How to Clean and Care for Raw Denim

Raw denim cuff

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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. Might be time to ask your mother or grandmother. Until around 1970, all jeans were made from raw denim!

How to Wash Raw Denim
Detergent Mild detergent for dark colors
Water temperature Cold
Cycle type Hand wash; if using a washer, select the lowest spin cycle
Drying cycle type Hang dry
Special treatments Spot treat to extend time between washes
Iron settings Steamers work well, but use a low setting on an iron if needed. 

How Often to Wash Raw Denim

There are dozens of opinions on how often to wash any type of jeans. Some say, "never," 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 the 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 weakening 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 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 loose 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.

Tip

It's good to know the difference between denim types. Two types that are easily confused and oftentimes 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.

Project Metrics

A few details to keep in mind before washing raw denim.

Working time: 1 hour

Total time: 2 hours

Skill level: Intermediate

What You Need to Wash Raw Denim

Supplies

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

Tools

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

Instructions

  1. Choose Your Method of Washing Raw Denim

    Whether you choose to wash raw denim by hand in a bathtub, large sink or plastic tub or use the gentle cycle on the washer, always opt for cold water. This will help lessen shrinking and fading.

    Choose a gentle detergent formulated for dark colors. There are certain types of detergents that contain chlorine scavengers to capture 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.

    Tip

    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 the stain treatment section below). Washing a small area of your raw denim rather than the whole garment helps maintain the shape and color.

  2. Turn the Raw 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.

  3. Wash and Soak the Denim

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

    Drain the soapy water and refill the tub with clean, cool water. Add one-half 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 actually attract more soil.

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

  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 to complete the drying process.

Storing Raw Denim

The best way to store raw denim is by hanging. 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 formulated 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 new raw denim is going to get a stain from a dollop of mustard or a mud splash. 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.

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.