Chances are, you've seen these words used together, but what exactly is raw selvedge denim and what makes it so special?
Selvedge (n.): Derived from "self-edge" meaning an edge produced on woven fabric during manufacturing that prevents it from unraveling
Now don't get me wrong; I love selvedge denim, but even I think that definition is boring and a bit too concise. Something to note immediately is that raw denim and selvedge denim are independent. Denim can be raw and selvedge but it can also be one just or the other, or neither at all. To truly understand why selvedge and raw denim have such an expanding devoted following, we must dwell a bit deeper than the standard definition. To do this I think it's appropriate to start off with a brief history.
As you may already know from my Levi's post, denim was originally created as a pant for the working man. During this time of small-scale production, each pair of denim jeans was crafted from raw, selvedge denim on individual looms. These pants were made in small batches with considerable attention to minute details. Then things got worse (or better depending on how you look at it).
Denim shifted from a workman's trousers to an icon of both the men's and women's fashion industry. Manufacturing capabilities grew exponentially as did the efficiency of creating such pants. As with all companies, profit margins were a top priority, so corners were cut and methodology for production was drastically altered. Rather than create raw selvedge denim individually (a painstaking process), looms were redesigned to create many pairs at once, though this new generation of denim pants lacked the selvedge, which was often thought to be a mark of quality for jeans. In addition, raw (unwashed/unsanforized - we'll get into this in a bit) denim's popularity began to decline in favor of new predistressed and prewashed denim. Fortunately for quality denim enthusiasts, both raw and selvedge denim has made a comeback in recent years, with countless companies sprouting up choosing to create small batches of quality denim. Many Japanese manufacturers have become authoritative names in the raw selvedge denim industry, boasting companies like Pure Blue Japan and Samurai. One thing to note is that selvedge isn't just exclusive to jeans, it's also used in chinos, denim truckers and more.
Aside from the reinforced edge, selvedge also offers visual appeal that allows for additional customization for your denim. The original Levi's selvedge came in red, but today you can find selvedge in an impressive assortment of colors. Companies have began adopting their own colors to differentiate their brands like Unbranded's blue, Lee's yellow, and Samurai's gray. Others have created styles like rainbow and this Charizard-lookin' one. You aren't able to actually see the selvedge unless you cuff your jeans however, but the majority of selvedge wearers do so anyway. Personally, I always cuff my jeans as I think it makes a nice, clean interaction between your pants and shoes - and the selvedge looks sweet.
While we're on the topic of customization, it's also possible to have different colored wefts on your jeans, like in this Momotaro pair. This isn't nearly as common as seeing different colored selvedge and the colors can get pretty crazy: twisted candy and rainbow. While these look pretty unique, I wouldn't necessarily recommend them for the sake of style. Not only are they generally expensive due to small production runs, but they're also difficult to obtain as many are manufactured in Japan.
Though selvedge is often a sign of the craftsmanship and durability, it is not a definitive metric to gauge the quality of a pair of jeans. Due to the recent burst in the popularity of selvedge, many companies have started creating shoddy renditions of selvedge as well as some putting fake selvedge "tape" over non-selvedge jeans. Genuine selvedge runs all the way up. Now that we have a solid understanding of selvedge, let's take a loot at raw denim:
Raw Denim (n.): denim that is not washed or pre-distressed during or after production.
This means that the denim comes straight off its production loom and is measured, cut, and then sewn into jeans ready to break in. Denim comes in two types: sanforized and unsanforized. Sanforized denim undergoes a special process that moistens or steams the individual cotton fibers of the pant so that the finished product will shrink less when washed by the end consumer. Unsanforized denim is just the opposite; it is totally raw and will shrink considerably more than sanforized denim. Both types of raw denim are usually dyed with Indigo dye giving it its classic dark blue color. Raw denim usually fits into one of three tiers: lightweight (12oz), middleweight (12-16oz), and heavyweight (16+oz). The lighter the weight, the smoother the jeans will break in, but they won't fade as well. Speaking of:
Here's the cool part
All denim fades, but because a lot of denim is sold pre-faded, people miss out on the real personalization component of raw denim. Having different colored selvedge and wefts and denim is one thing, but what if your jeans could morph to your body? Think of an untreated pair of raw selvedge jeans as a blank canvas. As you wear your jeans more and more, the cotton fibers in the denim will contour to your body, creating a glove (but with pants - glove pants.). Note: raw denim requires different care/cleaning methods traditional jeans. I'ts recommended to not wash a new pair of raw denim jeans for at least 6 months, unless they get dirty. I'm not saying to go around wearing filthy pants, but the longer they go without soaking up water, the better the fades will develop. Continuous wear will create faded spots of indigo in certain areas of the jean. These fades become marks of your own movements. Always have your wallet in the back right pocket? Phone always in the front? Live on a rough block? I think you get the idea. Through enough dedication to wearing your denim, your jeans will grow with you, building character as you make your jeans more and more your own. Fading denim is a pretty big part of the raw denim/selvedge community. In fact, there are even different kinds of fades:
Whiskers: streaks around the crotch and pockets of the jeans
Traintracks: appears on the outseams and outline the selvedge
Raw Selvedge for Beginners
There's a giant community (check out /r/rawdenim) of raw selvedge denim enthusiasts and countless brands that range in price, quality, color, country of origin, etc... and different people like different kinds of denim. For those looking to get a pair, plenty of choices exist. Here are some that I'd recommend:
Unbranded: Competitively priced and with modern cuts, Unbranded's line of jeans and chinos are solid quality for the >$100 price range. They're made in Macau, which I now just learned is a small city in China, so keep that in mind. Unbranded is actually a subsidy of Naked & Famous, though the brands have different focuses.
Naked & Famous: I own a ton of Naked & Famous stuff from their denim to their jackets, and they're my go-to for raw denim. Most of their offerings are made in Canada, which I think is pretty cool (heh) and the quality of their products has been superb in my experience. Their Weird Guy (overall slim with relaxed seat and taper below the knee) cut is pretty popular. Though I don't own an exact pair myself, I've heard great things about the Elephant 5s. Fun fact: they also make scratch-and-sniff denim that releases a minty smell when rubbed. Seriously.
Levi's: Levi's often makes selvedge that isn't raw, but does offer raw selvedge on their website. Levi's Shrink-to-Fit and Rigid Dragons aren't selvedge, but are raw denim. I love my pair of Rigid Dragons and they've faded very nicely.
Nudie: Swedish brand Nudie Jeans brings a lot to the table when it comes to their dry (AKA raw) selvedge denim. Nudies are considerably more expensive than some of the other options listed here, so keep that in mind.
Gustin: What sets Gustin apart from other brands is that they use a prefunding sales model. This allows them to source unique fabrics that other companies don't offer. The biggest downside is that because each product is made-to-order, it can take a month or two to receive your order. Keep this in mind.