The all-heritage-everything era of menswear may have crested, giving way to looser styles, trends like Gorpcore, and dudes in general dressing less like laid-off railway workers from the 1800s. But that doesn’t mean raw denim has lost its appeal. In fact, raw denim is as relevant as ever, because it’s the perfect antidote to fast fashion — raw denim is eco-friendly in terms of longevity (you won’t get rid of it after a year) and it answers some of the environmental concerns related to denim production. But you might be wondering what, exactly, raw denim is, and how is it different from selvedge? And what on Earth is sanforization? It doesn’t have to do with this guy, does it?
Raw and selvedge may seem like recent trends, but they’re actually the old way of doing things. All jeans up till the mid-1900s were raw and selvedge, because they were made for workers in situations where durability counted. As they got adopted as fashion items, the standards gradually relaxed, until brands like APC pushed for a raw selvedge denim resurgence. These days, selvedge is everywhere, although finding raw denim still takes a bit more work.
Raw Denim Defined
Raw denim is pretty much what it sounds like — denim that hasn’t been treated. When making raw jeans, the denim fabric comes off the loom, gets woven into a pair of pants and is sold to you as is. This sets it apart from your average pair of jeans, which get washed for softness and can have artificial distressing and fading added in the production process. The advantage of leaving denim unwashed and undistressed is personalization. By simply wearing your jeans, they’ll conform to your body over time and develop unique fades on the thighs, pockets and knees. The main drawback with raw denim is that, off the rack, they’re incredibly stiff and uncomfortable. It takes a long time for them to break down and become comfortable and soft. Since they’re not treated or washed with potentially harmful chemicals, raw denim is less damaging to the environment.
Selvedge comes from the term self edge — it refers to fabric with a finished edge. This adds durability to the jeans by preventing the fabric from unraveling. You can identify a pair of selvedge by flipping the pants inside out, but most denim heads like to show off the selvedge by simply turning up the cuff. A pair of selvedge jeans will have contrast stitching (typically red and white) on the outseam. Because the edges are finished, selvedge jeans will have neat, clean lines. Non-selvedge jeans, by contrast, will have exposed stitching that you’ll be able to pull at with just your fingers. The above picture shows non-selvedge Levis 501s on the left and selvedge 3×1 jeans on the right.
Sanforized vs Unsanforized
Sanforized denim has been treated at the mill, meaning that the first time you wash it, it will only shrink a little bit. Unsanforized denim, on the other hand, will shrink considerably after you wash it. Some denim purists will argue that unsanforized is the way to go; because it’s untreated, it’s more genuinely “raw.” That said, most denim, including most raw denim, is sanforized. One drawback with unsanforized denim is that it can be difficult to buy the right size. It might not shrink enough or it might shrink too much. With sanforized denim, you can just buy your regular pant size.
Not All Raw Denim is Selvedge, and Vice Versa
Raw and selvedge mean different things; the terms are not interchangeable, even though almost all raw jeans from premium brands will be made with selvedge denim. But there is a notable exception — the Levis 501 STF. Shrink-to-fit 501s buck a lot of the norms in the raw denim community, but Levis, being the brand that invented jeans, can frankly do whatever they want. 501 jeans are made with raw, unsanforized fabric, but they’re not made with selvedge denim. The other detail that sets STF jeans apart from other raw denim brands is the price. Where most raw denim is expensive and hard to find, you can buy STF 501s at any department store, often for less than 40 bucks.
Raw denim isn’t necessarily better, or the right thing for everyone, especially because of the break-in period. But if you like the custom feeling and fit that only raw denim can offer, we’ve rounded up some of the best options that you can buy online.
1. Tellason Elgin Jeans
The bay area is legendary for its association with denim — it’s where the blue jean was invented by Jacob Davis and first sold by Levi Strauss, and today, it’s where Tellason makes their premium raw jeans. The jeans are made from legendary Cone Mills White Oak selvedge denim. They have traditional features like a genuine leather patch and a button fly. Tellason offers their jeans in different weights, too, so you can pick a lighter denim for warmer weather or something heavier if you expect to put it through the paces. This option is the 14.75 oz denim, which is a nice midweight fabric. The Elgin jeans are mid-rise with a tapered fit, giving them a modern look. These are sanforized.
Tellason Elgin Jeans
2. 3Sixteen Slim Tapered Jeans
PREMIUM JAPANESE DENIM
Japanese denim is revered for its quality, thanks to the traditional, painstaking approach taken by mills in Japan that emulate old-school American manufacturing processes. 3Sixteen is the perfect marriage of these two storied traditions; the bicoastal American brand uses Japanese denim from Kuroki Mills in Okayama and then finishes the job in the US. These raw selvedge jeans have a slim, tapered fit and are cut from mid-weight 14.5 oz denim.
3Sixteen Tapered Jeans
3. Levi’s Men’s 501 Original Shrink-to-Fit
Affordable, durable and original — there’s arguably no item of clothing more iconic than Levi’s 501, and the Shrink-to-Fit is a great place to start if you’re looking for raw denim. They’re unsanforized, meaning they’ll be stiff and will shrink considerably in the wash. There are a few methods you can use to get them to a custom fit, including sitting in a hot bath of water with the jeans on.
Levis 501 Jeans
4. The Workers Club Raw Selvedge Denim Jeans
Raw selvedge denim is usually indigo, but it doesn’t have to be. These raw selvedge jeans from The Workers Club are an appealing ecru color that’s a great way to shake you out of a blue jeans rut. The denim comes from mills in Okayama and are made in Japan from 100% cotton. They have traditional details like a button fly and leather patch, but the slim fit adds a modern appeal.
The Workers Club Jeans
5. Flint and Tinder Raw Denim
These raw denim jeans from Flint and Tinder combine the benefits of classic raw denim with modern detailing. They feature a touch of stretch (sacrilege to some, but comfortable for you). They also have a zipper instead of a button fly for convenience. But they’re still raw denim, meaning they’ll fade in an authentic and unique way (and they’ll also shrink a little bit, so check the size guide). Plus, they’re made in Los Angeles.
Flint and Tinder Jeans
6. Baldwin Henley Slim Fit Raw Selvedge Denim Jeans
Baldwin started off as a Kansas-City brand focused on traditional American denim, then moved to Los Angeles and rebranded as BLDWN, and then shut down last year. But while you won’t be able to walk into any Baldwin stores (or BLDWN, for that matter), you can still find their premium denim offerings from a variety of stores, often at a discount. That includes these slim-fit jeans which are currently sharply discounted. They’re made from raw Japanese selvedge denim (with a hint of stretch) and are manufactured in the US.