Things I Can’t Live Without: Selvedge Raw Denim Jeans

by Nick Joelson on November 27, 2012

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Raw denim jeans have been a passion of mine for a while now, in fact I don’t think I have bought a pair of “normal” jeans since 2004, which is when I first acquired a pair. I cannot remember the brand, but they were some obscure, “Japanese work wear” style jeans made from selvedge denim (at a bargain price of £40 in the sales :)).

My absolute favourite place to buy raw denim right now is at Liberties – The buyer for the menswear collection never puts a foot wrong.

There were just a handful of pairs left and one happened to be roughly in my size so I went for it. I say “roughly” as you never really know with raw denim what size they are as they are so prone to shrinking. This first pair were washed way too soon and on a too hot a setting which resulted in them to both over-shrink and not get a proper fade. They shrunk so much that I would have to vigorously stretch them out whilst still wet after every wash by standing on the inside of the waist and pulling up at full strength! However, this did not deter me, as I loved them and they had hooked me in to the world of raw denim forever.

During this time, I have watched them trend in and out. Although they have always been available, the number of brands offering them at any one time has varied greatly. For example, since I can remember, Edwin, Nudie and Evisu have always stocked raw denim jeans. Whether they were easy to find was another thing altogether. When I first became aware of raw denim, it was the Evisu brand that stood out. I remember the presenter, Richard Blackwood, wearing a pair on TV and I remember thinking that they looked odd, yet strangely appealing. It was a year or so later that I found out that they were raw denim jeans.

Evisu

Unlike now, a few years back there were very few websites or forums that had information on raw denim. What was there was limited to a few posts on style forums or manufacturers guides (I think Nudie had one). Now we are blessed with specialist blogs such as RawrDenim.com which as the name suggests, is all about raw denim products. A recent trip to a few department stores also tells me that raw denim is back in fashion – Liberty’s is currently stocking a larger than usual selection including Natural Selection, Acne and A.P.C. to name just a few brands.

If you are not aware of what raw or dry denim is, then to briefly explain, it is denim that is unwashed or treated and comes straight from the looms. It has a rough waxy feel where, I believe the strands of cotton are covered to assist the manufacturing process. Selvedge denim on the other hand is a product of the traditional shuttle looms. These looms are narrow and create the “self edge” that we see on the fabric hem. Although not all raw denim is selvedge, most brands will use it in their dry denim products. It can be easily identified as the outside leg seam, if turned up, traditionally will have a white edge with red stitching. It is worth noting that some cuts, especially the skinny jean cut, may have the hem removed to get the fit required.

Selvedge Denim Jean Hem

Here Paul Smith add their signature colouring to the hem of selvedge denim:

Paul Smith Red Ear jean hem

Traditionally, all denim was selvedge denim, but as demand grew in the U.S., processes changed and the old shuttle looms were made redundant in favour of larger, more modern and rapid manufacturing processes which meant the “self edge” of the denim was lost, as rolls of denim were mass produced many meters wide. As I understand it, these old U.S. looms were sold on to Japan to assist the rebuilding of their economy after the war. This is why for a while, so much selvedge denim appeared to be from Japanese origin or at least marketed as such. Here is a shuttle loom in action in Japan.

shuttle loom

Raw denim is stiff, rough, and abrasive and often is ill fitting when new and can be unflattering to the wearer. Ideally, it should not be washed for the first half a year of its life. Untreated, heavy raw denim can be likened to wearing cardboard. What’s even worse is that after the first wash, they may not even fit you properly due to shrinkage! So why the fascination you may ask?

Well, snobbery aside, the process of breaking in raw denim is alive and organic. Each pair, no matter how many were produced, becomes unique. The colouring, fades and marks all tell a story – how you wore them, what you had in your pockets and in some cases, where you were when you wore them. Not only is raw denim romantic in that sense, but once you endure the initial breaking in period which can be up to 3 months depending on how dedicated you are, the jeans will soften and start to hang properly. Then, if patient, a month or two after that, the creases, whiskers and fading will begin become more defined and leave you with the softest, most comfortable pair of  jeans with killer fading, unique to your body and the way you wear them. Basically, your body heat, movement and moisture reacts with the denim to dramatically change its appearance.

Washing raw denim too soon is the biggest mistake you can make. Due to my both my lack of knowledge and impatience, I have done this few times. Doing so ruins the look of the jeans. If washed immediately, you are left with a solid indigo colour that never fades properly and looks awful. Or, if you do not have a long enough breaking in period before washing, you are left with a half finished pair of jeans that never really reach that stage of faded perfection.  I believe this is to do with the setting of the die when first washed.

Here is a pair of my Natural Selection, made in England with Italian selvedge denim jeans that were washed too soon – after just 2/3 months of light wear:

Natural Selection Jeans FrontNatural Selection Jeans Back

Although they look OK, they never reached that state of perfection. The fades never grow and the jeans just slowly lighten with each wash and never gain much more in character. However, the minimum fading and neat slim cut makes them suitable for a casual work look when worn with brown shoes.

For a while, some of my favourite jeans were found in the Red Ear range by Paul Smith. Although I am not really a fan of the standard PS Jeans, Red Ear was a range of Japanese work wear denim which were made mostly raw. They were extremely well constructed, used a heavy, long lasting denim and while the attention to detail was amazing, they were never over styled and always retained the simplicity that I love. The Red Ear range started with the bunny rabbit ears on the back pocket, which you don’t see any more. You do sometimes see a red dot. The Red Ear brand of late seems to be more toned down and blended into the PS Jean range as far as logos, etc..

Just as testament to the quality of these jeans, I have pairs that are over 6 years old, that have been worn heavily and still look great, and although now I may have outgrown some of them (sigh) my partner now wears them as her “boyfriend jeans”:

fluffleberry red ear denim 039

Here, if you zoom in, you can still see the old “bunny ears” stitching on the back pocket. Red Ear had a phase of using an “unpicked” embroidery effect so only the base of the ears could be seen.

fluffleberry red ear denim 008

 

I have not bought a pair of Red Ear Jeans for a few years now but I am always on the lookout for some more. Here are a pair of 4 year old Red Ear jeans. These were worn for 6 months before washing. I pretty much lived in these for 2 years.

Paul Smith Red Ear Jeans BackPaul Smith Red Ear Jeans InsidePaul Smith Red Ear Jeans Front

There are many ways in which people get their perfect faded look. I have read of people wearing them in the sea and rubbing them with sand, the classic wearing in the bath for the preshrink effect when completely raw and then some who dry clean only.  Some never ever wash them. For me I stick with the simple tactic of wear them for six months before their first machine wash. This works for me and my lifestyle. I have heard of people placing them in the freezer if they start to smell, which I have never done but apparently works. Once a pair did start to get a bit fresh, so I just turned them inside out and placed them in the hot sun for a day. The sun’s natural bleaching action “neutralised” them making them fit for public outings again.

Here are another pair of Red Ear jeans that are over 5 years old:


Paul Smith Red Ear jean back

Paul Smith Red Ear jean pocket

Amazingly, they started life out like this:

Red Ear new

When sizing raw denim, you have to be a little careful. First you must understand that there are two types of raw or dry denim, saniforized and unsaniforized. The first being denim that has undergone a pre-shrinkage process and the latter being completely untreated. Unsaniforized denim will shrink around 10%, although its not an exact science. Depending how the manufacturer sizes them, you should either size up or allow a looser fit to compensate for shrinkage. Saniforized denim will still shrink, just not as much. Some say only 1% but I have had saniforized denim that has shrunk around 5% after first wash. Jeans will stretch naturally around the waist and leg area with wear, so allow for this also.

I like a fairly straight, narrow cut , for the jeans to hang off me a little around the waist and bum and have a bit of space around the leg. So when choosing a pair, I first find out whether they have been saniforized or not, then size either according to fit, or size up depending. I know skinny is in right now, so people go for a fit that is very tight right of the bat as they know the jeans will stretch with wear, or at least until they are first washed. To be honest sizing and style is something that each person will have their own preferences. If you are a raw denim beginner then there is an element of trial and error, which should all part of the fun. The beautiful thing about it is that if you break the jeans in properly, they should mould (literally!) to your body anyway regardless of any minor sizing issues.

Lay your hands on a fresh new pair of raw denim jeans at Liberties

Are you into raw denim, if so what are your favourite brands? Have you had any shrinkage disasters?! I’d be interested to find out, so let me know below. Also, if you are thinking about buying your first pair of raw denim jeans let me know your thoughts or how you get on. Happy fading guys!

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