WORDS BY STEPHEN YU
From original workwear textile to counter-cultural hero, denim has defined some of history’s most iconic moments. Californian gold rushes, rebels without causes, Farrah Fawcett on a skateboard, acid washed and punky, 90s minimalism, McQueen’s bumsters, Soulja Boy’s club anthems, the list is endless. A durable fabric and an enduring icon immune to trends, denim never goes out of style. Here’s our guide on how to tame this cowboy favorite.
What Are The Different Types of Denim Washes?
Washing denim serves two different purposes:
1) Functionally it makes jeans more wearable as it softens stiff raw denim fabric making it more comfortable off-the-shelf, while flushing away any residual dye to minimize color running like those unsightly stains left on your snow white socks, rarest sneakers or expensive sofas.
2) Aesthetically it helps produce a variety of the different shades, distressing and effects on denim fabrics that we know and love.
Here are just a few of our favorites:
This lightly colored denim has been washed for a longer duration to give a lighter finishing shade. With the right distressing on the thigh, a pair of light washed jeans can add shape to the legs of both the petite and tall. Be careful though as some washes can accentuate all the wrong areas too.
This rodeo-favorite is peak Americana and was traditionally washed with pumice stones to give a faded broken-in appearance and brushed softness to the denim. Loved by a whole nation of Americans, this is one US export everyone loves.
Also known as marble, moon or snow wash, these denims are washed and bleached using pumice stones soaked in chlorine to give the iconic marbled effect that made them a firm punk favorite that screams 80’s. Not to be worn by the faint-hearted.
Lightly washed so they retain an almost raw finish, dark washed denims can transfer dye to other items of clothing both on your body and in your washing machine so ensure you only wear them with dark colors initially. This flattering wash suits literally every body.
What Is Raw Denim?
You may recognize the rigid structure and rich indigo color of raw denim found on the shelves of that achingly cool concept store, or pinrolled on the legs of sneakerheads, but what exactly is it? Raw denim is denim fabric that has come straight off the loom in its unadulterated state and is made into jeans with no alterations. No washing. No distressing. Therefore, raw denim is stiffer and more saturated in dye than washed denims. Prior to the ‘70s, all denim was raw and selvedge (more on that later) before faster and more cost-efficient methods became the norm
Initially, raw denim can be uncomfortable due to its rigidity and lack of softness, but as it breaks in becomes like a second skin, moulding to the specific shape of your body, creating a unique patina that is distinctly yours which makes it much loved by denim enthusiasts. The indigo dye begins to wear off in places where the denim naturally creases rather than some pre-distressed pattern, and this is highlighted as fades when you finally wash your jeans.
How Do You Size Raw Denim?
If you’re wondering ‘should you buy raw denim tight?’ then hold up. There are actually two different types of raw denim and the sizing changes depending on which type you have. In all cases, we recommend a quick Google of the denims you’re looking to purchase to see what people’s experiences are with sizing.
Sanforization is a process by which denim fabric is pre-shrunk and stretched without washing to minimize the shrinkage of the finished garment. As sanforized denim tends to only shrink by a tiny percentage, it’s advised you take one size down to allow for the perfect fit after natural stretching has occurred. Your standard size should work too, although it may get a bit too baggy in between washes.
On the flipside, unsanforized denim can shrink by up to two sizes so its common to go one or two sizes up to account for the ‘shrink to fit’ sizing. For the more extreme amongst you who will do anything in the quest for the ideal fit, denim experts recommend soaking your denims in warm water to pre-shrink them, before wearing them whilst still damp to stretch them to your body shape.
What Is Selvedge Denim?
More than just a blue, white and red seam at the hem of vintage-style denims, selvedge is actually a traditional type of denim. Selvedge denim is made on old-school looms which results in a fabric that creates its own tightly woven edge or ‘self edge’. The result is a more densely woven denim that has an authentic artisanal feel to it due to the inconsistent nature of the traditional loom, giving individual characteristics like ‘slubbiness’ or ‘nep’ to the finished denim. This stands in stark contrast to modern denim which is mostly made on projectile looms which leave the edges of the fabric frayed and results in a thin and uniform fabric.
As there are only a few shuttle looms left in existence and the fact that this type of denim is more time-intensive and costly to produce, selvedge has become somewhat of a signifier of high-quality denim.
How Can You Tell The Quality Of Denim?
There are three indicators to the quality of the denims you’re lusting after:
The origin and quality of the cotton used – not just whether a cotton is organic, but also whether it’s a custom fabric or weave vs an off-the-shelf product.
Where the jeans are made – while the U.S. is undoubtedly the origin of denim it is no longer synonymous with high-end denims. Now the best mills are mostly located in Japan with some in Italy.
The weight of the denim – heavyweight denims (>16oz) feel like wearing armor and can’t be made on every loom vs more commonly found midweight (12-16oz) or lightweight (<12oz) denim.
How To Wash New Denims?
Washing new jeans, particularly if they’re raw, can be a nerve-wracking experience. You’ve endured months of stinking crotch, foiled several attempts by your mum to ‘accidentally’ wash them, and become heavily addicted to snus all in the quest to get that perfect tobacco tin fade on your rear pocket, that it’d be a colossal waste of everyone’s time if you accidentally stripped your magnum opus of all its distressing at the final hurdle.
Don’t stress (or should that be distress). With our handy tips your raw denim baby will come out looking like they were worn by a real cowboy. Time on a horse saddle or on the saddle of your fixie, no one will ever know the difference.
Wash Inside Out & Buttoned Up
While every pair of jeans benefits from a little added care while washing, your dad’s jeans turned out okay and your mum has managed to shrink every piece of knitwear you’ve ever owned, so your jeans will probably survive whatever you throw at them. Just make sure to wash them inside out to minimize wear and tear, and to fasten zippers and buttons to prevent them from snagging on anything. This goes without saying but always read the garment tags too.
Washing As Little As Possible...Or Never
There’s a certain type of denim head who believes washing jeans at all is totally unnecessary. Think these ‘unwashed few’ are some kind of fringe movement on the outskirts of society? Think again. Even the CEO of Levi’s is in agreement. The theory goes that washing denim weakens the fabric and also wastes water, so save it only for when it’s really needed, and the longer you leave raw denims unwashed the sicker your fades will be. For a truly great vintage, it’s recommended you ferment your raw jeans for at least 6 months. Is the funk from your crotch getting too much? Place your jeans in the freezer to kill those stench-causing bacteria.
Spot Cleaning Stains
We all have accidents but don’t panic – whether it’s last night's kebab, this morning’s baby sick or last week’s conquest, a small stain doesn’t have to derail your denim project. Spot cleaning stains using a damp cloth or toothbrush and some diluted dish soap can save you from pressing the reset button that is a full wash or forever etching your mistake into your masterpiece forever.
If you’re being really cautious, hand washing is the mildest method of washing denim, but do note that it might not wash out as much dye as you want. With this in mind, hand washing is definitely reserved for those who want to preserve the current color and distressing of their raw denim as much as possible. Mix water and a mild detergent together in a sink, bath or bucket, and leave your jeans to sit in it for 1-2 hours. Then, give them a good rinse and wring them out before drying.
Nothing beats the agitation and multiple cycles of the washing machine for bringing out the true character of your unwashed raw denims. Make sure to use a mild detergent designed to help your jeans retain dye and reduce any bleaching from the chlorine in your tap water (Woolite seems to be a popular choice on Superdenim). Use a cold water wash on a short delicate cycle to reduce both shrinkage and color loss.
Washing Distressed Denim
To prevent your subtly frayed denims coming out looking like holier than even the most heavily distressed Balmain jeans, our tip is to clip any holes or raw edges areas together to stop them enlarging or fraying further. If really ripped, stick to hand washing.
Line Drying or Tumble Drying?
Giving your denim a shake to reshape and a smooth over to reduce any wrinkles before line drying is usually all it takes. Air drying in this manner helps prevent shrinkage. If you absolutely must use the tumble dryer, make sure to use a delicate setting with low heat.
The Jean Fit Guide
How to find jeans that fit is an eternal problem when it comes to shopping for your perfect pair of denims. Our secret to finding a good fitting pair of jeans? Finding the best cut for your body type, and measurements, measurements, measurements.
Comparing the measurements of your most trusted denims with a pair you wish to add to your collection is a surefire way to get the best fit possible. Second to the size of your ever-expanding waistline, it’s important to take into account the rise of your denims. While hem width is decided by the cut of jeans you’re purchasing, and inseam length can be adjusted by a tailor, getting the wrong size rise can make or break the perfect pair of denims. Here are general rules when it comes to the rise of your waistband:
Waistband falls at or above your natural waist. Good for long bodies as it lengthens the legs as well as accommodating big bums.
The most common fit with the waistband falling slightly below your waistline. Looks good on everyone.
Rest just above the hips giving the nickname ‘hip huggers’. These give the appearance of a longer torso for those with long legs.
Types Of Jean Fit:
The spray-on drainpipes favored by rock’n’roll stars and androgynous models are usually crafted from a cotton and elastane/spandex blend for a figure-hugging fit. Great for tall skinny guys or boyish girls, best avoided if you’re short as it can make your legs look even smaller.
Slim jeans are cut close to leg with a gentle taper without curving to the shape of the body like skinny jeans. Better for heavier set or muscly individuals who can’t squeeze into something skinnier. #GAINZ
A classic straight leg fit – think Levi’s 501 – that looks good on everyone, tall or short, plus sized or petite.
As above, but with a subtle tapering below the knee that’s great for showing off your crepes or making small feet appear larger.
Channel 90’s hip-hop or skateboarding with these baggy jeans, best worn sagged with Calvin Klein underwear on display. Great for making the legs of tall skinny people appear wider. Not great for short people as it can make your legs look stubby.
A contemporary cut that’s made for hourglasses shaped figures as it brings balance to the hips. Looks great slung over chunky wedges, clogs or sneakers.
These naughties numbers combine a regular cut with a wider hem that makes even the most generous of hips seem in proportion. Avoid looking like Simon Cowell and pair with thonged sandals for a touch of 90’s minimalism
A 70’s throwback, a pair of flared jeans adds height to the most petite of figures and looks great with slinky footwear like strappy kitten heels or mules.
With all the water, cotton, dyes, fabric and craftsmanship that goes into each pair of denims, it’s easy to start thinking how the hell is it possible to make a sustainable pair of jeans? Fortunately, there’s a slew of sustainable denim brands leading the way that are looking to answer that exact question. Their solutions? Sourcing certified organic cottons. Reducing water usage through sustainable washing techniques or using recycled water. Using cleaner dying processes. Air drying after washing to save energy. Fighter for safer and fairer working environments across the whole supply chain. Up-cycling materials or using surplus or deadstock fabrics.
Re/Done is one such brand that is leading the way. They handpick pre-loved denim saving it from ending up as waste or worse on a landfill, before hand-cutting them to create a new one-of-one pair of snazzy upcycled jeans. Proudly made in Los Angeles rather than some factory in a far off country, water conserving washing methods and chemical-free dyes are employed to create their sustainable reused denims.
Look out for the ‘positively conscious’ label on denim from brands like G-Star Raw, J Brand, Nudie, Reformation or Stella McCartney for other sustainable denim options.
Alternatively, there’s no more sustainable pair of jeans than the pair you didn’t buy. Why not take better care of your current denims by following our sustainable denim care guidelines:
Wash your jeans less to save on water
Spot treat stains over machine washing
Line dry to reduce your energy consumption
Wash at lower temperatures
Repair rips and tears yourself by using patches and sewing
Get to know your tailor for bigger alterations or repairs
Not keen on modern monstrosities and new additions to the world denim like jeggings or carrot-fit? Vintage jeans serve as the perfect antidote to such offerings. 50’s, 60’s, 70’s? Take your pick. Classically cut like a straight fit pair of Levis 501’s, high-waisted soccer mom style jeans, or roomy vintage denim overalls, a pair of timeless denims is guaranteed to become an indispensable part of your trouser rotation. Best of all, they come with authentic details like button flies, donut waist buttons, selvedge fabric and riveted construction for those who obsess over the finer things in life. While never truly out of style, workwear silhouettes come in and out of popularity with painter pants having a bit of a resurgence right now too. Make them your own with authentic paint splatters and rips.
If you don’t have the time, or the low hygiene levels, required to break-in and distress your own denims over the next 6 months then slip yourself into some pre-distressed jeans. Don’t worry, rather than employing someone to wear your jeans for months on end to create authentic distressing, these jeans are finished using sanding, brushing, air and engraving machines yet look every bit as real and sometimes better than raw denim you break-in yourself.
When we’re looking to add a little distress into our lives we look at brands like Amiri, Balmain, Ksubi or Saint Laurent for inspiration. Not sure what you’re looking for exactly? Check out some of the distressing terminology used within the industry to pinpoint what you’re after:
Whiskers - The series of horizontal lines seen around the front thigh, hip and crotch area.
Stacks - Irregular patterning at the hem created by denim gathering over the shoe.
Honeycombs - The honeycomb-like patterning seen behind the knees.
Train Tracks - Vertical lines that run close to the seams of the leg due to rubbing against the internal selvedge.
Raw hems - Unfinished frayed edges usually left on the hems of denim as a result of cutting.