Care for Raw Denim

Inside the home of Katrina Klein, denim designer for New York’s fashion label Rag & Bone, a bowl of hard candy would not be out of place.

Rag & Bone jean label

Judging a jean by its label, Rag & Bone means quality.

Salvaged wooden shelves hold hand-painted odds and ends, alabaster and bronze light fixtures circa 1902 hang from the Astor molding ceiling, 200 year old boro textiles drape over the backs of voluptuous suede leather chairs – all of it belies the fact that we are in the home of a young designer and not one of our grandparents. And then there is Katrina herself – smartly and comfortably dressed in denim from head to toe – standing on her shaded backyard patio, pointing at the wrinkles in several pairs of dark indigo jeans, as if she’s about to tell us the long adventurous tales of how each and every crease came to be there.

Different dye fades on raw denim jeans

The many stories of denim…

And she probably could. Starting out with J Brand in her California hometown, she’s worked in the denim industry for 7 years, and I have never met someone who so obviously knows and loves the personality and history of the twill.  The wearing in, the wearing out, and the replacing of a pair of jeans, “It’s a beautiful cycle,” she says.

Katrina Klein in her Greenpoint backyard

Katrina Klein in her backyard, ready to get true blue.

If Katrina is certain the life of a great pair of raw denim jeans is a beautiful thing, she’s also certain of the way raw denim should be cared for, and that’s why we’ve come to see her in the first place.  “There are two schools of thought,” she says. “One, you never ever wash jeans.  That is my opinion. I never wash my jeans even the jeans that are not raw. All the oils, sweat and grime of your life are going to make that jean beautiful.”

Outside sink in Katrina's backyard

The vintage sink in Katrina’s backyard just might come in handy…

But if you are choosing to wash, there is a method. Not all raw denim is created equal. “Wear as much as you possibly can to break them in before washing. If you can, wait a year.”  If your jean is blue or indigo-dyed, it’s even more critical that you wait to wash, since indigo dye just sits on top of the denim and changes more easily, whereas with a black sulfur-dyed jean, the dye has fully soaked into the fabric. (Similarly, because black dyed jeans are not as vulnerable to fade, it means they’re not going to break in the same way blue dye will, forming all the wrinkles and creases that tell about you.)

Vintage shuttle loom Katrina Klein

A vintage shuttle loom.

CARING FOR RAW DENIM

Katrina took us through a simple, yet recipe-like process of how to wash your raw denim, which is typically done in the bathtub where the jean can be laid completely flat. Of course, the indigo dye will get on your tub. “It’s a selling point,” Katrina says, smiling, “when you have an indigo tub at home.” (The dye will easily wash off with bleach or tub cleaner.)

Filling the basin with water

Feeling the water for a temperature check.

In order to capture this part of the process, we actually had to compromise. Instead of an indoor tub, we used an outside wash basin that was a bit too small to lay the jean flat. But flat is very important, because every new place you crease the jean while it’s submerged in water will form a new wrinkle or line.

Once your jeans are flat in the tub, fill the tub with lukewarm water about 5-6 inches so the denim becomes fully submerged.

Woolite for dark wash

Woolite gets added for a dark wash in the basin.

Using Woolite for Darks, which has special chemicals to preserve darker clothing dyes – and which we chose because it’s an industry standard (with no environmentally-conscious comparison) – fill the cap to the first line and add to the water. Swirl the water with your hand to get some bubble action going and submerge the jeans for about 45 minutes. If the jeans are floating to the top, you can weigh them down with your Woolite for darks bottle. Let them soak for 45 minutes, after which the water should look slightly blue and slightly brown because of all the grime that came off the jeans.

You should next drain the tub and, keeping the jean across the bottom of the tub, fill it up again with clear water and swish around a bit.  Instead of doing this step, we took the jeans out of the basin and hung them up on a hanger against a brick wall, running clear water from a hose over the jeans. We then left the jeans to dry hanging flat outdoors out of direct sunlight.  You can hang them up inside, too, but the natural air of the outdoors is recommended.

Washing jeans in Woolite

Sudsing up a dark denim wash

Letting them hang dry will take about a full day.

Once your raw denim has returned to a dry state, it will feel just like new again, as stiff and crunchy as the first time you bought it. It will eventually break back into your loved state in a couple of days. But in the meantime, accelerate the wearing-in process. Katrina recommends taking your jean and “beating the crap out of it.” Roll it up and throw it against your couch, wall or floor until it breaks back in and gets that softer hand.

Katrina Klein of Rag & Bone rinses the jeans

Rinsing the jeans outside means not worrying about dye drips.

The story of your life that gets written across your pair of raw denim jeans is what draws so many people to prefer it. “Story” being the operative word – in the sense of paring away everything trendy or fashionable to the idea of the denim zeitgeist.  For those who are willing to work at it, the end result is both gratifying and rewarding. After the break-in process is complete, your jeans will fit better than any other pair you have ever owned, and every wrinkle, crease, rip and hole will tell a story about you.

Katrina Klein is the denim designer of New York’s fashion label Rag & Bone

Jen Causey’s new book Brooklyn Makers was just published by Princeton Architectural Press, and you can follow her and her beautiful imagery at Twitter handle @jencausey and at JenniferCausey.com

All photos by Jennifer Causey 

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