What Is Raw Denim?

What Is Raw Denim?

Charlie Bradley Ross Tuesday, 16 September 2014

You might not be aware just how important the history of denim is, and how much influence it has over customers today. If you have yet to discover the trend for raw and selvedge denim, you may be missing a trick!

What Is Raw Denim?

Raw denim is the opposite of washed denim. There is only one difference between the two, and that is that washed denim is rinsed through water after it has been dyed, and raw or dry denim is not. Raw denim is sometimes known as dry denim because the washing process has been skipped, leaving them stiff with starch and dark with dye.

This washing process that conventional denim goes through is used to soften the denim, and means that the denim should not shrink when it is washed again. It also takes off any excess dyes. Customers who buy washed denim will know how it looks, fits and feels from the get go and the foreseeable future.

The art of unwashed, raw denim, however, takes wearing denim to a new level: Being able to create an item of clothing that will naturally mould to the person that wears it, where the appearance changes according to the individual's physical routine.

Raw Selvedge Denim
Left - prewash ; Right - postwash

The Science Behind Raw Denim

With pre-washed denim fabric or garments, the dye comes off uniformly during the first wash because the items haven’t been worn and the fibres haven't been damaged in any away. The longer you wait to wash a raw denim garment, the longer it will absorb the wear and creases of everyday life. When the item is finally washed, the dye comes off unevenly; more will come off the worn areas of denim, revealing “fades.”  It's a quicker way to achieve that beautiful, authentic, wear and tear look of denim, that is totally individual to you and your movements.  Sandblasters used to recreate this look in commercial denim manufacturing simply couldn't achieve the same results.

Raw Denim Jeans
This is a beautiful example of how the fabric will fade uniquely to you: Look at the wear marks around the phone!

There are many people who love raw denim and will go to any lengths to keep it unwashed for as long as possible (some as long as seven months!).  The first wash is the most significant, as the longer you leave the denim unwashed, the better the fabric looks.

How Long Do You Wait Before You Wash Raw Denim?

What you don't want to do is rush and miss achieving a great fade effect - known in Raw Denim circles as “fade failure”. This is when the garment is washed too early and it won't have been broken in enough to yield strong fades. If you wait too long, however, as well as the matter of personal hygiene, ingrained dirt can begin to break down the fibres and the fabric becomes susceptible to tears.

What Fabric Should I Use?

Obviously, you want to start with Raw Denim.

There are as many different types of raw denim, as there are denims. The variations include colour, weight, fibre blends, fibre twists and ply.

Heavy Raw Denim
Naked & Famous's 32-ounce Raw Selvedge denim jeans that are so thick they stand up on their own!

As a rule, the heavier the cotton the better.  A heavier fabric lends itself to sharper contrasting fades and is more resilient. Somewhere between 12 and 16 ounces is ideal. There are some rare jeans that come in much heavier, such as Naked & Famous's 32-ounce Selvedge jeans (shown above) that are more of a gimmick, but like gold dust to denim addicts.

But for those of you who really want to go the extra mile for your denim obsessive customers, then you need to look into "selvedge" denim.

The History Of Selvedge Denim

Selvedge Denim
Japanese Selvedge Denim

When denim started its rise as a mainstream work-wear fabric in the US in the late 1800s, it was mostly raw and produced on slow shuttle looms with “selvedge” edges. Just like today's selvedges, these were simply the self-finished edges at the end of the fabric that kept the fabric from unravelling, usually woven in a bright, contrasting colour.

Worn by icons like James Dean in 1955's Rebel Without a Cause, denim soon infiltrated pop culture and became a symbol of post-WWII youth culture. It became so popular that American Denim mills abandoned their slow shuttle looms for modern, faster, projectile looms and selvedges were soon lost. Projectile looms allowed denim to be made wider, more quickly and at a much cheaper price than shuttle looms. The new edges denim weren’t finished, leaving the denim susceptible to fraying and unraveling, and meant that garments needed to be overlocked (or served).

The Rise Of Selvedge Denim In Today's Society

Paul Smith Selvedge Denim
Paul Smith Uses His Brand's Colours To Create Unique Selvedges - Could You?

Shuttle looms were certainly never lost. Many were shipped to Japan as part of the effort to rebuild its economy. These specialist machines fell into the hands of family-owned textile companies, where they have been lovingly tended to over the decades. Looms are still produced today as a cheaper solution to textile manufacturing - and is in fact what many of our own fabric weavers use! Operators continue to produce small batches of high-quality denim today.

Rope Dyed Denim Fabric

They may just be "edges", but to fabric and jean aficionados they mean much more. Not only are these edges used as a structural component of jeans (so there's little, if no need for overlocking or serging), but the fabric itself is often very different from that produced on modern machines.

Whilst modern day, über efficient machines sought to move away from the slubby, textured finishes of the older, slower Selvedge machines, this is the exact quality that jean aficionados now seek out! Different mills, particularly in Japan, are renowned for their different textures: some are rough, some are smooth, and some are “slubby.” Modern weaving technology has eliminated slubbiness from textiles, but for many fans it's this authenticity and Selvedge signature that is extremely desirable. Denim aficionados now actively seek out these garments with selvedges, turning up the bottom of their jeans so that the selvedge is on show. It's a form of identification to other denim enthusiasts - like a secret handshake.

Raw Selvedge Denim

It's important to note here that selvedge and shuttle loom fabrics can achieve the same levels of quality. You can find plenty of quality jean brands from denim made on projectile looms and vice versa.

While the texture of selvedge denim is important, the most pressing matter for denim-addicts is often the weight of the fabric, which is measured in ounces per yard. As I said above, the heavier the better.

Must-Have Design Features

If you're aiming to please, then don't stop at raw, selvedge denim! Obsessing over details is entirely encouraged. Rivets, pocket linings, belts and hem-length - there is no end to the finer points of denim. But for true nerds there's one final indication of a truly authentic pair of jeans: a Union Special 43200G sewing machine. This machine produces a “chainstitch” that is the gold standard for hemming. To save money most selvage jeans are sold with a standard long inside leg, but if you have a few thousand dollars lying around, you know where you can invest it.

Gold Chain Stitch Denim

Ironically, this classic chainstitch is no longer used because it's not very secure and prone to unravelling.  But while it may be useless as a stitch, because of the fading pattern it creates at the bottom of jeans known as “roping”, it's frequently touted as the best-looking fade by online enthusiasts... go figure.


If you are looking for denim to create unique, customised items, then raw denim is definitely the way to go. If this has sparked your interest and you want to learn more about raw denim, check out this amazing raw denim Reddit page.

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