A Love Affair With Selvage Denim

Selvage Denim by Mey Mee via Flickr

Selvage denim: a beautiful life partner

Imagine an indigo blue so intense that you can’t help but drown into her depths with every gaze. You fall into a daze staring at her diagonally ribbed lines and sweet stitched curves. Damn, just check out her cuff. I call her my ole baby blues, them trusty jeans — simply known as selvage denim.

Why choose selvage denim?

Wikipedia says, “Selvage denim is a type of denim which forms a clean natural edge that does not unravel. It is commonly presented in the unwashed or raw state. Typically, the selvage edges will be located along the out-seam of the trousers, making it visible when cuffs are worn.”

Red selvage stitching detail

credit: Themightyquill via Flickr

Selvage denim is created on a shuttle-loom where the fabric is woven with long cotton fibers going vertically (warp) and horizontally (weft).

When the weft threads pass through the shuttle the woven edge is finished, this creates the “selvage” quality

Instead of the fabric simply ending and leaving rough edges, the shuttle loom keeps the edges finished by looping the threads back into the edge.


Non-selvage denim

credit: SixRevisions via Flickr

Non-selvage denim is created on a projectile-loom, which is similar to the shuttle-looms.

The difference between the two is that modern projectile-looms use bullet-like projectiles to carry the weft threads over the warp threads faster.

The fabric’s edge is usually cut rather than looped back.


Selvage denim is a premium choice that will accompany your wardrobe for life. Non-selvage denims are cut — meaning the raw edge needs to be sewn closed to prevent fraying. In comparison, shuttle-loom finished ‘selvage’ edges can’t unravel easily.

Which is more important to you when buying denim: function or form? In the 19th century, anyone would tell you that denim was all about function; they were work pants, and never considered for style.

America broke up with selvage.

By the early 20th century, denim was the most commonly-owned garment in every Americans’ closet. Denim started to consider style a factor when American companies such as Levi’s, Lee, and Wrangler pushed the limits of the fabric.

During that time, ‘Made in USA’ was highly sought after on any label, especially to those who enjoyed superior selvage denim.

Nowadays in the denim world, ‘Made in USA’ does not hold the same weight as it once did. The quality of American denim has dropped horrendously when all production transferred overseas in the mid-20th century. Projectile-looms became the staple for denim-making as manufacturers could produce faster and in larger quantities to meet increasing demand.

Japan started a selvage renaissance.

Japan is now where the denim connoisseur travels to collect quality pieces for their fashion collection. Exposed to the outside world after World War II, Japan opened its eyes to various subcultures like motorcycling or beach-living. After the war, the Japanese became engrossed in many things American.

Obtaining old shuttle-looms from America, the Japanese started to create reproductions of classic denim. These pieces became worthy contenders with denim made in America circa the 1920-50’s. Japanese manufacturers currently use a mixture of modern and old techniques with denim production.

The cotton fibers used are long so that the threads require less twisting, which is a technique used to strengthen the material. This also gives the fabric a nice, soft texture rather than the typical rough surface as seen with denim that has over-twisted fibers.

The dyes Japanese use in their denim are either synthetic or natural depending on the desired effect. Synthetic indigo is chemically the same as the natural variety, so the result is only slight differences in the fade of the denim. A synthetic dye will usually produce what is referred to as “the whisker effect” where you get arching sections of fade in the fabric.

Hand dyed selvage denim

credit: Akihito Fujii via Flickr

The fabric used in Japanese selvage is always raw, meaning no wash or pre-shrink after the denim is woven. The fibers are dipped in indigo vats, then oxidized, coating the fibers but never saturating the core of the fiber. This gives the fade characteristic of selvage denim, varying over time by natural use of the wearer.

Finishing touches are seen in the colored threads used to distinguish type of make, such as the commonly-seen red thread for selvage denim. Rivet detailing, buttons, and lastly the thick leather tags that sport the maker’s mark round off a beautiful pair of denim.

Selvage denim marking

credit: section215 via Flickr


There are dozens of respectable Japanese brands that are making quality denim, but just to list a few: Iron Heart, The Flat Head, Strike Gold, Real Japan Blues, Dry Bones, Sugar Cane, Imperial Denim, Naked and Famous, Edwin, etc. . .

Only well-made things can endure time. — Iron Heart

If you’re looking to improve your denim-wear, look to the indie fashion labels that stand for a quality pair of blues. Treat it like your second skin; well-made denim can last a lifetime.

Timeless selvage quality is unrivaled by cheap mass-production.

feature photo credit: Mey Mee via Flickr

Leave a Reply