Most clothes come with simple washing instructions – which I’d hazard most men interpret as “pick quickest setting, use same for everything, hope for best”. Raw denim on the other hand comes with much starker diktats. For anyone who’s invested in* (*forked out for) a pair of raw jeans, you’re confronted with a whole new attitude to washing – basically, don’t do it.
Take this from Hiut Denim: “Raw denim is best given a good six months before washing. The longer you can leave it, the better your jeans will look.”
Or this advice from fellow British jeans brand Albam: “There are many thoughts on how to care for your jeans, some say, ‘Wear them ever, wash them never,’ others simply wash them as much as they can. Whichever method you prefer, we have found that wearing them as often as possible gives the best fades.”
Sweden’s Nudie Jeans offer this: “Compared to a new pair of dry jeans, the smell of a well-worn pair just before wash is a completely different matter. It’s a smell that could most probably raise the dead. But it’s most definitely the smell of a winner.
FEELING DIRTY? Rub with a damp cloth if you need to remove stains.
If you need to get rid of a smell, hang your jeans outside a sunny and windy day. Additionally, you can turn them inside out, shaking them well.
STILL FEELING DIRTY? Then it might be about time to wash your jeans.”
Or how about these instructions stamped on the inside pocket of a pair from San Francisco enthusiasts Tellason: “We did not wash these jeans and neither should you. If you must, turn them inside out, wash with very little soap in cold water and hang to dry.”
The point of not washing them for as long as possible is to avoid breaking down the fibres of the denim, to preserve the deep indigos and the stiff (you might say, uncomfortable) feel of the fabric that makes them so appealing to start with. Over time, the fades build up in distinct patterns moulded to you – “whiskers” on the front, “honeycomb” patterns behind the knees, lines where you keep your phone or wallet and so on. When you finally wash them for the first time, those marks you’ve built up are left as some of the dye washes off. As Nudie Jeans put it, “The outcome depends on how you travel. Sitting around in the office won’t grace the denim as much as if used while repairing motorcycles.” It’s a weird contradiction in some ways – a kind of purist (or overly fussy) regime for a fabric that’s rooted in ideas of the hard-wearing, authenticity of cowboys and lumberjacks.
Unlike jeans where the denim is prewashed or “sanforised” (so it doesn’t shrink), and treated (this is when distressing processes that basically make jeans look as if they’ve been worn for a year or stone/acid washes might be inserted into the process), raw or “dry” denim is often left in its earliest state – “unsanforized” (so it might shrink when washed) – basically, dyed cotton, that’s free from chemical processes.
To find out more, I spoke to Ash Black, an Australian denim aficionado (200 pairs and counting). He’d noticed the problem after buying denim from brands who promote the ethos of “telling us not to wash”, and had heard all the cleaning myths – “put them in the freezer, walk in the ocean, I even heard one about snow peas … I was big into the freezer thing – but soon as heat comes back, it’s there again! The freezer just holds the smell, does nothing with it. The ocean thing tripped me out – you want me to do what?!”
His solution was to develop Mr Black’s Denim Refresh – an “anti-bacterial, odour neutraliser” (in a spray form) that takes away “the smell and refreshes the denim” he says. If you’ve ever left your jeans for the recommended six months (or more) before washing, you might recognise what Mr Black describes as a kind of “oily” feel to the surface – it’s a build-up of “bacteria, pollution, sweat, skin cells,” he laughs. “Spray them inside out, leave it for five or 10 minutes and your jeans go dry again.”
All of which leaves you asking: what should you do? Say, to pick an entirely random example, you’ve been cultivating a new pair of raw denim jeans for a few months, and you’ve accidentally trashed them at the end of, oh, I don’t know, an office Christmas party, and you’ve drunkenly chucked them in the washing machine in the middle of the night, and then woken up and found that – oh – that beautiful deep, dark blue has faded, and they’ve gone from that satisfying crunch of new denim to being all soft and worn-in overnight, and you vowed never to do that again, and you start to read up on what you should have done to preserve their lifespan: well, what then? Should you try laying them in a cold bath with a little soap? Put them in your freezer overnight? Walk into the sea while wearing them?
They launched the spray in Australia a few years ago, building it up into a global brand, now selling everywhere from Berlin to Hong Kong, Russia and America. “When we first started it was a lot of mothers buying for their sons – who’d be yelling, ‘What! You washed my jeans?!’”
Mr Black is confident that we’re about to see a “massive resurgence” in denim. “The last five years, it’s been about chino pants … fast fashion took the buzz out of buying nicer jeans, but after a month, they’re blown out, there’s holes.” He argues that the word of mouth has spread – even brands like Zara are recommending you don’t watch denim too often – it’s like someone telling you to “check your engine oil every day – you take it on board”.
As someone who has spent years talking to men about their laundry habits, what does he think the appeal of raw denim is? “It’s been a worker garment for years, so there’s a heritage element to raw denim, going back to Levi’s obviously, for that enthusiast market, it’s all about individuality.”
So when should you wash them? As the interesting, and (very) in-depth denim blog RAWR Denim puts it in a recent post (“Six signs you should probably wash your jeans”), along with obvious problems such as blowouts (holes) and smells, there’s a point when the individuality of your jeans might get you in trouble – the fade marks are so unique that the FBI has used them to identify suspects at crime scenes.