Denim 101: Everything You Need to Know About Buying Selvedge 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. 

“Typically, the most popular denims in the world are going to be a three-by-one right-hand twill weave, 10 to 12 ounces, red cast (vs. green cast), and — right now — vertical slubs rather than cross hatch,” Scott Morrison said, standing in front of a wall of 70 selvedge denims in his SoHo store, 3×1. He was not speaking in tongues; he was simply speaking the language of denim. Morrison grew up in Rancho Mirage, California, played golf as a kid, went to the University of Washington to play golf on a scholarship, drew up a business plan in college to launch a golf company, then finally moved to New York in 1997 and started in on denim. He came to the party at the right time. “I remember going and buying a pair of Replay Jeans and looking at the inside and going, ‘Holy shit, what is Made in Japan? Japanese Denim? Japanese Wash?’ They were $125, which at the time was $25 more expensive than any other product they were making.” This was an advantageous enlightenment; from the late ’90s — Morrison places it around 1999 — onward, premium denim has been booming. What started with Earl Jean, Frankie B and his Paper Denim & Cloth then moved into 7 For All Mankind, JBrand, True Religion. Then the wave really caught on and leading up to the present premium denim companies have begun ad infinitum.

Back in 1999, Morrison and Ken Girard, head of Cone Mills product development, traveled to Japan. Morrison said that at the time, the Cone Mills selvedge shuttle looms in North Carolina were still.  Selvedge, or “self-edge” denim (so named for the tightly woven band on the end of sheet of denim), was the classic style of denim — “it’s the record player of the denim industry,” said Morrison — and Cone Mills is one of the founding fathers of the fabric. Starting in 1891, they were a premier fabric manufacturer, and throughout the early and mid-1900s, they made only one type of denim: selvedge denim on shuttle looms. But as technology evolved and the economy demanded faster, cheaper denim, the new rapier, projectile and air jet looms took over production. When Morrison and Girard headed to Japan, no one was ordering the slower, more expensive selvedge denim. “At the time, the big brands, Gap, J.Crew, Esprit, Levis, Lee, Wrangler — every one of the American brands were focused on this moderate price point.”What Morrison found in Japan were mills focusing on premium denim of the sort North America once made. He remembers it being better across the board, from fabrics to sewing to wash. And it left an impression. “My dogs were named after Japanese denim mills — Kurabo and Nishimbo. I was a bit obsessed, to say the least.”

After that trip, Morrison’s travels in Japan (and also in Italy) continued, as did his study of premium denim manufacturing. He believed he wasn’t the only one who’d buy into this domestically born, internationally perfected practice. Morrison’s idea — shared by only a couple other premium denim companies at the time — was to bring this quality back to American jeans. “The premise was, why can’t we do the same thing in the States?” said Morrison. He did, but it didn’t catch on right away. He says his first two forays into offering selvedge denim failed miserably; customers weren’t ready for $250 jeans. He remembers that things that we take for granted on jeans today — oven baking, 3D-whiskering, hand sanding, bleach sponging — didn’t even exist until the early aughts. But Morrison held his vision, and through two companies, Paper Denim & Cloth and Earnest Sewn, Morrison evolved with America’s interest in premium denim. Finally, in 2011, he started 3×1, his most specialized project to date. 3×1, offers the largest selection of selvedge denim in the world. They have, at any given time, 70 rolls of selvedge denim on their “denim wall,” and over the years have introduced more than 1000 different types of selvedge denim, sourced from 22 different mills across the world. “The denim and the mills are the rockstars of the shop,” Morrison said. 3×1 specializes in specialty, and they cater to a distinct, particular client. “I know our customer is the one guy that’ll walk in and be like, ‘That’s fucking awesome, that’s what I want,'” said Morrison.

To get to that point takes a bit of education. And without digging through the annals of denim geek forums, it takes a bit of translating. So, Morrison offered to give a lay of the selvedge land — an overview of what to consider when buying premium denim.

To selvedge or not to selvedge. The first question to answer is whether you actually want selvedge denim. The selvedge advantage is that you’re getting the best quality cotton, because the actual weaving of the denim — on a shuttle loom — is intense and unforgiving, breaking down lesser quality weaker yarns. For non-selvedge denim, or wide-width denim — those made on rapier, projectile or air jet looms — you get a more affordable price, because the process is faster and more economical, a lower-quality cotton can be used, and the width of the denim itself . Non-selvedge denim is also allowed to use better pattern utilization (optimizing pattern placement so the more fabric can be used), because there’s no need to preserve the side seam “self-edge” ID. Selvedge, according to Morrison, is the holy grail of denim. But if you’re looking for the greatest cost-effectiveness, non-selvedge is your ticket, and there are plenty of good options out there.

Find the right weight for the wear. The variation between denim weights typically fluctuates between 8 ounces and 16 ounces (it goes up to 32 ounces, in the extreme). If you’re getting raw denim (as the mill shipped it and unwashed), 13.5 to 15 ounces is typical for most denim purists and 14 ounces tends to be the magic ticket for achieving both quality wear-in and relatively quick comfort. The heavier the weight, the bigger the yarn size, and the more indigo affixed to the yarn which means faster fades.  The lighter the denim, the quicker the wear-in time and in many cases you can find more comfort from the get-go. Heavier denims tend to be stiffer, but have the potential for more beautiful wear patterns.

Do you like a green or red caste? Indigo tends to lean toward a shade — either a greenish/blueish one or a more reddish/purplish one, which is called a ‘caste'. Green caste denims typically come from Japanese mills, and red caste tends to be more associated with the typical vintage Americana look. Green caste denim is dyed with a green sulfur dye before being dipped in indigo, while redcast denim goes straight into the indigo. As the indigo fades over time, wear and wash, the original hue will rise more prominently to the surface. As for the saturation you see, the darkness of the indigo is dependent on the number of dips during the indigo bath. The more dips, the darker the yarn and subsequently, the denim.  Most indigo dyes are synthetic, a technology invented by Adolf von Baeyer (for which he won a 1905 Nobel Prize in Chemistry), but there is a small faction still making indigo as a natural plant-based product. Those tend to be the highest cost because it’s much more expensive to harvest and compound, and often times plant-based indigo denims are left lighter in saturation.

Consider your yarn character.
Morrison looks carefully at the surface of a denim; he’s studying yarn character. The more character found in the threads — especially with imperfect slubs and neps — the more “workman” feeling or vintage inspired the jean will look.  Jeans with less yarn “character” tend to be more formal and refined. The yarn character comes from a combination of thread diameter (thicker = more character, thinner = less character), and the presence of irregularities in thickness within the yarn once it’s woven.

Tackle the final stretch.
This may be news: selvedge denim now comes in stretch. It’s one of modern denim’s most promising developments, born out of improvements that allow synthetic fibers to be used on shuttle looms. It also offers more comfort and the same quality and look of a top-tier selvedge denim. In women’s lines, stretch is a de-facto element in most jeans, and Morrison anticipates it’ll continue to grow in popularity among men.  Currently, almost than 50% of the jeans sold at 3x1 are stretch.

Here are a few examples from 3x1’s selvedge denim collection.  Note the selvedge ID, the warp (facing) surface, and weft (backside) surface detail.

L: XX133 – Mill: Kaihara, Japan; Weight: 13 ounces; Details: Black, Black
R: XX336 – Mill: Kaihara, Japan; Weight: 9 ounces; Details: Supima Cotton, Brushed Back

L: XX71 – Mill: Kurabo, Japan; Weight: 14 ounces; Details: Redcast
R: XX434 – Mill: Kurabo, Japan; Weight: 9.5 ounces; Details: Indigo, Indigo, Rainbow Selvedge ID

L: XX445 – Mill: Candiani, Italy; Weight: 10 ounces, Details: Stretch Selvedge, 98% cotton, 2% stretch.
R: XX60 – Mill: Kurabo, Japan; Weight: 13 ounces; Details: Khaki Weft, Greencast, Blue Selvedge ID

L: XX362 – Mill: Kaihara, Japan; Weight: 13 ounces; Details: Heather Gray Melange Yarn
R: XX452 – Mill: Kuroki, Japan; Weight: 14 ounces; Details: Redcast

Words by Matthew Ankeny

Photos by Chase Pellerin