Raw denim is confusing.
What the hell is raw about denim?
What would I need to know about raw denim before purchasing?
I had the same questions a long time ago before making my own raw denim brand Washington Alley.
I'd like to share what I've learned so you feel comfortable with raw denim and purchasing it online.
This article should cover everything you need to know about raw denim jeans.
Click on the section to auto scroll.
We'll start with an infographic describing the essential information you need to know about raw denim.
If you read this infographic, and nothing else, you'll know more about raw denim than 95% of the world.
Now we'll move into the most detailed article written on raw denim. Starting with the history of it.
The history of denim jeans is a rich one; from strictly worn by miners as they carved to hell with pick axes, to girls wearing skinny jeans who cry when they see puppies.
Denim jeans have evolved into essential pieces in everyone's wardrobe.
(2:22 video on the history of American jeans)
This history includes Jacob Davis and Levi Strauss, who created riveted waist overalls. Jeans became a big part of pop culture as the cowboys' most badass legwear. Denim became washed and distressed in the 1970's and 1980's. Now, raw and selvedge denim is making a come back.
Back when men were men, which I guess was in the mid 1800’s, denim jeans were exclusively used as work wear.
(loggers wearing nice raw denim jeans)
Pairs of jeans were made on shuttle looms, which gave them the selvedge seam, and they came to their customers totally unwashed (raw).
Jeans were popular with miners and other people who chopped things all day long.
These guys needed the most durable and rugged pants they could find, but they still needed to be comfortable so they could chop things all day long.
This is where Jacob Davis, who made clothing for miners, and Levi Strauss, a dry goods merchant, combined their power to make what would eventually become the jeans we know today.
Davis invented rivets to strengthen the jeans and with Strauss’s help, he got a patent on his new invention.
This made them the best jean brand in the world and jeans evolved into pop culture.
("hey guys lets straddle this giant log in our raw denim")
Davis and Strauss started making these highly improved jeans and they made their way out into the rest of the world.
Hollywood cowboys started to wear them in western movies. In the early 1900’s, actors pretending to be badass gun slinging cowboys wore jeans and everybody else started wearing them, too.
"Jeans are my huckleberry" - Fashionable Cowboy.
Men started coming home from WWI and WWII, who got back to work and started wearing jeans regularly.
That's when denim jeans started their evolution into something that people wear everyday, which caused their appearance and how they were manufactured to change.
Jeans became popular for both men and women in the 1970's. By the 1980’s, jeans started to be pre-washed and distressed.
(Johnny Depp about to steal your girl)
This is where raw denim started to die.
This process gave them a worn look before getting to the customer. Pre-washing and distressing made the jeans softer, broke them in and gave them a different look.
What's the bottom line?
Raw denim means totally unwashed or undistressed.
This is when modern denim was born. Raw denim jeans totally fell out of favor and modern jeans took over our closets.
Raw denim jeans slowly started to make a comeback in the mid 2000's.
Denim manufacturers started to bring back the old way of making denim by using vintage shuttle looms, re-introducing the clean selvedge seam and of course, delivering jeans to customers completely unwashed and raw.
With this resurrection, the future of denim will be a mix of both new denim and old denim, and both will need to fit properly to look good.
Denim is made of 100% cotton
Cotton is picked, run through a cotton gin and spun to make yarn
It's dyed for color and run through a loom to make it usable denim.
Raw denim is made in the exact same way as washed denim, except it skips the final washing phase.
So how is that sexy blue cloth made?
(4:43 old school video on the denim making process)
Denim is made from cotton.
(picture of cotton plants)
Cotton is harvested by hand or by machine from around the world. The top three countries that produce cotton are:
Once the cotton is harvested in raw form, it is sent to a cotton gin where the usable cotton fibers are separated from the seeds.
(Looks like milk, but it's cotton fibers separating)
Once the cotton gin is done, the fibers are baled.
This is crazy:
Each bale can make around 400 pairs of jeans and weighs about 550 pounds.
The bales are moved to be spun. Spinning makes the cotton fibers into yarn.
The cotton is dyed after it is spun. This is where denim gets its color; from blues, grays, to blacks.
(Dyed denim, or a wig, or both?)
Denim fades when the dye is washed or worn out of the cotton.
Fades are welcomed in raw denim.
The last step is weaving the cotton-dyed yarn into fabric. This is done on a loom.
A loom weaves the yarn back and forth to make the fabric durable.
Selvedge denim is done in a shuttle loom, while modern denim is done in a projectile loom.
(Shuttle loom weaving denim)
Typically, all raw denim is produced in a shuttle loom, which gives it a selvedge, which we will talk about in more detail later.
Here's the bottom line:
The raw denim is washed and distressed to make it modern looking denim.
If it's not washed or distressed, it's raw denim.
It's shipped to a manufacturer to produce clothing products.
These weights measure one square yard of the denim.
The heavier the weight, the thicker and stiffer the denim is going to be.
The weights will range from the single digits, which is light, up to more than 30 oz's, which is heavy.
(6:33 video on weights of raw denim)
If the raw denim has a single digit weight up to about 12 oz's, most brands would consider it light weight.
Light weight denim breaks in much faster than heavy denim.
It will be softer to touch, not as hot, and it won't be as stiff when you initially put the pants on. Think: similar to your girlfriend other than the 'not as hot' part.
People who want tight fitting, raw denim jeans should buy this weight class.
Cons to lighter, raw denim are it's not as durable and will not have big, heavy fades which is the hallmark of raw denim.
If you are unsure about purchasing raw denim, a light weight denim is probably a better choice to get you in the game.
The medium weight, raw denim usually falls between the weights of 13-16 oz. These weights are the most common and are a good practical weight.
(Me in Mexico wearing Washington Alley Webster 13 oz raw denim jeans)
They will give you a great raw denim experience, but they're not too extreme. This weight will take some time to break in, but their fades will look cool and will be more pronounced than light weight denim.
They will be durable and feel like you are wearing a serious pair of jeans. As you move up to the heavy weights, everything gets more intense.
Medium weights are versatile. Like Tim Tebow, but good.
Time for the big boys:
We're moving into the Mike Tyson of denim, the heavy weights, which will weigh over 16 oz.
(Some big time, heavy weight jeans)
As you work your way up the scale, the common trends continue. These jeans are going to be stiff, rough to the touch, and hard to break in. Kind of like a new girlfriend.
They are going to be more of an intense experience, especially when you first get them.
That intensity will pay off in amazing fades and superior durability. The heavy weights are going to a take a commitment to make them pay-up, but they will give you an experience with denim that very few ever have.
They will be like a best friend and will almost inevitably become your favorite pair of jeans.
The bottom line:
As you work your way up in weight, the jeans become stiffer, rougher and take longer to break in, BUT they also will give you better fades, durability and a more original experience.
Salvage - rescue something lost at sea... Wait what? No, this is selvedge spelled with an E.
This is a slang term used in the jean industry that was manifested from "self-edge" and was eventually turned into one word. You can find it spelled both selvedge and selvage.
(Quick video 1:06 on what is 'selvedge')
More commonly it's 'selvedge,' but some big players spell it selvage, so it's a personal preference.
Let's go into some history of the term and what it means.
As we stated before, denim fabric was only made on shuttle looms back in the day. These looms typically made heavier fabrics that were very tightly woven and were produced in one yard wide strips.
These strips were finished on both sides with a band that made them more durable and prevented fraying and wear.
In the 1950's when the demand for denim started to increase, companies looked for ways to cut costs.
This led them to start making denim in projectile looms, which were able to produce much more denim for cheaper.
Here's the kicker:
Denim that comes from a projectile loom does not have an edge like you see from a shuttle loom, making them more susceptible to fraying and common wear.
(Selvedge vs Non-Selvedge = victory Selvedge)
This is really what the difference is between selvedge denim and non-selvedge denim.
Selvedge denim means it is made from a shuttle loom that gives it a tight weave, makes them strong and gives them a clean edge.
Non-selvedge denim is made from a projectile loom and does not have a clean edge.
When you get your first pair of raw denim jeans, they should technically fit the same as your other pairs jeans, but they won't feel the same.
(3:12 good video on fitting all types of jeans, raw or modern)
You could wear jeans made from Kim Kardashian’s hair (expensive) and if they don’t fit, they won’t look good. (If they did fit, they might look okay, creepy, but okay.)
That’s how important your clothing measurements are, especially your jeans.
As with all clothing, the fit is a total personal preference with modern trends influencing our behavior.
Jean trends will get tighter or looser between decades, but a well-fitting pair of jeans will always be a well-fitting pair of jeans. Even if the cool kids are wearing baggy or skinny jeans.
There are four main places to keep your eyes on when you're fitting jeans:
The waist is probably the most obvious.
Mostly everyone knows that pants don't fit when they fall down. ("Mostly everyone” being the key words.)
The explanation of this doesn’t need to go too far. Make sure your jeans fit snug at the waist, but not too tight, and watch for bunching when you tighten your belt.
The width of the legs are really where jeans take their shape. There are many different types of widths, which make up the ‘cut’ of your jeans. We will discuss that in the next section.
It will generally make you look fitter and younger if your jeans fit closer to the profile of your leg; meaning tighter.
Generally, I recommend keeping away from jeans that anyone would call ‘baggy’.
Where's the money maker?
The ankle opening of your jeans is where your money is made and bagginess is defeated.
For your jeans to look good, they have to fit well at the ankles. If you kick your leg around and your jeans flap in the breeze, that’s not good. You should only be able to pull your jeans out a few inches away from your ankle.
If you can pull them out 6 inches they're way too baggy and you need to look for a different cut.
Always error on the side of your jeans being too tight. Baggy jeans won’t do anyone any favors.
(Nice fit from Washington Alley Webster slim straights)
Length is another fairly obvious fit. It the jeans get very bunched up at your ankles, or are inches above your shoes, then they are too long or too short.
This is another intuitive aspect of pants that most people have a good feel for.
A good fit touches right at the top of the shoe.
If your jeans are too long, cuffing can fix that and give you a stylish look.
This is an example of jeans that are too long and have been allowed to bunch up at the ankle, not good. You need to avoid this. It makes you look short and sloppy.
(Daddy long jeans)
The 'rise' is what makes “Mom” and “Dad” jeans.
Rise is the length from the bottom of the crotch to the top of the waist.
This will make the jeans sit much higher on your waist, closer to your belly button, like your mom’s, or they'll be low cut revealing more of your stomach, like your high school girlfriends.
For men’s fashion you generally want to stay away from jeans with a very high or very low rise.
So try to keep your jeans to a low or mid rise. Error on the side of lower.
(Nice illustration of different jean rises from Real Men Real Style)
The bottom line:
The fit of your cloths is the most important thing to make them appealing.
Keep a close eye on how baggy jeans are at the knee and ankles; those places make you the most money.
If they have a comfortable fit at the waist, nice ankle fit and the correct length and you’re golden.
There are many different cuts of jeans. There are a few main ones, though from baggy to tight: loose, straight, regular, tapered, slim and skinny.
All of them apply to raw denim and modern denim.
As a general rule, you should try to stay between tapered and slim straight unless you have a very specific body type.
(Video on all the cuts, pretty long at 12:50)
Skinny: A pair of skinny jeans will be tight all the way down your leg. If the jeans are made of pure denim they can be pretty uncomfortable.
If you’re in great shape or on the skinny side, they can make you look good. Anyone else is going to struggle to have the right profile to pull off a pair of skinny jeans.
Be real with yourself, if you don’t have the body, don’t wear skinny jeans.
Slim Straight: This is the cut that you’ll see from Washington Alley jeans. It’s our personal favorite. It fits fairly tight, but comfortable.
Do everything cut.
You can shred the dance floor or go to a football game. The key to a pair of jeans is having them make you look good. A trimmer cut will make you look taller and fitter.
This cut will work for most body types. You would have to be a pretty big dude for these to not look good.
Tapered: If a slim straight cut still seems too tight, I would take a look at a tapered cut.
For boys with big legs.
This means that the jeans will have some width in the thigh and then get smaller as they get closer to the ankle.
The ankle is really the key place to keep an eye out on your fit. If you have a baggy jean at the ankle, it’s going to look pretty sloppy.
That’s what tapered is all about, giving you some room in the thigh and butt, while keep a nice profile at the opening.
Regular cut: This is the first cut of jeans where it will be a little baggy at the ankle.
It’s probably the most popular and standard type of cut. There really isn’t a body type that this won’t fit comfortably.
The problem is that they can look too baggy at the ankles.
Baggy is not good.
Repeat that, baggy is not good.
We would only recommend these for bigger guys who have tried a tapered cut, but don't like it.
In most cases a taper or slim straight will look much better, but personal preference can come into play on these.
Straight cut: This cut is going to be the same width at the thigh as they are at the opening.
This will make them fit a little bit better on your upper leg and then get pretty baggy at the ankle.
The bottom line:
In almost all cases they will make you look shorter and unprofessional.
Larger guys could feel more comfortable in them, but for looks, you should try a taper cut or regular cut before moving to a straight cut.
Loose cut: These are the baggiest of the cuts. They were popular in the 1990’s and generally aren’t very flattering.
Unless you’re still playing for the band ‘Days of The New’ you probably can’t justify a loose cut.
They just make men look short and sloppy; which is all bad.
We highly encourage you not to ever put a pair of loose jeans on or let anyone around you do it either.
(The Ol'Loose Gooses)
When's it all said and done:
We recommend you start with a slim straight fit and move from there.
If you want to get a little tighter, move to a skinny jean, if you want something with more room in the thigh and butt, move to a tapered.
Your last resort should be moving to a regular cut.
Raw denim has not been washed when it arrives at your door.
That's the gist of it.
Raw denim will be fairly stiff and all of the dye is still in the denim. This gives the denim a different fade as it ages from wearing and washing.
(1:44 Cool time-lapse of raw denim fades)
Each time you hand wash raw denim, it will bleed some of its dye making it a little lighter.
The fading and breaking in of raw denim is what gives it character.
Think of it like Mel Gibson's face, it started smooth, slowly broke in and is now full of 'character'.
Unlike Mel's face, denim will fade pretty rapidly your first few washes. So how much different will your jeans look after the first wash?
(Washington Alley Webster raw denim after about 50 wears and 1 wash)
Above is a picture of the transition that a pair of Washington Alley Websters made after the first wash (no wash on the left). As you can see the color has changed to a more deep blue.
You can also see the beginning of white feathering running vertically in the pocket and leg.
It is also much more broken in between the legs.
Like all denim, it will shrink back up after a wash. Our Webster's only tightened back up about .25 inch. You can see details on that, here.
That should give you a pretty good idea of what your raw denim will look like after the first wash.
As you continue to wear and wash the raw denim, it will continue to fade and lose its color. Most of the fades will come from places that get the most wear. For example, where you wallet or keys sit in your pocket.
(heavy wear on the left, no wash on the right)
The color of the raw denim will be dictated by what color dye is used on the cotton fiber.
Raw denim almost always comes in dark colors. Dark blues to blacks.
There are a few options out there for light color raw denim, but not much.
The bottom line:
As you've seen in the pictures, as you wear your raw denim, it will transition from a stiff dark color to a broken in light color.
Your jean fades will become a part of you and they'll tell a great story.
Raw denim should not be cared for the same as modern denim.
You should wash it as little as possible to preserve the dye and prevent the breaking in from coming from the washing cycle instead of you wearing them.
There are a few different ways to wash your denim.
We prefer to hand wash them in a bath tub with some soap and then hang dry.
(5:34 Video on how to hand wash raw denim)
There are a few other ways to wash raw denim.
Some of the alternative washing methods we will go over are normal machine washing, cold soaking, dry cleaning, freezing and sand/ocean washing.
Be careful with a washing machine:
A washing machine will definitely clean your denim more than any other method. A washing machine is about as hard of a wash as you can get.
It will thoroughly clean your denim, but it will also change the wear patterns and washout a lot the dye.
If you don't have time for that I sometimes wash mine on a delicate cycle with a little soap in my washing machine and hang dry.
If you use this method, make sure NOT to put them in the dryer. This will have a significant negative effect on the denim.
Can I just soak them?
Yes, one simple way is to just soak your denim in cold water. This will reduce the amount of dye and wear on the denim from washing.
What it won't do very well is actually clean your denim.
This option may be good for a light cleanse, and it also reduces the wear from the wash. This would be recommended if you want to freshen your jeans up, but you don't feel like they need a full wash.
What about dry cleaning?
A reputable dry cleaner is a very effective way to clean your denim and reduce the stress you put on the fabric.
The dry cleaner does an effective job, it will guarantee to dry clean them by putting them through a normal wash without using chemicals that are harsh on the jeans.
One draw back is that this will be more expensive than washing on your own and it can take some time depending on your dry cleaners (I've had to wait a week to get clothes back from the cleaners), but it is an effective way to clean your denim while reducing wear.
I've heard of freezing denim, whats that?
Essentially you put your jeans in the freezer and get them good and frozen. This will kill the bacteria and you've got kinda clean jeans.
You'll also want to spot clean by hand any stains or obvious dirt.
I honestly don't know if this does anything, but it's something to think about.
Sand and Ocean Washing?
The sand and ocean wash method requires you to rub your jeans with sand and walk into the ocean to wash them out.
Similar to the cold soak, you will have some slight cleaning of your jeans by washing out the jeans with water. The side effect is, you may pick up a salt water smell.
The sand scrub will expedite the process of breaking the denim in, although it may also weaken the fabric.
The bottom line:
In conclusion, wash as little as possible so that your jeans get broken in by your body and not from washing. When you do wash, do it gently but effectively. Always hang dry, over a bathtub is fine.
Jeans can be many different prices. Mostly, the cost is generated from how much the material and labor costs to make them.
Once that is factored in, the cost will vary on the brands reputation.
The cost to make a pair of raw selvedge jeans in the U.S. is going to be much higher than denim from a projectile loom from Asia.
Quality work costs money.
Over $150 for raw selvedge denim you're paying for branding or a very special feature like kevlar lined.
If you pay twice as much for a pair of jeans, will it last twice as long? That would be a logical cost benefit analysis. I would say that they probably won’t last twice as long.
Selvedge denim will last longer, but probably not twice as long. I think you will find that you enjoy the jeans twice as much, though.
I spend time looking at my closet and figuring out what clothing I love and what I don’t.
Good questions to ask:
I also ask myself if I didn’t own this piece of clothing would I buy it again?
That is a good gauge of how much you like an article of clothing.
Using that metric, you will find a pair of raw selvedge jeans that you’ve broken in for years with a wear spot from your phone, wallet, and keys is a piece of clothing that you truly love.
A pair of pre-washed standard denim will very likely not give you the same emotion.
The bottom line:
For a high quality pair of American made raw denim jeans, it can cost nearly $100 to make them. For something made in China it can be as low as $10.
Online vs offline jean shopping
We prefer to shop online.
The risk of something not fitting, or not liking it, is outweighed by the huge amount of selection along with customer reviews of the product.
In most cases, it's pretty simple to send back anything that you purchase online. As long as you bought it from a reputable website, which are pretty easy to identify.
If you know your measurements, you should feel comfortable with buying a pair of jeans online if they have a good sizing chart.
Hard to find:
There also aren't that many shops that sell raw denim. If you're in a small city, you might not be able to find anything near you.
If you live in a larger city and find a store that you like and trust, that would be a great way to get comfortable with the price point and fit of raw denim.
We own a jean brand, so obviously we're going to recommend Washington Alley jeans, but this isn’t just because we own them.
It’s because we truly believe they are an amazing product. We have focused on American made craftsmanship, along with being a classic style and fit.
(A detailed product video about the Websters)
Levi’s literally invented the modern pair of jeans, so I gotta give them some respect.
The Unbranded Brand also has some great raw denim products.
This company makes kevlar lined raw selvedge denim that protects motorcycle riders, which is awesome. I'm a Marine combat veteran who also owns a raw denim jean company, so denim and kevlar are close to my heart. Shop here.
The Archer is our slimmest cut, affectionately referred to as the “no-butt cut.” Designed with less room and rise through the seat with a slim leg and a moderate taper, this cut is for the man with thinner-than-average legs, and a flatter-than-average rear end. Our founder, Eric, wears the Archer Cut in size 36. Shop here.
Raw denim jeans are the most important pair of pants that you will own. They are extremely versatile, durable, and stylish.
I hope you now feel comfortable with raw denim.
If you have any questions about this article or WashingtonAlley.com please contact Eddy Beyne, eb@WashingtonAlley.com or Lucas Craig, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thanks for reading!
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