What does raw and selvedge denim mean and why is it better?

The jeans market is dominated by brands we have come to know over the years such as Levis, Diesel, G-Star Raw, or Calvin Klein to name a few. These brands are more concerned with trends and profits by producing their own fades, distressing or ripping, and quickly adapting to different cuts and thus will look for efficiencies in sourcing materials, methods of construction, cost of labour, and of course the quality of the materials themselves. Mass produced jeans have a place of course for the majority of people.

But what if you wanted a pair of jeans made the traditional way that were made to last, that are made with care by artisans using quality materials, and that take on a character of their own?

You need a pair of raw selvedge denim jeans.

What is selvedge denim?

Selvedge (or selvage) denim is derived from the term “self edge”, referring to the process whereby demim for jeans (or indeed other items like jackets) is made on a shuttle loom allowing them to be constructed with a tidy finish that prevents fraying.

Man in a textile shop fixing the cuff on his jeans
Image: Railcar Fine Goods

Jeans pioneers such as Levis and Lee made their items this way for many years until faster, more modern production methods were introduced using projectile looms, increasing output and decreasing costs.

Because the shuttle looms often produce a denser weave and can only produce so much fabric at any given time, this reduces production output while increasing costs, and part of the reason why selvedge denim costs more. 

Hiroshi Kato selvedge vs non-selvedge explanation
Image: Hiroshi Kato

It’s quite easy to identify selvedge denim by the finished seam on the inside with a fabric edge which incorporates a coloured strip. These coloured strips are the selvedge ID with many brands using a particular colour to differentiate their jeans although these days just about any colour can be used. 

Non-selvedge jeans are overlock stitched (the criss-cross pattern) to prevent unraveling that doesn’t have the same level of sophistication self edged finishes have. 

What’s special about Japanese denim?

As US companies moved to higher production output with projectile looms, Japanese makers continued to use the old shuttle looms and as such they are now recognised as leaders in selvedge denim. As is the Japanese way, craftsmanship and perfection go hand in hand with an innate appreciation of the imperfect.

The Japanese also created their own looms with the Toyoda brand. Toyoda Loom Works was the founding company of Toyota, the very same company which went on to become the automotive powerhouse it is today. The first shuttle loom produced by Toyoda was the G3, with one still in production by Studio D’Artisan requiring a team of technicians and experts on hand to ensure the loom runs as smoothly as possible.

Toyoda G3 shuttle loom
Image: Warehouse & Co

The Japanese also have a long history of dying fabric, in particular using pure indigo or natural indigo dyes which go through an arduous process to ensure the dyed thread is of a high quality. Again, the focus on tradition and perfecting a craft means the highest quality is achieved. 

This is a beautifully constructed film by Momotaro Jeans explaining their process end to end of creating their jeans:

What’s the difference between raw denim and selvedge denim?

Raw denim is simply denim in its raw state that hasn’t been through a wash process, stretching process, or any other treatment and is simply left in its dry state. Because of this it can leave marks when in contact with other surfaces, so beware white couches and new raw denim!

The jeans will often start out as a uniform colour but as everyday use results in knicks, scratches, swipes, and slides the jeans start to show the effects. This gives the jeans character and a bit of a story that only you can tell as the fades are uniquely yours and (generally) the longer you wait for the first wash, the greater the effect.

Selvedge jeans can use use raw denim or not, and raw denim jeans can be made selvedge or non-selvedge. Typically, those producing selvedge jeans want the best, most characterful outcomes for their jeans so default to raw denim.

Raw denim jeans hanging and showcasing fades after being worn
Raw denim fade. Image: Pure Blue Japan

Because raw denim will shrink anywhere up to 10% after the first wash, a process called sanforization ensures shrinkage is kept to a minimum. The denim will be steamed and stretched before being made, and is still considered to be raw denim. There will still be a degree of shrinking but it will be dramatically reduced as to have little impact on sizing.

Unsanforized denim is obviously denim that has not been pre-shrunk and is often labeled “shrink to fit”. It’s up to each customer to gauge how much the denim will shrink to size accordingly. Unsanforized denim is also referred to as “loom state” as they come off the loom and directly into the cutting process. Because there is less processing involved, purists tend to go for unsanforized jeans but you’ll need to be experienced in caring for any new purchase to ensure you get the right result.

Why is selvedge denim better?

Technically, the self edge construction means the jeans won’t fray, in turn pitching them as higher quality of regular jeans. Of course, there are a lot of other factors that go into making a quality pair of jeans such as the yarn, dying process, weave, hardware, and more.

Hardware detail of Studio D'Artisan jeans
Image: Studio D’Artisan

The weave is generally more dense when produced on a shuttle loom, resulting in higher quality although this also means they have a particular look and feel which may or may not be what you’re after.

The fact the manufacturing process is longer and can have inconsistencies is now seen as a premium offering, much removed from the cookie cutter perfection of modern processes. This results in jeans that have “personality”, uniqueness, and with the knowledge human hands and imperfections have had an influence in its existence.

Momotaro selvedge denim
Image: Momotaro Jeans

Most of the worlds premium brands will closely guard their brand’s historic IP in order to differentiate and charge a higher price. The raw denim and the selvedge ID carries with it an association of premium quality as well as a nod to heritage. 

Who makes selvedge denim jeans?

The US denim apparel makers were the originators but just as mass production and newer, cheaper techniques took over Japanese craftsmen were inspired to keep the traditional process of using a shuttle-loom, instead focusing on quality. That continues today with the best denim usually coming out of Japan.

Man bending down fixing his shoelace with a white Ford Mustang car in the background
American makers are turning to Japanese denim while producing in the US such as Hiroshi Kato.

That’s not to say you won’t find raw selvedge denim in your local store, just the quality may differ due to a number of factors such as where they are made, the quality of the dye, the quality of the yarn, quality of the hardware, and more.

If you want to start somewhere with a Japanese brand, Okayama Denim stocks (and ships internationally) many of Japanese denim brands such as  Momotaro Jeans, Pure Blue Japan, Samurai Jeans, Studio d’Artisan, Big John, and more which you can then narrow down on weight, fit, and colour.

Another brand curating Japanese denim is Denimio, also with a wide variety of denim you can order online. Their filtering and sorting options (including sanforized and unsanforized) make it super easy to select the type of jeans you’re after.

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