How to wash and wear raw denim

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People get in a real muddle over raw denim. A reader commented a couple of weeks ago that he didn’t like it because ‘you’re never allowed to wash it’. 

Of course you can wash raw denim. You might want to wash it less, at the start, but it’s fine if you don’t. It just has different results. And no matter how much you wash it, you’ll still get many advantages over regular, washed jeans. 

So where does this confusion come from, and how often - plus how fast, how hot etc - should someone be washing their jeans?

Let’s start by explaining the advantages of raw denim, so we understand why people take such extreme approaches to it. 

Raw denim moulds

By wearing jeans from raw, you mould them a little to your body. They take on a three-dimensional shape that means they fit better, contouring to your waist, hips and seat. 

The extent of this can be exaggerated. They don’t form an armour-like cast around your legs, and the effect reduces as the jeans are washed and worn. 

But for a long time, the fit is very different to what you get in pre-washed, pre-distressed jeans. The material shapes to you in a way nothing else does - which it should be noted, is a pleasure in other areas of menswear too, such as horsehide jackets or structured tailoring. 

The authenticity of fading

The other advantage - and this one only gets better with time - is that the fading of the jeans comes from your wear and tear, rather than someone wielding a sandblaster.

This fading is a huge part of jeans' appeal - it might be the most widespread, universal appreciation humanity has for old-looking clothes.

With raw denim, all the fading lines are yours - not fake. The fade on the thigh, the ‘honeycomb’ on the back of the knee, the ‘whiskers’ on the front: all of it makes a personal pattern that makes your jeans unique.

Why buy vintage jeans then? Surely that removes all of that personal aspect?

True, but vintage jeans are still unique. There’s no other pair like them in the world - unlike the ones all blasted to the same pretend fades. There is an authenticity about them that must, surely, resonate with PS readers, plus anyone else that appreciates craft. 

Most artificial fades are also just bad. They look fake. And because the distressing is worse on cheap jeans, it makes them look cheap too. 

There is better, individual distressing available of course - often from Japanese brands - but it’s still not personal or authentic. 

What effects do you want?

So, the reason many denim enthusiasts don’t wash their jeans is they want to enhance these effects. They want to mould them as much as possible, and for that mould not to be washed out. They want as much whiskering and honeycombing as possible too. 

As a result, many brands suggest not washing them for months. Or only doing so when they get smelly (and even then you can put them in the freezer, to kill the bacteria). 

Personally, I tend to wash them after a few weeks. Which might mean 15 or 20 wears.

But you can also wash them immediately. A quick rinse (short, low spin, no detergent) will remove some of the starch and stiffness, and make them a lot easier to wear. Soaking them in the bath achieves something similar. 

And you can give them a normal wash too, if you want. You’ll still get a lot of authentic fading and moulding, and they'll always feel different from completely washed RTW ones, which hang more like trousers. 

Raw denim shrinks - and expands

The other area that gets people exercised is shrinkage. 

The thing about raw (sanforised) denim is that it both shrinks and it grows. In a good way. When you wash it, the jeans have shrunk a little bit and feel tighter. But as you wear them, they grow in the places your body pushes at them - and therefore they need to grow. This is another factor in their comfort. 

(The only place to watch out for that growing is in the waistband. After you’ve washed jeans, it's worth wearing them the first time with a belt cinched tight, to stop the waistband expanding. I want that the stay tight, usually, and only other areas like the seat, hips etc to expand.)

On a recent article, again readers were saying that some shops advise them to buy jeans tight, others to buy them loose. Most of the time, just buy the right size (see Clutch guide here). They will shrink a little and then grow a little, as required. 

Part of the confusion also comes from not distinguishing between sanforised and unsanforised denim. Sanforised denim is pre-shrunk, whereas unsanforised is not. The latter can shrink by a lot, up to 8-10%, and it is this that led to all the shrink-to-fit practices and obsessions.

There is an argument that unsanforised ages even more nicely - but for most people I'd put this in the same category as those washing practices. It's not a level you need to get to, or will probably even appreciate.

Also, note that all denims vary a bit in how much they shrink. So always check with the seller that they think you are buying correctly. Any good retailer will know exactly how much each denim shrinks. Indeed, they might even have a table showing that - like Bryceland’s does.

Even then, this shrinkage mostly affects the length. Large amounts of shrinkage can affect the top block, but mostly it’s a question of whether they’ll lose one inch or two inches over the first two or three washes. 

And if you want to avoid any of this uncertainty, you can buy once-washed styles. Again, you'll still get most of the feel and characteristics of raw denim.

Getting mid-blue jeans from raw

OK, a few other small points that I know readers have asked about. 

There is a trend today for paler colours of jeans, rather than deep indigo. The problem here is that those paler colours only come from raw denim after many washes. 

But it does happen - it might mean 20 washes rather than 5, but it will happen. (See example above, after 20 washes, from Superstitch.)

Just make sure the original denim is slightly more of a mid-blue, and perhaps wash the jeans frequently at the start, then slow down (or even stop, freeze) when you have your perfect colour. 

How to wash

Second question, how exactly do I wash the jeans? Generally the recommendation is:

  • on cool, 30 degrees (stops all the shrinkage coming out quickly)
  • inside out (makes the colour stay longer)
  • with a low spin (prevents unwanted fold marks)
  • and then hang dry (stops extra shrinkage that can come from a tumble dryer)

But. You can change these things if you want a different effect.

If you want the jeans to fade faster, use more detergent and don’t wash them inside out. If you want them to shrink more (eg they have become a little baggy) then wash on a higher temperature and then tumble dry (perhaps taking out just a little damp, to prevent fold marks).

I think that’s it. Do shout if I’ve missed anything. 

My overarching point is: don’t be afraid of raw denim. It’s not as trendy as it used to be, and I see more guys going for the easy option of pre-washed jeans. But it's authentic and beautiful, and you don’t have to obsessive about denim to wear it. 

You can find the right size in a once-washed pair - and wash them whenever you need to - and still get many of the same pleasures. And, those pleasures are ones PS readers should appreciate: good material that ages beautifully, that has a particular authenticity, that only gets better the longer you have it. 

Plus, remember jeans don't have to be perfect. A little sloppiness here or there is part of the aesthetic, and if they need alterations along the way, all the better. As we detailed recently, that's not that hard to do.