Lucky Stiffs: A Guide to Raw Denim Jean Selection and Care

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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, classically masculine, and made from pure, raw denim.

Deep blue or black, 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.

Raw, or dry, denim is 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 denim-heads 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 proper care, a pair of raw denim 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? Well, hold up just a second. Finding the right pair of raw denim is an art—and we’re here to help guide you.

The Fit

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.

lucky stiffs a guide to raw denim jeans measure fit

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.

The Fabric

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.

lucky stiffs a guide to raw denim jeans the fabric

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.

The Soak

Before you rush to wear your jeans, you need to soak them. You heard us, soak them. This is an all-important step because soaking will help start the customization process. Some suggest soaking in cold water for sanforized and hot for unsanforized, and others suggest that there’s no need to soak sanforized jeans at all. 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 them.

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. For a more dramatic fade, go with warm or even hot water. If you want to keep most of the dye, use the contrary. 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.

lucky stiffs a guide to raw denim jeans soaking

Now, 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 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.

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.

The Care

Raw denim should be washed infrequently, or even never. But, hey, sometimes you spill barbecue sauce on your pants and $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 raw denim is 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. The highest price reaches $400, but most are significantly lower. So, try them out and learn that just like sushi and steak tartare, some things are best served raw.

Levi’s $60

Levis Raw Denim Jeans

Levi is a raw denim OG, to put it simply. This pair of shrink-to-fit jeans are made from raw, unwashed denim that forms to your body and are great when used as a daily work pant. With a $60 tag, there aren’t many other brands that offer true raw denim at such a price.

Unbranded Brand $82

unbranded raw denim jeans

Unbranded brandished these classically styled selvedge jeans with a contrast orange stitching to go along with the dark, clean indigo hue. They also come with a tapered fit, so beware if you’re sporting big calves.

A.P.C. $185

lucky stiffs a guide to raw denim jeans p c

If there was a standard for raw denim, A.P.C. would be an appropriate choice. Their jeans feature the classic five-pocket look, with this respectively pair sporting a slim let style – perfect for Fridays at the office or a classy night out. But the slim fit shouldn’t steer you away from how comfortable these jeans become once you have them broken in.

3Sixteen $230

lucky stiffs a guide to raw denim jeans 3sixteen

New York-based 3Sixteen is one of the fastest growing denim brands on the market right now, and it’s not hard to see why. They curate some stellar denim pieces, from indigo to black to blue dyes, all of which exude crisp, classic, and modern appeal. Plus, they look great for almost any occasion.

Raleigh Denim $325

Jones salvage raw denim jeans

The Staple Selvage wash style from Raleigh Denim is one of the best in the market. Handmade in Raleigh, North Carolina, the jeans stunt selvage detail around coin pocket and back belt loop, while beautifully contrasted with their signature red stitching.

Ironheart $400

lucky stiffs a guide to raw denim jeans ironheart

Although they’re the most expensive, this is the heaviest, thickest, and most-denimest pair of jeans you’ll find anywhere. Made of 25 oz. super heavy, dark selvedge denim sports a straight led style with a button fly and hidden rivets.

Article originally published June 1, 2015. Updated April 25, 2017 by Bryan Holt.