Raw Denim, and How to Break in Your Jeans.
Before the 1950's when jeans were purely work wear almost all denim was raw denim. Then, when Marlon Brando and James Dean sported the jeans and T shirt look on the big screen, jeans became style statements and everyday wear. The exponential increase in demand required more cost effective production techniques which saw denim manufacture move from the USA to the Far East where different weaving techniques were used to produce the fabric. Jeans were fashion items and wearers wanted the convenience of ready to wear, soft and comfortable styles. New fashion trends and changing consumer tastes demanded a different kind of denim and so pre-washed and pre-faded jeans became the norm. Then even ripped and distressed styles became de rigueur. Incidentally, if you want to know more about how Marlon Brando changed the history of jeans then take a look at our feature on Jeans trends.
In recent years there has been something of an about face and the interest in raw denim has grown dramatically. This has been partly due to environmental concerns as treating denim involves huge water consumption and the leeching of chemicals into the environment around the factories. Raw denim is back but it is not for everyone.
In the Raw
So what exactly is raw denim? Well raw or dry denim, as it is sometimes known, is denim which has not been washed or distressed after dying, during the manufacturing process of the garment. This means that the fabric is much stiffer than that of treated jeans and that the colour is uniform but will rub off in certain areas when you wear the jeans. This fading will be most notable in places where the jeans crease. The fading and whiskering will be unique to your jeans. Because the raw denim fabric is stiff and because the unique fading is aesthetically desirable, your jeans will need to be broken in to mould to your body, to be softened and to create the unique patterns.
Raw denim is desirable because through wear you can create something which is unique to you but, and it is a significant but, these jeans require patience and dedication to reach their full potential. They are a labour of love which raw denim aficionados approach with the level of devotion more usually afforded to a new puppy or even a deity. Such enthusiasts are slaves to their denim and revel in the process of transforming their particular blank canvas into their own masterpiece.
To achieve your own state of nirvana (perhaps I have ventured a little too far with the hyperbole?) it is necessary to wear your jeans as often as possible over a period of months without washing them. If you are recoiling in horror at the thought of being a stinky, then take heart. Your jeans will not become as disgusting as you might think. Stains often wear off and your jeans are shielded from the sweatiest areas of your lower body by your undergarments. Never go commando when breaking in raw denim! Your jeans are, therefore, unlikely to smell and so people will not shun you. You will not turn into a whiffy outcast and you will be helping the planet by saving oodles of water and energy.
Washing your jeans too soon or too often will disrupt the fading patterns that you are trying to achieve and will dull the colour. You should not wash your jeans for at least six months when breaking them in. Some people wait for a year before cleaning and it has been known for people to never wash their denim. Just check whether your jeans have been sanforized (pre-shrunk) before you wear them because if they haven't then they will shrink by up to 5% when you do wash them and so you should soak them in cool water before you begin the breaking in process.
When you begin the breaking in process your jeans will initially feel stiff and unwieldy. Exactly how stiff will depend on the weight of the denim. The heaviest pairs could leave you feeling like you are walking with a pair of planks strapped to your legs and for a few days you will have to remind yourself that what you are doing is all for a good, if somewhat narcissistic, cause!
As you wear your jeans the unique fading patterns will begin to develop. Do remember that the indigo dye does not merely disappear into the ether. It migrates elsewhere and that elsewhere is whatever the fabric comes into contact with. The things around you and on your person may start turning blue!
There are some things that you can do to hasten the arrival of the much cherished whiskers and fades. Riding a bicycle is a great idea unless it is raining. The leg motion will help to produce some interesting patterns and the seated position will encourage the right moulding to your posterior. Gents should be aware that cycling can lead to excessive wear in the crotch area. Doing lunges will also help wear in seat of your pants and will soften up the knees. Your jeans will break in more quickly if you keep active so take the stairs instead of the lift, walk more and generally keep moving for the best results. Some enthusiasts even recommend sleeping in your denim but that could get uncomfortable, lead to blue sheets and could be well, frankly, a bit of a passion killer.
If you don't mind the breaking in process but are a little wary of nasty niffs then you can always freshen your jeans up a bit from time to time with a deodorising product. Take a look at Mr. Black Denim Refresh if you need a good pick me up for your denim. Hanging your jeans outside in the fresh air overnight will also help and some people swear by freezing their jeans although the jury is still out on whether this actually works.
Raw denim isn't for everyone. The breaking in process is too much hassle for many, especially if they work and cannot wear their jeans in the workplace. However there is no doubt that raw denim has its appeal and that well-worn, faded, distressed and even battered jeans are extremely popular. So much so that some enterprising concerns are acquiring quality, second hand jeans and selling them on, sometimes for more than their original price tags. If you do like raw denim but can't face the tribulations of wearing it in then you do have another option. If you can forego the advantage of the jeans being moulded specifically to your body then you can get someone else to wear them in for you and yes there is a company who offer a service like this!
Passing the Buck
Hiut was initially established to provide employment for people who had lost their jobs during the closure of a jeans factory in Cardigan, Wales. The new jeans were fashioned from raw denim due primarily to environmental concerns but the owners were aware of the demand for jeans that look vintage, distressed or just plain old. They took the novel step of recruiting "breakers" to wear in 50 pairs of the jeans as an experiment. The jeans will be auctioned off with the breakers receiving 20% of the sale price. If the concept proves to be popular then it could develop into some sort of breaking in service. Well I did suggest that raw denim enthusiasts treat their jeans like a new puppy. Using a breaker is like employing someone to walk your dog I suppose.
If you are investing in raw denim then we wish you luck in the coming months of dedicated wear. We hope that the resulting jeans are everything that you hoped for and more, that you avoid bad aromas and that your partner doesn't mind sharing a bed with your jeans!