw.
Cigarette Jean in Dark Indigo Raw Denim by DSTLD – The biggest bargain of the bunch, this jean’s inexpensive price also stems from the direct-to-consumer approach taken by its manufacturer (pronounced “distilled”). While the raw denim used here is not sacred selvage, it does have a 2% Lycra component for the slightest bit of stretch.
The M1 Slim Taper by Bluer – This is the slimmest (yet still not skinny) silhouette offered by the recently launched brand that uses selvage denim, hardware and production facilities entirely from the USA. Selling exclusively on their website directly to consumers, the brand is able to offer high-quality jeans such as this for a fraction of the cost charged by traditional retailers.
Straight Cut in Rope-Dyed Indigo by Doublewood – Designed in San Francisco and produced in China with 13.75 oz raw Japanese selvage, this jean is described as a “perennial style with modern tailoring” by Doublewood, which produces all of its jeans in small batches. Details such as lined back pockets, hidden rivets and a bonus canvas bag to store the jeans only add to Doublewood’s appeal.
Rios Modern Slim by Freenote Cloth – Denim is just one of several product categories from this California-based menswear line, but Freenote Cloth gets it right with this zip-front style that employs 13.5 oz selvage denim from the USA’s most respected and historic denim supplier, Cone Mills of North Carolina. There’s even a strip of selvage on the coin pocket.
The Reed in Raw Selvage Denim by Baldwin – “We are seeing a strong move to straight leg jeans and full fits, the raw straight leg pairs perfectly with the oversized silhouettes in shirts and outerwear,” says designer Matt Baldwin of his popular style that is made in the USA but employs premium selvage denim from one of Japan’s top fabric mills, Kurabo.
Jones Original in Selvage Raw by Raleigh Denim Workshop – Raleigh was started by a completely inexperienced husband and wife team who learned the ins and outs of traditional jeans craftsmanship from local aging – and unemployed – former denim-factory workers in their home of Raleigh, North Carolina. Their old-school approach is clearly visible in this 12.5 oz selvage button-fly dazzler, which, as far as we’re concerned, is the epitome of “timeless investment piece.”
Article originally published June 1, 2015. Updated Jan. 15, 2016 by Lisa Dunn.