What is selvedge denim? How do you wash raw denim? How do I authentically rip and distress denim? Patience my child, all will be revealed.

In this article we’re going to focus on the garment that has weathered plentiful trends, adorned icons and provided an identity for a multitude of sub genres since its conception in 1873, the denim jean.

Jacob Davis a Latvian immigrant and tailor to the workers on the American railroad was constantly being asked to reinforce the stress points. He lacked the enterprise and the finance to go it alone with his ambition to introduce the rivets, so approached Levi Strauss who fronted the cash and risk. A bit like a 19th century version of Dragon’s Den.

The 501 was launched and has taken on many guises since. We’ll begin the journey by asking what is Selvedge Denim? We’ll work our way through the decades with Raw, Stonewash and offer care and styling tips along the way.

What is Selvedge Denim and where is it produced? 

What is selvedge denim? You’ll need to dial back all the way to the 1920’s to find the original hand looms that were used to create selvedge denim. These were called Toyoda Looms, named after Sakichi Toyoda, the founder of Toyota Industries Corporation.

That’s right, the car makers. Sakichi was also a dab hand at carpentry and many thought of him as the crazy man in the shed. From the Toyota Industries website:

“.. Working in a barn, he built and destroyed a number of looms. Some people began to think of him (Sakichi) as being strange. Immersed in his efforts, this did not bother him at all. 

In the autumn of the same year, Sakichi’s first successful invention was accomplished. It was known as the Toyoda wooden hand loom. Sakichi received his first patent for that loom in 1891. He was 24 years old.”

These Japanese looms from Toyoda are still working today. Japan remains the world’s top producer of high-end selvedge denim.

style selvedge denim

So in a nutshell, what is Selvedge denim exactly?

In an interview with Menswear Style, owner and founder of Rivet and Hide Danny Hodgson describes what is Selvedge Denim.

“Selvedge refers to the type of loom the fabric is woven on. In the hay day of the 50s when Brando and Dean wore it, denim was woven on shuttle looms, the edges come out finished. 

Any denim produced on shuttle looms is referred to as a ‘Self Edge’, hence selvedge denim.”

Can you get Selvedge Denim anywhere else? 

In an article on Raw and Selvedge denim in the Art of Manliness they highlight a few companies in the U.S. producing denim on old shuttle looms. The most prominent selvedge denim mill is Cone Cotton Mill’s White Oak factory in North Carolina.

White Oak sources the cotton for their denim from cotton grown in the U.S., so their denim is 100% grown and woven in the USA.

You might be thinking how can Selvedge denim be found so cheaply today? Well most are done with modern looms, in sweatshops with minimal workers’ rights that are left wanting on both character and quality of fabric.

Ok so hopefully you understand what is selvedge denim, but how do you wear Selvedge Denim? 

denim turn ups

People like to show the selvedge that traditionally denotes the quality. After all what is selvedge denim if not a display of wealth and craftsmanship? Some people don’t feel the need. There was definitely a trend towards big turn ups. (See above).

If you fold them three times, that’s not ideal, it’s too thick. But if you fold them three times for the first two weeks of wearing them, then wear them with a twofold, they often come set and rigid.

The selvage edge is usually stitched with coloured thread: green, white, brown, yellow, and red (red is the most common).

How to wash your RAW DENIM?

Aside from being asked what is selvedge denim, denim specialists are constantly quizzed on the best way to wash raw denim. According to Josey Orr co-founder of Dyer and Jenkins, an L.A.-based company that’s producing raw and selvedge denim in the United States, you should look to wash your jeans 4-5 times a year and as described.

  • Fill up a bathtub with lukewarm water
  • Add a teaspoon of detergent
  • Let jeans soak for 45 minutes
  • Give them a bit of a scrub to remove any dirt and grime
  • Rinse off with cold water
  • Hang them outside to dry (if it’s raining outside, line dry them inside — just don’t use the dryer).

Hold on now I’m confused. What is selvedge denim and what is raw denim? 

Selvedge refers to the edge on the denim and raw refers to a lack of pre-washing on the fabric.

While most selvedge jeans on the market are also made with raw denim, you can find jeans that are made from selvedge fabric but have been pre-washed, too. Got it? Cool, moving on.

Should I pre-soak my Raw Denim?

“Also known as ‘dry denim’, raw denim remains untouched after the dyeing and/or sanforization process and is not washed or chemically treated.” – Tellason, Denim Ateliers from San Francisco

There is an internet worm hole out there that has the uncanny resemblance of the pit of Sarlacc, with a sign just afoot from its repugnant mouth, inscribed with the blood of hapless foot soldiers ‘Should I pre-soak my Raw Denim’. Beneath that wormhole lies an aching abyss of contradiction filled with angry denim purists crying words like ‘unsaforized’ to each other in a pointless-pugilistic race to the bottom.

As Ramirez would say to Highlander, “I’ll ssshaaave you that pain”. Instead take away some nuggets of information in the points on the correct definitions.

Sanforization is a process done on the fabric, before it’s cut and sewn into a garment, to get rid of shrinkage. It’s a technical process that requires special machinery.

This is not to be confused with one-wash. One-wash denim is raw denim which has been pre-washed to remove the shrinkage from the fabric.

A simple guide on washing denim can be found below, thanks to the Tellason guide.

how to soak denim

Father: Is this some new fashion I’ve never heard of?

Jimmy: They’re Levi’s.

Father: Well never mind what they are, they’re bleedin’ wet!

Jimmy: You’ve got to shrink them on ya’ so they fit right.

black jeans boots

Stonewash Distressed

Whilst the origins of Stone washed jeans have been accredited to a few different parties. (Levi’s and Edwin have both laid claim), it is commonly accepted that French stylists Marithé + François Girbaud are inventors of industrialisation of stone washing (“Stonewash” technic).

During the 70’s Stone wash was achieved by washing the jeans with pumice in a rotating drum. Later a similar effect was achieved by using a solution of bleach or potassium permanganate, this produced the more transgressive Acid washed look.

Californian surfers were some of the early evangelists of the stonewash denim look. The process of achieving the lived-in look was facilitated by hanging out the denim in the sun for lengthy periods of time.

For many surfers, this fading process simply took too long, so they sped up the process by soaking the jeans in diluted bleach and some beach sand.

The 80’s became the pinnacle of the stone wash look. Films like Flashdance in 1983 catapulted the look into the mainstream, bottling the emancipation of youth with the Girbaud duo creating the costumes for main stars Jennifer Beals and Michael Nouri.

How to wear Stonewash denim

The stone wash look became the mainstay of celluloid attire throughout the 80’s. Francis Ford Coppola’s cult classic The Outsiders perpetuated the obsession. A diaspora of US glam rock bands such as Jon Bon Jovi and Guns & Roses propelled the look and augmented it with tears, deconstruction and embroidery. In the UK we had Bros. Sadly.

Although the deconstruction of Denim had been a thing long before Bros. The British punk movement of the 70’s were donning torn pants and jackets, accessorised with safety pins and slogans, determined to abstain from convention to amplify their politically fueled ideologies.

What were the punks rebelling against? Well like Marlon Brando from The Wild Ones said when confronted “what are you rebelling against?” Brando says “what have you got?”

In the UK in the 70s unemployment was high, strikes were frequent, Callahan’s government were seen as ineffectual and the Conservatives seen as threatening. The symbolic, yet cerebral pseudo-intellectual lyrics that had been so popular in the 60’s with songs like Whiter Shade of Pale and A Day in the Life, were no longer resonating with the critical mass.

punk denim jeans

Enter the Sex Pistols, with the talismanic Johnny Rotten spearheading a revolution with lyrics like “we don’t care about long hair, we don’t wear flares, see my face not a trace, no reality, I don’t work I just speed that’s all I need I’m a lazy sod.” The lyrics, the attitude, the destruction of style, all magically crystallising the nations unrest and desire and for destabilising an inefficient political hierarchy that did little for the working classes.

One of the earliest pictures of bleached jeans comes from the archives of photographer Jenny Lens, snapping X singer Exene Cervenka and scenester Pleasant Gehman in a shower at a loft where the pioneering fanzine Slash was throwing a party for Devo.

“Pleasant had bleached her jeans and written ‘Slash’ for Slash magazine,” she explains. “Nobody had bleached jeans then. We did a lot of things that other people weren’t doing.”

slash magazine shower denim

How do I bleach-dye my jeans? 

There is a modicum of method to the anarchic aesthetic. Yet the beauty in this bleach-dyed denim, no matter the result, is that it’s always on the cusp of looking, well, rather naff I suppose. A kaleidoscopic mess of blotched off-white, asymmetrical globules compounds the true philosophy of deconstruction, an aberrational eye-sore.

Spoken like a true 40-year-old, I know.

Having dyed and ruined many jeans in my time I’d like to offer the following technique on how to bleach your denim 70’s style.

  • Living in a house-share? Warn your mates the bathtub will be off-limits for 24 hours.
  • Stuff the legs of the denims with newspaper.
  • Put on some music, more Ramones, less Bee Gees.
  • With complete abandon, wistfully lash bleach across the denim and pretend to know what you’re doing.
  • Leave overnight.
  • Do the same on the other side in the morning, hang on washing line or out of bedroom window for true 70’s nostalgia.
  • Crucially, wash out the bathtub. As a rule, respect all communal spaces.
  • Wash independently when you return home from work.
  • Any good? Probably not. But you had a go.

how to wear ripped denim

And ripping the denim? 

Ripped jeans were simply a result of over-wearing.  Prior to the 1970’s, ripped jeans were mainly associated with the impoverished working class who could not afford to part with their denim.

Nowadays factories can distress their denim on mass through a variety of practices. My favourite is this anonymous source whom are clearly flouting the health and safety practices. (The worker’s hands come perilously close to that laser).

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vTIxFNdZfIA

The more expensive brands do their distressing by hand with sandpaper. Citizens of Humanity for example do all their abrasions by hand before it reaches the shelves.

If you were looking to distress your denim yourself then there are numerous ways. Here’s a step by step guide.

  • Mark the areas where you want the jeans to be distressed with a pen.
  • Try not to make the lines too even as ‘boxy rips’ look very unnatural.
  • Pockets and knees are the most common areas of wear and tear on jeans so start by experimenting with those.
  • Put a magazine into one of the legs to prevent any slits going through to the other side.
  • Don’t make your tears with scissors. Initially make the snip and then cut along the line with a kitchen knife or bread cutter. The more serrated the blade the better the fray.
  • Then you’ll need a seam picker to pull the weft and warp threads, depending whether you want horizontal and vertical distress.

 

This demo by Elevated Ike is one of the better tutorials online.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S_a3-J_VohE

How do I put abrasions in to my denim?

Abrasions are a cool way to embroider a very personal touch to your denim. Whilst sandpaper is the go-to weapon, you can also run a razor back and forth the edges of pockets and belt loops to get the desired effect.

Here’s a step by step guide.

  • On a piece of cardboard or felt, create a silhouette of what you would like to appear on your denim. E.G Skull and Crossbones, Initials, Brand logo etc.
  • Place that silhouette into a pocket.
  • Next, fold a piece of sandpaper around a deck of cards and start scraping away on the silhouette.
  • After about 5 minutes, put the jeans in the wash and dry and your personal abrasions will take shape.

For a tutorial on decorative abrasion detail check out the video below.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rsFgFg_Lano

Deconstructing your own denim is as close as you can get to wearing art. It provides an overriding sense of individualism and the more creative you are, the more you’ll enjoy it.

We hope this article answered a variety of questions you may have had on what is selvedge denim, how to distress your jeans and if you have any more tips or questions then please get in touch.