The Dark Side of the Loom: The Seven Hurdles that Raw Denim Lovers Have All Cleared

We’ve spilled gallons of ink singing the praises of raw denim. How it looks and feels, its durability, its authenticity, its relatively small environmental footprint—these are all big draw cards for raw denim. But we understand better than most that raw denim is still a tough sell for first timers. Some of those who dip a toe in the pool get tired of struggling with their jeans. Rather than sticking it out, they re-trace their steps back to the world of mass-market denim, where things are (we will admit) considerably easier.

This is understandable. We can face facts: the raw denim experience isn’t a pleasure cruise. It’s an obstacle course. We need to clear a row of hurdles before we get to the stages when it can start feeling like a love match. Some clear these obstacles with ease, sometimes in a single leap; others fall at the first hurdle.

Perhaps you’re one of those who fell early in the race. You’re sitting on the sidelines, blowing cool air onto your skinned knees and contemplating a second run. Before you pick yourself up and dust yourself off, here’s a look at the other hurdles that are still ahead of you.

Hurdle #1: Cost

The first two hurdles are the ones that trip up most of those who either never try or give up on raw denim after their first attempt. The first one, cost, is a big one. If you’re used to non-selvedge, non-designer denim, a good pair of selvedge costs at least twice as much as you usually pay for a pair of jeans—perhaps much more than this, depending on where and how you shop.

Selvedge denim, produced slowly on narrow looms, is costlier to produce. We’ve outlined some of the reasons for this here, so we won’t go into much detail. Suffice to say, raw denim is an entirely different animal than mass-market, non-selvedge denim. Invest in a well-made pair and you’ll soon see why denimheads have sworn off the cheap stuff for good. Denimheads aren’t a wasteful bunch. They are getting significant value for their money.

Hurdle #2: Discomfort

The second big hurdle trips up nearly as many as the first. Raw denim feels nothing like the pre-faded and lightweight denim that you might be used to. Especially if the denim is heavy, it will feel as stiff as cardboard the first time you slide it on. Rather than moving with you, it will resist you at every step, and the backs of your hands will be raw if you regularly slide your hands into your pockets.

Think of the denim’s heaviness and stiffness as a feature, not a bug. The beautiful features of contrast fades (whiskers, honeycombs, and stacks) are a product of the struggle between a man and his jeans. Raw denim needs to be subdued to become comfortable, and it won’t lay down without a fight. The discomfort will pass when you’ve beaten some of the fight out of your pair. The resulting fades will be more than worth the effort.

Hurdle #3: Time

The fades and the comfort will come, but you’ll need to wait for them. If you’re wearing your jeans daily or near daily, you should expect to have the upper hand within a few months. If you’re only able to wear them once or twice a week, you’ll have to wait much longer than that.

Not everybody has the patience to wait out the long break-in period, and fewer still have the fortitude required to stay with the jeans until the fades have truly arrived. If it were easy and fast, everybody would have a beautifully faded pair in their collection. Beautiful fades are rare for a reason.

Even if you’re enjoying the process, resist the urge to add more pairs to your collection until you’ve well and truly faded the pair you started. Make the most of your time by spending all of it with just one pair. The fastest way to a collection full of beautifully faded pairs is to fade one pair at a time. If you need some encouragement, consider joining a fade competition like the Indigo Invitational.  

Hurdle #4: The Smell

If it’s contrast fades that you want, you’ll have to put off that first wash for as long as possible. The longer you keep you can go between washes, the sharper those contrasts will be. The most important wash will be the first one. Aim for around the six-month mark for that first wash, but be aware that you may fall significantly short of this. Let your nose guide you.

If your jeans start to give off an odour, turning them inside out and letting them air out (ideally in the sun) for a few hours is usually enough to freshen them up. If that’s not enough, no matter how much you want those contrasts, it’s time to give them a bath. Don’t subject your loved ones, friends, or coworkers to the smell of sour jeans. If they stop passing the sniff test, wash them.

Hurdle #5: Shrink and Stretch

Far more than you’ll find with mass-market denim, the sizing experience for raw denim is one of trial and error. You might get lucky and find a brand that fits you perfectly both before and after that all-important first wash, but, even if you stick with a brand you know and love, some denims might surprise you. It might shrink by as much as 10% the first time it is exposed to water, or it might relax too much with wear, leading to a less-than-ideal fit.

Almost every denimhead has a story about the perfect pair that became unwearable after wash or wear. To avoid a similar experience, make sure you include both stretch and shrinkage in your calculations when looking at sizes. With most sanforized denims, the shrink and stretch will cancel each other out, but even sanforized denims can catch you by surprise. If you can’t find clear information about how much shrinkage and stretch you can expect, ask for it. 

Hurdle #6: Selection

Most brands in the raw denim space feature a core collection of fits and a range of just a few denims to choose from. If you’re looking for something dark and classically cut, you’ll be spoiled for choice. If you’re looking for something unique—a colour other than dark blue, or an atypical fit—your list of options will shrink considerably.

If you’re finding it difficult to find exactly what you’re looking for, your best bet will be made-to-measure denim from a brand that has a wide range of raw denims and fits that be customized from top to bottom. You can start your custom denim journey with SOSO here

Hurdle #7: Availability

The final hurdle might not be a hurdle at all—depending on where you live. The world of retail has been slow to catch on to the benefits of raw denim, and this goes double in smaller cities. In denim hubs like New York, San Francisco, Amsterdam, London, and Stockholm, raw denim won’t be difficult to track down. In smaller cities or towns, though, you’ll be lucky to find a single stockist.

Most denimheads purchase their jeans online. This means that most of us (myself included) only rarely get to try before we buy. Avoid disappointment by never compromising on your fit numbers. Even if the price is perfect, if the measurements aren’t on the money, walk away. Find a brand that speaks to you and build a collection slowly, or find a made-to-measure brand and tweak the measurements until you’ve found your forever pair.

Clear this final hurdle, and the rest of the track will be smooth going. Once you’ve gone through the difficult process of finding, purchasing, breaking in, and fading a pair of raw denim, it’s likely that you’ll never go back to the mass-market brands. Until you’ve cleared those hurdles, raw denim will seem like a difficult choice—or maybe even the wrong one. Stick with it and, in time, you’ll learn that it was the best denim decision you ever made. 

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