Looking back, it's clear to me now that raw denim was the first menswear item to really catch my attention.
Since an early age I'd always been interested in clothes, but up until this discovery, nothing gripped me enough to pull me in completely.
Maybe it was the rugged nature of raw denim that spoke to my blue collar upbringing, perhaps it was the premium spin on a casual item, or maybe it was the way raw denim develops a patina as unique as the individual wearer.
Whatever the exact cause, raw denim has a certain honest quality that I simply can't get enough of and I consider it my “gateway drug” – eventually leading to my current obsession with all things related to menswear.
In this article and those to follow, I'm going to cover everything you want to know about raw and selvedge denim including what it can do for your personal style, how to buy, care for, and how to wear your raw and selvedge denim.
And just in case you aren't 100% sure what raw and selvedge denim is…
What is Raw denim and how is it different from Selvedge?
These two terms are often used interchangeably, but while a pair of jeans can be and often is both raw and selvedge, the words don't mean the same thing.
Selvedge refers to the type of fabric, or more specifically, the manufacturing process.
Selvedge denim is woven on old-fashioned Shuttle Looms (explained in more detail below) that are believed to produce a tighter, more durable fabric. They also leave the hallmark piping at the outseam, resulting from the closed weave at the edges of the fabric roll.
Since the outseam is a straight line from top to bottom, manufacturers utilize the already finished edge of the fabric roll to maximize material usage.
Selvedge outseam – Japanese Straight Fit Denim – GAP
Selvedge denim is easily identifiable by this “self edge” visible when the leg opening is cuffed. You’ll notice a nice clean finish on the outseam of the jeans, traditionally in red and white piping, although many colors are available today.
Regular denim has a frayed edge at the ends of the fabric roll that must be finished with a loose stitch which doesn't look quite as polished when the jeans are cuffed (shown below).
Non-Selvedge outseam – Levi's 501 Shrink to Fit Raw Denim
Raw denim (also called rigid or dry) is simply denim that hasn’t been pre-washed by the manufacturer and is characterized by a uniform color and stiff feel.
This has nothing to do with whether the denim is selvedge or not. Selvedge and non-selvedge denim can be pre-washed or sold raw.
The confusion between these two terms is the result of most selvedge denim being sold in its pre-washed, or raw, state.
Selvedge Denim vs Regular Denim
Prior to the 1950’s, all denim was produced on shuttle looms, and thus all denim was selvedge. But in order to lower production costs, American manufacturers switched to projectile looms.
Projectile looms were able to create a roll of fabric twice the width of the old shuttle looms and at a rate of about ten times faster. With their updated equipment in hand, American manufacturers then sold off their old shuttle looms to other countries, Japan in particular.
As with many things in manufacturing, making changes to lower costs often comes with a decrease in quality.
Why is Selvedge Denim Better?
The most common answer to this question is that selvedge denim is superior because it won’t unravel. That clean edge visible when the jeans are cuffed is thought to be superior in durability because the ends of the fabric are woven together and won’t fray.
I need to take a logical stance and go against everything you’ll read on the internet.
The weak point in this claim is that only the outseam on a pair of selvedge jeans actually has the self edge. Every other seam on the garment is finished in the same manner as regular denim.
So if you want to believe this is the reason it’s superior, you’ll also have to believe that all the other seams will start to unravel at the same rate as a regular pair of jeans.
Since regular denim doesn't tend to unravel, this obviously isn’t true. But I do consider selvedge denim to be superior, so the value must lie elsewhere.
The Real Reason Selvedge Denim Is Better
Hidden details on a pair of 3sixteen jeans
First, shuttle looms are believed to produce a more tightly woven fabric than modern projectile looms. This is the real reason selvedge is more durable, but this virtue gets incorrectly credited to the fabric edge (as explained above).
In addition to that, I think there's a more important and much less obvious reason that selvedge denim is better than the mass produced variety.
Selvedge denim is woven on old-fashioned looms, meaning the production process is inherently slower. Since manufacturers utilizing shuttle looms can't do much to pump out volume, they tend to focus on the product rather than the process.
Denim mills that use these old techniques use the best quality yarn and dye and pay extreme attention to every other detail.
They're considered by most to be denim artisans.
Since producing selvedge denim on shuttle looms is a more expensive process, they must sell the rolls of denim for top dollar.
Logic follows that clothing brands willing to source out this rare and expensive fabric are the ones that will take care in the design and production of their products.
It wouldn’t make much sense to purchase the most expensive fabric on the market to produce a poorly thought out and executed pair of jeans.
Premium denim brands offer jeans with numerous tailored fits, thoughtfully chosen color combinations, and hidden details that make the buying and wearing experience that much more enjoyable.
So, in my opinion, the value of selvedge isn’t in the edge itself. But rather, it’s an indicator that the clothing manufacturers were willing to spend the extra money to secure the best possible fabric and turn it into a superior pair of jeans.
What makes Raw denim different?
Brand new raw denim – Naked & Famous Weird Guy
Now that we have the benefits of selvedge denim covered, let's look at the benefits of buying raw/un-washed denim, whether it's selvedge or not.
What you may not realize (I know I never gave the subject much thought) is the fact that every pair of jeans is sewn from super stiff, rigid fabric.
In this state, the denim has crisp edges, a uniform color, and can be folded up almost like the cardboard used to make cereal boxes (shown above).
But when you look at the store shelves you're presented with a seeming infinite variety of colors, washes, and levels of pre-destruction.
So how did these jeans get to the state that we're used to buying them?
Somewhere along the line, manufacturers realized that prior to putting their jeans on the store shelves they could run them through a series of industrial washes to “improve” the look and feel.
The result of this process is that when you pick up a pair of jeans at the department store, they look and feel like you're owned them for years, which is great for initial comfort.
But you don't have to buy your jeans with the break-in process already performed by the factory.
Now you might be thinking, “why would I want to buy jeans that I have to break in myself?”
The Benefits Of Wearing Raw Denim
Really, there's no mathematical or completely logical reason to purchase raw denim and to break it in yourself (left-brainers might not get it, but the right-brained certainly will).
If you love your clothes and want to truly enjoy the pieces you buy, raw denim is for you.
Raw Denim Is An Art Project
When it comes to clothing, nothing shows individuality and character quite like raw denim (except maybe leather boots).
By starting off with a pristine pair of raw jeans and breaking them in yourself, every crease, wrinkle, and fade will tell a little bit about your life.
Do you ride a bike to work, carry mustache wax in your coin pocket, or spend your days in a workshop? Clues hinting at your lifestyle will be left behind on the canvas of raw denim.
Raw Denim Is Honest
You can, of course, shortcut the lengthy break-in process by purchasing pre-distressed denim and your brand new jeans will have fades, creases, and personality right off the shelf.
There isn't anything wrong with going this route, but it just isn't quite as satisfying or authentic.
The store bought wear marks won’t line up with the creases formed by your own body and paint splatters on the pants of a man who doesn't paint for a living will look like you're trying a little too hard.
When you sit down, the factory fades around the knees and hips won't line up with where the fabric creases.
In most cases, pre-distressed denim just looks like an obvious fake, or in other words, the “personality” isn't quite as genuine.
Raw Denim Respects Tradition
Aside from the awesome aesthetics of breaking in your own raw denim, purchasing denim that hasn't been pre-distressed is like giving a respectful nod to the the way granddad would do things.
In the early days of denim, it was all sold raw. Originally worn exclusively by blue collar workers, these men had no use for denim with any pre-distressing or embroidery.
They intended to wear these clothing items hard and couldn't afford to have a portion of their lifespan wasted by taking a couple dozen spins through an industrial washing machine.
Raw Denim Is Comfortable
Sure, pre-washed denim is soft when new, but it's a generic fit and not a made-to-measure piece.
While raw denim is a little stiff when new, it'll soon develop a 3D fit for your particular body.
And as I'll explain in a future article, the idea with raw denim is to wash it infrequently, so this custom fit continues to evolve over the life of the item.
Raw denim is all about sick fades!
The whole idea with raw denim isn't to wear a crispy new pair of jeans everyday for the rest of your life, the goal is to achieve what enthusiasts refer to as “sick fades.”
This just refers to the contrast that develops as some spots of your jeans fade faster than others.
As you wear your jeans, you'll develop “whiskers” around the crotch, faded thighs, outlines of whatever you carry in your pockets, and “honeycomb” behind the knees.
Why Raw Denim Fades Differently Than Other Fabrics
There's a reason that this contrast fading phenomenon doesn't happen with your old t-shirt or favorite hoodie.
Unlike most fabrics where the thread is soaked to the core with pigment, denim yarn is only coated. Think of it as white yarn being painted with blue dye.
Thanks to this coating process, denim thread retains its white core. And after prolonged use, this coating rubs away in high wear areas, exposing the white core beneath.
Now you have sick fades!
Why You Should Consider Raw And Selvedge Denim
Rarely is the easiest and most hands-off approach the most enjoyable.
Driving enthusiasts prefer to change gears manually and without electronic driver aids and audiophiles insist on vinyl even though mp3s are about 1,000 times more convenient.
It's the process, superstition, and personal involvement of raw and selvedge denim that draws you in.
Is raw denim arguably “better” than other varieties? Probably not, but that doesn't stop me!
The accountant half of my brain tells me I'm crazy for wearing raw denim but the more creative side knows nothing else can match the fun factor and the exquisite end results.
So, if you're ready to move beyond the regular pair of Wrangler jeans you've been wearing since middle school but don't want anything to do with the heavily adorned denim sold at most malls, I strongly suggest you look into raw and selvedge denim.
Stay tuned for more articles on buying raw and selvedge denim, caring for your investment, and how to wear raw and selvedge denim.
All the best,