What Is Raw Denim? Shop 24 Pairs Here According to Two Jean Experts

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Photographed by Nadine Ijewere, Vogue, 2020

A jean’s rigidity is one of those differentiating factors that separate denim die-hards from the rest. Of course, almost nothing can beat a great pair of raw denim jeans for those who live for the stiff and structured look. But there are several distinctions in raw denim that make it entirely unique from other styles crafted from 100% cotton. Here to explain, Levi’s director of design innovation, Una Murphy, and Citizens of Humanity’s creative director, Marianne McDonald.

What is raw denim, and how does it differ from other types of denim?

“Raw denim is denim that is unwashed in garment form,” Murphy tells Vogue. “It has a clean look and a dark indigo color.” According to McDonald, “All denim starts as raw denim. Technically speaking, once it hits water, it is no longer considered raw.”

During the raw denim “wash” process known as “blooming,” as McDonald explains, different treatments such as hand sanding, laser technology, sponge potassium, and ozone bring out the natural qualities of the fabric that raw denim’s dark exterior otherwise hides.

There are different types of raw denim, too, says Murphy. “Selvedge denim, the original raw denim, is woven on vintage shuttle looms with a woven edge,” she tells Vogue. “Levi’s selvedge is traditionally woven with a redline, and the straight edge helps to give the famous anti-fit look.” This type of raw denim is known to shrink after washing since it’s never touched water. So, expect a pair to go down one to two sizes.

There is also sanforized or pre-shrunk raw denim, which is finished at the denim mill to create a fit similar to other denim. During this process, raw denim becomes exposed to water or steam, which means the “raw” classification is technically compromised. However, it’s a standard process for streamlining the fit of raw denim and with way less water use.

“The original 501® proprietary shrink-to-fit fabric has a very distinguished look and fabric characteristics due to the unique shrinkage and construction,” Murphy explains. Adding, “Most jeans that are found in stores today have gone through some kind of pre-washing process to soften the fabric and reduce shrinkage post-wear and wash.”

How does raw denim fit versus other types of denim?

Describing raw denim as “every denim purist’s go-to for jeans,” McDonald says raw denim is often referred to as “rigid,” to denote the material’s stiff and unyielding texture. “Construction of a raw jean is the same as one that receives a wash. Each is rife with meticulous attention to detail, including stitch color, thread count, bar tacks, and specific J-stitching at the fly that signify durability and the brand’s DNA.”

In addition, some pairs can include stretch—perfect for easing into raw denim if you’re new to the game. “Typically, those who love raw denim are drawn to denim being in its most authentic form, which is entirely non-stretch,” McDonald explains. “When a jean is raw and has stretch, usually the designer has a modernist leaning and understands the comfort that comes from some stretch in a pair of jeans. With today’s technology, raw stretch jeans can look incredible on and harness fabric innovations that didn’t exist previously.”

How long does it take to break in raw denim?

Similar to other rigid cotton pairs of jeans, raw denim requires some breaking in due to the fabric’s inherent stiffness. McDonald says it typically takes several months of regular wear to break in a raw pair of jeans. “What starts out stiff, eventually takes on the shape and movement wear patterns from the owner,” the Citizens of Humanity’s creative director tells Vogue.

As raw denim breaks in, softens, and molds to your body, Murphy adds, “The true beauty of raw denim is that no two pair are the same. Over time, they’ll start showing signs of wear unique to your body, like natural creases from how you sit, where you carry your phone, where your wallet hits in your pocket, and even how you cuff them at the ankle.”

Are there benefits to raw denim versus other types of denim? Does it last longer?

There’s a significant advantage to raw denim jeans apart from the structured fit and individual character that develops over time. “One of the most exciting benefits of raw denim is that its carbon footprint is much less than that of a washed pair,” McDonald explains. “Because there’s only the cut and sew portion of the process, you take out much of the resource utilizing aspects of denim production.”

What precautions should someone take with raw denim?

By nature of the process, raw denim has more indigo color left on the surface, says Murphy, which is part of the beauty—but you’ll want to tread carefully. The deeply pigmented color transfers more easily than other types of denim or washes might, meaning it can rub off on surfaces or other clothing. “All denim products can transfer some color,” the design innovator explains. “At Levi’s, we take care to ensure our raw denim meets a ‘crocking’ [or] color transfer standard. If your raw denim has loose indigo, an extra rinse of your jeans can remove any loose color left on the surface of the denim.”

“Let’s just say, maybe don’t sit on your friend’s cream boucle sofa when you come over for a glass of wine,” McDonald advises when wearing raw denim.

What is the suggested care for raw denim?

Some denim enthusiasts believe that raw denim jeans should never or rarely be washed, according to Murphy. However, she says excess dirt and bacteria build-up can cause the unwashed fabric to break down and tear if not treated properly. “To keep the color for longer, wash cold on gentle cycle [with] non-bleach detergent, inside out and line dry. It’s the most environmentally friendly way to wash your jeans [with] the added benefit of extending their life, helping them last longer.”

McDonald suggests holding off washing raw denim, ideally, for a couple of months. “At the end of the day, part of denim’s magic is its versatility, durability, and its ability to withstand whatever you throw at them,” she says. “Jeans should fit effortlessly into your life and be an item of clothing that you reach for again and again. By finding these pieces that last for years, one [can] build a truly unique and long-lasting wardrobe.”

To hop aboard the raw denim train, scroll on to discover 23 pairs, from slim-fit and cropped to barrel and straight legs.

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