The Ultimate Guide to Raw Denim
Everything You Need To Know About Raw Denim
When we think of popular textiles, perhaps no material is more woven into the fabric of America than denim. Recent years have seen an explosion of popularity in myriad variants of denim, from different washes to selvedge and raw denim.
If you’re reading this article, it’s highly likely that you’ve seen videos of people standing their jeans up, or washing them in a bathtub whilst wearing, or even putting them in the freezer.
You’ve got questions, right? Lots of ‘em.
What exactly is raw denim? Is one wash or finish better than another? Am I really going to have to wear filthy stinky clothes? And how does one begin wading into these indigo-dyed waters?
Never fear, readers, we’ve got you covered with our ultimate guide to raw denim.
N.B. Just to head off any confusion up front, ‘denim’ is the term for the fabric, and ‘jeans’ are a term for the article of clothing. However, you’ll often hear people, including me in this article, refer to the garment as denim.
What is Raw Denim?
The term raw denim originates from France, taken from the term serge (a type of fabric) de Nîmes (a town). Sharp readers will recognize this phrasing in the brand Tenue de Nîmes, a purveyor of some of the best denim in the world.
Denim itself is made from cotton yarn, which has the characteristic of having the weft (horizontal weave) pass under 2 or more warp (vertical weave) threads. Anecdotally, this is where you’ll get the terminology 3×1, for example.
Traditionally the warp thread is indigo-dyed, while the weft is left natural or white. This makes for a fabric that has a very rich blue hue with speckles of white. It’s what gives denim its unique depth of character and instant recognizability, from your nephew’s Lee overalls to Levi’s 501s to the highest-end custom atelier garment.
Okay, cool. But what is raw denim?
Simply put, raw denim implies that the fabric itself has not been washed prior to sale of the product.
This should not be confused with sanforization, which is a process of reducing the shrinkage of a garment by prewashing the yarns/fabric. You can find both unsanforized and sanforized raw denim – and this is a whole other rabbit hole you could go down.
But the bottom line if you’re buying unsanforized raw denim is that you’re going to need to size UP, as the fabric will shrink significantly after wash, and with sanforized denim you may want to size DOWN, as it will stretch quite a bit after wearing.
Unsanforized = Size Up
Sanforized = Size Down
Two things happen when you make a garment from denim that comes straight from the loom:
1. The fabric is very stiff and uncomfortable to wear at first.
2. It will transfer dye to other clothes as you break in the jeans.
These two “problems” might sound like a totally silly way to buy clothing. Like, why would I want something that can bleed onto other clothes and that is uncomfortable to wear?
Well, one answer is that you may not.
That’s why there is such a huge market for washed denim.
However, as those of you that already own raw denim will know, the personalization that comes with breaking in your own denim results in a pair of pants (or jacket or shirt) that feels custom-made. And over time you create your own personal wear pattern (or “whiskering” and “fades” as is parlance in the denim-head community).
The result is a blue tapestry you get to create with and something of a badge of honor for some.
For others, myself included, it is simply the only way to wear denim. I have a pair of Rogue Territory SKs that I bought about 10 years ago that wear softer than my favorite pair of John Elliott sweats, and look and fit almost bespoke.
Part of the reason that this result is achievable is that denim, by nature, is a very strong yet expandable fabric. Generally speaking, a pair of raw denim will grow about a size or two as you break them in. So plan accordingly!
Raw Denim Weight: Ounces and Why it Matters
Another thing you’ll notice as you dive into raw denim is “ounces” listed in the product description.
If you’re used to buying Levis, you might ask yourself what 12.5 oz denim means. Or what the difference is between 20 oz. denim, 12.5 oz denim or 7.5 oz. denim.
This number is the weight of a square yard of fabric.
As a result, the lower the weight, the lighter and more flexible the fabric. So a really heavy yarn is going to be more bulletproof (think: wearing on your motorcycle) but also take a lot longer to break in.
Here’s a quick reference:
1. Lightweight = Under 12 oz.
2. Mid-weight = 12 oz. to 16 oz.
3. Heavyweight = Over 16 oz.
A good rule of thumb is anything under around 12 oz is a light denim and might be better for spring and summer, anything above that up to 20 oz. is going to be great for all seasons and your standard raw weight, and anything over 20 oz. is seriously heavy and may even stand on its own.
Raw Denim vs. Selvedge Denim
Another term that is thrown around a lot in the denim world is “selvedge” or “self-edge” denim. These terms are often used synonymously, which is technically incorrect.
Raw denim refers to the washing process of the garment.
Selvedge denim refers to the finishing.
You can have selvedge washed denim and you can have non-selvedge raw denim.
That said, the vast majority of raw denim is also selvedge, which literally means that the ends of the fabric are self-finished, usually demarcated by the tell-tale white strip with red ticking (or yellow, or green, or blue) on the outside seam of the garment, which you can see when someone wearing selvedge denim cuffs their jeans.
FURTHER READING: Is Selvedge Denim Worth the Extra Money?
This resulting weave tends to be much denser, thicker, stronger, and won’t unravel.
Selvedge denim also tends to be more expensive, as the textile is woven on smaller looms that are usually around a yard wide.
How To Break In Raw Denim
Here’s where the fun really begins. The process of breaking in raw denim is really why people buy this expensive, uncomfortable, and dye-transferry product in the first place.
The process of breaking in raw denim can take a few weeks to several months. But the break in period really hinges on one thing: how much you wear the jeans and what you do in them.
The best way to break in raw denim is to wear them a lot, and move and stretch and really teach them about your daily routine. It’s important to note that the oils and sweat that your body naturally produces are going to break down those fibers little by little, hence the “breaking in” period. The downside is that your denim might start to smell, which we will discuss in a moment.
I’ve found that personally riding my commuter bike is the quickest way to “pack out” the denim in the waist, thighs, and knees, where you’re going to want them to have a little bit more give and space.
I’ve seen people do lunges in their new jeans before bed, I’ve also seen people sleep in their denim! But if you’d prefer to just wear them as you wear any pair of pants that’s fine too, just understand that they might be uncomfortable for a bit longer.
With every pair of raw denim I’ve had it’s also taken a couple hours of wearing to stretch out the waist to the point where i can button the top button (and I’m a pretty thin dude), which is totally natural, as the waist is where you’ll see the most stretch in these garments.
So have fun with it! Go to work, ride a bike, do whatever, raw denim jeans can take a beating and, frankly, the coolest looking denim is the one that tells a cool story about the wearer.
As mentioned, you’ll start to see “whiskering” or the cool fades that come from your natural body movement over the first few months and then these will really pop after the first wash. Which leads us to the next point…
How To Wash Raw Denim
Maybe you’ve already heard this about raw denim, but you’re going to want to hold off washing these garments as long as you can bear it.
The more time you set to breaking them in and fading them on your own before washing them the better, as once you’ve washed them they’ll start to set in their appearance and it will be harder to create your work of art.
That said, you should not confuse this as “never wash your denim.” There are a couple of good reasons to wash your denim.
As you break in your raw denim in addition to the sweat and oil that will build up (and unfortunately the funk) you’ll also get some dirt, grit, and other things that will break down the fibers faster than you want.
Washing your denim is a great way to get rid of this dirt and actually preserve the life of your denim.
A good pair of raw denim should last you many, many years if properly taken care of. As noted above, I have multiple pairs that are more than 10 years old.
So, how do you go about washing your denim?
Well there are a couple of methods you can try. If you really want to hold off before washing your denim but the stink has become unbearable, you can always try sticking them in the freezer (kills some of the odor bacteria) or putting them outside and airing them out. Direct sunlight will do the best job killing odor but will also lead to fading.
5 Ways To Wash Raw Denim
If you’re ready to finally wash your raw denim though, here are a few methods to try.
1. The Bathtub Soak
A popular method. Put on your denim, jump in a tub of cool water with a tiny bit of gentle soap (you don’t want to irritate your skin), and simply rub the pants a little bit to work the water and soap into the fabric.
Then hop out and let your jeans dry in the fresh air (fun tip – if you’re looking for a really unique look, dry your jeans in direct sunlight as mentioned above and you’ll get some really interesting fading).
2. The Ocean Soak
If you live near the coast, salt water is a pretty cool detergent, and you can do the same thing as the bathtub soak in the ocean. Bear in mind that sand is a pretty gritty substance and will also break down the fibers, but can create a really unique end result!
3. Hand Wash
Use some delicate dark detergent (I like Woolite Dark as it’s really gentle and helps prevent stretching), turn your denim inside out, and let them soak for a little bit in cool to lukewarm water.
Then, using a wooden spoon and your hands (wear gloves if you’d like and make sure you’re wearing dirty dark clothes you don’t care about just to be safe), go ahead and massage the fabric.
Rinse and then air dry on a clothesline.
Personally, after air drying I like to do a very quick dryer sequence (medium low) for about five minutes to just soften the denim up a tiny bit before you put them back on.
4. Machine Wash
Contrary to popular belief, you can machine wash raw denim. However, you’re going to want to be careful.
First things first, wash them alone.
I cannot stress this enough. Your jeans are going to bleed a lot of indigo, and you do not want anything else in that washing machine that you don’t want to be blue at the end of the cycle.
Turn the jeans inside-out, choose your most delicate setting and cool or cold water, and again, use a very delicate specialty detergent.
Run the cycle and then hang-dry the pants. Make sure that you put a dark towel or something below the garment to protect your floors from any dripping water that still has dye in it.
And then again, a very quick low dryer cycle if you want to briefly soften them up. Any heat at all is going to cause shrinkage, even with sanforized denim, so keep this super brief, you’re just trying to make it easier and more comfortable to put them back on.
5. Never Wash
This is certainly an option, but your family and friends might struggle to be around you…
Best Raw Denim Brands
There are so many high-quality brands out there we can’t possibly cover them all, so here’s a good range of options that come from amazing brands that truly take pride in their products. I tend to be partial to japanese denim, and I tried to pick brands that I have owned and have personal experience with.
- Great look and high-quality at a great price
- Limited fits and lengths
Denim originated in France so it only makes sense that a French brand would be a king when it comes to raw denim. The New Standard and Petit Standard set the bar for “entry-level” (we’re still talking about $150+ pants) when they were released and they are still a great entree to the space.
Naked And Famous
- Favorable price ($160-$220), high-quality denim, multiple fits
- A little less niche than some of the others here
Naked and Famous is a great brand out of Canada that focuses on Japanese denim. They have a ton of different cuts and fits so you’ll be able to find something that fits your particular style.
- Highest quality, small family-run business, made in Los Angeles with the best fabrics in the world
- Slightly more expensive (generally you’re not going to find a pair for less than $225), not as many styles/cuts
Here’s my completely biased opinion – if you’re going to pick one brand on this list, it should be Rogue Territory (RGT). Started by a husband and wife team that initially did custom denim in Los Angeles, they’ve grown in popularity but maintained their focus on the highest level of quality and sourcing.
They source their denim from Japan, notably Nihon Menpu and other small mills in Okayama. They also have created some interesting non-denim pieces – one of their jackets was recently worn by none other than Bond, James Bond.
- Great story, very cool fits, and now they have unique washes
- Very popular so they sell out of some sizes in various cuts quickly
If there was a runner-up award here, it would go to 3sixteen, and depending on the day they might be the winner. Similar to Rogue Territory, they’re a small American brand making denim from Okayama mills like Kuroki.
If you’re trying to decide between Rogue Territory and 3sixteen, it’s really a matter of personal preference. I’ve had friends try Rogue Territory denim and not have it fit the right way, and 3sixteen fits perfectly, or the other way around.
3sixteen has great branding, a great story, and does probably the best job of incorporating their aesthetic and world view into their brand. It’s truly fun to be part of the 3sixteen family. They also have 3.16 day (on March 16th) which involves a scavenger hunt of sorts on their site. The reddit boards can tell you more.
Iron Heart Denim
- IYKYK - those who recognize the stitching on the back seat will know you’re a denim god, extremely high quality.
- More expensive than even 3sixteen and RGT in most cases ($300+), break-in is going to take some time for the heavier weights.
I had to include a Japanese brand here, and Iron Heart Denim is one of the best. They source their fabrics similar to the other brands here, but are also a Japanese brand first and foremost.
Until recently if you wanted to buy them in the states you would go to a retailer or online to Self Edge. Though they now have a very good US site.
Iron Heart is known for their heavy weight fabrics (+20 oz.) and has a bit more of a rocker/moto-chic aesthetic. This doesn’t mean you have to ride a Harley to wear them, but it doesn’t hurt.
Imogene and Willie
- Lots of different cuts, washes, and womenswear!
- Not as denim-specific as some of the others on this list
Imogene and Willie is a cool one on this list. They’ve been around for a while out of Nashville, TN, and they’re one of the few denim brands that makes great women’s raw denim as well.
They also have wonderful washed jeans if you’re interested in those.
Additionally, this couple (like Rogue Territory, a husband and wife team) do a great job of sourcing deadstock Cone Mills denim, which is becoming an increasingly tough thing to find. If you’re in Nashville their store is in the 12 South District in a remodeled gas station and is just beyond cool. A must-stop shopping destination.
Pure Blue Japan
- Highest quality everything.
- Tough to find, cuts can be a little strange if not your style, expensive.
Pure Blue Japan, like many of the other brands here, is as high quality as raw denim gets. From Okayama mills, on really old looms. This is the stuff that really gets denim-heads going.
While Pure blue Japan has pants that are in the same range as these other brands they also have some that go for north of $500.
Not for the faint of heart and, generally, if you’re going to buy something that expensive you’re not buying it online, so try to find a retailer.
- Very unique approach to denim, their straight leg cut is one of the best out there
- Very expensive given the name (raw denim coming in around $500 in some cases)
Many people might recognize this branding but not necessarily know how to pronounce it (it’s “Double RL”) or understand its relation to famed brand Ralph Lauren.
Named for Ralph’s ranch in Southwest Colorado, Double RL is Ralph Lauren’s foray into heirloom quality Americana and denim. They sell a lot more than selvedge denim, but their raw denim is truly fantastic.
Nudie, Shockhoe Denim, Tellason
How To Style Raw Denim
At the end of the day, the beauty of raw denim is that they get to say something about the wearer. So style them however you want and go nuts. That said, here are seven thoughts about the best ways to style raw denim:
1. Cuff ‘Em
One of the things that I haven’t mentioned to this point is that raw denim generally has a very long inseam (up to 37”), which I love for two reasons. First, I’m a tall guy so they always fit in the length. And second, I can still cuff the hem and show off that really cool selvedge line.
2. Play With Juxtaposition
Raw denim doesn’t mean that you have to start wearing leather moto jackets and sterling silver rings (although they fit well if you do), so try playing around with textures and styles around your denim. For example, a pair of loafers and a cashmere sweater can look really cool against the deep blue and dense fabric of a new pair of raw denim.
3. Different Lengths for Different Days
Like in our first styling tip, one of the nice things about a cuffed hem is that you can try different styles on different days. One day you can do a sloppy roll up and show some ankle with loafers and the next day you can do a firm cuff with some sneakers and no break. I even have pairs that I’ve done a raw hem on that looks really cool over chelsea boots.
4. Mind The Tuck
While I’m generally a supporter of tucking in one’s shirt, be a little careful with tucking into your raw denim for two reasons: 1) you don’t want to tuck in anything light and risk getting dye on your nice OCBD, and 2) depending on where you’re at in your break-in journey, you might have a bit of a too tight or too loose waist situation going on, which can look a little silly.
I’d advise wearing sweaters, jumpers, or an untucked oxford, OR a sloppy tuck/french tuck that can transition well depending on your style.
5. Lean Into Americana
Nothing looks more American than blue jeans, so try leaning into it. Raw denim looks great with cowboy boots or roper boots (or frankly any boots, chelseas and jodhpurs are a favorite of mine), a stetson hat, and a buffalo check plaid.
In that same vein, if you’ve been holding out on a leather jacket, maybe now’s the time to get one, it’ll look amazing with raw denim. Go wild.
6. Back Pocket Your Wallet
A fun thing about the break-in period and your favorite wallet is that the outline of that wallet is probably going to be broken into the denim – and this is amplified if you carry your wallet in your back pocket.
I’m certainly not advocating you change your everyday carry setup, but if you don’t mind mixing things up this can be a cool feature, and way more personal than something you might find pre-washed.
7. Save The Date
Not a style tip but a neat suggestion nonetheless. Take a sharpie and write the date you bought your new denim in the inside pockets. It’ll be fun in several years to look back and see how they’ve aged.
At the end of the day, not everyone is looking for a project when it comes to new jeans. Some folks want to buy something, have it feel like it’s soft as butter, and be able to wear it every once in a while. And there are others who might like to have six pairs of jeans that they rotate through.
If that sounds like you, raw denim might not be the right fit.
However, if you love the stories that your clothes tell about you, and you like creating something unique, and are maybe even a glutton for punishment, raw denim is a path worth going down. There is simply nothing else like a pair of broken-in, faded, and nearly custom denim to take your outfit to the next level.
Thanks, as always, for reading.
He Spoke Style