Raw Denim Jeans Demystified

Why Raw?

Raw denim jeans are simply jeans sold without ever going through the wash after color dying.  So what makes this highly sought after by denim aficionados?

In a crowded world and with instant on demand, there are still a few who seeks individuality and are willing to work for it.  It’s easy to buy a pair of jeans that seems like you owned it for years or it was a hand me down.  It gives people instant rebellious, anti-establishment teen spirit, celebrity coolness or just plain old street creds.

But some of us are willing to go the extra distance by actually creating something 100% genuine and personalized.  This endeavor could be years in the making.  Every crease, fade, markings and tear on the jean is associated with an experience, not artificially created through washing, or machining which actually is more costly, and hurts the environment.  From cotton to the retirement of a pair jeans, it can take anywhere from 1,800 to over 2,800 gallons of water.  Most of that water is consumed to grow cotton and keeping the jean clean during ownership, but roughly 10% is used during production.  This has caused a major brand to conduct studies into the sustainability of its production process.  I’d like to think buyers of raw denim care for our planet.

Wouldn’t It Shrink?

I get asked this alot, especially from first time buyers.  It’s true some fabric are not pre-shrunk, but some are through a process called sanforization that some manufacturers apply to reduce shrinking before the fabric is cut and sewn.  Sanforization is a process where fabric shortly coming off of the loom is heat treated, steamed and roller pressed.  Sanforized denim is limits the shrinkage to under 1% while unsanforized denim could shrink up to 10% (one or two sizes).  And then there are brands who will offer single washes but then the dye is somewhat impacted.  There is ongoing debate among enthusiasts between the purists and the realists about the benefits of each, and it’s really a personal decision.  Because unsanforized denim can shrink significantly, it’s tricky to eyeball the fit from the onset.  If you’re trying raw denim for the first time, ease your way into it with sanforized denim.  Also, never wash them, soak your jeans and then hang dry them.  This create better fit and fades in all the right places over time.

Style and Comfort

Looks are important, however, where one style may work for one individual, it may not work for another. Raw denim styles tend to be cleaner and traditional, but I’m sure that will evolve over time too as in pocket design, stitching, button design, etc.  Today, you will find the term selvedge advertised through out the raw denim universe.  It’s essentially denim fabric woven from old shuttle looms vs. faster projectile looms, giving it old-school authenticity in terms of marketing.  Japanese enthusiasts have kept up the tradition to cult like status when it was abandoned in the US between mid to late 1900’s.  There is much debate here too, however, selvedge jeans doesn’t make the jeans any sturdier or more comfortable.  Selvedge simply means the outseam of the jean is the self-edge of the denim fabric where the old looms weave creates a clean finish that will not unravel.  Some wearers like to cuff their jeans and show off the clean self-edge for status.  We love both but a commitment to use selvedge does add to the cost of the jeans.

In the other pocket, comfortable fit is important to everyone.  This brings the discussion  the fabric, weight and construction of the jean.  Ring-spun and double ring-spun yarn are more durable and overtime softer than open-end yarn.  In addition, ring-spun yarn provides more distinctive fades over the life of the jean which under proper care can last over a decade.

Weight of the fabric is also important.  Typical raw denim comfort range is between 12 to 16 ounces.  Anything heavier the jeans may stand by itself without assistance and would be intense to break in unless your work the timberland as a logger.  The lighter the weight the faster it is to break in, hence made for the rest of us ordinary humans.

Putting It All Together

Before purchasing your next pair of raw denim jeans, be sure to measure your waist, inseam and pant leg opening (width when laid flat).  Also, make note if you plan on wearing it with a belt or without (waist), cuffed or not (inseam and leg opening).  Putting on a pair of raw denim should not be workout.  I still remember old 1970’s and 1980’s commercials where women have to invert themselves to put on a pair.  No need for that.  The fit should be tight around the hips and butt without cutting off circulation.  It should also be tight around the waist if you go belt-less for a modern fitted look.  Factor in ideal cuffs when determining your inseam, measured from the crotch to the pant leg opening when laid flat.

When attempting to wear a pair of new raw denim, it will be a little stiff, and depending on how active you are, it may take a while to achieve that everyday comfort.  I find riding a bike can break them in faster or going up and down stairs a lot.  Remember, if the jeans get a little grungy, just soak them in cold to warm water and air dry.  The last reminder is, the dye will bleed initially since it has not gone through serious commercial washing and soaking minimizes bleeding of the dye to keep that nice color.  What does mean is you need to be careful around light color fabrics you rest on like white leather and linens, especially if the jeans are moist.

So enjoy your pair of raw denim jeans, a simple affordable luxury that is as versatile today as it was back in the 1800’s before it became fashionable.  Take smartphone pictures throughout the life of the jean, and then reflect back the journey that you took it through.

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