Denim 101: Cleaning Your Raw Denim
"Denim 101" is an ongoing Atelier Journal series intended to educate our friends and fans on all things denim.
This interview was conducted by our friends at Gear Patrol and originally appeared there.
Denim lovers hunt down premium American and Japanese jeans knowing that, with time, the indigo-dyed fabric will showcase an individual wear-pattern, often called a ‘fade'. “Indigo is not colorfast and it is water soluble, so from a microscopic standpoint, the indigo on your jean is just sitting on the surface and trapped in a microscopic web of cotton fiber,” said Scott Morrison, the founder of premium denim brand 3×1. It’s this unique attribute that makes the method of washing raw denim such a salient subject.
Over time, raw denim becomes unique to the wearer, folding and creasing to create a complex set of fades. These fades happen over months of wear, but if the jean is washed during this critical period, the fading can be negated as the indigo bleeds into the water of your wash and redeposits onto your jean. To develop your own characteristic look on your raw denim, start by following Morrison’s steps below to properly care for your jeans. Note, however, “raw denim is a commitment,” said Morrison. “It’s a commitment due to the fact that you won’t see the rewards of your investment for 9-12 months. But that being said, it’s impossible to match the beauty and comfort of a jean worn from raw. There’s just nothing quite like it.”
Scott’s personal method of breaking in raw jeans:
Hold off the first wash for months. “I recommend going as long as possible before washing raw denim for the first time,” said Morrison. “In a perfect world, this is between 4-6 months of regular wear.” The preferred method to wash raw denim is to soak the jeans in a bathtub full of water; it’s more gentle than a machine and it helps preserve unique creases and wear patterns. “Every time your raw jeans touch water, that indigo is removed and redeposited on and around your jean,” said Morrison. “With each washing, you’re essentially stripping color from your jean.”
“If you want incredible fades you want to make sure your jeans are very well broken in, as the broken-in areas of your jeans will form whiskers and honeycombs thanks to the indigo chipping off in those specific areas of wear — i.e., behind the knees, the crotch, the pockets,” said Morrison. “Once you’ve ‘set’ those areas, you’ll see that they’ll remain there with subsequent washes, even though the base shade gets lighter and lighter."
Soak and wait. “When you’re ready to wash them, run a bath of slightly cool to room-temperature water. I suggest putting a cap full of our 3x1 Denim Solution (Woolite Dark and regular castile soap also work well) in the water. I then turn the jeans inside out and place them in the bath. No need to scrub or agitate the water, just let them soak for 45 minutes or so.” It’s a similar method to hand-washing wool sweaters and delicate garments, just in a bigger basin. Be sure not to use hot water (try to achieve a room-temperature starting temperature).
Rinse. “Pull them out, rinse them with clean, fresh water. Make sure you rinse well as you don’t want any soap residue remaining.” Flip them back right-side-out and make sure all the residue and any stains are rinsed clean. This step is critical, as you don’t want ANY soap or redeposited indigo on your jean after the soak.
Towel Roll Up. “I lay a dark-colored beach towel on the bathroom floor and lay the freshly rinsed jean directly on top of the towel. I grab another towel - again a dark large size towel, and place it on top of the jean. Essentially I’m making a sandwich. Roll the sandwich up so the excess water is gently squeezed out of the jean and into the towels. From here, you hang them to try."
Hang Dry. “Then let them air dry, or if you’re a little crazy like me, I put them on and wear them around the house for a bit.” The jeans can be placed over the shower curtain rod, or more ideally, hung on a hanger. Once they have dried and are only damp, you can wear them around the house to get them to stretch back out in all the right places.
How to manage until the next wash. Weekly washing isn’t necessary, and it will actually hamper the development of your fades. After a couple more months, you can soak wash again or, if you’d like, throw them in the washing machine on ‘gentle cycle', inside-out, in cold water. “In a pinch, we’ve heard of people putting jeans in the freezer to help with the buildup of bacteria between washes. Scientifically, I am not sure if this method actually reduces bacteria buildup, more like slows it down — however, we do notice it helps with the smell. Personally, I like to spray a little FebrezeTM on my jeans if they start to smell, but that rarely happens. The best way to keep things fresh is to simply let them air outside when you get a chance, and if you feel it needs some washing, then, by all means, wash them! Which reminds me — always hang your jeans, never fold. We’ve got a great video to show you how I do it … find it here ….”
Words by John Zientek
Photos by Andrew Haynes