Given practically everybody wears jeans, a lot of people hit a point where they wonder if there’s a “better” kind of jean than your bog standard, mall brand Levi’s and American Eagles. There is: it’s selvedge denim.
But as soon as you start searching for brands, or simply whether or not selvedge denim is worth the money, it can quickly become a confusing endeavor as more and more jargon and gatekeeping gets fired in your direction.
Selvedge. Raw denim. Shuttle looms versus projectile looms. Sanforized or unsanforized? Do people really not wash their jeans? Why is there such a strong subculture surrounding a particular kind of pants?
We get it. So we made this article.
Selvedge denim is simply denim woven on antique shuttle looms instead of the more commonplace projectile looms.
If you just want to know what selvedge denim is, it’s simply denim woven on shuttle looms instead of the more commonplace projectile looms. Shuttle loom technology is centuries older, makes denim ten times more slowly, and tends to produce fabric that contains more irregularities and “character.”
That’s the short answer. But there are more complex reasons there’s such a passionate community of “denimheads” so we enlisted Bahzad Trinos, the Creative Director of the planet’s pre-eminent selvedge brand Naked & Famous.
Who better to unravel the mysteries surrounding selvedge denim?
What is Selvedge Denim?
- Selvedge denim is simply denim that is woven on shuttle looms
“Shuttle looms are the same types of looms that were used to make denim back when denim started (in the 19th century),” explains Bahzad. “And they call it a shuttle loom because the fabric is woven using a shuttle.”
Denim is a kind of twill, so it’s comprised of a “warp” yarn and a “weft” yarn that are woven over and under each other in something of a crosshatch pattern. In denim, the warp is usually indigo and the weft is pale, which is more visible on the underside of the jeans.
Invented in 1733, the shuttle in a shuttle loom carries the weft back and forth on the loom, making a strip of denim that’s usually about 30 inches wide. On every pass, the shuttle seals the edge of the fabric. That sealed edge is also called the “self edge,” which eventually got contracted to “selvedge” (or sometimes “selvage.”)
So the marker of selvedge denim is that “self edge” that you see when you cuff your jeans. It’s a big reason why denimheads like to cuff their jeans: to show off the fact that they’re wearing selvedge.
That’s all it is. It’s not inherently stronger or thicker or more complex than other denim, it just mean it was made the centuries-old way, on expensive and hard-to-maintain looms that make smaller amounts of fabric.
How Is Selvedge Denim Different to Regular Denim?
- Selvedge is woven on shuttle looms
- Most denim is made on projectile looms
- Projectile looms make denim ten times faster, so it’s cheaper
Selvedge is just woven on antique shuttle looms. It doesn’t mean the denim is thicker, weirder, or tougher. That said, selvedge denim tends to be those things, because guys that gravitate to this old fashioned way of making jeans also tend to like their denim to have that character and uniqueness.
But to answer how it’s different to regular denim: selvedge is woven on a shuttle loom that looks like this.
Mass produced denim is made on projectile looms, which came into commercial use in 1953, over 200 years after the shuttle loom’s invention. They’re bigger, faster, more widespread, and cheaper to make.
“Projectile looms can weave tremendously fast,” says Bahzad. “Basically, they’re injecting the weft one yarn at a time. A shuttle loom produces about 5 meters of fabric per hour. A projectile loom makes 25 meters of fabric per hour at double the width. And we pay way more money for selvedge. A projectile loom denim typically makes a very uniform, flat denim. It’s fine if you want to make tens of thousands of pairs of jeans. There are businesses that do that and they need a consistent product. But in our space, we like inconsistency.”
While we’re able to get shuttle looms to make perfectly consistent fabric, companies in the space tend to use them to make more irregular and complex material.
Do Projectile Looms Make Different Denim to Shuttle Looms?
- Typically, yes, but not by definition
- Guys who like unusual jeans tend to prefer selvedge, so selvedge brands tend to make the stranger jeans
- That said, you can make just about any denim on either kind of loom
- Selvedge denim is often full of “flaws” and irregularities that are cherished by denim fans
You can make just about any denim on a projectile loom that you can make on a shuttle loom, it just won’t have that finished edge.
There’s a misconception that projectile looms make smooth and uniform (or “boring”) denim, while selvedge makes denim that has more texture and character.
This does tend to be the case. But it doesn’t have to be: you can make rough denim on a projectile loom and you can make smooth denim on shuttle looms.
“What people tend to associate with selvedge denim is that it is thicker, it’s more complex, it’s more irregular, it’s more durable, and the fades are more interesting,” says Bahzad. “(But) you could make a wide width (shuttle loom) fabric that’s quite detailed and beautiful and with similar aesthetics as the shuttle loom denim. In terms of the physical quality of the denim, you can get very similar qualities using a projectile loom or a shuttle loom.”
However, people who buy mall brand, inexpensive jeans tend to want uncomplicated, “normal” denim. Guys who are seek out selvedge tend to like denim with more character. So selvedge brands (like Naked & Famous) tend to make the market’s stranger jeans.
Examples of the character that selvedge fans enjoy are slub (when the warp yarn differs in thickness throughout, creating a “streaky” appearance), and nep (cotton fibers protrude from the surface, looking a little like snow sitting on the fabric.
Historically, slub and nep were considered defects, but denimheads like them because they signify a more vintage, imperfect, and (sort of) human manufacturing process. Also, when fabrics have irregularities like this, no two pairs will be identical. One’s journey with one’s jeans, their uniqueness and the way they become distinctly you with time, is a draw.
“A lot of the appeal of selvedge denim is just knowing that it’s made the old school way,” says Bahzad. “It’s kind of like a luxury automatic watch versus a digital watch. Both tell time, but one does it in a way with gears and springs and takes a lot of time and dedication to make versus something that’s more mass produced.”
Other unusual characteristics you’ll often find in this realm are denim that’s extra hairy (due to excess fibers not being singed off), dyed with unusual sources and colors (like persimmon or black soybeans), and extra thick (most jeans are about 11 ounces per square yard, but Naked & Famous makes 32-ounce jeans.)
What’s the Difference Between Raw Denim and Selvedge Denim?
- Selvedge: is made on shuttle loom
- Raw: Whether it’s been washed or rinsed before sale
The term “raw denim” is often used interchangeably with “selvedge” because they tend to coincide. The biggest selvedge focused subreddit is called r/rawdenim. But…
“They’re two very different terms,” says Bahzad. “Selvedge denim just refers to how the fabric is made. Raw denim refers to whether or not the fabric has been rinse washed or not. A raw denim is a denim that basically comes off the loom. There are some finishing processes like sanforization, anti skewing, things like that, and whether or not you consider fabric that’s been through those processes ‘raw’ or not. I do, I think they are. I think anything that hasn’t messed with the dye is raw denim.”
When you go to the mall and buy pre-faded jeans, they’re not raw.
So What’s Sanforization? Does Raw Denim Shrink?
- Sanforized denim has been treated to reduce shrinkage
- Sanforized denim usually still considered raw
- Unsanforized denim is fairly rare because you need to wash it when you buy it to find out how it’ll ultimately fit you
- Some guys prefer the way unsanforized denim ultimately fits, but the difference isn’t huge
Back in the day, you had to buy denim a little big, then wash them, then they’d shrink about 10 percent, and then you’d know how they fit you. (I underwent this process when I bought my first pair of selvedge from Studio d’Artisan.) This is the origin of Levi’s old slogan, “shrink to fit.”
It’s a fairly stressful experience buying clothes without knowing how they fit so in 1930, one Sanford Cluett devised a process that treats fabric to pre-shrink it — usually with steam and water, sometimes with extra chemicals.
“Sanforized jeans still shrink when you wash them, maybe between 1 and 3 percent, but an unsanforized denim will generally shrink between 5 and 10 percent,” says Bahzad. “That’s the difference between shrinking just a little bit and then when you wear them, they stretch back out, and you don’t really have to worry about it, versus ‘I have to buy these jeans two sizes bigger and then wash them and hopefully they’ll shrink to the right size.'”
As an aside, this is why there’s an argument for polyester in jeans: it helps it keep its shape and not stretch and shrink based on when you’ve last washed them.
Why buy unsanforized if it’s so problematic? Well, to be clear, you usually don’t: even guys who love raw denim rarely buy unsanforized and it’s fairly unusual for a brand to sell it in the first place, given the increased risk of returns.
That said, some guys love unsanforized or “loom state” jeans because it’s less processed, it’s more vintage, and it contours to the body slightly differently. “Leg twist” is an example here: with wear, the outer seam of the jeans will wind up snaking around your leg a little.
Some guys love it, but unsanforized denim is far from the default, widespread choice in the world of selvedge.
[Further reading: A Guide to Sanforized vs Unsanforized Denim]
Does Selvedge Denim Fade Better?
- Not by definition, but selvedge tends to be made in a way that produces more dramatic fades
“Selvedge versus non-selvedge denim, it doesn’t matter,” says Bahzad. “So long as they’re both raw denim, they’re both going to fade. But (the way they) fade is going to be dependent on a lot of things.”
Most selvedge is produced in Japan, where most of the world’s vintage shuttle looms exist, and they tend to make it with rope dyed yarns.
“Rope dyed yarns are white cotton yarns that go through a set of indigo baths,” he explains. “They dip the cotton yarn in the indigo, they pull it out, they let it dry, they dip it back into the indigo, and this repeats dozens of times. You end up with a white center core yarn with all these layers of indigo on top. As you wear your jeans, those indigo layers shed away and they start to reveal all the different shades of blue underneath. And that’s why your jeans will fade from blue to white.”
That could happen whether your jeans are selvedge or not; it’s very dependent on the warp yarn. Just about any jean will fade with wear, but the amount of contrast you’ll see depends on that initial dyeing process — and the way they’re washed and cared for.
[Further reading: How to Get the Best Denim Fades]
Should You Not Wash Your Jeans? Do People Do That?
- Less frequent washing produces more high contrast fades
- But seldom washing your jeans will impact their durability
- Wash them as often as you like, it’s your choice
The way you care for your jeans will also impact the fades.
“If you want those very high contrast fades, if you want some stuff with really dark darks and really light lights, the less you wash them the more pronounced the lines (will be), particularly with the initial wash,” says Zeke, the store manager at Naked & Famous NYC. “A lot of guys like to hold off as long as they can before the initial wash — myself included — to get those really sharp lines.”
The more they’re washed, the less high contrast the fades will be. If you don’t really care about the contrast of the fades, wash them as much as you like. In fact, they’ll fade faster the more you wash them. But if you love those high contrast fades, wait a good 50 to 100 wears between washes.
“They are still going to fade (if you wash them more often), you’re just going to have a more even fade,” says Zeke. “When you wash them more frequently, every time you wash them the fabric softens up a little bit. So the fabric won’t be as stiff and it will fade more evenly across the jean.”
The decision of whether or not to wash your jeans is a matter of personal preference and lifestyle. Some denim enthusiasts adhere to the belief that jeans should seldom be washed to maximize their fading potential and character. It’s also harder to get high contrast fades, so electric blue creases are sometimes seen as a badge of honor, a sign of one’s commitment to the art.
That said, you want to avoid excessive accumulation of dirt, as it will speed up the breakdown of the fabric and stitching. If you choose to go for prolonged periods without washing your jeans, consider spot cleaning them, and instead of folding them up or leaving them crumpled on the floor, hang them up and get some air circulating through them.
There’s a lot of debate about when to wash your jeans. Just do it when you want to. If they feel musty and gross you out, don’t grit your teeth and bear it unless that’s a sacrifice you want to make to get super high contrast fades. If that sounds like a silly tradeoff? Just wash them whenever you want!
How Should You Wash Selvedge Denim?
- Turn them inside out
- Wash them in cold water
- Hang dry them in the shade to minimize shrinkage
When you decide to wash your jeans, you’ll hear a lot of unusual tips. Some guys only soak them in the bath instead of putting them in a washing machine. Others will freeze their jeans to kill bacteria while preserving the high contrast fades.
“The freezer is definitely not effective,” says Zeke. “When you pull them out they might not smell as much, but as soon as you go into a warm environment, they’re going to start smelling again. You haven’t killed any of the bacteria or removed any of the dirt. ”
If you’re hell bent on preserving your high contrast fades, soaking will clean them a little. But you should try to agitate the jeans with your hands a little to actually lift dirt out.
But Zeke, Bahzad, and Naked & Famous’ CEO Brandon Svarc (in the video above) all agree that folks get too bent out of shape with washing techniques. The official advice? Wash them in a washing machine in cold water, turned inside out, with similar colors/jeans to avoid darkening your lighter colored clothes.
Turning them inside out before washing keeps creases from appearing in the fade pattern in unwanted places. (Wet jeans that are left crumpled on the ground will get haphazard white streaks in the folds, which no one wants.)
Wash it cold to keep too much dye escaping. Dry them in the shade to keep sunlight from shrinking them too much.
If you want your jeans to stay darker, use a detergent like Woolite Dark. If you want to speed up the fades a bit? Surprisingly, Zeke likes to add a capful of bleach.
“Just a little bit!” he laughs. “The washer’s going to dilute it so you’re not going to end up with any weird patterns, but a touch of bleach will brighten the color a bit.”
[Further reading: How to Wash Raw Denim]
What’s With The Selvedge Denim Culture?
There are lots of reasons people might get excited about this stuff.
In a world where fast fashion and uniform production methods dominate the textile industry, selvedge denim is seen as a symbol of authenticity and uniqueness. The use of shuttle looms creates a fabric with subtle (and sometimes not-at-all subtle) variations and imperfections that denim enthusiasts appreciate for their uniqueness, texture, and rarity.
It’s made more slowly and skilfully. It’s made on hard-to-find and hard-to-maintain vintage looms. Many see it as a more “authentic” reproduction of and homage to pre-war workwear and the working class. It’s often made with 100% natural materials, and many have a bias against polyester, elastane, and other fabrics derived from fossil fuels that are sources of microplastics.
A big draw is that selvedge is typically thicker, sometimes over twice as thick as regular jeans, making for a significantly different feeling when wearing them that many liken to wearing armor, or a carpet. Thicker denim is warmer, plus it confers an interesting feeling of, well, protection from the elements.
It’s also rarer and harder to make, two elements that always draw collectors and enthusiasts.
There’s also the fact that many guys wear their denim practically every day, making them something of a companion with which they share an intimate bond, a stalwart component of their journey through this life. Seriously!
Because of the old fashioned production method there’s often crossover with the world of heritage fashion: folks who like their apparel to be durable and natural with a vintage and casual bent. They’ll often flank their jeans with, say, a waxed canvas jacket up top and welted boots underneath. The raw denim subreddit regularly has posts about those items of clothing, which aren’t at all raw denim.
Whatever the draw, people fall in love with selvedge. And in bigger cities, if you look in the right places on Instagram and Reddit, you’ll often find a community of denimheads who like to get together to chat about jeans and boots and loopwheeled tshirts. In NYC, my go-to is @tristatedenimhangs.
But remember that when you walk down the street, just about everyone is wearing jeans; you don’t need to like vintage watches to simply want a step up in the quality of your daily denim.
[Further reading: Inside Vietnam’s Raw Denim Community]
In conclusion, selvedge denim represents a rare dedication to both tradition and innovation, and it’ll give you jeans that will last a long time and reflect your lifestyle. Its appeal lies not only in the way it’s made but also in the individuality it offers. Whether you prefer sanforized or loom state, selvedge or non-selvedge, wild and hairy or smooth and uniform, there’s every reason to wear better quality jeans. It’s not just hype, the draw isn’t just a brand name: there are both completely practical and totally esoteric reasons to enjoy selvedge, which is why it’s relatively widespread.
Enjoy the journey of wearing and caring for your denim, knowing that each pair will tell a story that is uniquely yours, and you’re wearing jeans made the way we used to make them, when clothes were made with natural materials and to last as long as possible.