What is selvedge denim?
“Selvedge” is a word that you probably heard many times if you are directly or indirectly interested in trousers, jackets, shirts and everything else made with denim. Where does it come from? Why is this word never off jeans amateur’s lips?
Let’s start with the beginning, by definition selvedge is the contraction of “Self Edge”, a shortcut for “Self-finished edge”. Actually it is an unvarying finish of a fabric at its end, most of the time colored, made to avoid fray, as a result it is more resistant.
Before going into technical explanations about selvedge denim, we first have to tell about some bit of history. We are in the late 1800’s and the first looms are able to produce twill fabrics whose weaving is extremely tight, giving long and fine stripes (75cm wide). These “shuttle” looms coming from Sulzer Ruti in Swiss, Picanol in Belgium, Dornier in Germany or Vamatex in Italy allowed the weft shuttling without interruption up to the fabric end, so it has a more perfect, stronger edge. In order to distinguish their fabric from other factories, American producers added to their fabric a border of color, especially during the prosperous times of denim history (1920s) when Levi’s started to use red selvedges, yellow for Lee and green for Wrangler. As the first jeans imported by the Japanese were Levi’s, as they became over the years the first producers of selvedge denim, the most common color used for selvedge fabric is red today.
Facing the industrial and social development after WWII and especially the rising demand for denim clothes, the biggest denim manufacturers had to replace their old machines, little by little, by new ones making a lower quality fabric, but twice more quantity (particularly wider). Exit selvedge, natural indigo dying, welcome to large scale production, to cheaper fabric, to synthetic dyeing, to sandblast, to pumice stone fading!
Selvedge denim jeans, pieces requiring a longer production time and more fabric meters were then abandoned. They reappeared during the eighties, while the first Japanese had already started to import old shuttle looms to produce their own fabric (as soon as the WWII was over actually).
It is important to point out a difference that many people don’t: raw denim is different from selvedge denim. It is a common confusion, however the difference is major. Raw denim refers to the color, it is a condition: a material in its natural state, a twill fabric soaked with indigo whose color wasn’t treated in order to fix it, this is the reason why raw jeans fade easier than any other ones. Selvedge only refers to the fabric: a tighter woven twill whose edge is strenghtened. Jeans can be made with a non-raw but selvedge fabric, and vice versa! Take a look and see the difference:
Selvedge denim regains popularity these days, it doesn’t necessarity mean a hight quality and doesn’t justify a higher price. Other features have to be taken into account: is the denim raw? How much does it weight? Is it sanforized (process consisting in restricting a fabric shrinkage)?
The main advantage of selvedge denim remains a tighter and denser weaving than any common denim, giving a much more rigid touch at first, and that will untighten over wears. It also has a much nicer look. A thing to understand is that old looms will create some variations, imperfections from one fabric to the other. These will look unique for purists (in the best sense of the word).
For the producer, using selvedge denim rolls involves more implication to restrain scraps during the manufacturing process (as this material is more expensive). Moreover, compared with its cousin the non-selvedge, selvedge offers a higher resistance to impacts and frictions resulting working conditions.
You’ve now understood it, even if there are exceptions, jeans made with selvedge fabric are of much better quality because they are stronger and nicer. Most of the time, it means they are also more expansive. Today, purists find an interest in its evolution property: indigo fades to leave marks, the fabric becomes more flexible, many things making consider denim as an organic material. A piece becoming unique only from the moment it will start to have scars, marks and will tell its own story.
If today we can’t tell the real quality of any selvedge denim, as it would be necessary to visit every denim mills in the world, know that the most prestigious and reliable origins are Cone Mills (USA), the historic supplier of Levi’s who always produces selvedge fabric, and Kurabo (Japan) known as the best quality denim.
Last thing, the average is €200 or more for real purist’s selvedge jeans at Iron Heart, Levi’s Vintage Clothing, Momotaro or Skull, around €130/150 for selvedge jeans at APC, Edwin, Naked & Famous or Nudie, then over the years appeared less expensive selvedge jeans, still with a decent quality (and even more) : we think about Balibaris or even The Unbranded Brand…