Washing Raw Denim: What You Should Know

Drawer with denim jeans.

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Jeans have been a staple for working men since the 19th century. Back then, you’d have to buy raw denim ones and break them in. However, during the late 1900s and early 2000s, jeans became a fashion statement and distressed denim was in. No one had the time or patience to break in jeans and watch them fade. The best way to do it was washing raw denim.

But, as is often the case with fashion trends, denim has come full circle, and raw materials are finally coming back. Today, consumers are snatching up raw denim jeans and eagerly breaking them in. These people value quality over quantity and don’t mind a lesson in patience, especially when it comes to washing them. 

Unsaforized vs. Sanforized Denim

There are two main types of denim: sanforized and unsanforized. The former is preshrunk denim; the latter is denim in its purest form. Unsaforized fabric comes straight from the loom and is completely raw, so it will be stiff and dark when it’s brand new. 

Because an unsanforized pair of jeans won’t have been washed, the dye will also bleed when you sweat or get wet. Plus, they’ll shrink up to 10% when they undergo their first washing. Subsequently, you may have to purchase the next size up, so your jeans aren’t too small after you finally wash them. 

Washing Methods 

The best way to take care of raw, unsanforized denim is never to wash it at all. However, most denim enthusiasts recommend washing your jeans once or twice a year to get the dirt out. Of course, doing so will remove some of the indigo dye and lower the contrast on the fades. However, your jeans will be more durable in the long run. 

When it’s finally time to wash your raw denim, refrain from tossing it in the washing machine with other clothes. If you do, your entire load will turn blue, and your jeans may fade drastically. Give that unsanforized material the care it deserves by using one of the washing methods below. 


One of the easiest ways to wash raw denim is to stick the material in the washing machine. Of course, doing so can cause other clothes to turn blue, so you’ll want to run a small load for your jeans alone. You should also prepare to face significant color loss and low contrast on the fade. However, if you don’t mind a one-wash look, machine washing your jeans is a foolproof way to clean them. 

Simply turn your jeans inside out and wash them in cold water using Woolite or a spoonful of mild detergent and white vinegar. The water temperature should stay below 100°F and the spin cycle below 900 RPMs to prevent shrinking and excessive color loss. 

Cold Soak 

If, after months of wearing your raw denim jeans, they haven’t suffered any stains, you may choose to cold soak them. This method is popular and simple as it removes some dirt and dye without any agitation. Simply submerge your denim in a bucket or tub of cold water — no detergent necessary — and allow it to soak. After an hour or so, you can remove your jeans and hang them up to dry. 

In most cases, your denim will shrink, especially if it’s unsanforized. Meanwhile, most of the color and high contrast fade will stay in the jeans. So, if you’re alright with a tighter fit, a cold soak may be the way to go.  


If you need to wash your jeans but don’t want to lose that bright blue color, try washing them by hand. This method is gentler than machine-washing your denim because there’s less agitation and, therefore, less risk of unwanted crinkles and creases afterward. You’ll also preserve the whisker and honeycomb fade patterns to continue showing them off between washes. 

First, turn your jeans inside out and unfold the cuffs. Then fill a sink, bucket or bathtub with lukewarm water. Add a few drops of liquid detergent, making sure it doesn’t contain any bleach. You can add a half cup of white vinegar to lock in the indigo dye and naturally soften the fabric. 

Next, put your jeans in the solution and gently agitate them for a few minutes. Then, let the fabric soak for at least an hour. Use glasses or mugs to submerge the denim while you wait fully. After they’re done soaking, drain the water and thoroughly rinse the fabric. 

Hang Dry

While there may be different washing methods, there’s only one right way to dry raw denim. After you’re done soaking or washing the fabric, hang it on a line to air dry. You can either wait for them to dry completely or put them on when they’re still damp and let them conform to your body. The latter options will give you a custom fit to keep working on those whiskers and honeycombs. 

What Can Washing Raw Denim Do for You?

When it comes to washing your raw denim, there is no hard and fast rule for doing it the right way. Ultimately, your decision will depend on what you want from your jeans. Are you willing to sacrifice durability for high contrast? Wash them gently and infrequently. Do you value durability over style? Throw them in the washer as often as you like. No matter how you wash your denim, one thing’s for sure. There will never be a pair quite like yours. 

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