Denim 101: The Terms to Know Before Buying Your Next Pair

Confused by terms like "raw" and "selvedge?" Bone up on these definitions to easily pick out the good stuff.

This article is part of the Bespoke Guide to Denim.

Venturing into the world of high quality denim is a minefield of esoteric terms. Producers focus on all kinds of specialized details when making the good stuff, and so do denim heads when they’re wearing the resulting jeans. The result: a whole lot of words that go way over most people’s heads. Thankfully, you don’t need a fashion degree to figure out what the hell someone is talking about when they're describing a top notch pair of jeans.

Selvedge -

A portmanteau of "self edge," selvedge (also spelled selvage) is the self-finished edge of fabric that keeps a finished seam from unraveling. It usually, but not always, looks like a white stripe on the inner cuff, with a red stitch running through it.

A selvedge line is indicative of old-school construction on shuttle looms, which is how all jeans were made up until the mid 1900s. When demand and industrialization paved the way for a cheaper alternative, most American denim manufacturers switched to non-selvedge denim, though without a self-finished edge a reinforcement is needed on the hem to prevent it from unraveling.

While it's not necessarily synonymous with quality, selvedge denim tends to be superior to its mass-market spinoff, since it's usually made with higher-end cotton in smaller batches on vintage machines.

Raw -

Also referred to as "dry," this is denim that isn't washed after being dyed during construction. Because the dye is untreated, it gradually wears away from the jeans at specific stress points as they're worn, rather than fading uniformly as it would when washed.

Denim connoisseurs tend to prefer raw to washed denim since the dye fades according to how the jeans are worn, making it more personal. It's significantly stiffer than mass-market versions, though, because they haven't been broken in by industrial washing machines, so a new pair will take some effort to break in before they feel comfortable. But the advantage is that a pair will break in at all the right places according to how you wear it, making the end result a one-of-a-kind pair of jeans that's shaped to your body.

Washing raw jeans will cause the dye to fade all over, halting the progress of any personalized fade marks and reducing the inky indigo color. That's why -- and we know this might sound crazy, but trust us -- you're supposed to wash them as sparingly as possible.

Warp -

The vertical yarns of a woven cloth. They're dyed, which gives a pair of jeans their color.

Weft -

The horizontal yarn that's woven through the warp to create a cloth. This is often white, as opposed to the dyed warp threads, though some denim has both yarns dyed to create a darker cloth with less propensity to fade.

Weight -

The heaviness of one square yard of a given denim, which is a reflection of both the density and weight of the yards woven into the fabric. Most raw denim weighs in around 14 ounces, though there are much lighter and much heavier versions.

Lighter weight denim (generally anything under 12 ounces) will be more comfortable and easier to break in, but won't produce particularly sharp fades.

Heavier denim (16 ounces or over) will take a big commitment to break in, but will stand the test of time better than a lighter version since they're less prone to ripping from heavy wear.

Blowout -

A tear at the crotch as a result of stress on the fabric. Since that's the area that suffers the most abrasion from daily movement, it's usually the first to rip.

Blowouts are expedited by anything that places undue tension on the crotch, like bicycling or a too-small fit, but the most ironic part is that blowouts are also accelerated by not washing your jeans (which is a major part of the experience for expensive raw denim). While not washing leads to high contrast fades and carefully broken-in denim, it also allows minuscule pieces of coarse dirt to trap themselves in between threads, which loosens the yarns and slowly wears away at the fabric.

This is largely unavoidable, though you can easily reinforce or repair the area with the help of a tailor or denim specialist like Denim Therapy to avoid an early retirement for your favorite pair.

Honeycomb -

The fade pattern that develops behind the knee of a well-worn pair of raw denim as a result of legs bending repeatedly.

Whisker -

Horizontal fade lines on the upper thigh and waist of a pair of jeans, from the denim bunching into small ridges while sitting.

Sanforized -

A selling point that means the fabric has been stretched, shrunk, and then re-adjusted prior to production.

Most raw denim stretches as it breaks in, so it's necessary to size down to avoid a trip to the tailor once the waist has stretched out. Sanforization mitigates that stretching, so you can buy whatever size fits comfortably without having to worry about whether they'll still fit after a month.

Slub -

A descriptor for yarns that are wider in certain spots. When they’re woven together, it makes for a nubby and slightly uneven surface. In denim’s case, it creates a unique look and feel and makes for extra sharp fade patterns.

Stretch -

Aside from standard jeans stretching out over time, some denim is woven with a small amount of spandex, elastane, or similar fabric to give them a stretchable construction. This is usually reserved for particularly slim fits, since the stretchable fabric makes tight jeans more comfortable and easier to move in. Some prefer this for comfort, but others find it to feel cheap.

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