Jeans were traditionally made of 100% cotton fabric and were not washed or pre-shrunk before being sold. Today, jeans come in a wide variety of options: sometimes fabric is treated differently in the manufacturing process; other times the actual fabric is altered by incorporating other fabrics. Once you understand the basics of wash and fabric, weighing all the options is a breeze.
RAW DENIM VS. WASHED DENIM
At first glance, a pair of raw denim and washed denim jeans can look quite similar, but each offers a vastly different experience.
The manufacturing process for all jeans includes two essential steps: the production of the fabric and cutting and sewing the fabric into a pair of pants. Raw denim stops short of washed denim’s additional step: washing. Washed denim is sent to a laundry facility to be washed and broken in, which tends to bring denim closer to its end state.
Raw (or Dry) Denim.
Raw denim refers to jeans that have not been washed or altered in any way. Raw denim jeans are typically made from a higher-grade denim, often selvedge, and are often constructed in smaller batches with more attention to details such as stitching.
One main draw of raw denim is how it fades. Raw denim jeans fade uniquely, especially on your thighs, behind your knees, your pockets, and any area that experiences a higher level of abrasion. Raw denim is essentially a blank canvas that will fade specifically to you as you wear them. And, after fading, no two pairs of jeans will look the same.
If comfort on day one is what you are looking for, then traditional raw denim is not for you. Because the fabric isn’t washed, it can be very rigid out of the box and takes approximately two to three weeks of daily wear to break in. But as the raw denim conforms to your body, it creates not only a unique look, but a unique and unmatched level of fit.
In recent years, new forms of raw denim have emerged which combine the appeal of your own look with a more comfortable first experience accomplished by adding in elastane or other stretch material.
Opt for washed denim if comfort on day one is a priority. Washed denim is washed and treated one or more times during the manufacturing process, depending on the brand and style. This process is intended to soften the fabric, reduce shrinkage, and, in some cases, create a worn-in look. So, not only can a brand develop a specific cut and fit and use a particular type of fabric (just as they can do with raw denim), but with Washed, they can also choose each’s unique method of washing and treating the denim. Because of this, washed denim offers a much wider variety of options to choose from.
The washing techniques themselves used by laundry facilities can be broken into two broad categories: mechanical wash (dry wash) and chemical wash, both described in detail at the end of the guide, along with a few additional washing techniques.
FABRIC QUALITIES & CHARACTERISTICS
As you’ll find in any fabric, there are various qualities of denim available, each with its advantages and disadvantages, range of prices, and levels of comfort.
The word selvedge comes from the phrase self-edge, which is the natural edge of a roll of fabric. Woven on traditional shuttle looms, selvedge denim takes more time to produce and consumes more cotton as compared to the modern projectile looms used to efficiently produce mass amounts of denim. The traditional technique used to produce selvedge denim yields a narrower weave, which results in a more durable fabric that will maintain its shape even after multiple washes. Selvedge denim has a crisply finished, fray-resistant edge that you can see when you cuff the jeans. Most high-end jeans are made from selvedge denim and are generally more expensive. You can find selvedge denim in both raw and washed denim jeans.
Long popular in women’s jeans, stretch denim is showing up more in men’s jeans. Stretch denim blends cotton and elastic fiber, such as elastane, Lycra, or spandex, to create a degree of stretch. Most stretch denim jeans are made of washed denim, though some brands offer raw stretch denim jeans that are capable of producing strong fading after a period of wear.
WeightEver notice how some jeans feel thick and heavy while others feel much thinner and lighter? That phenomenon is the denim weight, which is determined by how much a yard of denim fabric weighs in ounces (oz.). Making note of the weight is a practice that pertains mostly to selvedge denim, but knowing the weight may help you hone in on the right pair of jeans for a particular season or occasion.
Considered a light denim, jeans in this weight range are great for summertime or warmer climates. Off the shelf, light-weight raw denim feels less stiff and breaks in quicker than heavier weight raw denim. This weight breathes easier, but doesn’t achieve as high contrast and fading as raw denim with a heavier weight.
12 oz. to 16 oz.
The gold standard of denim, Levi's 501, falls in this most common range. Medium-weight denim is a great year-round denim (for most places in the world) and provides excellent durability for daily wear. Out of the box, medium weight raw denim requires a break-in period because it feels fairly heavy and stiff to the touch. Medium-weight denim can achieve beautiful high-contrast fades with daily wear and minimal washing.
This is territory only for committed denim enthusiasts or workers that need extremely durable jeans. Heavy weight denim is thick and requires a very generous break-in period. If you’re up for the challenge, you will be richly rewarded: these jeans are usually extremely well built and could provide you with a lifetime of wear.
Distressed denim offers a look and comfort of an aged pair of jeans from day one. Manufacturers accomplish this look by techniques such as washing or sanding. Distressed denim eliminates the worry of shrinkage and allows you to immediately enjoy that soft, smooth texture of the washed jeans. Virtually all distressed denim jeans are made of washed denim.
The hallmark blue color of denim is created by indigo dyeing. Prior to weave, the vertical warp yarn is dyed with indigo dye. The yarns are dipped into a vat of indigo: the more dips, the deeper the color. Because indigo dye is unable to fully penetrate the warp yarns, the core remains white. Traditionally the horizontal weft yarns are kept in their natural state, which is why most jeans are white on the inside. It’s also why denim is able to produce such unique fading.
As the name describes, this technique involves literally spraying sand or another abrasive substance through a nozzle at high pressure and speed. It achieves nearly the same effect as hand sanding but it’s more efficient, especially for treating large batches of jeans. Because the operator has tremendous control over which areas of the jean get blasted, sand blasting makes it possible to create a host of different patterns.
Cylindrical rollers are wrapped in sandpaper or coated in a chemical agent that’s meant to have the same effect. The denim is pulled over the surface of the rollers to abrade the fabric. Rather than fading the color, this technique is mostly used to create a softer suede-like hand-feel.
As the name implies, this is no different than picking up sandpaper from the hardware store and turning your raw denim into a canvas. Though time consuming, hand sanding achieves the most accurate artificial fading.
This very old and common technique uses pumice stones to achieve a worn-in look. The denim and pumice stones are loaded into a large commercial washing machine and rotated for a length of time. Washing time and the size and shape of stones used has an impact on the finish. Because this process is very harsh, it is not uncommon for metal buttons and rivets to be damaged in the process.
This is the same process as stone washing, except the porous pumice stones are soaked in chlorine prior to being washed with the denim. The combo of the chlorine additive and lack of control result in significant color loss on all parts of the jean.
Naturally-occurring enzymes are used to eat away at the cellulose in cotton causing color loss and a softer hand-feel. Compared to sand blast or stone wash, this technique is far less damaging to the integrity of the denim and can often produce the same results.
This two-step process begins with pumice stones and ends with enzymes to produce a more dramatic vintage look.
Bleach is used in varying strengths, temperatures, and application time to reduce color in specific areas.
Other Washing Techniques
Fabric is constructed with an overtwisted weft yarn so that when the garment is washed, the yarn shrinks and crimps the fabric. Further abrasion wash processing enhances the look.
Achieves the look of stained jeans using a variety of different dyes to reach desired color.
Jeans are dipped into a container of dye to achieve a deep saturated look. The dye penetrates thread color, pocket bags, and tagging to match the color of the jeans. Overdyed jeans typically fade more slowly.