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Raw And Selvedge Denim Buyer’s Guide For Beginners

Raw and selvedge denim buyer's guide

Once you've decided to get into the world of raw and selvedge denim, the next step is to find your first pair.

Once you start shopping, you will be slammed with a dizzying array of terminology and recommendations to size up in this brand and size down in that brand.

Even worse, when you turn to the internet for answers you'll often be overwhelmed by denim enthusiasts who debate endlessly over the most minor details and provide conflicting viewpoints.

So I'd like to help clear up some the confusion by explaining the most important things to consider when buying your first pair of raw and selvedge denim.

If you aren't sure what raw and selvedge denim is or don't know what the benefits are, start here.

Raw And Selvedge Denim Buying Decisions

While all details are important, newcomers needn't worry too much about which mill produces which denim, slubbiness of the fabric, or whether you should buy right hand, left hand, or broken twill.

There will be plenty of time for that once you're an enthusiast. For now, you only need to focus on:

  • Sanforized vs. Unsanforized
  • Selvedge or Raw? Both?
  • Denim weight
  • Style and cut
  • Sizing
  • Price range

Let’s dive in!

Sanforized vs. Un-Sanforized

unsanforized denim before and after levis shrink to fit

Unsanforized Denim Before and After – Levis Shrink To Fit

This is a simple enough concept, but a failure to take it into account when purchasing your raw denim will mean that your jeans could be unwearable after coming into contact with water for the first time.

Sanforization is the name for the pre-shrinking process  jeans under go before reaching the shelves. This process is named after its inventor, Sanford Lockwood Cluett.

So what does this mean for you as a buyer?

Sanforized denim is the pre-shrunk variety you’re already used to buying. It’ll only shrink by about 1-3% after washing and drying, meaning you’re pretty safe buying your true size.

Un-Sanforized denim will shrink by about 10% in the presence of the first soak or wash. This means that you’ll have to size up 2-3 inches from your normal size in both waist and inseam, and then shrink them before wearing.

Not to worry, the vast majority of denim on the market is Sanforized and un-Sanforized denim should be clearly marked, like the famous Levi’s Shrink-to-Fit.

Most un-Sanforized denim will also be accompanied by a size chart to help you choose accordingly.

SPECIAL NOTE: The degree to which un-Sanforized denim will shrink is constant, so there's no need to worry about shrinking them incorrectly.

For example, if you accidentally leave them in the tub overnight or use lukewarm water instead of cold, you won't return to a pair of doll pants.

Sure, soaking in boiling hot water for hours will shrink them a little more than a quick dip in cold water, but as long as you are following reasonable methods, the results should be comparable.

To be on the safe side, I think beginners should first look at Sanforized denim for their first pair.

Selvedge or Raw? Both?

raw and selvedge denim buyers guide selvedge

If you want to have a uniquely broken pair of jeans with all the sick fades, buying denim that is Raw is essential.

Next, buying selvedge is generally a good indicator of quality. But as I explained in a previous article, it isn't absolutely essential to enjoy the world of raw denim.

My best advice is to find the jeans you really love from a reputable brand and buy them regardless of whether they're selvedge or not.

As long as your jeans are raw they'll have sick fade potential. Buying selvedge denim is just a bonus.

Raw And Selvedge Denim – Weight

Far too often I hear guys complaining that a certain pair of jeans is “cheap” because they're thin.

Logically, most buyers expect a very heavy pair of jeans when paying upwards of $150 and can be severely disappointed if a product arrives at their doorstep and is thinner than expected.

But this frustration could've been saved had these guys been familiar with denim thickness rating system.

I want to clear up right away:

Thicker, heavier denim isn't always higher quality than lightweight denim, and vice versa.

Like suit material, different weights are called for in different situations.

The thickness of denim is measured by weight, specifically ounces per square yard. The thicker the fabric, the more it will weigh for a given size.

While there are plenty of factors besides weight that affect the wearability and performance of raw denim, here's a chart to help sum up the main differences.

Denim WeightClimateBreak-in TimeFade PotentialDurability
Lightweight
Under 12 oz.
Warmer weatherVery shortLowerLower
Middleweight
12 - 16 oz.
Three seasonSome break-in requiredAverageAverage
Heavyweight
Over 16 oz.
Cold WeatherMost lengthy break-in periodHighHigh

Picking the correct weight from the start will help insure that you get the performance you expect from your jeans.

Unfortunately, most of these characteristics have an inverse relationship, meaning when one goes up the other goes down. For example, heavier denim is often more durable, but the stiff fabric takes longer to break-in, so you get less initial comfort.

To make the decision process simple, go with a mid-weight denim for your first pair to get the most versatility.

Raw And Selvedge Denim – Style And Cut

naked and famous fits selvedge denim

Naked and Famous Fits – Super Skinny GuyWeird Guy (tapered) – Easy Guy (relaxed)

Contrary to what my teenage self would tell you (damn you late 90’s), jeans look best when they fit fairly close to your body. You don’t need to get carried away and go for the yoga pants look, but moderately snug denim never hurt anyone.

This is especially the case with raw denim, as the main idea is to wash them infrequently so they'll only get roomier as they stretch out.

Ideally, your jeans should skim your legs and help balance out your frame. A super slim guy needs to have jeans with a tapered leg to avoid looking bottom heavy and a big fellow needs something a little wider at the ankle to balance out the top half.

As a starting point, consider these general fits for your body type:

  • Slim guys look best in skinny, slim, or tapered jeans.
  • Average to athletic men look best in slim, tapered, or straight.
  • Bigger guys should consider straight, relaxed, or maybe bootcut jeans.

As far as styling and detail goes, less is more.

All the personality is going to come from the wear you put into your raw jeans, so starting with a blank canvas is your best choice.

The only styling that should be on your jeans is some king of stitching across the back pockets.

raw and selvedge denim back pocket detail

Raw And Selvedge – Sizing

One of the trickiest parts of buying raw denim is sizing. Ideally, you'd be able to try them on before buying but not everyone has access to premium denim stores, so online purchases are the norm.

If you want the most simple size solution, just look for Sanforized denim and order your true waist size. That'll get you a good enough fit most of the time.

But if you want a perfect fit, or have unique proportions, you'll have to do a little more work by following these steps.

  1. Look for the correct cut for your body type as discussed above (a guy with muscular thighs will never get a good fit in skinny jeans no matter what size he chooses).
  2. Use a good fitting pair of jeans you have now and compare the measurements to size charts for specific brands you can find online (some retailers provide these).

After that you can buy your jeans, try them on, and at that point it should be clear if you need to go up or down one size or if the cut doesn't work for you at all.

I order from Amazon because most clothing items have free shipping and returns so I don't have to worry about exchanging for different sizes.

Price Range For Raw And Selvedge Denim

There's no doubt that you can pick up raw and selvedge denim for next to nothing. I've even seen selvedge denim at Target for around $30.

But obviously, no one is selling premium denim at that price point and this is just a marketing strategy.

You're more than welcome to go that route (I had good luck with a pair from H&M), but keep in mind that raw denim is what I consider to be an investment piece, and cheap options are a gamble.

I'm not just talking about money here. I'm talking about the time you're going to invest into creating the perfect patina on your jeans and the emotional attachment that's sure to develop.

If you invest a year or two into an inferior quality pair of jeans and have to toss them because they're falling apart, I promise you that you'll regret not going with a reputable artisan brand in the first place.

Very high quality jeans can be bought for around $150. That sounds like a lot at first until you consider cost per wear.

To put this into perspective, you can get by just fine with a single pair of raw jeans and can wear them multiple times per week.

This is really the same thing as buying 5 pairs of $30 jeans like most guys do. So the price difference is negligible, but the increased enjoyment and aesthetics are exponential.

Jeans I would buy at different price points

raw and selvedge denim buyers guide naked and famous

Naked & Famous Weird Guy Fit In Rusted Blue Selvedge

Considering all the different brands, fits, denim mills, and personal preferences, everyone is going to have their favorite denim brand so it's difficult to objectively categorize denim across the board by those metrics.

But I'm going to break denim into three price categories, each offering a significant improvement over the previous.

You can find good entry level jeans for under $100. At this point, manufacturers are trying to save cost so they won't use the highest quality materials, but you can still get good value.

Really good jeans go for between $100 and $200. At this point, much better materials will be used and details will be really well thought out.

The best raw and selvedge denim is going to cost $200+. At this price point you start to find the best materials, limited edition runs, and unique details.

To give you an idea of what's available at each price point, here are the jeans I would look at as good representations of each.

Entry level – Unbranded

Mid level – Naked & Famous

Top tier – Sugar Cane

If you're working with a very limited budget, start with entry level denim. If you have the cash and want to make sure you get a good pair the first time around, start with mid level jeans. But if money isn't an issue and you want the absolute best, shop in the top tier range.

Raw and Selvedge Denim Buying Decisions Summary

If you're just starting out and want a great all-around pair of jeans, aim for these criteria from a reputable brand:

  1. Sanforized
  2. Raw (selvedge is a plus)
  3. Mid-weight (12-14 oz.)
  4. Choose the correct cut for your build
  5. Consider your budget

That covers just about everything you need to know to enter into the world of raw and selvedge denim.

All that's left is to choose a brand and to get to work wearing your new jeans daily so you can watch your custom fades develop.

All the best,

Nate

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10 Comments

  • Reply
    Gijsbertus van der Heijden
    February 6, 2017 at 11:57 pm

    New world has just opened up for me! Thanks.

  • Reply
    HJ
    February 7, 2017 at 9:50 am

    Great article! I like the different colors / shades N&F is offering, but enfortunately they have a bit of a ‘nut cracker rise’ if you’d ask me. Still looking for that slim, slightly tapered jeans with a medium rise.

    • Reply
      Nate
      February 7, 2017 at 10:11 am

      It’s all about the fit HJ and you’re right to not get swept away by things like fabric if the fit isn’t right for you.

  • Reply
    Tony Garcia
    February 11, 2017 at 7:57 am

    Hi Nate,
    I happened to google dress pants/jeans for muscular guys and came across your website. What initially caught my attention was that you mentioned you were from Northwest Indiana. Coincidently, I myself am from Northwest Indiana; Hammond to be exact. In the past year, my legs have become a lot more muscular than before. All thanks to squats and just leg days in particular. My problem lately has been that both my dress pants and jeans are fitting very tight on the thighs. Waist wise (size 36) I have no problem with the pants I own. Long story short, what advice would you give to someone like me who is on a tight budget? I usually always wear relaxed fit jeans (Wranglers from Walmart) and dress pants I get from Kohls. Any advice or tips would be greatly appreciated.

    Have a great weekend.

    • Reply
      Nate
      February 13, 2017 at 8:58 am

      I’m originally from Hammond, as well! You should definitely look into stretch fabric for both jeans and dress pants. Buy them to fit your legs and then have them taken in at the waist or tapered from the knee down as needed. For budget issues, focus on less. You’re better off spending all of your money on two or three perfectly fitting pairs than a closet full of things that don’t fit well.

    • Reply
      Joel
      April 28, 2017 at 3:04 am

      Tony,

      I saw on Kickstarter a while ago a brand called Barbell Jeans. Designed by a group of Crossfitters with similar issues. I think the campaign is now over but they should have a regular website by now…

      • Reply
        Nate
        April 29, 2017 at 7:59 am

        I saw the same brand a while back but didn’t really like the washes they offered. It looks like a great product but the lack of a raw option made me keep hunting.

  • Reply
    Beastly Benjamin
    March 12, 2017 at 6:20 pm

    This has been very helpful! I’ve bought several pairs since reading your blog. Keep them coming. I’ve ended up buying a LEVI 501 stf (non selvedge) and a pair of N+F weirdguy both in a 36/34 because of big guy thigh and hip problems. The only problem now is how much excess material should I tell the tailor to trim off the leg opening as to look great with boots but not offset my larger upper body proportion. I’m 5’9″ 225 for comparison but can’t decide on a measurement for the opening that’s not too small or too big especially to go with Clark’s desert boots. Have you ever had any tapering work done? Maybe that could be your next article. CHEERS from Vancouver, Canada :)

    • Reply
      Nate
      March 13, 2017 at 8:46 pm

      Great picks, Benjamin. You could get them tapered from the knee down. I like my leg openings around 7″ but I think with your frame 8″ would be better. Lay them flat and measure across to get a starting point.

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