Denimology – An Intro to Raw Denim

Now that Antonio Centeno has given you the low-down on selvage fabric and what makes it different from the denim you may be more used to, let’s explore the other key aspect to what makes up a fine pair of jeans — the wash.

After yarn has been dyed, woven into a fabric, and cut/sewn into a pair of jeans, the final element to consider is the finishing process those jeans are put through before they hit stores. For the better part of the last four decades, jeans have been pre-washed and distressed to mimic those storied “favorite pair of jeans” you had when you were a kid (or your parents had when they were growing up). The style of these “washes” has changed with the times, ranging from the uniform colored stonewashes to creased and distressed denim that has been more popular as of late. The jeans these washes are meant to replicate (or come close to) were probably unwashed, otherwise known as “raw” or “dry” denim. They may have even been unsanforized, meaning they hadn’t been pre-shrunk. These jeans were bought slightly over-sized because they would shrink a size or two upon their first wash or soak.

Raw denim, whether it is pre-shrunk or not, often comes in a uniform, dark indigo color and a very starchy feel. Over time and as you wear and wash this type of denim, it will begin to look a lot like the store-bought washed jeans you might be more familiar with. Many denim enthusiasts prefer raw denim because any wear and color fading that occurs will be their own doing, meaning the end result will be a unique looking pair of jeans:

As you can see the raw selvage denim is dark and uniform in color to begin with. After significant wear, however, patterns will form based on how the jeans and their owner move throughout the day. Lee offers several varieties of both washed and unwashed denim. The raw fabrics are available in our Lee Mercantile and Lee 101 collections – where you can find both KC Wet and KC Dry finishes.

The KC Wet is a new method for dyeing and finishing our denim that will start as a raw fabric, but will go through the break-in and fading process more quickly. This way you get the best of both worlds, enjoying a dark dressier denim when they’re new but also getting to enjoy the look and feel of those old favorites – all beat up and faded to light shades of indigo.

Raw Lee jeans faded to perfection. Photo credit:

The KC Dry is a classic unwashed fabric, and the break-in process will be slower and more gradual – much like the original unwashed denim of the past. While raw denim isn’t necessarily better than washed denim in any way, it does offer different qualities than a washed fabric. There is one school of though that suggests unwashed jeans will last longer than their laundered counterparts because they haven’t been “pre-aged.” The belief here is that you are getting your jeans in their original state, and the aging only goes at the pace with which you wear them. This is certainly true in some regards; however there are others who think the manufactured break-in can actually prevent your jeans from wearing too fast in any one particular spot, eventually resulting in holes and tears.

In my personal experience, there is merit to both ways of looking at it, and they often result in the same level of durability. The real difference lies in whether you hope to have a consistent looking pair of jeans over a long period of time — which you would get in a pair of pre-washed jeans — or something that is going to evolve and change over the course of several wears like a pair of raw denim.

Have you been wearing a pair of raw Lee jeans? We would love to see them and hear about how they are breaking in! Tag us on Instagram or Twitter, or feel free to post about them in the comments section below.

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