Welcome to part 2 of my denim guide. Part 1 was about the history of denim, covering what denim actually is, and where it comes from. This part will take a look at the all important matter of washes and cuts, or to out it plainly: what it looks like.
[Disclaimer: Denim is a very serious business, with serious guys having serious discussions about it in serious internet forums. I’m writing this guide based on my perspective on things and don’t lay claim to being 100% accurate on all arcane aspects of denimology.]
Given the background of denim as a fabric for work wear, the standard blue colour has traditionally been what you got. In various shades, no doubt, but as long as it was blue, it was good. Blue to make it more practical than the natural colour of the cotton used. For a long time, this worked well, then denim was picked up by the fashion world and plain old blue wasn’t enough.
“Washes” is all about what the denim looks like. From the basic “as woven” or raw state through various treatments to change the look of the denim according to fashion trends or personal preferences. This can be done by actually washing it in various ways, by adding more dye in various colours, removing dye using acid or harsh washing and other fanciful ways of making the fabric look different than the plain blue it started out as.
Firstly then, the starting point, and increasingly so the most desirable denim look: Raw denim.
By definition raw (or dry) means the denim has not been washed after the being woven, i.e. no dye has been applied or washing performed since the thread was originally dyed pre-weaving. By leaving the denim in this natural state the further development of how the denim will look is left up to the wearer. The fabric is also uniform in strength, so it will last as long as it possibly can.
There is a lot of mystery attached to this raw state, and how one should best take care of ones new jeans. I’ll be looking at this more closely in a later instalment (and yes, I can see this series stretching to at least 5 parts, so get dug in, we’re here for the duration).
Over time the raw denim will wear, or fade as denimspeak has it (and this wear has it’s own vocabulary as well, which we’ll also get back to later). This is part of the process of making the jeans reflect the wearer. Wear will show on the surfaces where the fabric experiences friction. I cycle to work, and sit for much of the day, so no prizes for guessing where my jeans fade the most. Others will find the jeans will wear around the knees, ankles and upper thighs, in addition to their butt.
And this wear is partly what the makers of jeans try to emulate when they pre-wash jeans. Natural fading takes time, and makers of jeans will accelerate this by pre-fading jeans, or more accurately by adding wear. This can be done by mechanical means, i.e. an abrasive disc on a power tool, or by using chemicals. In either case, the result is a garment that the new owner can proudly show off, fake fades and all. Or you could consider it basically a second-hand piece of clothing, although one that hasn’t been worn by a human.
Really I should stop talking about washes right now. In my opinion, raw and unwashed denim is the only way to go for the discerning adult male and the other options are best left to those of lesser taste.
This is not strictly speaking a wash after constructing the trousers, but a process that is done to the denim before cutting to avoid shrinkage. This is a good thing, as denim shrinkage varies quite dramatically and in some cases can be quite shocking. This can lead to disappointment if you’ve bought a lovely pair of jeans and find they shrink 3″ in both waist and leg the first time you wash them.
Giles at Iron Heart writes this about the process:
“Sanforization is a post weave process, patented by Sanford Lockwood Cluett in 1930. It is a method of shrinking and fixing the woven cloth in both length and width before it is made into garments and other items.
The fabric to be sanforized is moistened by water and/or steam, this lubricates the fibres and reduces the inherent friction within the fabric. Once moist, the fabric enters the sanforization process proper. Here, an endless rubber belt is squeezed between a pressure roll and a rubber belt cylinder, it is here that the stretching of the elastic belt surface occurs. The more the rubber belt is squeezed, the more the surface is stretched. This point of squeezing is known as the pressure zone, or the nip point. The fabric is fed into the pressure zone and upon leaving it, the rubber belt recovers itself and the surface returns to its pre-squeezed (stretched) size carrying the fabric with it. The effect of this action is a shortening of the warp yarns, which packs the filling yarns (weft), closer together: at this moment, shrinkage occurs.
After compaction, the fabric enters a dryer where the fibres are locked in their shrunken state as the moisture is removed from the fabric.”
Shrink to fit
As mentioned above, some denim can shrink like crazy when you wash it. Apart from being an annoyance, this can also be a boon if you take it into consideration when picking a size, allowing you to buy jeans that will shrink to fit your body, not a standard fit. Of course, this does mean you have to soak them and then wear them until they dry, but this isn’t to be considered suffering, more a rite of passage.
This was the big thing in the 80’s, and most of us were probably there. I’ll not hold it against you now, but those days are gone, let it go. The idea is to make the jeans look like they’ve been washed a thousand times and are really worn. It doesn’t really work that well, and in many cases it also weakens the fabric so the trousers don’t only look bad, but they won’t last well either.
This is where a yellow or brown dye is added after weaving, to give the fabric a more vintage or dirty colour. Usually done in combination with some creative distressing as well, to make them look both filthy and worn out. This is a shortcut to achieving the stylish looks of a homeless person.
Vintage is common where makers aim to reproduce styles and looks from bygone times. Whereas most jeans today come in a fairly similar shade of blue, vintage styles will often be in slightly different blues and weaves. Levis Vintage is a good example of this, where old weaves and styles are reproduced.
Cuts and styles
So, washes out of the way and we can turn to cuts. If there was controversy surrounding washes, then welcome to yet more differing opinions. There probably isn’t a single aspect about how jeans should fit that isn´t hotly debated. From how they sit on the hips, with high or low rise, dropped or regular crotch and so forth, to whether they should be slim or baggy around the thighs through to how little or much flare at the bottom.
My preference is a fairly high rise (to cover my butt), a slim fit (to make my short legs longer) and quite tapered bottoms (I detest flares and the taper is handy when cycling, as I don’t need the cycle clips I invariable forget to bring with me and end up having to insert trousers into socks, which really doesn´t work with any sort of look). So, having revealed my preferences, what disagreeable choices are available for others to select?
Starting at the top: The rise, important though it may be, I get the impression not many guys think about it, and even fewer realise why it is important. The definition of rise is the measurement from centre crotch to the top of the waistline and usually varies between 9 and 12 inches or so. There are two aspects to this, one is that the lower the rise the more butt-crack you’ll show when bending over. This is unpleasant for both you (unless you appreciate the cool breeze) and anyone observing you (seriously, even your mother won’t applaud it). The other aspect is visual. The height of the rise positions your waist, so if you’re a man with fairly short legs, a higher rise will bring your waist up and make your legs appear longer. Similarly, if you have really long legs, go with a lower rise (though keep in mind the rear view, ok?).
Next, slim or baggy? Make sure there is room for your thighs. Pretty obvious, right? You won’t go out and buy jeans that are too tight? Unless you need the motivation to slim down, in which case a pair of jeans you just can’t quite get into makes a good motivational device, and a yardstick to measure yourself against.
Then the bottom bit… And this is where tempers flare and bar brawls start. Do you go for full taper, where your jeans fit like long-Johns from top to bottom, or do you go full-on 70s rocker/hippie style with bell-bottoms a family of badgers could camp out in? Or somewhere in between? My advice is to at least stay on the tapered side of straight-cut, i.e. the width at the knee all the way down. Anything wider than this is entering the realm of flares and should not be used by men.
As a little bonus, consider the matter of turn-ups. Should you buy your jeans the correct length, or factor in an inch or two extra so you can wear the bottoms turned up? It does seem a little strange to have your jeans hemmed (i.e. shortened) and not have them shortened to the length of your legs, but the turn-up look is a denim classic. A little too casual for the almost-acceptable-at-work jeans, but a nice look for when you can dress more freely. Again though, beware of the visual impact of turn-ups, keep them narrow if you have short legs. In my opinion, even guys with long legs should show a little restraint in the width, anything over a couple of inches just looks silly.
A word of caution: Ask about shrinkage when buying jeans. Some jeans will stay true to size, others may shrink 2″ in the waist and 2-4″ on the length. Avoid disappointment and do your homework before spending your hard earned cash.
The next instalment will take a look at how to care for your denim, and some of the myths around this.