Raw denim, simply defined, is dyed but unwashed denim. It’s stiff, it bleeds—and it can be expensive. So why would anyone want a pair of raw denim jeans?
Many enthusiasts see raw denim as being the purest form of the fabric, a return to denim as it used to be. That’s because it’s largely unadulterated by the processes involved in manufacturing other types of denim, such as washed denim, one-wash denim, and pre-distressed denim.
And then there’s the look of it. Raw not only fades faster than other types of denim but also, like high-end leather, develops a patina of creases and markings that reflect your personal use. Spend a lot of time on a bike? You can bet the knees and butt of your raw denim jeans will show that.
Fit is also worth noting. When broken-in, raw denim tends to adopt the contours of your body, resulting in a fit that feels and looks customized to your figure.
A Brief Note About Denim Quality
Don’t mistake raw denim for quality. Though the two often coincide, there are times when they don’t. So what determines quality? A combination of variables including weave, yarn, dye, and loom, not to mention the actual construction of the jeans. We’ll tackle these issues in future articles. For now, we’re focusing on the basics.
Among the first things to consider when buying raw denim is weight. The heavier the denim, the longer the break-in time. The lighter the denim, the less evident the scuffs and creases that you’d get from a heavy pair of broken-in jeans. Neither one is better than the other. Like much of the denim world, the weight you wear depends on your personal preference and use case.
Under 10 ounces: It’s great for hot weather, but not so great if you want to develop those personalized markings.
10 to 13 ounces: Comfortable year-round, it’s quick to break in and doesn’t require the tender loving care that heavyweight denim does.
13 to 16 ounces: It’s stiff and hearty, and it takes several months to break in. It may be mildly uncomfortable when it’s new, but it’s worth it: A well-broken-in pair of 14.75-ounce jeans is loaded with character.
Above 16 ounces: This is heavyweight denim that caters to serious enthusiasts with patience, experience, and, let’s be honest, a taste for suffering.
Sanforized: Ready to Wear
“Sanforized” is a fancy word essentially meaning that the denim will incur minimal shrinkage when washed. Some enthusiasts prefer sanforized denim, others unsanforized. It’s up to you, and there are benefits to both.
Sanforized denim undergoes a process of stretching, shrinking, and fixing that leaves the jeans less susceptible to shrinkage. Sanforized denim offers a much more refined, ready-to-wear look than unsanforized denim. And that’s because it is, indeed, ready to wear. In fact, many enthusiasts recommend refraining from washing sanforized denim for the first several months, as washing will prematurely age the jeans.
Unsanforized: The Rawest of the Raw
Much less common than sanforized denim is unsanforized denim. It’s about as natural as it comes, and the grain of the denim—how the yarns are woven together—is particularly prominent in unsanforized jeans. Because it hasn’t been subjected to the heat, moisture, and pressure involved in sanforization, unsanforized denim is texturally rougher, and it’s especially good at showcasing your personal use via fades and creases. Note, however, that unsanforized denim will shrink considerably after its first soaking.
The Very First Wash: A Highly Contested Topic
As the old adage goes, nothing worth having comes easy. So it is with raw denim.
Some enthusiasts will implore you to wait 4 to 6 months before washing your jeans for the first time. Others will swear by never washing them at all. Again, there’s no hard-and-fast rule to follow, but perhaps the best guideline is to consider the number of times you’ve worn the jeans, and how hard you’ve worn them. Are you wearing them every day, or only once a week? Are you working the fields, or watching TV?
A good bet is to wear your jeans 30 to 40 times before their first wash. And when it comes time for that first wash, you’ll want to soak the jeans in a bathtub of cool-to-lukewarm water for about 30 minutes to an hour. But be careful! The warmer the water, the more the indigo dye will bleed and the more the jeans will shrink.
After that first wash, hang the jeans from a clip hanger and subject them to a breeze. Better yet, the sun. Don’t tumble dry your jeans, which will irreversibly shrink them, and avoid folding them to prevent unnatural creases.
Wear Them. And Wear Them Some More.
Perhaps most important to the break-in process is simply wearing your jeans, and wearing them often—daily if you can—before washing them for the first time. Go for a hike! Break-dance! Limbo! Hit the gym! OK, the gym isn’t the best venue to showcase your new jeans, even if they turn more heads than your biceps. But the more you wear your jeans, and the more diverse your activity while wearing them, the more they’ll adopt those desired markings.
When to Wash, When Not To
After a few months of wear, it’ll be time for a second—and third and fourth and eventually thirtieth—wash. Now that they’re broken in, the jeans can be safely machine washed, should you choose to do that. But only on the condition that you turn them inside out and wash with cold water. Some enthusiasts will forego detergent altogether, while others will use garment-specific detergent such as Woolite Dark. And while many people would balk at the idea of tumble-drying their jeans, a brief spin on low probably won’t destroy them.
If it’s been less than a month since their last wash, forego the water. Instead, hang your jeans outside on a line—UV rays will help kill odoriferous bacteria, and the sun will contribute to that unique fade. Or, give your jeans a few spritzes of Denim Wash from our friends at Juniper Ridge, or Denim Fragrance from retaW of Japan.
In the End, It’s All About Personalization
This is the appeal of raw denim: It’s wholly yours, and your lifestyle is reflected in the blights, blemishes, fades, and flaws that accumulate over the course of 5, 10—even 15 years. While many people scoff at the idea of wearing beat-up clothing, the enduring popularity of pre-distressed jeans suggests there’s an allure to the lived-in look. And that allure only grows stronger when you’ve done the living yourself.
But Wait: What About Selvage Denim?
Ah, selvage! We almost forgot!
Selvage denim (or “selvedge” if you’re British) is not necessarily raw denim, and vice versa. It refers to denim that has been woven to produce fray-resistant, self-sustaining edges (get it?). The hallmark of selvage denim is the presence of a colored thread, most commonly red or blue, that runs along the outer seam of the jeans.
Selvage denim is made on something called a shuttle loom, which was once a staple of denim manufacturing in the United States. But after denim went mainstream in the 1950s, American factories opted for faster methods of large-scale production. They sold their old shuttle looms to Japanese manufacturers, who devoured all things America after World War II. Today, only a few American companies use shuttle looms, and the majority of selvage denim still comes from Japan. It’s typically made in comparatively small batches from high-end materials, which is why it’s associated with quality.
But buyer beware: Selvage denim can also be made in slapdash factories from sub-prime materials, then sold by big-name companies preying upon unwitting consumers who think that selvage is tantamount to quality.
Stay Tuned for More on Raw Denim!
There you have it: Raw Denim 101. But that’s only the beginning. Stay tuned for posts and tutorials that dig deeper into these topics and hit the "Follow" button to get notified about future posts from this account. In the meantime, if you have questions or comments about the article, or about raw denim in general, leave ‘em below. Or, if you have personal recommendations or denim tips to share, we’d love to hear them—and see pictures, too! Want to learn more? Read another Massdrop 101 article here: https://www.massdrop.com/talk/127/massdrop-101-intro-to-watches