A friend of ours wrote this guide a few years ago for the now defunct fashion store, Denim Geek. Still relevant today, we thought we’d share it to give you guys some advice on how to wash your jeans and your raw denim, as well as how dry, treat and store it.
Denim at its most basic is a simple cotton fabric – but it’s created one of the most enduring and beloved fashion items in recent history – jeans. The world of denim can be a tricky one, especially when it comes to buying online. With so many fits, washes and fabrics available, it’s important to have as much information as possible before pulling the trigger on a new pair of jeans.
Introduction to Raw Denim
Dry denim is at its very best in a raw state – left unwashed the cotton becomes an organic map of its wearer’s body and a record in fabric of their personal story. Particular abrasion patterns, locations of wear and whiskering will appear over time as the fabric shifts and settles; the longer the denim is kept dry the more developed and indelible these coveted features become. Knees, ankles and crotch will develop wear and fading, which can be accelerated with grease or oil treatments.
With this in mind, raw denim’s first wash should be put off for as long as possible (if it has to happen at all). 6 months is considered the optimum time to let natural creases consolidate in the fabric but many true denim aficionados opt out of washing their raw denim altogether. Stuffing pockets with tumble dryer sheets or hanging jeans outside over night are ways to combat smell without compromising the true nature of raw denim.
As creases and contours mature, dry denim will fall into them naturally when you take them off. The easiest storage is to unbuckle your jeans and leave them where they fall. Aged, unsanforized denim can be hung to air without creases falling out.
Traditionally before denim is woven, the threads it’s made of are treated with wax or resin to stiffen them and make them easier to weave (although with most repro denim starch is used instead). When dry denim is washed for the first time, the fibres constrict and the denim shrinks. Raw denim can be sanforzied (treated with a sanforizing process that lessens shrinkage) but all raw denim will shrink to some degree upon immersion in water, up to its third wash.
Raw, unsanforized denim (untreated with the sanforizing process that minimizes shrinkage) will reduce in size between 10% and 30% over its first three washes, even when washed cold (the best way to keep shrinkage to a minimum). This is only an approximation however; shrinkage varies from brand to brand and even from style to style. If dry denim has been pre-treated (sanforized), shrinkage is greatly reduced – from the 10%-20% of unsanforized raw denim to an approximate 3-5%. Again, this shrinkage occurs predominantly over the first three washes.
Rinsing denim before its first wear has practical advantages – mainly that any loose, transferable indigo will be lessened. The majority of starch will be removed so creases and whiskers will be softer but that is a look in itself that some denim fans want to achieve. A softer crease also lessens the chance of a fabric break.
With that said, all indigo is precious and jeans should not be washed if possible. Even if they’re worn all day they shouldn’t smell too bad. If they do need a clean, a proper denim laundry should be able to bake them to kill bacteria without shrinkage. Some people think that cotton becomes weak and dry without washing but there are denim fans who believe the opposite too. Some people choose to use odour eliminating sprays such as Febreeze to keep their jeans smelling decent.
If you do chose to wash your denim use as little soap as possible and if you can find a neutral or non-biological washing powder use this. Biological washing powder contains enzymes best avoided to preserve your denim. Don’t tumble dry. Even if you want shrinkage tumble drying doesn’t guarantee an even reduction.
There are many ways to wash your jeans. Many true denim geeks prefer to wear their jeans for as long as possible before washing and this is now one of the most commonly used techniques. This method means wearing your newly bought raw denim for a minimum of 6 months before finally machine washing at 60c, inside out and without washing agents. The jeans should then be worn in again and washed every 3 months at around 30 degrees. You should dry your jeans by hanging them in a shady spot where fresh air is flowing.
A little known Japense method recommends taking a bath in your jeans after a few months of wear. After around 90 days of wear, jump in a lukewarm bath with your jeans on and use a scrubbing brush to create a colour fading effect.
A third method known as the ‘reverse technique’ involves wearing your jeans after you have washed them. To try this, prepare water in a bucket between 30c and 40c and steep your jeans in it for 1-2 hours, making sure the jeans are fully submerged. If you like, you can add a table spoon of salt or vinegar to the water. Afterwards, take the jeans out of the bucket, and wash inside out at 40c without washing agents. Dry the jeans and wear! Using this technique, you should look to undertake your second wash after around 6 months of wear.
More Information on Drying
To maintain consistent colour dry indigo jeans flat. The dye can ‘marble’ when it’s wet if the denim’s resting unevenly. Make sure you dry thoroughly, as it can take denim up to 2 days to air dry. Hanging outside is best for your jeans but not always possible. To dry indoors you need a well ventilated room or airing cupboard. Never place directly onto a heat source such as a radiator, this will damage fabric and its finish. Lie flat and allow to dry as naturally as possible.