Q And Answer: How Should I Size My Raw Denim?

November 18, 2009

Q and Answer: How Should I Size My Raw Denim?

Andrew writes:

I saw your first video, and fell in love with the idea of buying raw denim.  The problem I’m encountering, is I’m not sure how to size them properly.  I’ve seen some manufacturers recommend buying raw denim several inches larger in the waist and several inches longer in the inseam, to allow for shrinkage.  But, if I follow your advice for washing them in cold water only when necessary, I think that will probably minimize the shrinkage, since I’ll be keeping them out of the dryer.  My concern is, that if I follow the manufacturer recommendation and buy them too long, then they’ll never fit properly, unless I wash them traditionally, and wash all the indigo right out of them.

This is important, so let’s break it down.

First of all, some raw denim is Sanforized.  This process, developed in the 1930s, more or less eliminates shrinkage.  So if you’re buying Sanforized denim (it will typically be labeled), you can buy your natural size (perhaps adding one inch in length) and you won’t even need to pre-soak.

The purpose of the soak is to shrink your jeans.  If you’re hoping to achieve maximum contrast in your fading, you want to shrink first, because otherwise, after the first wash, all your stress points will be in different places due to shrinking.  We suggested turning the jeans inside out and not agitating them to keep the dye in place while allowing the warm water and drying to shrink the fabric.

Most non-Sanforized jeans will shrink an inch or two in the waist and two or three inches in the inseam.  Levis usually suggests buying Shrink-to-Fit 501s two inches too big in the waist and three inches too long in the inseam.  However, denim stretches over time, particularly when its wet.  Our recommendation for 501s is to go the usual 2-3″ long in the inseam, but go with a waistband size that fits comfortably but isn’t too loose.  Any shrink you get in the waist will stretch out over the first couple of wearings.

If you’re ever concerned that your jeans may shrink too tight, you can always put them on when they’re still a bit moist, and they’ll stretch easily and dry to your exact size.  Just be careful not to sit in any chairs – not only will you transfer dye to the seat, you’ll also stretch out the knees of your jeans and make them puffy.

Of course, jean sizing is an inexact science.  My natural waist is about 37.5″, and I wear a 36 waist in Levis jeans, be they shrink-to-fit or pre-washed.  My APC New Standards were sized a ridiculous 34 – APCs are not only absurdly vanity sized, but also extremely stretch-prone.  Your best bet is to try before you buy and get some advice from a salesman who knows his products.

Also of note: many jeans come sized only by waist.  Unless you’re extremely tall, these will end up being a bit long for you.  Take them to a tailor or alterationist and have them shortened to the appropriate length after you’ve soaked them.  Have the tailor retain the original hem – he won’t be able to match the look on his own.