How to Wash and Care for Raw Denim

Raw denim jeans folded closeup

The Spruce / Ulyana Verbytska

Project Overview
  • Working Time: 2 hrs - 2 hrs, 30 mins
  • Total Time: 2 - 4 hrs
  • Skill Level: Beginner
  • Estimated Cost: $5 to $10

Raw denim garments are made from denim fabric that comes directly off the loom, without any type of prewashing, stretching, or distressing. Until 1970 or so, all jeans and other denim items were made from raw denim, but today, prewashed denim is the norm and raw denim is seen as something special and desirable.

You've likely purchased your raw denim garments precisely because you like the stiff texture, shiny finish, and deep blue color. But vigorously washing your jeans will quickly cancel out the "rawness" of the fabric, so the goal for maintaining raw denim clothing is to wash it infrequently and to avoid washing them too vigorously. Using mild detergents, hand-washing in cold water, and air-drying your denim can keep it looking "raw" for quite some time. If you must wash in a machine, use the gentle cycle and cold water—and never send your jeans through a tumble dryer.

What You'll Need

Equipment / Tools

  • Large sink, tub, or washer
  • Clothesline or indoor drying rack


  • Mild detergent formulated for dark colors
  • Distilled white vinegar


Materials and tools to clean raw denim

The Spruce / Ulyana Verbytska

How to Wash Raw Denim
Detergent Mild detergent for dark colors
Water temperature Cold
Cycle Type Hand wash; if using a washer, gentle cycle
Drying Cycle Type Air-dry
Special Treatments Spot-treat to extend the time between washes
Iron Settings Low (or use a steamer)
How Often to Wash As rarely as possible

How to Wash Raw Denim

  1. Turn the Denim Inside Out

    Close all zippers, buttons, and snaps. Turn the garment inside out before washing to prevent additional abrasion and reduce fading as much as possible.

    Raw denim turned inside-out for cleaning

    The Spruce / Ulyana Verbytska

  2. Add Detergent

    Whether you choose to hand-wash raw denim or use the gentle cycle on the washer, always opt for cold water. This will help lessen shrinkage and fading.

    Choose a gentle detergent formulated for dark colors (good brand names are Studio by Tide or Woolite). Certain types of detergents contain chlorine scavengers to capture the chlorine present in most municipal water systems. These detergents prevent fading and include an enzyme that helps trim down broken fibers to lessen damage and pilling.

    Add the detergent to the water and give it a good stir to disperse it evenly before you add the garment.

    Gentle detergent added to circular tub with cold water for cleaning raw denim

    The Spruce / Ulyana Verbytska

  3. Soak, Wash, and Rinse the Denim

    Raw denim should be washed alone because it will bleed dye, especially during the first six or so washings. After you submerge the denim in the water and detergent, give it a good swish, and allow it to soak for about 10 minutes.

    Drain the soapy water, and refill the tub with cool water. Add half a cup of distilled white vinegar to the rinse water (or rinse cycle, if using a washer) to help remove any detergent residue that will leave the fabric stiff and attract more soil.

    Gently squeeze the rinse water through the fabric. Refrain from wringing or excessively squeezing. If using a washer, set the cycle to the lowest final spin speed.

    Raw denim soaked and hand-washed in white tub with water, detergent and distilled vinegar

    The Spruce / Ulyana Verbytska

  4. Allow Fabric to Air-Dry

    Use a thick towel or a large basin to transfer the denim to a clothesline or drying rack. Allow the garment to dry inside out and away from direct sunlight or heat sources. While the fabric is still slightly damp, turn the garment right side out, and smooth out wrinkles to complete the drying process.

    Raw denim air drying on clothing rack

    The Spruce / Ulyana Verbytska

What Is Raw Denim?

Raw denim, also known as dry denim is a cotton fabric that is taken directly off the weaving loom and made into garments. When you purchase garments made from raw denim, they are stiff, with a deep blue color, and a notable sheen. Raw denim has not been pre-washed, pre-shrunk, or distressed in any way. And true raw denim is unsanforized—meaning that it has not been steamed and stretched to eliminate shrinkage.

Treating Stains on Raw Denim

No matter how careful you try to be, sometimes your raw denim is going to get a stain from a dollop of mustard, a mud splash, or the like. You may be able to save it from a full wash by spot-cleaning the area. Start by lifting away any solids with a spoon or the edge of a credit card. Never rub, because you will just push the stain deeper into the fabric. Then, use a damp cloth and a mild cleaner recommended for the specific type of stain. Blot and rub lightly because you will see some dye transfer from the fabric along with the stain.

Prompt spot treating of fresh stains can let you skip full washings that cause wear to raw denim.

White cloth and mild cleaner removing stain from raw denim

The Spruce / Ulyana Verbytska

Care and Repairs

Raw denim can be prone to fading and, despite its durability, tears. Fading can be reduced by extending the amount of time between washes, using dark-color detergent, and washing denim alone. Wear and tear can be fixed with a little DIY sewing or attention from a professional tailor.

Storing Raw Denim

The best way to store raw denim garments is by hanging them. While many people typically fold and store their jeans and denim in a dresser, the constant creasing and folding can wear down raw denim more quickly.

How Often to Wash Raw Denim

There are dozens of opinions on how often to wash any type of jeans. Some say never, while others recommend washing after every one to two wearings. Here's the straight scoop.

If you wear jeans for just an hour or so in a conditioned setting, you can feel comfortable wearing them again without washing. However, if you wear jeans to a hot and humid outdoor event for eight hours, they need to be washed. Body soil, oils, and outside grime build up in the fibers and act as sandpaper, rubbing to weaken the cotton fibers. Dirty jeans are going to develop holes and rips much quicker than clean jeans. Tossing jeans into the freezer to reduce odor—considered a cleaning hack by some—will not remove the grime that is causing the damage. Plus, the odor is going to come back as soon as your body heats up the fabric.

Since the fabric in a raw denim garment has never been washed, all of the dye is still embedded in the fibers. As you wear the jeans, bits of the dye break away from the fibers and leave worn spots. These can be seen as creases in the knees and crotch and abrasion wear on the tops of the thighs and the seat. The dye can also be seen on underwear, shirttails, and, sometimes, upholstery.

Bottom line: Wear your raw denim as long as possible without washing, but it should be washed when it smells bad or has significant stains.

Tips for Washing Raw Denim

  • Spot-treating stains can help extend the time between washes. If you happen to spill something on your raw denim, treat it as quickly as possible.
  • Washing a small area of your raw denim rather than the whole garment helps maintain the shape and color.
  • Put your raw denim jeans back on when they are 90 percent dry: That will let the denim mold to your body, stretching them to just where they were before you washed them.
  • Is selvage denim and raw denim the same thing?

    It's good to know the difference between denim types. Two types that are easily confused and often considered to be the same are selvage and raw denim. While some raw denim has a selvage, not all selvage denim is raw denim. Selvage refers to how the edge of the fabric is finished. True selvage denim can only come from fabric woven on a shuttle loom while raw denim can be woven on other loom types.

  • Does raw denim shrink when washed?

    Raw denim does shrink upon first washing, due to the expansion that occurs when cotton fibers are dyed. After the first few washings that eliminate excess dye, the denim fabric no longer shrinks, provided it is washed in cold water. You can expect shrinkage of 3 to 10 percent with raw denim garments. However, putting the garments on while they are still slightly damp will allow them to stretch back to their original size.

  • Can I wash raw denim in a washing machine?

    Using a washing machine will hasten the speed at which raw denim becomes "washed/distressed" denim. This can be fine if you prefer the softened look and feel of older denim, but if you want to keep the dark color and stiffness, then avoid machine washing in favor of gentle hand-washing in cold water using a detergent formulated for dark colors.

  • How soon should I wash raw denim for the first time?

    Some sources suggest waiting as much as three to six months of periodic wearing before washing raw denim for the first time. When this is not practical, try to wear the garments for at least a full week of total wear time before washing—such as one day a week for seven weeks.