For well over a century now, blue jeans have held a place in our psyche alongside apple pie, baseball, jazz, and more recent additions like the Super Bowl as being a kind of avatar of Americaness. Yet, despite our relatively static view of jeans as an all-American icon, the story of denim is fundamentally one of change.
Denim, and what people look for in denim, has shifted dramatically from the days when Levi Strauss was riveting tough corduroy pants in San Francisco. What was once just a pair of blue jeans in the 1940s or ‘50s is now considered something special – raw denim. And what we simply refer to as a pair of jeans? They’re a kind of pale shadow of the original versions worn by the likes of James Dean and Marlon Brando. The only way to really understand this shift, how it happened, and where it has lead us is to understand the history of denim itself.
A Brief History
Where We Are And How We Got There
Despite what we would perceive as its true-blue American roots, denim fabric didn’t actually get its start in the U.S. In fact, the very word denim comes from the term ‘serge de Nimes’, a reference to the French city of Nimes where the famous fabric originated the very word denim comes from the term ‘serge de Nimes’, a reference to the French city of Nimes where the famous fabric originated. In the late 1800s, the weavers in Nimes were hard at work trying to replicate a tough cotton corduroy fabric made in Genoa, Italy. Genoan fabric was (called jeane or jean fabric back then), at first, the type that Levi Strauss and Jacob Davis used to make their tough pants for gold miners. Not long after Levi Strauss began making his now famous jeans, however, those weavers in Nimes perfected a twill cotton fabric. It featured both a warp and weft – warp being the yarns that run longitudinally while the weft runs transverse over and under the weft. The result was a tough, abrasion resistant fabric that was comfortable to wear. This serge de Nimes fabric soon became the go-to material sourced by makers like Levis Strauss who then, in turn, sold their wares to Hollywood to clothe cowboys and rebels in their films.
Initially, the primary way this denim fabric was made was with a shuttle loom. These machines could hold the tension of the warp while the weft was drawn through and inserted both over and under it with a single object called a shuttle. Shuttle looms created large swaths of fabric and left at the end of each a tightly woven line of at the end that prevented the material from curling up or fraying at the ends. This edge was referred to as a ‘self edge,’ or what we now call selvedge denim.
Ironically enough, this method of making denim was more or less abandoned in the U.S., not because of a lack of popularity of denim, but precisely because of it. Back in the 1950s, demand for denim jeans was growing at a rate that traditional mills couldn’t keep up with. The old shuttle looms ended up being a victim of their own success and substituted for faster projectile looms. Rather than using a shuttle to move the weft yarn across the loom, these machines use multiple smaller projectiles that shoot across the loom, and drop the fabric only to be transported back to the starting point and be shot across again. This newer method could keep up with demand, but it lost the telltale characteristic of selvedge denim. But more was changing than just manufacturing methods. Increasingly, the American market wanted denim that was washed rather than raw or dry.
What's The Difference?
Raw Vs. Washed
Our guess is that even denim neophytes could pick out washed and raw denim out of a lineup if they had to. But we wanted to explain in real detail the difference between the two, and in order to do so, we have to first talk about Indigo.
Indigo, the dye traditionally used (though not the only one) to make your blue jeans blue, does not soak into the fibers it is applied to. Instead, the dye just sits on top of them (most commonly the warp of the fabric). As a result, over time the dye gets rubbed off. Where you keep your pocket knife, the way you walk, and the type of phone you have will all reveal itself over time. While this can create some frustrating issues if you sport a white t-shirt while wearing a new pair of raw denim jeans, it has its upsides, too. Chief among them? The pants you are wearing will over time will develop a worn-in look that is totally unique to you. Where you keep your pocket knife, the way you walk, and the type of phone you have will all reveal itself over time.
Pre-washed denim will fade over time, too, but it often won’t do so as dramatically. In fact, you can pretty much rely on much more bland fade. This is because that first layer of Indigo has already been stripped from the fabric if it hasn’t been pre-distressed to begin with. The upside, though, is that you won’t risk staining everyday items as easily.
Over the past ten or twenty years, the former of these two styles has come back into vogue. After a long dormant period, Americans once again developed a taste for raw and selvedge denim and the way they age and shift over time. Denim brands worldwide began to turn to Japanese makers who have mimed post-war denim manufacturing methods, and to the last few domestic makers (unfortunately Cone Mills, the last maker of domestic selvedge denim just recently shut down) to source this unique type of denim. This resurgence was driven in large part because of an increasing interest in wearing jeans that would fade naturally and reflect the patterns and behaviors of the wearer.
Types Of Patterns
What To Expect When You Break In A Pair
Each pattern on a pair of raw denim jeans is unique and one-of-a-kind, but they can still be broken down into categories. Over time you’ll notice a specific type of patterning emerge in your own pairs and others. We’ve put together a quick list of the kinds of patterns you could expect to see develop in a pair of raw denim jeans.
These are a honeycomb-like pattern that forms on the backside of the knee. Everyday activities like walking and sitting in your reading chair will create these patterns on the fabric.
This pattern appears along the top of the raw denim along the crotch area and around the pockets. Like with honeycomb patterns in raw denim, these appear because of use while doing simple activities like walking and hinging at the hips.
Keep a slim wallet in your back pocket? Even a slim wallet? It’ll show up if you’re wearing raw denim. Wherever that billfold settles in your back pocket (or front for that matter) will make an impression on the fabric and show up on as the indigo slowly chips off.
This pattern appears on your raw denim jeans side-seams over time. More a result of regular wear than any specific action or movement, they reveal the mark the selvedge strip leaves on the inside of your pants.
And Many More…
Carry a pocket knife? Have a limp in your step? Pretty much anything you do regularly will show up in a pair of raw denim jeans – and that’s the magic of them.
Where To Start?
Picks From Lone Flag's Sam Larson
We wanted to do a bit more than just provide a beginners guide to raw denim, so we reached out to the founder of Lone Flag, Sam Larson, to get some of insight on how to buy raw denim, as well as a few choice picks to get you started on your journey. There are a lot of brands and styles to choose from, but those outlined below are particularly well worth considering.
Univ Daily Denim Selvage Raw
Local staple UNIV out of Encinitas has a really good core denim under their “Coast Denim” concept that utilizes mid-weight Cone Mill denim that is perfect for breaking in and fading well over time. The Daily Denim Selvage Raw is a great wardrobe staple that has some Southern California elements built into the story. – S.L.
Nudie Jeans Brute Knut Dry Cold Black
The most popular current fit is a little looser on the top block with an aggressive taper and worn best cuffed a bit shorter. Sweden’s Nudie offers this Brute Knut fit in both black and standard indigo for under $200 and it’s a really versatile fit that can be worn both formally and informally depending on the occasion and the wear. At 10.75oz, this is on the lighter weight side of a really premium denim so it’s comfortable in year-round temperatures and also breaks in and fades really fast. As an added bonus, Nudie offers free repairs on all denim for life. – S.L.
Tellason Gustave 12.5oz
For a really simple and straightforward denim that’s made well, it’s tough to beat the Tellason Gustave, a slim fit raw made in San Francisco from Cone Mill 12.5oz denim. They fade with really clean and crisp white lines and have double-reinforced inner pockets to avoid blowouts. Consider these a gold-standard for a less-is-more approach on the premium denim side. – S.L.
“It’s important to note that with all good raw pairs, the main things is really working with someone who understands your fit and can help showcase how the denim will age with you over time as dry denim is all about the custom break-in process that personalizes each pair. Wearing these more and washing them less is part of what makes them such a unique and beautiful wardrobe piece. You can find out more about care and repairs at Lone Flag as well.” – Sam Larson, Founder of Lone Flag