Raw Denim Guide

An Exhaustive Guide to Raw & Selvedge Denim

An Introduction to Raw Denim

For a lot of people, purchasing a pair of jeans is an elementary process. You go to the shop, find something that resembles the wash you had in your head, give ‘em a try, and out the door. That works for a lot of folks and I’m not here to necessarily argue with a tried and true system; I’m here to enlighten you to a world you may not yet be familiar with.

Yes, I’m talking about high-end denim, but maybe not the kind most people are familiar with. There are a lot of high-end labels out there that are quite conspicuous in nature: True Religion, Seven, Diesel, etc. these all have their merit, though they’re not labels I’m particularly interested in.

One of my passions, and something that I love to wax poetic about, is raw selvedge denim. Raw denim being jeans that, unlike what we are used to wearing, are purchased unwashed and are broken in by the owner. If you’re not familiar with what I’m talking about, it’s actually quite a wide-ranging and diverse topic. There are so many styles, cuts, types of denim, dying methods; it’s a massive topic. There’s so much to cover and we’re going to do our best to try and cover all these things and more in one, large, comprehensive piece.

What makes raw and selvedge denim so interesting to me is that every pair is unique to its owner. See, the denim we’re used to wearing has been pre-washed, to ensure it doesn’t shrink in subsequent washes, and pre-distressed, to get the look that perhaps you desire without having to wear them all that hard or all that often. Raw denim comes unwashed, and depending on your preference, what’s called “unsanforized”. That means it has not been pre-shrunk.

Through constant wear, raw denim will begin to mold to your body and begin to show wear in the places where you put the most stress on the denim. Typically, the areas hit hardest are the upper thighs, back pockets, back of the knees, and the whole seat.

Every pair is individual based on your body type and perhaps even what you carry in your pockets. It’s kind of like how all the cowboys have a circular imprint on their back pocket from carrying their Copenhagen. It’s like that, but my jeans bear the mark of the Burt’s Bees I carry around everyday.

Hard Worn Raw Denim Jeans

Well-Worn Denim. Photo Cred: Mild Blend Instagram: @mildblend @jugglemank

One of the other elements I love is how hard-wearing they are. A problem I’ve always had with pre-washed denim is that it would rip far sooner than I would have expected or hoped. Pre-washed denim is softer, and the denim is almost always a lighter weight than what you would find with raw denim. I like being able to wear my clothes hard and know that they won’t break down after a few wears. It’s something you’ll have to pay a bit more for but will be worth the investment in the long run.

On top of becoming personalized the more you wear them, there are a number of brands out there doing really interesting styles that you won’t find from some of the more mainstream brands. I’ve seen raw denim that is purple, glow in the dark, not died, and the list goes on.

I really like having something in my wardrobe that is different and something that not a lot of people are going to have in their closet. Within this piece we’ll also talk about some of our favourite brands at different price points, some of our favourite shops selling the brands we love, and some alternative raw and selvedge styles that you wouldn’t think of initially.

We’ll do our best to help you find the pair that best suits your personality and what you’re hoping to get out of a new pair of raw and selvedge denim. Different brands and different cuts suit different body types, obviously, but you don’t always know what those brands are. I’m about 6’3” and 225 pounds, so I do realize that what works for me may not work for others.

Within this brand review, I’ll also break things down into what I would consider great “beginner” brands and brands for the more experienced and discerning denim connoisseur. Now with that in mind, I say we get down to brass tacks and start our voyage with a look at the history of denim.

The Origins of Denim: Hat Tip to Leob (Levi) Strauss

The origins of the fabric are a long story so I think it’s best to pick things up around the time when the idea for jeans was first conceived. Things got started in San Francisco in the latter half of the 19th century with a man named Leob (later changed to Levi) Strauss, a dry goods wholesaler with a reputation for quality.

Noticing a gap in the market for quality work wear, Strauss, with the help of tailor Jacob Davis who had been making riveted clothing for miners in the area, combined their expertise to patent and create what became known as “waist overalls” (Levi’s actually were known as “waist overalls” until the 1960s, when the more popular term “jeans” took over). Things obviously grew from there, as jeans went from a work wear symbol, worn by those who needed a hard-wearing garment, to that of the rebel due to the influence of James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause.

What is Selvedge?

Now when we discuss selvedge denim, we’re talking about a very specific type of denim created only on shuttle looms. Selvedge refers to how the edges of the jeans are finished, from Dictionary.com:

“the edge of woven fabric is finished so as to prevent raveling, often in a narrow tape effect, different from the body of the fabric.”

The denim was produced on said looms because they were/are able to build stronger denim that was more tightly woven and heavier than had been seen before. As the fabric was woven right to the edge, it needed a thread to stitch it down, which it why it’s known as the “self-edge.”

The self-edge was a coloured thread used, as it is now, to differentiate between fabrics, and consequently, brands. The red thread was the original colour used by Levi’s, and to this day is the one you will see most often among contemporary brands (APC, Levi’s, Iron Heart, et al). You will also see companies using uniquely coloured threads that relate to their name or brand in some way.

Two of the companies I follow and like use different coloured threads as a trademark: Pure Blue Japan uses a blue thread and The Strike Gold uses a gold thread in their denim.

It’s interesting to look at the things we denim lovers hold dear as at one time being purely functional and structural choices. These choices have certainly influenced how great denim is still made, as a lot of the same properties and technology are still utilized, but mostly so I can look good as opposed to hack it out in a mine for 14 hours a day.

As I tell you about these details it’s important to note that buying selvedge jeans doesn’t guarantee quality. Typically you’ll find that those companies who have gone to the lengths to make selvedge denim will produce a higher quality garment overall, but not always. It’s also important to note that selvedge denim isn’t always raw denim, and raw denim isn’t always selvedge denim. They are intrinsically linked in a lot of ways but many companies will produce raw non-selvedge denim as a means of cost saving.

Types of Raw Denim

Within the world of raw denim there are different production techniques that produce different types of denim. For instance, there are three types of twill common in the production of raw denim: tight hand twill (RHT), left hand twill (LHT), and broken twill (BT).

Right Hand Twill Raw Denim

Right hand twill is the most common of the three and is the smoothest but tightest denim of the three. The fabric is woven from the bottom right of the garment to the top left, a defining characteristic. The tighter denim will create fading that is more defined than its counterparts who tend to be a little streakier.

Left Hand Twill Raw Denim

LHT is woven from the bottom right to the top left and this tends to make the denim softer. This leads to streakier and less defined fading.

Broken Twill Raw Denim

Broken twill is least common of the three and combines the previous two methods to give the denim its defining characteristic that is a zig-zag pattern. This is different from the other two in that they have a diagonal pattern when closely inspected.

The Dying Process: Raw Jeans

Something else that defines raw denim is how they are dyed. We see jeans that are a very deep indigo versus those that are more traditionally coloured. This takes place during the dyeing process when the warp threads (those that run lengthwise) are dyed a certain colour and the weft threads (those that run horizontally) are left undyed.

The jeans take on the look of the warp thread as those are the ones that are on the surface whereas the weft thread runs underneath and fills in the gaps. On some jeans, though, we will see companies dye the weft thread to create a different look.

On this pair by Pure Blue Japan, you’ll notice that the warp and weft threads are dyed. If you take a look at the company Naked & Famous they do all sorts of interesting things. This pair has an indigo warp and a beige weft. This gives them a brown undertone and almost a dusty look when they begin to fade.

Mixing in a unique pair of denim is a great idea if you have one or two already in your collection. Sometimes wearing a pair of purple or brown jeans isn’t the best primary choice, but I do recommend them to those looking to branch out.

Japanese Denim

In the world of high-end denim there is a certain reverence for denim that is either sourced or produced in Japan. Most people of this world consider Japanese denim to be of a higher quality than those produced in America or Italy. While this is a debatable point, what makes Japanese denim different is the production techniques and the wild variation in colour and texture.

By using shuttle looms and dyeing jeans in different ways, it differs from those produced in America who typically use the same mill to produce theirs (Cone Mills). A lot of Japanese denim is what’s know as “slubby,” which is to say that it has a rougher texture than you’re used to seeing.

The dyeing processes involved are different as well, as each company has their own proprietary techniques that make each brand unique. Denim coming from Cone Mills will typically look the same across brands. The Japanese are usually the ones behind heavier weight denim as well. This is a process that caters to the high-end crowd seeing as how heavier denim is harder-wearing than lighter weight denim and lend themselves better to heavy fading.

I think the major difference is that Japanese denim adheres to a classic process and by doing so creates a “purer” product. That being said, there are a lot of great brands coming out of the US, ones I have recommended here.

Don’t let someone tell you that Japanese is always better. In some cases it might be, but the important bit to take away is that not all Japanese denim is great and you shouldn’t blindly buy a pair. The fun part about raw and selvedge denim is the research that goes in to picking a new pair and finding out about the qualities of each pair. Whether that’s American, Japanese, or Italian, you need to find the pair that’s best suited to your figure and one whose properties you find interesting.

Raw & Selvedge Denim Fits

Within the world of denim there are obviously a lot of fits out there. Within the realm of raw and selvedge denim, amongst more notable labels, you’re going to see that field shrink a little bit. Many of the labels prefer to stick to three or four fits; those resembling the vintage fits originally seen.

There’s an element of personal style that goes in to how jeans fit as well. Some guys like to create an imbalance in their look by wearing a fuller-cut jean with a very slim fitting jacket or shirt. Others prefer to wear painted on jeans and a larger or anti-fit shirt. Neither of these is right or wrong, it’s merely a matter of preference. With that in mind, let’s discuss a few of the common fits that you’ll see spring up in the high-end denim world (most of these are reasonably self-explanatory, but it never hurts to be thorough):

Straight Fit:

Your classic straight leg jean. The one most reminiscent of the Levi’s 501. Not too slim, not too loose, a nice catch all for most. Good for those that don’t like anything too slim and haven’t bought in to the “skinny jeans trend.” They’re on the relaxed side of things without looking sloppy or too dad-like. A fine example here from the venerable Iron Heart.

Slim-straight

The slim-straight is probably the most common jean you’ll see out there. Simply put, it’s a straight leg jean slimmer from top to bottom than the classic straight leg. I find that these work well for skinnier guys and those that don’t like anything too tapered.

Slim-tapered

A similar cut to the slim-straight, at least in the thigh, but the difference here is that these taper from the knee down. This is my preference as I need something a little roomier in the thigh yet like my jeans tapered. These are a little more contemporary than the other two styles, yet not too progressive. Definitely something modeled after vintage styles. 

The Strike Gold Denim Tapered

The Strike Gold Jean Store

Bootcut

While not my favourite bootcut jeans have their place in the denim world. The bootcut is slim from the waist to the knee then it slightly flares out from there to, ostensibly, accommodate a boot. They’re often worn by cowboys and can look good when done right, they’re just not my cup of tea. If you’re looking for something different these certainly may appeal to you. Another pair from Iron Heart here that look pretty damn good 

Skinny

Skinny jeans are those that are tight from the bottom to the top. The favourite of young Hollywood types and those 6” pencil thin dudes. If you can squeeze yourself into a pair of these bad boys I think it’s worth a shot. Naked & Famous does a fine pair, what they call their “Skinny Guy.”

They also have a “Super Skinny Guy.” Give em both a go and see which one you prefer. Remember that if they’re a little too tight at the beginning they will stretch out.

What fit works best for you, though, is largely dependant on your body type and your brand of choice. All of the labels we’ll be talking about here will have the fits listed above, or some variation of them in their stock. As I said, as a larger fellow I prefer the slim tapered because most of the time they will allow me the room in the thigh I need as well as the tapered look that I like.

If you’re a bigger guy like me I recommend staying away from skinny jeans. They’re called “skinny” for a reason. They’ll be uncomfortable and will probably look like you’re trying too hard. If you have really heavy thighs try the straight leg. They’ll house your legs comfortably and you can always take your jeans to a quality tailor and get them tapered, if that’s what you prefer.

Skinny guys, stick to the skinny fits or the slim tapered cuts. They’ll look like they belong on you. Occasionally you’ll see slim guys wearing really wide-leg jeans, and this can look interesting, but I would tread carefully. It’s a look better suited to creative types.

With all of that knowledge in your head the best way to know is to head out to your local denim shop and try and few pairs on. With some items, you can wing it and things will turn out okay; I don’t think denim is one of those items.

After you’ve gotten a feel for labels you can start grabbing them online. Most of the labels we’ve been discussing, or at least the shops that carry them will have fit guides posted online. Find the pairs you’ve worn and (yes I know this is for real denim nerds, but stay with me) familiarize yourself with the corresponding numbers. It’s good to know your waist, the rise you prefer, thigh widths, and so on.

Once you understand these and the numbers that work best for you it will make it easier to shop online as you will then know what works for you and what doesn’t. A few minutes of research will make purchasing in the future considerably easier.

Favourite Denim Brands

I’ve mentioned a lot of labels already here, and in doing so hopefully you’ve taken a look and seen a few things you like. I want to be a bit more comprehensive, however, and list a few of my favourite labels and why they are so.

Pure Blue Japan

PBJs, as they’re known, are pretty close to perfect. They find that sweet spot in fit, quality, and uniqueness. They actually have a number of fits, so there should be something there for everyone. On top of that, they often offer a few interesting seasonal pairs on top of their staples, like purple face denim, or denim with indigo dyed warp and weft threads.

I really appreciate the styling of them as well. They don’t feature any stitching on the back pocket and they’re only recognizable by their signature indigo leaf on the back right pocket. They can be found at Blue In Green.

Pure Blue Japan Denim

The Strike Gold

The Strike Gold are a relatively new player to the Japanese denim market. Like most Japanese labels, the quality and styling is on point, plus they do a few unique pairs a year to keep you interested. They did a pair a few years ago that featured a brown weft thread, and they looked brilliant. SG is also the label I’m currently wearing and I couldn’t be happier with the results.

The comfort is there now that they’ve broken in and the fade is quite streaky. They’re going to look great in a few months. You can find them at Self Edge

The Strike Gold Denim

Photo Credi: Hype Beast

Naked & Famous 

Naked & Famous are known for doing things that are off the beaten path. From them I’ve seen what they call Frankenstein Denim (22 or so oz.), glow in the dark denim, warps and wefts in every colour, and basically anything else you can dream up. While this is something that separates them from a lot of their competitors, N&F stand out to me for a few different reasons.

The first is that they are made in Canada. I like to support Canadian organizations where possibly, especially in a section dominated by Japanese and American goods.

The second reason is that I’m constantly surprised by their pricing (in a good way!). Their core items come in at under $200, which is quite impressive. Lastly, their quality for the price is, to my eye, unmatched. Finding a great pair of selvedge denim for under $300 can be challenging, for under $200 is unheard of. A testament to their loyalty to their customers.

Naked and Famous Denim

Canadian Brand, Japanese Inspired. Photo Cred: Hype Beast

Iron Heart

What Iron Heart does so well is stick to the absolute essence of the products. Most of the labels here are short on gimmicks, but Iron Heart really just sticks to the basics. They make extremely high quality denim in vintage fits, and are designed and produced in Japan.

They produce their products with the intention of having them be motorcycle appropriate, so you can safely rely on them to be hard-wearing and well built. Iron Hearts aren’t probably known by a lot of people outside the denim world but they would be a fine place to start for your first pair. Like I said, short on gimmicks and long on quality.

Iron Heart Denim Jeans

Photo Cred: Heddels

Favourite Denim Shops

While all of this knowledge is well and good you need to put it into practice, right? Right.

Sometimes finding the right pair of jeans can be difficult as a lot of the labels we’ve spoken about so far aren’t quite as ubiquitous as Levi’s. That leads one to ask the question then, where do I find these labels? Well, let me answer that for you. There are a few shops I think are reliable and great places to look for a lot of the labels I’ve spoken about thus far. Here is a list, in no particular order:

Blue in Green 

This is a shop based in Soho in New York City. They have a great selection and offer a few labels, like Pure Blue Japan, that are hard to find in other North American shops. Knowledgeable and friendly staff too;

Self Edge

I’ve already touched on Self Edge but it bears repeating: Fine shop, excellent selection, and perhaps my favourite feature - free international shipping. This can soften the blow if you’re shopping internationally like I have done before. They do many collaborations too, so you’ll come across interesting pairs often;

Dutil 

This is one of Canada’s finest denim shops and has what is likely the best selection of Japanese labels north of the 49th. If you’re in town or looking online this is absolutely a fantastic shop;

Tate + Yoko 

This is a shop out of Montreal that was one of Canada’s first to offer Japanese denim. They have a very nice selection of oft-kilter Japanese labels as well as some of the more common ones, including Canadian label Naked & Famous. A really nice place to shop.

Purchasing Your First Pair of Raw Denim

Now that you have (hopefully) digested at least some of that information, you should be deciding on what your first pair is going to be. There are obviously a lot of labels out there, all at differing price points, to consider.

The first, and most important thing you can do, is go find a local shop and try on a few pairs. Be sure to try on pairs from different labels to know what the differences are. Should you find a pair that you like at your local shop, buy ‘em; it’s important we support the local guys.

If you can’t find something that suits you or your budget, make sure you pay attention to what you’re trying on. I went through how to find the right sizing and fit above, so be sure to refer to that. One piece I did leave out however, is that I believe the best way to buy your jeans is to buy true to size. If you visit different forums and websites they may tell you to buy a size up or size down, based on how that company makes them or how much they’ll stretch. I have always found that buying the waste size I always have works best for me.

They’re going to shrink a bit once you soak them (more on that), and they’re going to stretch once you wear them. These two things should balance out, for the most part.

Once you have figured out what fit and label works best for you, you then can decide on the denim you want. For your first pair I recommend going with something fairly straightforward. 

What’s interesting is that these “plain” pairs are often a label’s finest offering. I say this because the “plain” pair is probably the first one they developed and tweaked over and over again to make sure it was perfect. A label’s initial offering years later will have been perfected and there won’t be any surprises in store.

The things the label says about how the denim will distress are all going to happen because they’ve seen it happen so many times over the years. It’s a great way to play things safe while still getting a great and individual (eventually) pair of jeans.

Raw Denim: Aftercare

Now, you’ve got your jeans home and you’re ready to wear them. There’s one more important step that needs to be followed: shrinking.

If the denim you have purchased is unsanforized (see above) you’ll need to shrink it to your body. There are a few ways to do this:

If they have room to shrink and you’re not afraid of them being too tight, throw them in a hot bath and leave them for an hour or so; this should get them to the right tightness.

If they’re fairly close to you already, put them on and hop into the tub with them. I have done this myself and it’s not at all a pleasant experience, but it guarantees that they won’t overshrink.

If you buy sanforized denim (see: Nudie, Naked & Famous) you don’t have to worry about shrinking your denim. Once you have done this and they have dried, you’re good to go. They’ll be stiff and somewhat uncomfortable for the first few wears, but once they loosen and soften up they’ll be the best thing you own.

Style Raw Denim (Roll vs. Stack vs. Hem)

The last thing you need to decide is what style suits you best: the roll, the stack, or the hem.

By this I mean, are you going to roll and cuff you jeans like so?

Photo Credit: Oktostore.co

Are you going to let ‘em hang and stack due to the longer than usual inseam, like so?

Or do you prefer to keep things crisp and hem your jeans to the proper length?

Unrolled Jeans

It sounds like a big question, but it doesn’t really matter much. There is no right or wrong here; it’s about finding the style that best suits your style. I have always been a roll guy. I’m fairly tall and I like my pants to be short, and that’s purely preference.

Some of you shorter gentleman may want to try something else for a few reasons: cuffing your pants often makes you look shorter and rolling aggressively you will being to lose the taper in your jeans and they may look wider than you prefer. A secret option for some is to get your pants hemmed a little long and rock a cuff. It can be the best of both worlds as it achieves the look of a cuff without it being thick due to the many rolls.

The way you style your pants is completely individual so, like I said, there is no right or wrong here. Try all the styles and find to find out what you like best.

Raw Denim Washing & Care:

This can be a tricky portion for a lot of people because often all you hear is “don’t wash your raw denim!” While this is true to some degree, you can wash them as often as you’d like, just know that the earlier in the process you wash them the less defined the creases and wear marks will be.

Six months before you wash them is a decent rule of thumb, but each pair will react differently depending on the type and weight of the denim, as well as how often you wear them. If you wear them everyday, they’re going to look amazing after six months and will sorely need a wash. If you wear them once a week they won’t have taken on the same wear and patina. Similarly, 15 oz. denim is going to wear a lot faster than 22 oz. denim, so keep that in mind as well.

When it comes to the hygiene portion of it, well that can be tricky too. You may have read that putting them in the freezer will kill any bacteria and smell. This is partially true, the bacteria part at least, but it won’t kill any bad smells emanating from your high traffic areas. If this is a major problem, perhaps consider one of these fine products: fresh balls, balla powder or anti-monkey butt!

For that, there aren’t really any good solutions. You can try Febreeze in hopes that it may help, but for the most part youu’re on your own. Any stains you collect fall under the same umbrella. The best I can recommend is that you spot clean them and hope for the best. It’s one of the main areas people can’t reconcile about raw denim. I like it because it means I have to do less, and care less about how I treat them but I know not everyone shares in my policy of indifference.

Final Thoughts on Raw Denim

That’s all I have to say about denim, or at least that’s all I can conjure up. It’s exhaustive I know, but I do hope you were able to glean at least a few helpful nuggets from our research and recommendations. Raw and selvedge denim is an interesting and fun community, and we enjoy being parts of it because like most people, we need hobbies too.

I think of jeans as a labour of love. Perhaps that’s a bit sappy, but it works for me. They’re something that’s mine and something that no one else has, and that’s what I truly appreciate about raw denim. So next time you’re out shopping for a new pair of jeans, think about what we have put out there and take the plunge. It’s rare that we can own a product no one else has. Also, I promise they will soften up over time. Be patient!