There's been some significant hype with regard to selvedge (or, if you prefer, selvage) denim in the past few months. I turned to the infinite abyss of information that is the internet to find out if that's deserved.
If you've ever seen a large quantity of fabric, you've seen a roll of fabric. If you've seen a roll of fabric, you've likely observed that said fabric tends to fray at the edge of that roll. 'Selvedge' is very simply the phonetic transformation of 'self edge', the common sense name given to a roll of fabric with edges woven or knitted so as to not unravel, curl or fray.
The manufacturing process came into being in the 1800s, a result of the smaller shuttle looms of the time. Making the most of the width-limitations of the technology, producers began making tightly-woven, heavier denims. Heavier fabric means that the Binding the ends was not a mark of quality, as it is being touted today, but instead a matter of cost-effectiveness (maximising the usable fabric). Red binding quickly became the easiest way for mill houses to distinguish their selvedge from the rest of their fabrics (the binding is now a stylistic feature that many brands utilise to distinguish their selvedge).
The word 'denim' was drawn from originating fabric dubbed 'serge de Nîmes', produced by the André family in Nîmes, France. The word 'jeans' has been deduced from the place in which denim was first used to make trousers: Genoa, Italy (Gênes). The jeans we know today were born in 19th Century Western America, when Nevadan tailor Jacob Davis was commissioned to make a sturdy pair of pants for a woodcutter. He added rivets, reinforcing the stitching, and soon enough could not keep up with the demand of tradesmen. He wrote to his supplier, Levi Strauss (yep, Levis), who in turn patented the design and began producing them by the truckload.
In the booming consumerism of the 1950s, denim manufacturers jumped on technological development in the form of the projectile loom, which offered faster production and wider denim rolls. This not only did away with the pressing need to save fabric to make costs back, but it almost immediately put jeans on the legs of every man, woman and child in the Western World - at the expense of the suddenly expensive alternative that is selvedge denim. The introduction of new methods of manufacture, however, only created the influx of supply. Where did the demand come from?
The manufacturing developments of the 1950s coincided with the age of the rebellious 'bad boy' depicted in films of the day; James Dean's Rebel Without a Cause wore slim fitting jeans, immediately associating the clothing with rebellion, sex, and 'cool'. The hearts of teen girls fluttered and the boys were all too keen to emulate. Jeans began flooding the wardrobes of the fashionable and blue collar workers alike. The non-conforming, anti-authority attitudes that jeans symbolised saw them soon banned across schools - as expected, increasing their desirability and uptake.
Photo Cred: Rebel Without a Cause
Anthropologist Danny Miller (who wrote a book about jeans) surveyed that across the world, on any given day, approximately half of all people (excluding those in rural Chinese and South Asian provinces) wear jeans. How do you even begin to distinguish your denim slacks when everybody's rocking a pair? Branding is the most often employed way, but there's obvious distinctions to be made in fit, finish, wash, and weight.
The renaissance of selvedge denim one can perhaps put down to a shifting fascination in Western society with exclusivity and a renewed eye turned on quality. Very often, this way of thinking has us turning our backs on new-age means of mass-production, and seeking things made 'the good, old fashioned way'. For quite a while, this meant turning to Japan, who had kept using traditional shuttle looms whilst other countries moved on to projectiles. However, the past decade has seen other countries - notably America - pick up on the demand and revert to utilising the restrictive machinery.
Most jeans these days are sold pre-shrunk and pre-worn, diminishing the individualisation that earlier, unadulterated denim offered; fading and wearing with the daily life of the legs that wore them. Raw (otherwise known as 'dry') denim presents the opportunity for jean enthusiasts to break in a pair like their grandparents did. It's important to know that selvedge denim is not always raw, but most raw denim is selvedge. Raw denim comes directly from the loom to the sewing machine, to your legs. There is no intermediary process of shrinking or washing.
Raw denim timeline // Photo cred: Naked & Famous Denim
As it hasn't been pre-washed, dye remains on raw denim which has not fully settled into the fabric. What this means is that indigo rubs off a pair for its first few weeks of being worn. The softening afforded by pre-washing is also absent in raw denim; it might well feel like you're wearing chain mail whilst waiting for the fabric to loosen up. All of the cons, then, seem to disappear within the first two months of ownership (and required wearing).
Ah, but there's one final thing to consider when choosing your denim: whether it is sanforised or unsanforised. Pretty much all jeans these days - including raw and selvedge - come sanforised, meaning they've been chemically treated to reduce shrinkage. If this process has not been undertaken, a pair may shrink between 5-10% upon washing them.
It's raw denim, then, that seems to be a lot more interesting than selvedge. Selvedge is simply a method of weaving, and it doesn't necessarily come in a raw wash. The fact that the Japanese bought up and began using all of the shuttle looms when the Americans were throwing them out in favour of mass production, alongside the country's renown for quality in production is probably the sole reason that selvedge has maintained elite status. Selvedge is also a heavier material then modern denim, its stiffness lending a cleaner 'pile' where it bunches, along with less of a tendency to rip than thinner woven denim. Because of this density, selvedge also tends to last longer.
But if its individualised wearing you want, you want some raw denim. We're lucky that raw tends to come hand in hand with selvedge.
One more thing: Denim appears to have a yet-to-be scientifically explained ability to remain clean. A few years ago, in an informal experiment, University of Alberta microbiology student Josh Le found that jeans carry to same bacteria content after having been worn for 15months as they do two weeks after washing. It's entirely unknown whether the 'freeze clean' denim purists are so fond of actually does anything to remove bacteria - it might simply restore a certain stiffness to the fabric. Maybe Josh Le's findings show that denim has a capacity for only so much bacteria; regardless, I doubt any fanboys will stop chucking their selvedge alongside their icecubes. It's ritual.