How to Clean and Care for Raw Denim

Raw denim jeans folded closeup

The Spruce / Ulyana Verbytska

Overview
  • Working Time: 2 hrs - 2 hrs, 30 mins
  • Total Time: 2 - 4 hrs
  • Skill Level: Beginner

You've just bought your first raw denim jeans or jacket. The purchase took a bite out of your budget, and now you want to know how to wash raw denim so the garment will last more than a season. Until around 1970, all jeans were made from raw denim. Follow these simple cleaning steps to extend the life of your raw denim.

What Is Raw Denim?

Raw, or 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 notable sheen. Raw denim has not been pre-washed, pre-shrunk, or distressed. True raw denim is unsanforized. Sanforized denim has been steamed and stretched to eliminate shrinkage.

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. 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—considered a cleaning hack by some—to reduce odor will not remove the grime that is causing the damage. Plus, the odor is going to come back the minute your body heats up the fabric.

Since the fabric in the 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 on 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.

What You'll Need

Equipment / Tools

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

Materials

  • Cold water
  • Mild detergent formulated for dark colors
  • Distilled white vinegar

Instructions

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
  1. Choose Your Method of Washing Raw Denim

    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 (brand names are Studio by Tide or Woolite). There are certain types of detergents that 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

  2. 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

  3. Wash and Soak 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 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 Raw Denim 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 a heat source. 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

Storing Raw Denim

The best way to store raw denim is by hanging it. 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.

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 by a tailor.

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 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.

White cloth and mild cleaner removing stain from raw denim

The Spruce / Ulyana Verbytska

More Tips for Washing Raw Denim

  • 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.
  • Spot-treating stains can help extend the time between washes. If you happen to spill something on your raw denim, treat as quickly as possible. See tips above. 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 90 percent dry: That will let the denim mold to your body, stretching them to just where they were before you washed them.