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How To Break In Raw Denim

As guys, we rely on our favorite pair of denim jeans for almost everything. Whether we’re looking for an ultra-durable alternative to modern legwear that can assist us in our everyday endeavors, a handsome looking accent to our everyday attire, or just something to wear out to the local dive bar, the modern-day jean has always been there to satiate our need for durable, accessible clothing.

While most of today’s most popular denim companies release great pairs of jeans for the average consumer, there are guys who need a little bit more when it comes to durability, customization, and rugged wear — that’s where traditional raw denim comes in. Sure, picking up the perfect pair of raw denim might not seem like an easy, accessible solution to a number of today’s readily available offerings, but trust us when we say that it’s an experience all its own. Below, we’ll run through the definition of raw denim, why you should look into adding it to your closet, and what you can do to break it in like a pro. But first, let’s learn about the storied history surrounding one of our favorite fabrics.

The History Of Denim

Workwear Extraordinaire

Although the textile was clearly defined in the city of Nîmes, France, it wasn’t long until its use spread to other parts of the world.It might come as a surprise to hear that denim has been around for well over a century, and even more so that the fabric’s grand debut can be attributed to none other than the French. Although the textile was clearly defined in the city of Nîmes, France, it wasn’t long until its use spread to other parts of the world. Today, we associate denim with common styles ranging from jackets and shirts, all the way to shoes and outerwear — but perhaps the most popular use for the blend has come in the form of legwear — most notably, jeans. The root of the word (Gênes) comes from the French articulation commonly used for one of the fabric’s birthplaces, Genoa, Italy, which is a far cry from the locales of the west.

After finding use overseas for attire, workwear, and utility, the fabric made its way to America. It wasn’t until the mid-19th century that connoisseurs of the textile began to create articles of clothing for American workers. In 1873, Jacob W. Davis created the first rivet-reinforced denim pants, giving birth to a classic piece of legwear that would eventually become synonymous with laborers, miners, and surveyors. Amidst requests for a heavier, more durable work pant for everyday use, Davis was flooded with incoming requests. Admittedly, due to his small shop size, he could no longer keep up with demand, so he decided to contact a prominent dry goods wholesaler at the time, Levi Strauss & Co., to negotiate rights of manufacture his clothing. The company was so adulated by Davis’ proposition that they duly accepted — naming him as the head of mass production in San Francisco.

What Is Raw Denim?

Defining Durability

A “warp” thread is dyed blue, while the “weft” thread is left in its traditional white state.Before we jump into what makes raw denim special, the differences between raw and regular denim, and what makes the denim of yesteryear so much more capable than that of the modern day, we have to understand what it is. Put simply, denim is a tightly weaved (and sturdy) cotton textile. Eventually, it’s made into a twill, thanks to diagonal ribbing that helps to reinforce and distinguish the fabric from alternative styles like dungaree or cotton duck.

After the cotton is harvested, cleaned, separated, and spun into yarn, it’s dyed blue — resulting in the iconic denim color that we know today. Raw denim is then constructed with two different types of cotton thread to give it the characteristics that have come to define the fabric. A “warp” thread is dyed blue, while the “weft” thread is left in its traditional white state — when these two fabrics are combined (in what’s called warp-faced twill weaving), the face of the fabric is demarcated by a rich, deep blue, while the inside retains its white color. After this fabric is utilized in large swathes by the manufacturer, the denim remains unwashed, untreated, and unworn. This is how raw denim is created.

The Difference Between Raw & Regular

Classic and Modern

When taking your first step into the realm of raw, it’s important to note that what you’re really doing is taking a step into the realm of purist denim.Raw denim has a number of qualities that set it apart from its less durable, pre-distressed counterpart. In order to understand what makes the stiff, unmolested style so attractive to would-be wearers, we have to talk about the community (and ideology) that surrounds the jeans. When taking your first step into the realm of raw, it’s important to note that what you’re really doing is taking a step into the realm of purist denim — a space dominated by individuals who have found solace in the fact that they hold complete dominion over the color, fade, style, and story of their cherished legwear. What makes raw denim so special isn’t necessarily the unwashed character, the personalized wear pattern, or the time-tested heritage — it’s the unbridled connection between both the wearer and his chosen article of clothing.

In the past 20 years, manufacturers have deviated from the iconic pedigree of raw denim in lieu of pre-shrunk, pre-worn, and pre-distressed offerings. As a result, they’ve prohibited the average consumer from creating a connection with a pair of jeans — there’s no story to tell, no personalized fit, and no way for the denim to inherit the traits that its raw counterpart can readily provide. When you don your first pair of finely-crafted, raw indigo legwear, it’s a sensation that many of today’s modern, pre-distressed jeans can’t replicate. They’re rough, they’re uncomfortable, they’re stiff, and they’re stubborn — but after months of religious wear, they’ve become less rigid — soft, supple, and full of character that illustrates when, where, why, and how you’ve worn them. That is the true meaning of raw denim.

Modern-day denim pales in comparison to its durable progenitor — it’s often filled to the brim with elastane, a product that allows jeans to stretch and conform to certain body types with ease. While this isn’t blasphemous in practice, it speaks to a level of quality that sometimes doesn’t meet the standard of today’s most dedicated denim aficionados — and rightfully so. In an effort to cut manufacturing costs, raise profit margins, and blind the conventional consumer from the gospel of raw denim, modern manufacturers have embued today’s jeans with a number of additives that allow them to wear, fade, and distress faster, giving buyers the ability to “replicate” months (and sometimes, years) of wear, straight from the shelf. As a purist, this might promote feelings of disdain, but for those who aren’t well versed in the world of traditional denim, it might be a godsend. Either way, we know better — so let’s jump into “the pros” of picking up a perfect pair of raw jeans.

The Pros

What Makes Them Special

As we’ve stated above, the pros of raw denim are dependant upon your needs as a wearer. If you’re looking for a pair of high-quality, durable, and character-imbued legwear, you’ll enjoy everything that the classic style has to offer. Here are a few of the defining aspects of the time-tested staple.

Stiff Silhouette

Raw denim is notorious for its ultra-rough, cardboard-stiff fabric. While it’s truly a pain to deal with at first, after weeks (and months) of wear, the denim will start to shed its initial shape and start to conform to your body — but what’s most notable about the fabric is its resistance to a number of inhibitors that would cause elasticated denim to cower in fear. With raw denim, you hardly ever have to worry about rips, tears, or wear-through, thanks to densely-packed fibers that retain their form much better than today’s modern variants.

Personalized Characteristics

Branching off the denim’s stiff silhouette, it’s worth noting that raw variants are often revered for their magnificent wear patterns. Based on what you do for a living, conditional elements unique to your area and different varieties of external influencers will give your jeans an entirely different look, fade, and pattern when compared to those of someone else. For many, this is the primary appeal of raw denim — the rough, durable textile allows for infinite possibilities when it comes to customization, personalization, and true, one-of-a-kind expression.

The Cons

What Makes Them Tough

While there are a number of pros associated with raw denim, we realize that they aren’t for everybody. In an effort to stay subjective, we’ll outline a couple of the reason why the classic style might not be for you.

Stiff Silhouette

A downside of raw denim is its inability to soften, stretch, and conform like many modern day variants. Aside from the painful process of breaking the jeans in, they’re also difficult to care for — at least in the traditional sense. Although we’ll cover this a little more in-depth later on in the article, it’s debated whether raw denim should ever be washed, leaving you in quite the predicament, should you spill, stain, or augment your jeans in any way. While it’s “ok” to throw them in the washing machine for emergency purposes, keep in mind that this will often influence the character of the denim, and leave you with a lackluster pair.

Personalized Characteristics

Branching off the stiff silhouette section above, another notable “con” when transitioning to raw denim is the inability to control the way the jeans fade and wear over time. If you’re not a fan of “whiskering” (which is a fade pattern often found where the jeans crease the most), then you’ll be troubled to find that raw denim is even more susceptible to characteristics that you might not find appealing. To make this even less palatable, wearers are often discouraged when it comes to cleaning or washing their jeans or denim shorts in a traditional washer and dryer, making things all the more difficult to persuade.

Although raw denim comes with its own slew of positives and negatives, it’s safe to say that the traditional article of iconic menswear is here to stay. Should you decide to pick up a pair, we salute you — and to help you out, we’ve outlined the best way to break them in, below.

How To Break It In

Style & Structure

There is no single, best-in-practice technique when it comes to breaking in raw denim, but there are certainly some well-researched guidelines that have been referenced by the industry’s most notable figures.

The Golden Rule to breaking in raw denim: wear them as much as you possibly can. It’s as simple as that. Throughout the selvedge and raw denim world, there are a number of wives’ tales that have been circulated by first-time wearers, seasoned enthusiasts, and long-time proponents — but the truth is, it’s up to you how your jeans turn out. The more you wear them, the more they’ll conform to your style, need, and function. Wear them to the store, wear them to work, wear them out on a weekend adventure — there are even individuals who swear that odd, out-of-the-box propositions like wearing them into the ocean, laying in your tub, or dousing them in natural fats like shea butter help to cut time off of the personalization process.


Depending on the “style” that you want your pants to inherit, you can utilize a few different avenues to get the look you want. As we stated above, influencing the fade, distress, and whiskering of the pants through the use of natural fats can enhance the process — but according to industry experts, repetitive, everyday wear is the most valuable method.

Perhaps the most iconic style of raw denim is that of the dyed indigo blue; a dark, green-hued colorway that’s become synonymous with the widespread denim movement over the last few decades. These days, traditionally-oriented raw denim has been formatted into many different styles and variants thanks to modern taste, cuts, tapers, and fits. Any style of pant that you can find in the pre-distressed, elasticated realm can be found in a raw or selvedge denim counterpart — but be wary, these styles are often pricey due to the varying price levels of denim swathe.


Influencing the fit of your new pair of raw denim jeans might seem like it’s a little bit outside of your wheelhouse, but there are a few common recommendations that you can abide by to find the best pair for you.

First, make sure that you have a thorough understanding for your measurements — things like your waist size, inseam, thigh, and leg opening are all important, so it’s imperative that you’re honest with yourself about the various sizings associated with your jeans. Remember, raw denim has no stretch and will only conform to your body as you break it in. A good rule of thumb is to find the size that fits you best, and then to buy the size below. Due to the natural expansion of the denim over time, they can expand from 1-1.5 inches over a three month period — which is expedited even more if you decide to wash/dry your newly acquired jeans.

To allow the denim to conform to your body, it’s recommended to wear the jeans while in warm water (preferably your tub) for around half an hour, so that the denim can learn about your specific body type. This helps the jeans to shrink down to your size, without the ability to become smaller than your waist. Once you’re done, you can hang them out to dry, since you should never throw raw denim into the conventional home dryer.

Our Pick: Taylor Stitch Democratic Jean Cone Mills '68 Selvage

When it comes to selvedge fabrics, Taylor Stitch’s Democratic Jean offers the consumer a perfect pair of stylish utility pants. They’re made with Cone Mills’ legendary ’68 denim — so you know that you’re getting the best textile in the industry, as well as a great looking pair of durable, everyday legwear.

Purchase: $145

To Wash or Not To Wash?

To round out this guide, we’ll tackle one of the most confusing notions when it comes to raw denim: whether you should wash them on a consistent basis. The quick answer is: no. However, there’s always a caveat. For most, the idea of never washing a pair of jeans might seem a little farfetched — and it should. After all, you sweat, dirty, and distress your jeans over the period of their life. How could you continue to wear jeans that smell, look dirty, and lose their appeal due to age? The truth is, it’s ok to wash your raw denim, but only in cold water — and only once in a great while — every six months or so seems to do the trick. After you’re done washing them, always give them enough time to hang dry. So now that you know how to break in a brand new pair of raw denim — go forth and explore.

The Ultimate Guide To Business Casual

Now that you have a better understanding of the classic menswear staple, head over and check out our ultimate guide to business casual for some tips on how to integrate raw denim into your everyday office attire.