Because high-quality denim is still a relatively new thing in the states, and because there is so much information out there on the subject, it can be difficult to know where to start looking for answers to basic questions. So we seized the opportunity to help you out. We certainly don’t know everything about denim, but we know enough to give you the basic knowledge you need to make an informed decision. When you start looking for the perfect pair, a quality pair that you can wear for years, you’ll have all the information you need.
One of the first questions folks usually ask is what do the terms “raw” and “selvedge” mean? Because they are used as descriptors without explanation, some confuse them, or think they mean the same thing. Raw denim is simply denim that is not pre-washed to soften them up. They are stiff and rigid at first, but over time, they soften up beautifully and stretch to fit your body shape perfectly. You’ve got to put in the work, but the results are totally worth it.
Selvedge refers to the type of denim being used to make the jeans. Selvedge denim (from “self-edge”) is made on an older style of loom in narrow rolls that have a finished, stitched edge. Non selvedge denim is made on faster, more modern machines that are in much wider rolls and do not have a finished, stitched edge. The theory is that selvedge denim has a tighter weave and is of higher quality. You can tell if jeans are made from selvedge denim if you turn the cuff and see a nice, clean stitched outseam.
So, you can have raw selvedge jeans, or selvedge washed jeans, or just raw denim jeans, or washed, non-selvedge denim.
To the left is a rough, non-selvedge seam. To the right, a clean selvedge seam. Both images feature a classic chain stitch hem.
Another descriptor that is often attached to American made denim is “Cone Mills.” If you look around at American denim makers, the term is everywhere. This simply indicates the specific manufacturer of the fabric. Cone Denim Mills, founded in 1891 in North Carolina, is the oldest operating denim mill in the US, and pretty much the only one manufacturing quality denim fabric. Therefore, if you’re a maker who wants to use American made material, you will probably use Cone Mills.
Next, let’s talk stitching, fabric thickness, shrinking, and what to look for in the character of the fabric.
There are two methods of stitching a pair of jeans. You can use a traditional chain stitch, or a more modern, efficient lock stitch. Some folks claim the lock stitch is a bit sturdier, but we absolutely love the chain stitch for the classic outseam it produces. Plus, if you want to be really detailed, chain stitching creates a subtle, sought-after “roping” effect on the cuff of your jeans. We have to say, it is a sweet detail.
As for thickness, it’s somewhat common sense. A thinner fabric of say, 11 oz. weight, is going to be ideal for warm to mild weather. A medium weight of 13 or 14 oz. is an ideal all-season choice. A thicker 17 oz. denim is perfect for staying warm through the winter. Sometimes you’ll see a pair over 20 oz. but they are going to be overkill unless you live in Alaska or something. Also, the thicker the denim, the longer you can expect before they soften up.
Also worth discussing is the potential shrinking of your denim. The two terms you should know on this subject are sanforized and unsanforized. If a pair of jeans is sanforized, that means they’ve been chemically treated to prevent the cotton fibers from dramatic shrinking after washing. Unsanforized means that you’ll see some shrinking after the first wash, so if you see that on a label or product description, make sure to size up. As a general rule, it’s a good idea to try a pair on before you make a purchase.
Though at Ellicott & Co. we’re a bit more timeless in our tastes, some true blue denim lovers judge a pair of jeans not on quality of the fabric, but in how well the fabric reveals character through subtle imperfections. This is a preference often seen in fans of Japanese denim, as the Japanese favor creating the irregularities in their manufacturing processes. The terms you need to know are “slub” and “nep.” Slubby denim is made using indigo yarn that varies in thickness, creating a unique, irregular texture, while neppy denim is made so that tiny tufts of the white yarn stick out slightly from the surface of the weave, creating a snowy look. The imperfections are accomplished by “loom chatter”—making the looms shake slightly as they weave—which mimics a vintage aesthetic, as if the the fabric was woven back when looms weren’t as precise. Like most things denim, it’s really a taste preference. Some folks like slub and/or nep, and some just like a crisp, smooth denim surface, without the imperfections.
To the left is Dyer & Jenkins' raw, selvedge denim jeans. To the right is Taylor Stitch's raw denim jeans. Both are made from Cone Mills material, made in the USA.
The last things you need to know to be fully prepared for your next denim purchase, how to care for your new raw denim jeans. As previously stated, raw denim takes some time to break in. We recommend daily wear for at least a month after you get them. Wear them to do whatever you normally do—wear them to work, school, to take a hike, whatever. Just be careful about the indigo coloring rubbing of on furniture and other surfaces. What you don’t want to do is lay on a white sofa during your first week breaking them in.
As for washing raw denim, there are some competing philosophies out there. Some folks say you should never wash them and that you should just throw them in the freezer to kill the bacteria when they start to stink. Others say you should wash them in the tub every other month, using lukewarm water and a dash of detergent. Others say you should never wash them or freeze them, but to take a dip into the ocean and rub them with sand. The one thing everyone agrees on is that you should not wash them too much. So, just be sure to wear them for a few months to break them in when you first get them. After that, use common sense, and you’ll be golden. If you wear them for a month and they start to stink, wash them. If you wear them for 4 months and they don’t stink and they’re not dirty, keep on wearing them. Figure out a system that works for you.
Our raw denim advice is simple: put the work in, be patient, and the results will be tremendous. Your jeans will fit you like a glove. They will fade and crease totally according to the way you wear them. 100% personalized in look and feel. And they’ll last you for years.
We are currently carrying denim from Dyer & Jenkins, a nifty little company out of Los Angeles, as well as Taylor Stitch denim, out of San Francisco. If you’ve been thinking about investing in a quality pair of real, American denim jeans, then now would be a great time to stop by Ellicott & Co., test out your new denim knowledge, and try a pair on!