Many old-school fashion pedants regard raw denim as the purest form of denim that ever existed. Aside from raw denim, some of us might also be familiar with other old denim terms such as dry denim, unwashed denim, and untreated denim.
The thing is, what we currently refer to as “denim” is a shell of its former self. What we have today are mass-produced types of denim that are already pre-washed, pre-faded, and even pre-ripped.
In fact, most people (especially the younger generation) have never tried raw denim jeans. No to mention that you rarely see these denim in your local stores. What is certain is that the early development of denim production surely influenced the way we look at our denim textiles of today.
Why do we like faded denim jeans? Why is worn-looking denim popular? What is the reason behind the fad of ripped jeans? Questions like these encourage us to explore the changing culture of denim production and use through the years. And most of the answer are anchored to the social life of raw denim.
But what is raw denim? Why is it placed at the apex of denim history? And why is it hard to find raw denim today? These questions will be answered by this article.
Story Behind The Name
The word denim was originally derived from the French phrase serge de Nimes. The phrase can be translated as “serge from Nimes”; serge is a locally produced sturdy fabric while Nimes is a city in southern France. As meanings evolved through the years, people started to use the word denim when referring to jeans/pants.
Early Development Of Denim
Denim refers to the hardwearing cotton twill textile in which the weft passes under warp threads. Its color is typically dark blue or black. It is most popular as the key fabric in making jeans. Presently, denim is considered a staple wear of the vast population.
But the denim that we know today is not the same as those produced during the middle part of 19th century. Historically, denim started as a humble work-wear fabric used mainly by carters, factory laborers, miners, and surveyors. Hence, the origin of the term “blue collar”.
A Latvian tailor living in Nevada named Jacob Davis apparently started the craze over denim pants among industry workers. During the early part of the 1870s, there was a need for cheap pants with strong materials that would stand arduous labor conditions. Davis, then, designed a rivet-reinforced denim pants. The rivet was originally used to fasten the side pockets into the stiff denim textile. In addition, denim textile wouldn’t easily rip, unlike other inexpensive fabric. Many would even describe raw denim pants as “plaster-like” in terms of its stiffness. Because its dark color perfectly hides dirt and other stains, some would not wash their pants for weeks and even months. Clearly, the design was purposely utilitarian.
But as the orders started to pile up, Davis was overwhelmed and decided to draw an agreement between a dry good wholesaler called Levi Strauss & Co. Based their agreed terms, the rivet-reinforced denim pants will be patented and Davis will be recognized as the inventor. Levi Strauss & Co., on the other hand, will have the rights over the mass production of denim pants. This partnership started the complex denim industry that we have today.
Prior to 1950s, denim jeans were primarily cut from selvedge and raw denim. But as the demand for denim production skyrocketed, the process of making denim also changed.
Knowing Raw And Selvedge
As mentioned earlier, raw denim is considered as the purest form of denim. It is basically a denim that is not washed and not treated after being dyed. It is also called dry denim, as a reference to the lack of washing. As the name suggests, this fabric is almost untouched when it exits the loom and until it reaches the consumers. As you wash, it will no longer be considered raw denim.
Raw denim are extra stiff and heavy. It also leaves off residual indigo dye when rubbed against another surface. The natural rubbing off of denim color is called crocking. Just imagine that you’ll leave off some butt-mark when you sit on a chair. Now, that’s certainly a newly purchased raw denim! Be proud.
And despite how active you are, it will always take some time to break down its stiffness and color. The indigo dye starts to wear in areas with most stress – ankles, upper thigh, knee-part. Through the years of production, many people started to see faded and worn raw denim jeans as fashionable.
Selvedge denim, on the other hand, are those fabric with tightly knitted bands running down both sides. The meticulous construction of bands is intended to prevent untimely fraying and raveling. Its name came from an old sowing technique called “self-edge” wherein bands are tightly woven using old-fashioned machines called shuttle looms.
These looms used to be common in America from the mid-19th century to the mid-20th century. But as Hollywood fashion exploded in the 1950s, denim jean manufacturers also started to adopt newer and faster sewing machines (but with far inferior product qualities). The Japanese favorably adopted the abandoned shuttle looms.
Today, both raw and selvedge denim jeans have become very expensive as they cannot be mass-produced, unlike our everyday pair. The price generally ranges from $50 up to $350. But the price does not necessarily represent the quality. At the end of the day, you decide on what pair suits you.
Things To Remember
Most raw denim jeans are “shrink-to-fit”.
If you are planning to buy one, do understand that most raw denim jeans have “shrink-to-fit” feature. In other words, it shrinks once you wash it. Unlike washed denim, raw denim also gives a different feeling of wrap around your legs. If you are uncomfortable buying “shrink-to-fit” raw denim, you can ask for a sanforized raw denim. Sanforized denim has been fixed and shrunk in the desired length at the mill (thus, only leading to 1% – 3% shrinkage after the first wash). In this way, you can still enjoy wearing it without worrying much about its future size.
Wear them, break them.
Because raw denim jeans are currently expensive, people tend to ask how to take care of them. Well, you don’t! That’s where the fun begins. As they are designed to be tough, you need to break them again and again to soften the material. Wear it as much as you can, as long as you can. How long? Weeks, months, a year, it’s all up to you. The more you use it, the more it will leave uneven creases and impressive fades. As a rule of thumb, most owners wash their pair after six months of use. And if you regularly wear your raw denim jeans, you will eventually achieve an exquisite looking faded jean within a year. It is long but it is worth it.
In case you are the “clean-type” of individual and cannot stand the idea of not washing his/her pants, you can wash yours from time to time. But as a result, you will only get a plain-looking balance fade. Still, the quality of fabric remains the same.
Prevent denim crocking.
Avoid rubbing your raw denim against other delicate clothing or squeaky clean surface. I assure you, it will leave a stain. If you want to lessen its crocking (the bleeding of indigo dye), prevent it from rubbing against an easily stained surface. Wet raw denim also bleeds more dye. Do not get it wet as much as possible.
Best way to wash raw denim.
You can wash your jeans in cold water. It is best to just hand wash the material to avoid unnatural fading. If you want to machine wash the cloth, make sure to set it on “delicate cycle”. Always air dry the jean after washing. Air dying helps you retain the desired fit after months of breaking it down. For your reference, check out our guide on how to wash raw denim.
Value the social life of jeans.
Some owners see a raw denim jean as a “clean slate” where they can express their persona, impressions, and life history. Each rip offers a narrative, each fade evokes a memory. As such, the value of each raw denim is not only based on the material but also in its story. After three to five years, your jeans will also become your diary. And each pair is ultimately yours.
Raw denim is basically an unwashed and untreated denim. For this reason, dark and thick indigo dye still clings to a raw denim jean as it is displayed in shops. That is why it is called the purest form of denim. It became popular during the middle part of 19th century, primarily as a staple clothing among industrial workers. But its popularity declined when shutter looms were replaced by newer machines capable of mass-producing denim (but of significantly inferior quality). The public’s taste in fashion also started to change as many people opted to buy pre-faded and pre-ripped jeans. Interestingly, more and more people today are starting to revisit and appreciate the old ways of denim production.