If you’re serious about jeans, you’ve almost certainly bumped into the word “selvage” already.
Some people hold selvage up to be the gold standard of denim. Other people are just so over it already. And most people (let’s be honest here) aren’t 100% sure what it is, and don’t want to look or feel dumb.
Cheer up, read on and don’t stress. Selvage is easy to understand and even easier to wear.
What Does Selvage Mean?
Selvage denim is denim that comes off the loom with a finished edge woven into the bolt of cloth itself.
Some eyes are already starting to glaze over, so let’s make this really simple: in the cheapest modern method of producing denim, bolts come off the loom with unfinished edges. That means the edges are about what you’d get if you just cut a strip of denim out of the center of your jeans: loose thread ends that will quickly start to fray.
An older and more costly manufacturing process produces narrower bolts of cloth with self-finished edges (hence “selvage,” a derivation of “self-edged”). The edges of selvage denim have a woven band of cloth around the edge, usually marked off with a colored thread, which secures the weave and prevents unraveling.
Identifying Selvedge Denim
The most efficient way to cut denim into jeans typically ends up with the edges of the original bolt joined at the outer leg seam. That means looking at the inner seam is the best way to identify selvage denim.
In the regular, non-selvage stuff, the seam will be overlaid with several strips of stitching. That’s because you’re not just seeing the stitching of the seam — you’re also seeing the stitching that was used to seal the edges of the uncut cloth, preventing it from fraying before it could be used.
Selvage denim, on the other hand, will have a smooth seam, on either side of which there is a small band of “finished” cloth that looks like the outer surface of the jeans. The finished edges are usually bordered with a colored line or stripe.
These days you’ll see fakes that add a strip of colored fabric to the seam, but these are easy to spot. Get up close and look for visible stitching attaching one piece of cloth to another. If you can see that, it’s not selvage. Selvage is all of a single piece, including the colored or contrasting strip at the edge. The only stitching will be the stitching that actually joins the edges together to make the leg seam.
What Selvage Isn’t
The term has gotten associated with high-quality, upper-end denim products, but selvage on its own doesn’t inherently mean a better product.
Remember, the word only refers to how the bolts of raw cloth are finished along their edges. Everything else is up to the manufacturers of both the cloth and the finished jeans.
Selvage denim is often raw denim, but it doesn’t have to be and it certainly isn’t guaranteed to be. Similarly, it’s often woven thick and tight for a stiff, sturdy pair of jeans — but again, that won’t always be the case.
The weight of the denim and the treatment it receives before wear will have just as much affect (if not more) as the edging. The only thing “selvage” really guarantees you is those smooth, tight edges on the inner seam.
Higher Quality, Higher Costs
All other things being equal, a pair of selvage jeans will be a little sturdier at the leg seam than a pair of regular, non-selvage jeans. That’s because the edges aren’t relying on stitched thread to prevent fraying — the selvage is part of the cloth’s structure itself, and in theory should last as long as the rest of the cloth. (Longer, really, since it’s doubled over on itself.)
That comes with a cost, however. Denim can’t be selvaged on the projectile looms commonly used for mass manufacturing. A smaller, more complicated machine called a shuttle loom is used instead.
Shuttle looms are harder to use and produce narrower bolts of cloth, both of which drive up the costs of selvage denim. As a result, a pair of selvage jeans can easily start upwards of $100 — and that’s without any other premium factors.
In exchange, you’re getting jeans that are much less prone to fraying at the edge of the cloth along the leg seam. It’s also a much neater seam, with less bulk and none of the fuzzy-looking stitching layers of non-selvage jeans.
At the end of the day, selvage jeans are just that: jeans. You can wear them like any other pair of sturdy denim pants.
Lately the fashion has been for wearing them cuffed to show off the selvage. Since most selvage manufacturers put a contrasting colored edge on the bolts, that adds some pop to the ankle.
The usual caveats on cuffing your jeans apply: it’ll look better if you’ve got a thick, stiff fabric (raw denim works great) with a straight leg. Selvage runs in straight lines, so try to avoid any slumping or bunching with the inside-out edge on display.
A big shoe helps carry the look. Think chukkas, classic work shoes, and similar footwear.
Is Selvage Denim Worth It?
That’s a question only you can answer — but if you’re serious about quality denim jeans, it’s probably worth at least trying a pair.
Selvage is a crisp look (which you can show off by cuffing or just enjoy privately), a sturdy material and a touchstone for workwear history. It costs a little more than denim with unfinished edges, but once you factor in the longer lifespan of cloth that isn’t naturally fraying at the edges it about works out.
Your best bet is to make selvaging one of several factors you weigh, rather than the only thumbs-up/thumbs-down. A pair of sturdy selvage raw denim jeans that you’re going to break in and wear the heck out of for years is worth a decent chunk of money. A pair of standard weight jeans with a shorter life span might be worth a smaller investment.
Use your head, and don’t get buffaloed by one word. It’s just a small part of the jeans — although, admittedly, a pretty cool part.