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Buying Jeans – What You Should Know

Over the years of trying and testing different jeans, I have finally put out a guide into buying jeans that will help you and the guy next to you get the right pair. A few years ago I decided to ditch all of my jeans and try something new. As I do with everything, I did a bit of research first. I ended up trying some J Brand, Joe’s Jeans, Hudson, and a few other brands you typically find at the mall or department stores, but they are all pretty similar – soft, lightweight, basic. Then I stumbled upon something called raw denim, and tried out a cheap pair from a startup company. I basically stopped wearing any other type of jeans immediately. This brought upon more research, and a LOT of trial and error to get it right. Here is what you should know.

What is Raw Denim?

Raw (or dry denim) is simply denim fabric that remains unwashed, untreated, and virtually untouched from when it rolls off the loom to when it is sold to you. It’s denim in its purest form. Depending on how heavy and how much starch is used, raw denim usually has a crisp and stiff feel. It really feels like denim. The way I like to describe the difference between raw and washed denim is this.. you go to the bank and grab a crisp, freshly printed hundred dollar bill. It feels extremely smooth, luxurious, and looks nice. Now you grab another hundred dollar bill that you accidentally threw in the washer and dryer. It looks somewhat discolored, worn out, soft, but not so nice anymore. To me, that is the biggest difference. I usually want my jeans to look and feel nice.

Why Buy Raw Jeans?

Well, other than what I just pointed out, there are a lot of reasons. Here are some.

The sizing is extremely technical

When you buy a pair of Hudson jeans, you get a tag size. These sizes are usually vanity sized. You don’t know much about the fit, cut, thickness, or how they are going to look unless you try them on ahead of time. With raw denim it is way different. Most websites list the size, true waist measurement, front rise, back rise, upper thigh, knee, inseam, leg opening, you name it. It makes it extremely easy to shop around, buy online, and know exactly how the jean will fit before you even try them on. Most websites tell you exactly how they measure their jeans for their size listings. A good example can be found HERE. Just click on “> Details” under the Denim section of the fit guide.

Now when you see how they measure their jeans, you can go to an actual pair of jeans on the website and look at the measurements they list for that pair. Then take one of your own pairs of jeans where the fit is how you want it, and measure them according to their guide. This should give you a pretty good idea of what you want to find for measurements, but sometimes it’s not perfect. I have done plenty of trial and error, buying, returning them, buying another size, having to tailor it, but once you buy a particular size and you know which parts are too big or too small, it helps you know what to look for the next time.

Tailoring is also definitely an option. Most raw denim comes super long for people who want to roll them up, but all you have to do is get them hemmed if you want them shorter. Find the perfect pair but the jeans are too wide leg, or the thighs are perfect but the leg opening too large? Tailor can also taper them easily. Tailors can make it fit right. Finding your fit can be a bit tricky, and I have spent plenty of money and experimenting getting mine right. BUT at this point I can look online and know pretty much exactly how a pair of jeans is going to fit me before I even try them on, just looking at the listed measurements. Once you figure out what your perfect measurements are, you can feel very happy about your selections.

They will fade just like your washed/styled pairs, but will stretch/fade/break-in according to how you wear them

It can be a really fun process to see fades start to come out, the denim contour to your body, and how many different ways you can manipulate the fading or color. Raw denim stretches and breaks in the more you wear it, so it will eventually fit and look somewhat uniquely to you.

You can buy lightweight pairs for the summer, extremely thick pairs for the winter, or anything in between

With so many denim weights, and the majority of them always listed, you can really experiment with how thick you like your jeans. I like mine midweight, and love the thick pairs for the winter. I hate when a pair of jeans flails around like a pair of slacks, it is supposed to be firm, and feel like something more than thin fabric.

Raw denim styles, colors, textures, and customizations are endless

Different types of cotton. Different textures. So many different fabrics from so many different mills and countries. So many different combinations of warp and weft. I will go over some.

What is Selvedge?

Selvedge, or “self edge” denim, is the self-binding edge of a fabric woven on a shuttle loom, a more vintage process with higher quality. Not all raw denim is selvedge denim, but the high quality pairs typically are. Selvedge denim is also more expensive, but if you like to roll or cuff your denim, or if you want to try something new with them or just like to buy the highest quality, selvedge is for you.

Selvedge leaves one continuous yarn at all the edges so the fabric self seals without any stray yarns. The most well known is Cone Mills which has produced denim out of their White Oak Plant in Greensboro, North Carolina, since the early 1900s. They’re also the last selvedge denim manufacturer left in the United States. Other noteworthy mills include Kuroki, Nihon Menpu, Collect, Kaihara, Kurabo, Nisshinbo, and Toyoshima, all of which are in Japan, Candiani and Blue Selvedge in Italy.

Almost all of the artisanal denim brands will specify which mill their denim is coming from, so look for the names listed above. Cone mills is super popular, especially among small shops and startup denim manufacturers in the U.S. who can travel to the mill and get their hands on some easier than dealing with Japanese mills.

Cotton

Have any idea what type of cotton 7 For All Mankind or Citizens of Humanity use? I don’t, and probably the standard kind. Cotton can be sourced from many different countries, ranging from Australia to Zimbabwe; and there are a variety of breeds and strains that have different properties like luster, softness, and durability. Many raw denim websites or companies make sure to talk about the cotton they use, or what else they add to the mix – whether it be blends with linen, hemp, cashmere, etc.

“Staple Length” refers to the length of the fibers of any given material. In terms of cotton, this is the average length within a sample of a species. Cotton with longer staple lengths tends to produce softer and hairier fabrics than those with shorter ones. There are many types of cottons, but one you will see often in high-end raw denim is Zimbabwean cotton.

One of the longest staple cottons on the planet and also one of the rarest. This variety is only grown by a handful of farmers in Southern Africa and only harvested by hand. Labels like Momotaro, IronHeart, Kicking Mule Workshop, and 45rpm work primarily in Zimbabwe denim for its substantial weight, luster, and ability to soak up indigo. Zimbabwean cotton is also best for producing the naturally uneven slub yarns. How the cotton is spun is also important.

Weight

Obviously thicker fabric is more expensive, and thicker denim is more durable and harder to find. I would say the average pair of jeans you buy at the mall, or even from a place like Bloomingdale’s or Nordstrom where you find the more popular labels is around 9oz. A typical raw denim weight is 12.5 oz, which I consider more on the lightweight side. Medium weight is typically 13oz-16oz, and Heavyweight is 16oz+. Once you hit 20+ oz this is generally when the denim is $250+ because the fabrics become hard to find, manufacture, and sew. There are still plenty of options for Heavyweight, however.

Raw vs. One-Wash vs. Unsanforized

One Wash

Raw denim I went over already. “One Wash” denim is also something you will see often, which is a raw pair which has been either rinsed, soaked, or washed once to remove some of the starch, make them softer, and pre-shrink them. Yes, these are not raw anymore, but they still carry a lot of the benefits of the original raw pair, like the weight, customization, and texture. One of the biggest benefits of a one-wash pair is that is actually unlocks or brings out a lot more of the texture and unique elements of the raw pair, although you lose some of the sleek and luxurious nature of the raw denim. They also tend to lose a bit of the color and get slightly lighter in shade as some indigo washes out.

Unsanforized

Most denim on the market (raw and otherwise) is sanforized, which is a steaming and heating process that pre-shrinks the fabric before it is cut and sewn into jeans. It also removes a lot of the hairiness of the cotton so they are even more smooth and sleek. Unsanforized denim does not go through this process, so it is typically more hairy and textured. It is raw denim in its purest form, but there are pros and cons. If they ever need a wash, they will shrink much more and may become too tight. They can also be too hairy and lose some of the nice feel, just like one-wash denim. However, you get more texture this way and can keep the lovely denim-stiffness which will help with fading.

Customizing Your Pair

Now that we went through selvedge, unsanforized, and denim weight, what else is there? The special stuff you can’t find with normal jeans. When I talk about these special characteristics, I am really going to highlight EXTREME EXAMPLES so you can really see it in action. When I buy denim, I look for subtle ways they show off some these special features they can add to give the denim some character. A bit of slub is awesome, super slub looks like too much. Some neps here and there are killer – but it can go overboard too. Just the right mix of everything is something rare and hard to come by, but it is what I like to look for.

Warp and Weft

Weft is the underside of jeans. If you turn your jeans inside out, you are showing off the weft. The outside color is the warp, and the inside color is the weft. This can really add a lot of character to your jeans depending on the color combination. Indigo x Black? Looks awesome. Indigo x Indigo, Black x Black – my favorites to roll up. Here are some of the ways weft can affect the jeans, and how much of it shows through to the front.

Black with White Weft – adds brightness and makes them look somewhat grey Indigo x Indigo – looks like over-dyed blue, no weft show-through Indigo with Olive/Yellowish weft, very unique Indigo with a good amount of White weft show-through, brings out texture and brightness. The possibilities are endless here. You can find so many shades depending on what warp and weft you choose. Another thing to note is stitching – tonal stitching makes the jean look dressier in my opinion, and the really neat jeans use a variety of stitching colors to add some character.

Nep

When a garment is neppy, or has nep, it usually just means that the fabric of the garment has been woven in a way that some of the cotton fibers extend and protrude from the main surface. Usually these fabrics tend to posses a “snowy” look, as if fresh fallen snow is sitting on the surface of the denim. As the jeans fade, it will produce an even more snowy effect and can really look amazing.

Slub

The most often used. Slub refers to denim fabric made with indigo warp yarn which differs in thickness throughout. When the denim is woven and made into garments, the result will be a denim without a uniform texture which will have a much different hand than a denim woven with traditional yarns. In some slubby denims, a technique called loom chatter is employed during the weaving process to help make the finished fabric even more textured. The layman’s explanation of loom chatter is that the shuttle looms that are used to weave the fabric are set to a low tension level while they weave.

This lower tension setting makes the looms literally shake while they weave the denim – an action which, in addition to the naturally uneven nature of the yarn used to weave the denim, makes the product even more uneven and textured. I refer to slub as “streakiness” in the denim because it usually just runs up and down the jeans in lines. Some slub techniques leave the jeans looking more grainy in general or with a cross-hatch look, which I will showcase differently.

Cross-Hatch

When slub or weft looks a bit uneven both vertically and horizontally, it can be a really nice look. It looks like it has some texture and character without being too uneven looking. This can be a bit harder to find than regular slub, but I appreciate a good cross-hatch.

Grainy

Grainy denim can look pretty awesome and many companies like Oni and Pure Blue Japan do it very well. In my opinion it is when slub is done right, so it gives it a lot of texture without making the jeans look too uneven. One-wash denim brings out the grainy texture more than raw denim, but you can still find it in raw denim or especially in loomstate or unsanforized denim as well.

Twill

One more thing you might run into is a pair of jeans that references its “twill.” There can be right hand twill (very common), left hand twill (rare), and broken twill (even more rare). Right hand twill is tight and has a flat/smooth surface which produces very defined fades. Left hand twill is softer and when worn over time usually produces a more fuzzy and vertical fade pattern. Broken twill uses a combination of both and alternates them to produce a zig-zag pattern with more texture and almost a lightly-slubby look to it. Broken twill was originally used to prevent leg twist of the fabric, and it carries a lot of character.

Now Find Your Shade

As you can imagine, denim comes in so many shades. Have you found your favorite? Some indigo blue jeans can look more greyish, greencast, true indigo, deep indigo, it can go on forever. I prefer the darker blues, but sometimes the right amount of white weft can make them look bright and incredible.

What If I Just Want A Sleek Pair?

Not into nep, slub, or grain? Just want a really nice looking pair of jeans? There are plenty of raw denim companies who do that well. I have owned so many pairs of raw and washed jeans, and I would say some of my all-time greats in terms of “wow, these are really nice” would have to be the Raleigh Denim Jones Original Selvedge, Imogene + Willie Barton Rigid, 3×1 M3 XX Raw, and PRPS Indigo Raw, but that is just a sampling. This has to be the easiest thing to find though. So many companies do a nice pair of raws well, you just have to find your fit, shade, weight, and how much you are willing to pay.

Fading

When people talk about raw denim, it is usually all about the fades. People love to show off how much they have broken in a particular pair, or how long they have owned them. Personally, I like mine to stay nice looking, and there are ways to lock in a specific fade or color so it will not lose the look you like too much. When you look online, you will see a lot of raw denim that gets to a level I would not want to reach with fading, but to each his own. I love when the electric blue starts to come out though. Just know you don’t have to take fading to the extreme, if you don’t want to.

IN CONCLUSION

Raw denim is the best, and what’s so great about it is that you are not just paying for a name on a label, it is all about the fabric. I especially love Japanese denim because they go out of the box with unique fabrics and you can save some money buying them direct from Japan. Someone once asked me if I was worried about being ripped off with the threat of being sold fake jeans since I was buying them online from Japan. That is what is so great about raw denim – you can’t fake a good fabric, you just can’t.

Pure Blue Japan uses one machine which has been adjusted to output fabric which features an uneven and hairy weave – a low tension machine, resulting in a slubby and rough feeling denim for most of their denim which must be shared and divided into small productions of each denim from a particular series at a time. Because of this, the denim from this one machine is so special that when they want to make one style, they have to halt production on their other styles. You can’t just fake that. Nor can you fake a heavyweight 22 oz pair of jeans with a brown weft and a particular colored selvedge line. Great fabric is what it is, and can only be found from certain companies.

If you want to find something truly special, I would check out brands like Pure Blue Japan, Oni, Momotaro, Samurai, or Naked & Famous.

Places To Browse

Websites like Cultizm, Blue in Green Soho, Okayama Denim, Tate & Yoko, Denimio, Blue Owl, and Self Edge all have stuff you won’t find anywhere else. Blue in Green and Self Edge have actual stores in NYC which are fantastic to visit, as well as great online stores. Other websites like Heddel’s Denim Scout let you search by weight, color, and fit, but the search engine isn’t the best and excludes a lot of stuff you would think they would have on there, but it can still be helpful.

Other websites like Gustin also let you try custom fabrics you won’t find anywhere else, but the build quality isn’t the best and you have to wait a while to receive it. If I had to pick one brand to start with, it would definitely be Japan Blue – exceptional denim in many styles, colors, and unique fabrics for great prices if you buy direct from Japan at a place like Denimio or Okayama Denim. You can also ask your friend here to help, he doesn’t mind. Or you can try Deocariza Custom Denim so you will have options on how you want your jeans to fit and look.

One Last Note

Many of these techniques can apply to a lot of other products, and you will really begin to notice and keep an eye out for special fabrics and looks. I hope this Buying Jeans Guide provides an invaluable information that you can use when you get your next pair.

Happy Hunting.