Welcome to Counterpoint, a series in which we challenge commonly held ideas about well-known products. This time: raw denim.
If you’ve spent any time researching quality jeans, you’ve likely encountered numerous pairs of raw denim. Much like the name implies, this denim is unwashed and undistressed, likely cut and sewn into jeans right off the loom. This is how jeans were made a century ago, and an implied sense of purity within the process has inspired many adopters to distinguish raw denim as some objectively better product.
While not entirely untrue, and we’ll get to that shortly, remember this the next time you go shopping: quality denim is based on a range of factors — materials, processing, manufacturing, sewing — and it’s available in a range of washes, too. In fact, washed denim has benefits lost to denim enthusiasts who subscribe to the belief that it’s raw or nothing.
A decade ago, many of the brands that produced raw denim jeans were indeed making a higher quality product. The majority were Japanese, focused on replicating the style and feel of vintage Levi’s jeans. In subsequent years, however, the style became ubiquitous across all levels of manufacturing and price-point. Customers, myself among them, bought into the notion that raw denim was a marker of excellence. But this is an oversimplification of quality, not entirely different to the blind value attached to things labeled “Made in America.”
Of course, raw denim has its charm. It develops creases, whiskers, honeycombs and deep, contrasted fades — the kind of thing you might call “character.” A good pair reflects the unique lifestyle of the wearer. Since they’re broken in from loom-state, one can witness the product’s full lifespan, from deeply-dyed and sturdy to faded and frayed.
It’s easy to forget that this individuality and personal connection can still be apparent in washed denim. Jeans that are washed once, for example, are still dark. They will still develop individual fades unique to the wearer, but they’ll be less prone to exhibit the unfavorable qualities of raw denim such as shrinking or crocking (indigo rubbing off on your boots or jacket or mother-in-law’s white couch). The quality of the jean depends on where and how it is produced, not the wash it comes in. For example, one of Japan’s well-respected denim brands, Kapital, offers the majority of its jeans in one-wash. “Denim or jeans are made from cotton,” Kapital founder Toshikiyo Hirata told the Bandanna Almanac. “If you wash for example silk or rayon it doesn’t change that much. Denim (cotton) on the other hand, shrinks and changes. So I think one-wash is better because it gives the jeans more character.”
Washed jeans are more comfortable from the first wear, and still offer wearers the chance to develop unique fading patterns. Pre-distressed jeans, on the other hand, often exhibit clearly unnatural fades depending on how detail-oriented the brand is. It should also be noted that washed jeans use more water in the manufacturing process, but there are good-looking sustainable options available to those looking to invest in earth-friendly garments. Regardless of the pair you wear, washed jeans should be cared for like raw denim, and should only be washed when absolutely necessary — it’ll protect both the fades and environment.
The decision to buy washed versus raw denim is really a matter of preference and comfort, not quality. Both are capable of developing fades and character. But for the modern lifestyle, only only one is truly appropriate for everyday wear.