How to Care for Raw Denim: The Ultimate Guide
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Did you just get a new pair of raw denim jeans?
If you did, you’re in for a treat.
Or are you thinking about investing in a pair and wondering about the upkeep?
Raw denim is one of the sturdiest and most versatile pieces of clothing in a man’s wardrobe.
Dark blue jeans look great with just about anything. And good denim can last a lifetime with proper love and care.
Keep on reading to learn the best ways to care for your raw denim, including what the denim-heads do and what’s most practical for the less-fanatical amongst us.
Should You Put Raw Denim In A Washing Machine?
Denim was created with durability in mind. Putting your jeans in a washing machine won’t ruin your jeans.
But if you’re here, maybe you’ve heard that you should never (never) put your jeans through the wash. There’s something to that idea.
Whenever you wash your jeans, the indigo dye fades throughout the entire piece. You’re washing away that deep blue color. A light washing won’t hurt the integrity of the fabric, but it’ll fade the color.
When denim-heads warn against washing, it’s because they’re looking for the strongest contrast in their fades. Typically, fades first occur along the thighs, back pocket, and knees. When those areas begin to fade, the jeans look as if they’ve been created just for you.
So if you want to keep your denim fades strong, you should skip the wash, right?
Well, no. Not always.
Washing gives the cotton fibers a chance to reset. The longer you wear a pair of jeans without washing, the more stretched and brittle the fibers become. Wearing a pair of jeans for a year or longer without washing will increase the likelihood of the knees tearing or other parts blowing out.
Of course, some jeans-junkies love the naturally distressed look (and we agree—factory distress can look a bit hokey).
The other pair is my favorite raw denim pair (Mott & Bow Oliver) and I wear them once or twice a week for weekend nights on the town.
Our recommendation is in the middle. I don’t suggest you put your raw denim (or even washed denim) jeans in a washing machine. You’ll lose too much indigo over time.
Instead, try a more gentle washing method.
We put together this guide to help you clean away the grime and smells from your jeans while keeping as much of that beautiful indigo around as possible. Here’s how it’s done.
How to Wash Raw Denim
I picked up a pair of raw denim Oliver jeans from Mott & Bow about a month and a half ago. It came time for them to get their first wash.
There are a few schools of thought when it comes to brand new jeans. Some say you should wash them right off the bat so they shrink to their final size. Others say you should wear them for a few months to a year before cleaning.
I’m a practical guy—I’m always looking for the best possible mix of ease and upkeep. If my jeans fit a little loose or if I feel like I need some slight alterations, I’ll give them an initial wash beforehand. That way I can truly see the size and fit before making changes.
If they fit fine right away, I’ll just go ahead and start wearing them.
In either case, you’ll eventually wash your jeans—we hope.
1. Clean Your Bathtub
You’ll be washing your jeans in the tub. Make sure there isn’t any gunk, bleach, oil—anything that could stain your pants.
2. Fill Your Tub With Cold Water
You don’t need to add ice or anything to make the water extra cold, just the coolest setting your faucet has.
Some say lukewarm water is best, but the warmer you go, the more indigo you’ll wash away.
You’ll need between four and five inches of water in the bottom of your tub.
3. Add Roughly a Tablespoon of Dishsoap or Laundry Detergent
You can spread the soap around or agitate with your hand. You can also add the soap while the bathtub is filling so it dissolves all in one step.
4. Submerge Your Jeans and Give Them a Jostle
This step is really just to make sure the denim is fully saturated with water. You’ll do the bulk of the washing later.
Jeans have a tendency to float. Put your shampoo and soap bottles (or anything else heavy) around your jeans to keep them fully submerged.
5. Let Your Jeans Soak For 30-60 Minutes
Whatever works for your schedule. If you have an hour, wait an hour. If you want to get it done quickly, cut the waiting time in half.
6. Agitate Your Jeans
After you’ve soaked them, now’s the time to knock out the dirt and grime.
If it’s the first wash, the water will turn blue from the lost indigo. And if you’ve been wearing your jeans for a few months, the water will get murky. It’s always a bit of a surprise to see how much dirt your jeans really pick up over the course of a month.
7. Drain The Tub
Just leave your jeans where they are and drain the dirty water.
8. Refill with Clean, Cold Water
Let your pants soak for another 10 minutes in cold water, rinsing out any leftover soap your jeans are holding on to.
9. Drain The Tub and Hang Dry
Whatever you do, don’t put your jeans in the dryer. This creates odd fades which is exactly what we’re trying to avoid by hand washing.
The jeans will continue to drip indigo dye, so keep them away from anything that can stain. I have a white bathroom floormat—that’s exactly the sort of thing that will get ruined.
I hang my jeans over the shower curtain rod and let them hang until it’s shower time the following morning. Chances are, they’ll still be damp for up to 12 hours, but just keep hanging them until they’re dry.
What Happens When It Starts to Smell?
For whatever reason, whenever I get on an airplane, I smell terrible.
I think it’s the fear-sweats.
So what should I do if I’ve just washed my jeans a week ago, but they start getting funky?
Heck, what do you do if you’ve been wearing your jeans for six months and you’re smelling like a hobo?
The most common recommendation is to fold your jeans up into a plastic bag and put them in the freezer.
Unfortunately, that trick doesn’t help at all.
Freezing your jeans doesn’t kill all the odor-causing bacteria and doesn’t help remove the dead skin and dirt bacteria love. Those stinky amoebae will repopulate within hours.
Others give their jeans a good spray with Febreeze. This works decently well at covering the stink, but the only way to really remove the smell is to give your jeans a wash.
I always wash my jeans when they start to smell—even if it’s only been three weeks.
If I don’t have time to give them the full bathtub treatment, I’ll add about five or six dryer sheets into the legs and seat and let those sit for a few hours, which freshens up the smell.
How to Stretch and Soften Raw Denim
If your jeans fit a little tight, the easiest way to stretch them is to wear them while they’re damp.
After you’ve let them drip-dry for about six hours, your jeans should still be fairly wet, but not sopping. This is the best time to stretch the fibers.
You can stretch them by hand, but you’ll get the most natural fit will by putting your jeans on. Do squats, jumping jacks, bend your knees—whatever you want to stretch out those problem areas.
Raw denim can be a bit rough when you first try it on. It’s not the most comfortable fabric, but a well-worn pair of jeans transforms into one of the most comfortable items in a man’s closet over time.
That’s what they call, “breaking in.”
There are several ways of breaking in your jeans, and most of them are outrageous.
Some people take a swim in the ocean with their jeans and rub beach sand completely over their legs to loosen up the fibers. Other people dry their jeans with tennis balls, crumple them with rubber bands, soak them in vinegar, you name it.
For the practical person, there’s really only one way to soften your jeans.
You wear them. A lot.
There’s no way around it. Going above and beyond to loosen up the denim is just too much of a hassle. Your jeans were meant for wearing, so suck up the discomfort and wear them every day for a month until they’re nice and soft.
How to Fade Raw Denim
There are two ways to fade your raw denim. You can wear it, or you can wash it.
Wearing the denim will create a unique look that can only be gotten over time. The thighs fade, pocket lighten, the break develops interesting lines—your body and movements create a pattern that’s built just for you.
That’s our preferred method of fading raw denim. It may be hard-earned over the course of a year or more, but the results look like you’re wearing customized tailored pair of jeans.
Again, you can put your raw denim through the wash, but you’ll be stripping indigo away from all parts of the jean.
That means that the fade lines from your movements will be less striking and the jeans won’t have the same well-worn look.
How to Shrink Raw Denim
If you want to shrink your jeans, use warm water in your wash instead of cool. You’ll lose a bit more indigo dye, but you’ll shrink your jeans much more.
It’s better to have a better fitting pair of pants so that’s a good sacrifice to make.
If you take proper care of your raw denim, you can wear your fades like a badge of honor.
It might seem like the easy route to just toss your jeans into the washing machine and call it a day.
But if you’ve invested in a quality pair of jeans like the Mott & Bow Oliver, putting in a little extra time and effort will pay off. Handwashing and soaking are the only ways to preserve the indigo and keep the integrity of the cotton fibers.
In our article on what to wear with dark blue jeans, I mentioned that I pick up one new pair of raw denim jeans when the weather starts to cool in fall. I love the heavy-gauge, new, deep-indigo look and it pairs perfectly with most winter outfits.
Over the course of a few years, you gather a collection of jeans with different levels of fades. So when spring hits, you can bust out those lightened, naturally distressed jeans that look like they were made just for you.
So start building your raw denim collection and grow old with it. The care and effort you put into your jeans will all come back to you.