8 Stages of Raw Denim Enthusiasm
Raw denim is a journey. It’s a path that looks a little different for each wayfarer, but we all pass the same milestones along the way.
We all start with a moment of illumination, and we proceed from there towards the point of no return—where denim becomes more than just a fashion choice. At this point, when denim becomes a lifestyle or even an obsession, the path forks off in innumerable directions.
To help you understand where you are on your raw denim journey, together with Thomas, I’ve identified and described its eight stages.
Follow the competition
The Indigo Invitational is a year-long fading competition. It’s free to join, and all brands and weights are welcome. All you need is a brand new pair of raw denim jeans, and the best fades win! Oh, and the prizes are insane!
Your jeans can be unsanforized or sanforized, as long as they’re raw (factory one-washed jeans being the only exception). Year 3 of the competition runs from April 2022 to April 2023.
Included in each stage are links to resources and entries from the Denim Encyclopedia that will help you better understand where you are and what your next steps will look like.
We’ll begin with that moment that so many of us recall fondly—our first glimpse into the world of raw denim.
New to raw denim?
If you’re new to raw denim and feel out of their depth in conversations about it, we have a lot of resources that can help you quickly catch up with other denimheads.
Journey stage #1: The Blue Light
A flash of inspiration hits us out of the blue. Perhaps a trusted source shines the light upon us, either showing us a pair of raw denim jeans or telling us about it. Perhaps we see something online or on TV that turns on the blue light for the first time. Whatever it is, we are curious.
We’re drawn towards the blue light, and we start to see our denim through new eyes. Why are we paying a brand to fade our jeans for us, we ask? Why are we paying anything at all for jeans produced in some sweatshop from the cheapest possible materials?
The light is not the answer. It’s the question.
Journey stage #2: The Cave
The light guides us to a cave. It’s in this cave that we will get our first real taste of the world of raw denim.
From the cave’s entrance we can clearly see a few brands. We might have seen some of these names before. Nudies and Naked and Famous, for instance, often ring a bell for those new to raw denim. But there are other brands, many of them Japanese, that we’ve never heard of before.
The price difference between them is considerable, and the light is still too dim to make out distinct differences between them.
The more time we spend in the entrance of the cave, the more our eyes will adjust to the dim light. When you’re at this stage, get to know as many brands as you can. The more you know about how much is out there, the more primed you’ll be for the next step.
Learn more about these popular brands if you’re in stage #2:
- Interview with Giles and Alex Padmore from Iron Heart (podcast)
- Lennaert Nijgh tells the story of Benzak Denim Developers (video)
- Why you need to wear Indigofera jeans to truly ‘get’ the brand
- Interview with Tellason (podcast)
Journey stage #3: The Leap
Separating the front of the cave from the back of it is a crack in the floor. In some places, we can jump over it easily. In others, we must take a running start and give it everything we’ve got. This leap is our first purchase.
We can make our first leap a big one (and many do), but, since we don’t yet fully understand what’s on the other side, we might start with a small leap (something relatively inexpensive). Once we get a feel for the process, we can return to the entrance of the cave and leap again.
Here’s the important bit. On the other side of the gap, there’s a clearly marked exit. When you take this exit, you’ll see arrows pointing you back to the cave’s entrance. For now, ignore these arrows. Leave the cave behind you and don’t come back for a while.
Don’t make the mistake of leaping over and over again without ever getting the full raw denim experience. Those who do end up with a closet bursting with unworn raw denim, which completely misses the point.
The full denim experience begins with the struggle.
Journey stage #4: The Struggle
Having left the cave, we find a man standing on the path, his feet planted and his arms crossed across his chest. To advance, we must defeat him in hand-to-hand combat.
The size and strength of our opponent will change depending on what we’ve brought out of the cave with us.
If it’s something relatively lightweight (less than 14 oz.), he will not give us much trouble.
If we’ve exited the cave with something in the mid-range (14-16 oz.), we’ll have to struggle for at least a few weeks before we can get past him.
If we’ve picked a heavyweighter (+16 oz.), we’ve pitted ourselves against a sumo wrestler. He’s going to make our lives difficult for quite a while.
No matter how large or small your opponent, we strongly recommend a soak at the very beginning of the process (before your first wear). Do this with a hand wash.
This will get rid of the excess starch and kick-start the break-in period. Soaking will help cut your opponent down to size, but this doesn’t mean you can sidestep him entirely. The struggle is real, and it must be endured.
The best way to push through the struggle is by moving as much as possible. Get on the bike, go for a hike, or just go up and down the stairs a few times. The more you move, the more the tightly spun fibres will relax. You’ll start enjoying them more and more with each passing day.
Remember, the more you wear your jeans, the faster you’ll find yourself on the other side of the struggle. If you only wear them on weekends, you’ll be struggling with them for months (perhaps longer if the only place you leave traces of indigo is on the couch).
Dedicated faders move quickly through the struggle by living in their jeans. Some nine-to-fivers wear their raw denim under their dressier work clothes. Some even sleep in their raws (my wife would kill me if I tried this).
If you’re in stage #4, these resources will be relevant for you:
Journey stage #5: The Water Hazard
We’re now on the other side of the struggle, and our jeans probably show some evidence that they’ve been in a fight. They’re dirty, and they might have started to smell like a pile of wet gym towels.
We’ve reached the water hazard, and we have to play carefully here. We can play around it (keeping our jeans dirty and dry), but this will quickly lead to blowouts and the need for repairs. Best practice is to wash our jeans after a few months of wear (and to soak them before you start wearing them).
We’ve got an in-depth washing guide, so for now, I’ll just jog through the basics:
- Wash raw denim inside out in cold water (only use warm or hot water if you want to shrink your denim).
- If you’re washing with the machine, be careful with the spin cycle. This can result in vertical fade lines that have nothing to do with how you wear your denim and everything to do with what position your jeans were in when the spin cycle started.
- Use a coloursafe detergent like Woolite Dark to preserve the dark indigo tones.
- Finally, don’t put your raw denim in the dryer. This will likely leave your jeans scored with unwanted fade lines. Hang them to dry, straightening out any creases by hand.
- Unless you want to stretch them a little bit, wait until they are bone dry to put them back on.
In time, all of this will become second nature. When it’s an entirely new process, though, approach the water hazard extremely carefully.
Relevant resources if you’re about to wash your raw denim jeans:
Journey stage #6: Denim Heaven
We’ve all got our own ideas of what denim heaven looks like.
For some people, it’s sharp honeycombs and whiskers, but very little indigo loss. For others, it’s that stage when only faint traces of the indigo remain.
With an active lifestyle and daily wear, and if we’re wearing relatively lightweight denim, we might arrive at the high-contrast fade heaven in as little as eight or nine months.
If we’re wearing heavier denim, and if we want those creamy, butter-soft fades, we’re going to have to wait (and wear our jeans for) considerably longer. Some heavy denim devotees will spend years of daily wear on a single heavy pair.
My idea of denim heaven isn’t so much about what the jeans look like as what they feel like.
After a few washes and eight to nine months of regular wear, raw denim that once felt stiff becomes supple and starts sliding on like a second skin. Once you’ve experienced this feeling of truly broken in raws, there’s no going back.
Journey stage #7: Threading the Needle
Once we’ve arrived in denim heaven, we want to prolong our stay for as long as we can. This is when needle and thread come into play, often in two ways: repairs and alterations.
If you notice a blowout starting to form, or you rip your jeans (most commonly in the seat or the knees), best practice is to repair your jeans. Whether the hole is large or small, repair them as soon as you notice it. This is where we learn the truth of that old adage: “A stitch in time saves nine.”
You can repair your denim yourself.
Sashiko stitching has become particularly popular in the last few years. These home repairs have a rough and tumble look that matches well with the workwear aesthetic. The process is inexpensive and not intensely difficult.
I’ve sashiko’ed two of my jeans. I absolutely adore how the process has added a further layer of personalization to my jeans. They immediately stand out as something entirely unique. I’ll be posting a tutorial here soon, so watch this space.
The other option is to take them to a professional tailor (with emphasis on ‘professional’).
The result will be repairs that blend seamlessly with your jeans. Only you and your tailor will know they’re there.
Most quality goods purveyors have a tailor they work with or recommend for repairs, or, in some cases, they do the repairs themselves. Either way, if you have one in the neighborhood, they should be your first port of call.
Tailors can also help you put the finishing fitting touches on your perfectly broken-in pair of raws. I often meet denimheads who talk about the fit of their denim as though nothing could be done. “If they were only a little snugger in the waist” or “I wish they tapered just a bit below the knee.”
Once your jeans have reached that stage where they are no longer stretching or shrinking, you can take them to a tailor and get exactly the fit you want. Just make sure that your tailor has machines sturdy enough to handle heavy denim (particularly if you want to make any adjustments to the waist).
Journey stage #8: Enthusiasm
This is the final stage of the denim journey, but it’s quite common for newbies to skip the intervening steps between the cave and enthusiasm.
At the entrance of the cave, many of us are more than merely curious consumers. We’ve found something special, and we know it. We want to explore it fully.
We start looking at pairing our jeans with raw denim shirting, chambrays, or flannels. We fall headlong into the world of leather boots. We develop an interest in the scene as a whole, and we start to learn about the brands and the people behind them who move and shake the world of raw denim.
We get obsessed with details like rivets and arcuates. We join forums and social media groups, and we start listening to podcasts, trying to learn as much as we can. With each door we open, new doors appear. The cave goes deeper and deeper still.
For most people, this is a gradual progression, but for others, the blue light is an epiphany. It changes us in an instant. Our progress through the other stages of the raw denim journey is just confirming something we already knew.
Need help finding the perfect pair of jeans?
This guide is authored by Bryan Szabo, founder of the Indigo Invitational—a fading competition that started with a small group of enthusiasts who wanted an excuse to buy a new pair of denim and to see how far they could push themselves and each other.
There are thousands of dollars worth of prizes, but this is just the gravy. The meat underneath is a tight-knit community of enthusiasts held together by a mutual love of fades.
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