Raw Denim 101


Raw Denim 101

A bit of history

There is nothing more American than a good pair of denim jeans. The indigo-dyed pants trace their roots back to the 1850s, when Levi Strauss, a Bavarian immigrant, started manufacturing sturdy pants for Gold Rush miners. Compared to the flimsy pants they wore before, Levi’s jeans were reinforced with rivets on areas most likely to be pulled apart by strain, such as the back pockets. This unprecedented sturdiness quickly made jeans popular among miners as well as factory workers.

A century later, jeans penetrated mainstream fashion. James Dean movies made the item, previously associated with hard manual labor, a symbol of youthful rebellion. A pair of blue jeans, a white T-shirt, and a pack of cigarettes comprised the image youngsters wanted to imitate. Frankly, who wouldn’t? James Dean rocked the simple outfit like no one else.


The rockabilly associations aside, denim charmed people by molding itself to each individual’s body. The sturdiness of the jean and the dark indigo dye would fade according to the movements and activities of the person wearing it. The creases, the rips, and the discoloring reflected the lifestyle of its owner. These marks of imperfection made jeans a special, personalized item.

But creating the distressed look require people to subject their jeans to months of hard wear. Because our lifestyles today hardly compare to that of laborers from a century and a half ago, many manufactures now artificially distress their jeans with lasers, sandpaper, and different washing techniques. This practice completely takes the charm from the item. Instead of reflecting the lifestyles of the wearers, they reflect the quality of the factory techniques. Artificially distressed jeans are lifeless items. Compare the look of a naturally faded raw jean with a laser-treated jean.


So what is raw denim?

Raw denim is high quality denim (usually from Japan) that has never been washed or artificially treated. It is denim in its purest form, the kind that Levi Strauss sold a hundred years ago. Raw jeans are initially super stiff and bleed a lot of indigo dye (don’t rub white fabric against your new jeans!). But over time, they soften up and develop based on what you do in them. The more you wear them, the more they crease and as the indigo bleeds, the spots with creases shows a high fade contrast. After months of wear, you will be left with an item that is completely personal.

Raw denimheads will tell you that you must not wash your jeans for at least 6 months! Only this way will they develop the highly sought-after high contrast fades. If you wash them earlier, the indigo will bleed uniformly, leaving you with less contrasting fades. It might seem unusual or even gross to wait that long for the first wash. But a combination of spot cleaning and freezing (yes, freezing removes bad smells) will keep them fresh and clean for at least a few months.

Beautiful fades are not the only benefits of raw jeans. Raw denim is usually of much higher quality. They are more durable and will last much longer than a pair of pre-washed jeans. Despite the higher price-tag, they usually represent a better value purchase. Moreover, as raw jeans have never been washed before, they are much more eco-friendly. Growing cotton consumes a ton of water, and washing and pre-treating them consumes even more: on average 40 liters of water are used to treat one pair! Wear raw denim to reduce the waste.

Some tips

  • Raw denim stretches quite a bit, so size down by one or two
  • Many brands will sell raw in just one inseam size. So you have to either cuff them (and show off the beautiful selvedge) or hem them
  • Don’t wear them if you know you’ll get very dirty. You wanna keep your jeans clean
  • Visit heddels.com to learn everything about raw denim

Product Recommendations

Unbranded ($85)

Unbranded is the king of the entry-level raw denim. For merely 85 bucks, you a get a solid pair of raw jeans. The perfect gateway drug.


Naked and Famous ($150)

Founded in 2006, Naked and Famous quickly became one of the most popular brands. They are known for experimenting with different fabrics and for being one of the most innovative brands in the industry.


APC ($200)

APC is a french fashion house known for minimalist, chic designs. The founder Jean Touitou has always had a special relationship with denim jeans and they form the core of APC’s offerings. Since the 90s, APC’s have attracted almost cult-following.


Nudie Jeans ($200)

A Swedish denim house that offers high quality. They offer jeans a wide variety of different cuts and washes.

Pure Blue Japan ($300+)

Pure Blue Japan makes denim of the highest quality. Their fabric has an incredible texture and they fade like nothing else. Pure Blue represents the pinnacle of the world of raw jeans.

Parting Thoughts

Enduring weeks of initial discomfort and not washing your jeans for 6+ months might seem like a lot to sacrifice for one item of clothing. But you end up with a unique, beautiful pair of jeans that will very likely become a favorite item. Because of the high maintenance, raw jeans are definitely not for everyone. They are more of a niche product, a hobby for obsessives. So if you are not willing to endure all the headaches or just don’t see the appeal, you can just buy a pre-washed pair. But please avoid ugly distressing.

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