How to Wash Raw Denim and Why You Should (S01E15)

The Fifteenth Episode of The Denim & Boots Podcast

In this episode, Jake and I talk about how we each wash our jeans. This is a topic that really gets me fired up, so prepare to hear me talking a lot in this one.

Related stories: My archive of denim care blog posts and videos

How we wash or don’t wash our jeans continues to be an important topic in the raw denim world.

For one, we keep getting new members of the community who’re new to paying attention to how they wash their jeans.

Our Favourite Japanese Selvedge Jeans

The list of our favourite Japanese selvedge jeans is long, but at the very top of it, you’ll find these three.

And then there are all the methods that I call ‘myths,’ which only confuse and mislead people.

Related blog post: 3 Popular Raw Denim Care Myths That’re Totally Busted

I’m not saying one approach is better than the other. My issue is that denim novices and their grandmothers will be told never to wash their jeans like it’s a universal truth. Because it’s not! Plus you seldom hear about the downsides of never washing or very infrequent washing.

A perfect example of what happens when you never wash raw denim.

Why it matters how often you wash your jeans

You can wash your jeans however you want; weekly, bi-weekly, monthly, bi-monthly, every six months, every year, or never. It’s all up to you!

But the more you wash your jeans, generally, the lower the contrast of the fades will be, and the sooner the indigo will be gone.

The less you wash your jeans, the higher the contrast on the fades will be in general, and the sooner the jeans will need to be repaired.

Light-, Mid- or Heavyweight Denim?

Raw denim has turned weight watching on it’s heads. Heavyweight denim is a hit, and for some it’s become all about how heavy you can go.

But heavyweight denim isn’t for everyone. A nice pair of midweight denim jeans will be the perfect middle ground for most. In warmer weather, a lightweight denim will also do wonders.

In the end, I would like everyone who’s giving out denim washing advice to ask what want the receiver of that advice wants from his/her jeans:

  • High contrast fades but less durable?
  • Or less contrast but more durable?

And before we get to the methods, let’s just clarify that not washing your jeans – or at least postponing washing – to get fades only makes sense for raw (unwashed) denim!

Shrink-to-Fit, One-Washed or Sanforized?

Of the processes that go into making denim and jeans, fabric finishing is the most important one for you to ask about when you’re buying new jeans:

Is the denim unsanforized (i.e. shrink-to-fit—in some cases even ‘loomstate’), is it sanforized, or have the jeans been one-washed?

The bathtub / hand-washing method

  1. Turn the jeans inside out.
  2. Fill the sink/bathtub up with room temperature water.
  3. Add Woolite Dark detergent (or similar) and white vintage and mix in well.
  4. Place the jeans in the water and agitate them for a minute or so.
  5. Let them soak for an hour, agitating every once in a while.
  6. Drain the water with the detergent in it and wash off jeans with clean water.
  7. Let jeans dry in the sink/tub for a while and then hang dry.

Personally, I’ve experimented with speeding up the drying process by running a spin-only cycle in the washing machine. This also gives a bit of that ‘one-wash’ look that I really like.

The machine-washing method

  1. Turn the jeans inside out.
  2. Add around 1 spoonful of mild non-bleach liquid detergent and white vinegar.
  3. Wash in a washing machine at maximum 40°C (100°F) and a spin cycle of no more than 900 RPMs.
  4. Dry the jeans outside, in the shower or on a drying rack.

Jake’s approach to washing jeans

Jake washes his jeans very infrequently, and he almost always does it by hand.

First of all, he likes his jeans to stay dark, not because he wants high contrast fades. Secondly, he doesn’t wear jeans nearly as much as most denimheads do. He has a large collection of chinos, trousers, and non-indigo jeans that he wears quite often.

My approach to washing jeans

I soak my jeans before I start wearing them. Even sanforized ones. I follow the hand-washing method below, only omitting the detergent and agitation. After that, I’ll usually machine-wash them ever 3 months or so.

I started soaking my jeans before I wear them years ago when I discovered that it helps make my jeans last longer. Below is a video I’ve made about my approach.

Unsanforized vs. sanforized jeans

The reason I soak sanforized jeans before I start wearing them is to get most of the starch out, which is left from the production of the denim. But it’s not as necessary as it is with unsanforized jeans.

So while I would consider a pre-wear soak optional for sanforized jeans, I think you more or less have to soak unsanforized jeans. The only exception would be if you never ever plan to wash them.

Jake hot soaks his unsanforized jeans for over an hour at least twice to shrink them down. Sometimes, he’ll even machine wash them (without detergent) to make sure all of the shrinkage is taken out.

Listener questions

At the end of the episode, Jake and I also answer two questions from listener Stephen Snider aka @denim_rambler.

People and companies we mention

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