Know Your Denim
We often think of jeans as a garment that is simple; a go-to basic that looks great with everything and gets us through (almost) every day. In fact, our relationship to denim is actually fairly complex. First there’s the maze of labels at all price points. Then you have to find the right fit. Then, you need to worry about how long your pre-washed, pre-distressed jeans will last. Finally, with the denim heritage movement offering small batches of raw and selvedge jeans with a listed weight count, things are getting ever more complicated.
Education brings clarity. We have attempted to break down some of the most common denim terms and features and explain them as well as we can. The good thing is, that the more you learn about denim, the more fascinating it gets…
What is Selvedge?
We know that selvedge (or selvage) denim is supposed to be special, but what is it exactly that sets it apart from other kinds of denim? To explain selvedge properly, we have to go back in time.
The original denim shuttle loom, which was invented in the late 1800s, produced tightly woven denim in long, narrow strips. To get maximum usage out of the fabric, it was woven all the way to edges and then bound (most commonly with a red thread) so it wouldn’t fray or curl. The self-sustaining edges of the denim gave it the name selvedge.
In the 1950s, denim went from workwear to sportswear (think James Dean, Marlon Brando and Marilyn). Jean manufacturers needed to speed up the production process to keep up with the demand and switched to the projectile loom, a machine that could produce wider denim for less cost.
Thankfully, the old-fashioned shuttle looms didn’t become extinct, but were instead bought by Japanese companies who continued the selvedge denim tradition. But there are still a few companies in the U.S. that produce denim on old shuttle looms as well. The most prominent selvedge denim mill is Cone Cotton Mill’s White Oak factory in North Carolina.
However, as selvedge denim has found its way into the mainstream in the past few years, the term has been somewhat watered down and no longer guarantees great quality. If you buy your selvedge from a small manufacturer who takes great pride in telling you all about the provenance of their material, it’s likely very well made. But if you buy suspiciously affordable “selvedge” from a mass-market brand, the quality is not necessarily higher than regular denim.
The term “raw” refers to the fact the denim has not been washed after having been dyed after production. (It’s sometimes called “dry denim”.) This makes the fabric a little bit stiffer and, supposedly, more durable. A pair of raw denim jeans will crease and fade in a way that is a unique reflection of your body. And while they take longer to break in, they will eventually mold to your body and become a second skin.
A common misconception is that all selvedge denim jeans are raw denim jeans and vice versa, which is not the case. While most selvedge jeans on the market are also made with raw denim, you can find jeans that are made from selvedge fabric but have been pre-washed, too. You can also find raw denim jeans that were made in a projectile loom, and thus don’t have a selvedge edge.
You may have noticed that some brands list different weights for different denim styles. So, what does this mean? The weight refers to how much a yard of fabric weighs. A yard of 14 oz. denim weighs 1oz. Denim fabric runs from 5 up to 32 oz., and the lesser the weight, the lighter and softer the fabric will be. Traditionally, 12 to 16 oz. is used for denim jeans, and those weights can be divided in three categories.
- Lightweight—12 oz. or under
- Mid-weight—from 12 oz. to 16 oz.
- Heavyweight—anything above 16 oz.
There is not a great difference in durability between, say, an 9 oz. denim and a 10 oz.. The 9 oz. fabric is just a tad more pliable than the 10 oz. fabric; the real difference is in the drape and flexibility. Also, heavier jeans are better suited for colder temperatures while lightweights work well for summer. Generally, the lightweights are more comfortable to wear, but the allure of heavier denim is that it results in sharper and more spectacular fades.
For the past 15 years or so, stretch jeans have made the skinny jean possible for those of us who don’t have legs like Giselle. Stretch denim jeans contain elastin (i.e. Lycra or Spandex), which gives the pants a tight, yet bendable fit. The advantage of stretch denim is that it’s more comfortable and forgiving than rigid jean fabric, but the downside is that it can stretch too much, to the point where your jeans lose their shape. (Some also claim that stretch content makes denim less durable.) Therefore it’s best to stick within the range of 1%-2% stretch fabric content. Generally, a higher percentage of stretch content results in a more forgiving jean, which means that if you wear a size 30 with 1% stretch denim, you might wear a size 29 in the same cut with a 2% stretch.
All denim is either sanforized or unsanforized. Sanforized jeans are considered pre-shrunk, as they have undergone a chemical treatment that prevents shrinkage after you wash them. Most mass-produced jeans are sanforized, and many raw and selvedge denim jeans are too. Unsanforized jeans are what’s called shrink-to-fit. They haven’t been treated with that shrink-preventing chemical, so when you do end up washing or soaking your jeans, they’ll shrink by 5%-10%.
Predicting the future shrinkage of an unsanforized jean is a little tricky, which in turn makes it difficult to know what size to buy. That’s probably why this style of jean is most commonly worn by hardcore denim purists who claim that it molds better to your body and gets more beautiful fades.
How to Care for Your Jeans
This is a somewhat controversial topic. Generally, raw denim enthusiasts will advocate for as little washing as possible. This is because the timing of first wash of a pair of raw denims is crucial to its fading pattern. The longer you wait (up to six months is recommended) to wash a pair of raw denim jeans, the longer they can’t absorb the wear and creases of everyday life. When they’re finally washed (usually by hand, in the tub, in cold water), the dye will come off unevenly; the faded and creased areas will be dramatically lighter than the rest of the jean, a highly desirable result for a raw denim fan.
But even pre-washed jeans do best when they’re kept away from the laundry for a while. Try to wait a few months before the first wash (or as long as you can tolerate). When you do wash them, turn them inside out, choose a cycle with minimal spin, pick a low water temperature and use about an eighth of the amount of detergent you normally use. After that, consistent washes every one or two months will keep the jeans in tiptop shape. Though, of course, you should always use common sense here. If your jeans are really dirty, wash them. Just don’t do it as often as you think you should.