For this first round of supertalk denim articles, we've consulted our denim expert friends at Heddels. We're re-publishing some definitive editorials - originally posted a few years back - that help enlighten us to the various mysteries and intricacies of the denim universe. Many topics have been covered in extensive detail on numerous supertalk threads going back to 2003, but these essential Heddels articles summarize things perfectly.
The first thing many people say at the mention of raw denim is, “Those are the jeans you’re not supposed to wash, right?” How you launder them has become inextricably tied to the notion of raw denim jeans and a whole host of myths, tricks, and hearsay that have garbled up the discussion of something that is actually quite straightforward.
We’re here to give you the definitive guide of when, how, and why you should wash your raw denim jeans.
When Should You Wash Your Jeans
This is probably the biggest sticking point amongst raw denim fans, many of which will tell you with certainty that washing any sooner than 6 months after you first bought your jeans is a mortal sin and you will absolutely ruin the denim.
The truth is, your raw denim is a well-made, sturdy, piece of workwear and can take as many washes as you decide to throw at it and keep on humming. The caveat here is that the indigo they are dyed in may not.
One of the biggest appeals of raw denim is that it will conform and fade to your body the longer you wear it. The reason your jeans fade along with what you do in them is because they are losing indigo in the places they naturally abrade: where they fold behind your knees, when you scrape them on the concrete, against your wallet in your back pocket. The more indigo you have to lose, the greater the eye-popping contrast between those natural stress points and the rest of the jean will be.
A pair of well faded jeans.
When you wash your jeans, however, you lose indigo throughout the entirety of the jean, so the resulting fade will have less contrast. The flipside here is that the longer you wait to wash your jeans, the more that dirt and grime will build up within the fabric and the more brittle and stretched out the cotton fibers will be and the more likely your jeans will start to blow out and rip apart.
If it’s just a small stain, you might be able to get away with spot cleaning. Ultimately though, if you’re ever in doubt, you should probably wash your jeans. For me, that’s about every 3-4 months of moderate wear. Some people who only wear their jeans on the weekends can go for years, while people who are very active and wear their jeans everyday can barely wait a month. If you’re still unsure, have a look at our guide to 6 Signs You Should Probably Wash Your Jeans.
Once you’re ready to say it’s time for a wash though, read on for how to do it right.
Things to Note Before You Wash
Unsanforized shrink to fit denim before a wash (left) and after (right).
Now there are a few things you might want to take into account if this is the first time you are washing your jeans.
Shrinkage – All jeans shrink when they are first exposed to water. Unsanforized (“Shrink-to-Fit”) jeans will reduce in size roughly 5-10% throughout the jean after the first wash and dry, but even pre-shrunk Sanforized jeans will still shrink about 3-5% on first wash. The waist on sanforized jeans will eventually stretch back out, but what you lose in inseam length will not.
- If you hem your jeans before the first wash, please keep this in mind or you might have the snazziest pair of denim flood pants around.
- Temperature – The warmer the water, the more indigo you will lose and the more the denim will shrink. This is true for any sort of wash.
- Indigo Transfer – Don’t wash your jeans with anything that you don’t intend to dye blue! Raw denim naturally bleeds indigo–it’s how you get your fades–but it hemorrhages when it’s wet. If you’re washing your jeans in the tub, be ready for a little blue porcelain.
- Clean your Washing Area – Make sure your tub is clean and free of chemicals or your washing machine has nothing but the detergent you are using to wash your jeans loaded up. More than a few pairs of jeans have bleached, stained, and everything in between from gunk hanging around.
How to Wash Your Raw Denim
Everyone has their own method of washing their jeans that they get just right. Below is our straightforward way that’s easy to use and will give you fresh jeans with minimal indigo loss in under 10 steps:
- Run a cool-lukewarm bath and add your soap. I recommend Woolite Dark or Dr. Bronner’s but have used shampoo in a pinch before as well.
- Wait for the soap to be completely dissolved in the water and place your jeans in the tub. Turn off the water when there’s enough for the jeans to be completely submerged (around 3-4 inches).
- Agitate the jeans under the water for a few minutes then place them so that all parts of the jean are under water. You may have to use shampoo bottles to hold it down if your jeans are especially buoyant.
- Leave your jeans in the tub for 30-45 minutes (or just watch our Ueno shop tour video five times).
- Agitate your jeans one more time and then drain the tub.
- Once the tub is completely empty, refill it with again with cold water and leave the jeans in it for another 5-10 minutes. This will rinse out any remaining soap.
- Drain the tub and hang your jeans to dry over the drain or outside–they will drip indigo water for a while.
- Let them dry overnight and voila–clean jeans!
We personally go for the tub wash, but not everyone shares that sentiment nor even owns a tub. Here are a couple other methods you might have heard about and why we think the tub soak is the best method out there.
Washing Machine – Quite a few people simply toss their jeans in the washing machine, which is a perfectly valid and probably more sanitary way to wash your pants. The caveat here is that the way you earn your fades in your raw denim is through the creases that set into the denim. Washing machines tumble, spin, and agitate, which could not only remove those creases but also add a few of their own. If you do choose to wash with a machine though, DO NOT PUT THEM IN THE DRYER. The dryer will shrivel your jeans into a raw denim raisin with a host of weird new creases.
Dry Cleaning – Some people swear by taking their jeans to the cleaners, after all, how can your jeans shrink if they never even touch water? That may be well and good, but the dry cleaner will be more expensive than anything at home, you won’t know what chemicals they’re using on your jeans, and you have to really trust them as some cleaners might just toss them in their industrial washer and dryer instead.
Ocean Washing – The ocean wash trend used to be much more popular, but it’s still not uncommon to see someone taking their jeans for a day at the beach. Rubbing sand and seawater on your pants may increase the fades, but it is not an acceptable or hygienic way to wash them. If you choose to do an ocean wash, you’ll need to wash again in freshwater or risk smelling like low tide.
Step-by-Step Video on How To Wash Your Denim