Style

How To Wash Raw Denim + Care and Maintenance Tips

If you've been washing your jeans in the washing machine after every wear for as long as you can remember, you might be asking why someone would write an article about how to wash raw denim.

But to get the full experience out of your raw denim, it's important to only wash them when necessary. And waiting as long as possible before the first wash is critical.

Why Raw Denim Develops Sick Fades

before and after how to wash raw denim sick fades

Raw denim new vs broken in

By avoiding frequent washes (sounds gross, I know, I’ll explain later) you create contrast by allowing the dye to fade UNEVENLY.

Regular washing causes the dye to fade EVENLY, which will just make your jeans look like your dad's pair of $20 Wranglers. This obviously isn't what we want when buying expensive denim.

Jeans fade the way they do because, when you’re seated, the fabric creases around your upper thigh/pelvis area and behind your knees. Some of the denim is hidden in the folds and some is exposed at the top of the creases.

Let’s call them peaks and valleys.

The valleys retain their indigo because they’re protected, while the peaks are exposed, leaving them susceptible to the fading. The peaks gradually lose their indigo, revealing the white thread beneath.

When you stand up, you’ll be able to see the distinct “whiskers” fanning out from the fly and the “honeycomb” behind the knees. 

Now I'm going to cover all the factors that will help you care for your raw denim and develop the best fades possible.

How to Wash Raw Denim The Wrong Way – In The Washing Machine

raw and selvedge denim in washing machine

Don't let this happen to you!

The picture above is a frequent sight at resale shops. Some poor guy buys a really nice pair of raw denim, but unaware of the special care requirement, throws them in the washing machine only to ruin his new purchase.

Have you ever noticed how your clothes look like a piece of reused aluminum foil after they come out of the washing machine?

With raw denim, the high spots on all those little wrinkles are going to get the most wear during the machine washing process.

The result is awkward long straight lines that compete with the naturally worn in look we’re trying to achieve with our raw denim.

If you're brave, you can give machine washing a try. But I think my method below is a much better way to protect your investment pieces

How To Wash Raw Denim – The Right Way

Aside from keeping odors at bay, an occasional wash is essential to a long life for your denim.

If you were to looked at unwashed denim under a microscope, you would be able to see how particles of dirt make their way between the individual fibers of the cloth.

These particles act like an abrasive as you move around throughout the day and prematurely wear out the strands of cotton.

So with that in mind, here's how to wash your raw denim when it's time.

How To Wash Raw Denim – Choosing Detergent

before and after how to wash raw denim detergent

The point of washing your jeans is to clean them, but you also want to prevent as much indigo loss as possible, meaning you don't want to use a detergent that's too harsh.

When washing your raw denim, you can choose regular detergent, a specialty product, Woolite, or the more frequently recommended, Woolite Dark.

I've never used Woolite Dark because numerous reviews claim that Woolite Dark gives black clothes a blue tint over time. This leads me to believe that Woolite Dark adds a little dye to your clothes in an effort to maintain color. 

This recoloring would happen uniformly and all you would accomplish is to re-dye your hard-earned fades. And since the whole idea is to let your jeans fade faster in certain areas and not to simply keep the overall dark color, I don't think it's necessary or worth the gamble.

I recommend regular Wollite Delicate Care for the best color preservation or a dye and scent free detergent for the best cleaning.

Once you've selected your detergent, here's how to wash your raw denim.

How to Wash Raw Denim – Step #1

Fill a tub with lukewarm water and add about a tablespoon of detergent. Mix thoroughly. 

How to Wash Raw Denim – Step #2

how to wash raw denim soak

Place your jeans in the tub (inside out) and push out any air bubbles through the waist and leg openings. This should cause them to fully submerge. If not, you can place a couple heavy objects on them.  

How to Wash Raw Denim – Step #3

Let them soak for a total of 45 minutes (a little more or less time is fine), agitating a few times.

How to Wash Raw Denim – Step #4

how to wash raw denim rinse

Drain the tub and run cold water over your jeans, inside and out, to rinse the detergent. 

How to Wash Raw Denim – Step #5

how to wash raw denim hang dry

Hang your jeans by the legs or waistband from the shower head to allow the excess water to drip out.

How to Wash Raw Denim – Step #6

After your jeans have stopped dripping, roll them up in between two old towels and apply pressure to squeeze out more water.

how to wash raw denim towel dry

how to wash raw denim towel dry roll

How to Wash Raw Denim – Step #7

Hang your jeans by the waistband to dry indoors. They’ll take a day or so to completely dry.

How To Wash Raw Denim – Results

before and after how to wash raw denim before

Raw denim before washing.

before and after how to wash raw denim after

Raw denim after washing.

You can see that by using the hand wash method, there aren't any ugly fades like those created by using a washing machine.

Also, the indigo loss is minimal. There's some light fading over all and the worn areas look brighter now due to removing the accumulated dirt.

Now these jeans are ready to go for another six months or so before they'll need another wash.

To pre-soak or not to pre-soak

Should you just rip the tags off your new jeans and wear them right away or should you soak them in water before wearing?

This is a point of contention between denim enthusiasts. Some are in the camp of “wear as long as possible before you let them anywhere near water,” with others recommending a cold soak right away.

Those who advocate against pre-soaking have good reasons for recommending that practice. This method does results in the absolute best fading environment.

Freshly purchased raw denim is the stiffest it's ever going to be and has a smooth, non-crinkly surface. This means that your creases will be crisp, tall, and sharp, resulting in the best fades.

But skipping the pre-soak fails to take shrinkage into account.

If your new jeans fit absolutely perfect when new, there's a chance that they'll shrink just a little.

If that little bit of shrinkage turns out to be too much after the first soak, just give them to a friend and start fresh with the next size up. And if he’s a really good friend, maybe he’ll flip you some coin to put towards your next pair.

This way you don't waste any time with jeans that ultimately won't fit.

Benefits of pre-soaking raw denim

  • Remove creases from being folded, shipped, and stored on the shelf
  • Removes some of the dye, making transfer to furniture less of a problem
  • Gets any fit issues out of the way early on
  • Helps mold them to your body (explained next)

Raw denim Pre-Soak process

The internet is full of horror stories and superstitions about caring for raw denim, but it really doesn't have to be complicated.

To pre-soak your jeans:

  1. Fill a bath tub with enough lukewarm water to submerge your jeans.
  2. Place the jeans, inside out, in the water. Weigh them down with various household items if they float.
  3. Leave them in the tub for half an hour.

They won’t shrink indefinitely so don’t worry about leaving them in a little longer.

To speed up the drying process, roll up your denim in between the towels, applying pressure to squeeze out some of the water.

Unroll the denim and hang up indoors over the tub or basement floor in case they drip indigo.

Once the denim begins to dry, but is still damp, take them down and try them on. Take a walk around to see how they feel. 

WARNING – Avoid any full bending of the knee, like squatting. This causes too much stretching and will result in awkward “knee horns” after they dry. I’ve made this mistake and had to soak my jeans twice.

Take your jeans off and hang them back up. You’ll notice that they’ll already have a more three-dimensional shape. You’re one step closer to the perfect pair of jeans!

After your jeans dry, wear them as much as possible so the creases set in and the fading process can begin.

When To Wash Raw Denim

Keep in mind, the longer you go without washing raw denim, the better your jeans will look.

When to wash is going to be a highly individualized decision. Most non-raw denim wearers are used to washing and drying their jeans after every wear or two. But denim purists insist that you wash your jeans at 6 months, 1 year, or never.

I like to take a reasonable approach and say that you should forget about sticking to a prescribed schedule. But instead, opt to only wash them if they look or smell dirty. This could be monthly for some or never for others.

Washing removes indigo evenly (as described earlier) and we want to create contrast by allowing the indigo to fade unevenly. So the longer you go between washes the better your fades will look.

Not washing your jeans is gross!

In case you’re a little put off by not adhering to a strict washing schedule (I was too, at first), let me give you a few words of encouragement and you’ll see that it isn’t as gross as it sounds.

We wear shoes, coats, and jackets daily but don’t feel the need to wash after every wear. Also, do you think that well-dressed guy in a suit is throwing his trousers in the washing machine every Sunday?

The truth is, most men who wear suits 5 days per week have them cleaned as infrequently as possible, (maybe 2 or 3 times per year max), to extend the lifespan of the garment.

So if you haven't noticed a stench coming from the business crowd, at least try to keep an open mind about going longer stretches without washing your jeans.

But just remember that no one is handing out merit badges for wearing smelly pants. So no matter how long it's been or whether or not you have fades yet, if your jeans smell, it's time to wash them.

Storing Raw Denim

raw and selvedge denim storage

Since raw denim is susceptible to taking on creases, it isn't advisable to fold them over a hanger or stack them on a shelf as they will tend to keep that shape.

When you unfold your jeans, they'll have an almost ironed in crease running down the side which will eventually fade into a white line.

Instead, it’s best to hang them from the waist band by a trouser hanger and let the legs hang at full length.

Getting The Most Out Of Your Raw Denim

If you purchase raw denim, it's safe to say that you're probably an enthusiast (or aspire to be).

You can get the most out of your pursuit by following my recommendations:

  1. Pre-soak your new jeans
  2. Only wash your denim when necessary
  3. Hand wash your jeans as outlined above
  4. Store your jeans by hanging them from the waistband

If you have any tips of your own, please share them in the comments below.

All the best,

Nate

You Might Also Like

10 Comments

  • Reply
    Ian
    March 22, 2017 at 10:13 am

    Really good tips! I wonder if I can apply this to chinos as well since that’s what I have most of. A couple of spins in the washing machine and they start to fade too

    • Reply
      Nate
      March 23, 2017 at 6:31 pm

      You can use infrequent hand washing with chinos to preserve the color. Since the yarn is likely died to the core, unlike denim, you won’t develop the same white fades. But I’m guessing a preserved and uniform color is exactly what you want.

  • Reply
    Jm
    March 22, 2017 at 5:10 pm

    I had a couple of raw denim jeans when I was younger and I’d still have them if I knew about these tips.

    When are the well dressed/classy seasonal style guides coming out?

    I think it would help alot and offer advice and tips for people who don’t like to buy into temporary fashion trends.

    • Reply
      Nate
      March 23, 2017 at 6:26 pm

      It’s not too late to get another pair! I’ll definitely do another style guide in the future, just not sure if it’ll be seasonal.

  • Reply
    Thomas Stege Bojer
    March 23, 2017 at 2:49 am

    Hi Nate,
    Great guide! As someone who’s been experimenting with washing raw denim for a decade or so – and writing about it for over 6 years (as well as publishing a book about denim) – I have one comment related to soaking your jeans before you start wearing them, which is really the most important reason to do it: soaking makes your jeans last longer!

    That’s really the most important reason I started doing it back 4-5 years ago after I realised it was the way to prevent (or at least postpone) crotch blowouts. And it’s (usually) not going to change the colour of the denim.

    Talking about washing, recently, I’ve been experimenting with my 5th or 6th pair of jeans from the same brand and fabric. The fabric is shrink-to-fit, so I kind of need to soak the jeans before I start wearing them – and I do. But usually, I’ve waited at least 3-4 months between each soak (and that’s after wearing them 6-7 days a week!). And only wash them after several months (again, with daily wear). This time, I washed the jeans in the washing pre-wear, and since I started wearing them in June last year, I’ve washed them 4-6 times. And the fades are just as since (although a little more “vintage”) as the ones I have in the same fabric that I worn for 500-600 days and only washed after more than a year of wear. Just goes to show that you can indeed get great fades even if you wash :)

    Sorry for the rant – keep up the good work here! :)

    • Reply
      Nate
      March 23, 2017 at 6:19 pm

      Thanks for the contributions, Thomas. I’m aware of the fact that periodic washing helps prevent crotch blowout because it removes dirt between the fibers but can you help me understand why it’s beneficial before the first wear? Thanks!

  • Reply
    Jordan
    March 26, 2017 at 3:41 pm

    Should I soak before I have them hemmed?

    • Reply
      Nate
      March 27, 2017 at 9:58 am

      Great question! Definitely. The last thing you want is to buy an expensive pair of jeans and then pay the money to have them hemmed perfectly only to have them shrink after the first wash.

  • Reply
    Jason
    April 25, 2017 at 7:22 pm

    Damn. I wish I read this 3 weeks ago. I got my first pair of raw denim. I got the ones you suggested in another post. The naked and famous rusted blue weird guy. They’re stiff as hell but I love them and can’t wait to see how they turn out in the months to come. I didn’t do the soaking. Hopefully they’ll still come out good. I’m not going to wash them for 6 months. I’m assuming it wouldn’t be wise to wear them on hot summer days so I don’t sweat all in them.
    What are your tips on keeping them from stinking? I don’t sit on sidewalks or cement or anything like that.

    • Reply
      Nate
      April 26, 2017 at 1:05 pm

      Great purchase! It isn’t the end of the world if you don’t soak first. As long as they aren’t skin tight and just barely long enough right now you’ll be ok. And you’re on the right track, I never wear raw denim when it’s mid 70s or above. For keeping them fresh, the best think is to hand them by the waistband out in the open at night. But if they start to smell anytime before the 6 month mark, go ahead and wash them.

    Leave a Reply

    About Me

    Casual Style 101

    Free style guide