What is selvedge denim: A comprehensive guide to the premium fabric

Published: June 02, 2023

gustin 1968 selvedge denim
The 1968 Gustin jeans feature a redline selvedge id.

What Is selvedge denim?

Just sound it out! It's not too far a leap from "selv-edge" to "self-edge", which means exactly what it sounds like. The term "selvedge" (sometimes spelled selvage) refers to the narrow, tightly woven band present on both edges of the famous fabric, which helps prevent unraveling and fraying.

Aside from being functionally more durable, the weaving process used to produce selvedge (more on that later) gives the fabric a cleaner and more polished appearance compared to conventional denim. The edge that gives it its name is often white with a colored yarn in the middle, with red yarn specifically being referred to as iconic "redline" selvedge. This makes for a striking detail which you can show off by cuffing the legs, and you'll definitely see more colors than just red used to ID different variations and fabric runs.

Selvedge denim is intrinsically more labor-intensive and expensive to produce, as it requires more time and attention to detail than is typically found in non-selvedge denim production. Manufacturers of selvedge typically also invest in better quality yarn and dye, resulting in a superior final product. Some mills take this to the extreme, and produce small batches of high quality denim that have been hand dyed in bundles of yarn called hanks, or skeins.

Selvedge jeans can be incorporated effortlessly into your existing wardrobe, and the satisfaction of owning and fading a quality pair can be quite addictive. The craftsmanship, composition, and care necessary to produce this type of denim ensures that it withstands intense daily use, making it an ideal choice for those seeking a long-lasting addition to their wardrobe.

gustin selvedge vs non-selvedge denim
Selvedge denim vs non-selvedge denim.

What is the difference between selvedge and regular denim?

The main difference is that regular (also known as "non-selvedge" or "wide goods") denim lacks the finished edges found in selvedge denim. It is usually made using a more cost-effective and efficient weaving process. Although non-selvedge jeans are typically more affordable, they may not have the same level of durability and longevity.

Historically, selvedge denim was the gold standard for workwear due to its durability and sturdiness. With the introduction and use of faster and more efficient weaving processes, non-selvedge denim took over. However, in recent years selvedge denim has experienced a resurgence in popularity among denim enthusiasts and workwear connoisseurs who appreciate its superior craftsmanship and quality.

Selvedge denim is often viewed as the more premium and long-lasting option, while non-selvedge denim offers a more affordable alternative for those who still appreciate denim as a wardrobe staple.

cone mills weaving room
The weaving room at Cone Mills White Oak plant in Greensboro, North Carolina.

What is the history of selvedge denim?

Selvedge denim has its roots in the early 1900s when Levis was making hard-wearing pants for workers in California. It continued to explode in popularity through the 1950s when film stars and celebrities like James Dean and Marlon Brando helped bring denim clothes into mainstream culture. To feed the growing demand, manufacturers had to abandon the lengthy process of selvedge denim production and create jeans more quickly.

The allure of vintage denim lies in its uniqueness, as subtle variations in fabric are representative of the multifaceted production process - spinning, dyeing, weaving, and sewing - and the era in which the denim was made.

American selvedge denim

The history of American selvedge denim can be summed up in two words: Cone Mills. Cone Mills White Oak plan in Greensboro, North Carolina first started producing denim in 1905. Just five short years later it was making a full third of the world's denim. In 1915 Cone Mills partnered with Levis, in a famous business partnership named "The Golden Handshake". Over its 112 years in operation the White Oak plant was at the forefront of denim production, being responsible for new advances in denim like sanforization (a process that reduces shrinkage), rope dying, stretch denim and many more. Unfortunately the plant closed in 2017 leaving a massive hole in the American-made denim market. Some new mills have popped up to pickup where White Oak left off. Most noteably Vidalia Mills out of Louisiana purchased many of the original Draper X3 looms from the shuttered White Oak plant.

Japanese selvedge denim

Japanese selvedge in particular stands out in the denim world due to its high-quality craftsmanship, attention to detail, and unique manufacturing techniques.

One of the most prominent mills in Japan known for its selvedge denim production is Kaihara. The Kaihara Mill has been in operation since 1893 and has incorporated traditional Japanese textile-making methods and indigo dying expertise into its denim production process.

In Japan, the manufacturing technique for selvedge denim involves meticulous attention to detail, as well as a commitment to preserving the art of traditional indigo dying and weaving processes. Some key features of Japanese selvedge denim include:

Indigo dye: The deep, rich color of Japanese denim is achieved through natural indigo dying, which adds character to the fabric and allows it to age gracefully over time.

Shuttle looms: Selvedge denim is produced on traditional shuttle looms, which give the fabric its distinct edge and high-density weave.

Craftsmanship: Japanese denim artisans are known for their high level of skill, dedication, and attention to detail.

The Japanese selvedge denim market has preserved many of the traditional methods of denim production and indigo dying, ensuring that the final product stands out among others in the industry. With its rich history, expert craftsmanship, and unique production techniques, Japanese selvedge denim remains a benchmark for high-quality denim garments. This history of Japanese denim will help you understand how Japan has become a leading force in denim production.

roll of selvedge denim
A finished roll of selvedge denim, ready to be cut into jeans.

How is selvedge denim made?

Weaving Process

Selvedge denim is produced using a unique weaving process that differs from traditional denim fabric. The primary difference lies in the type of loom used for the weaving, which significantly affects the fabric's appearance and quality. Most commonly, selvedge is produced using shuttle looms.

Shuttle Looms

Shuttle looms are traditional textile weaving machines that were most widely in use pre-1950s. These looms create selvedge denim by utilizing a mechanism called a shuttle, which passes the yarns between both sides of the loom, turning back on itself when it reaches the end. This produces a tightly woven, self-edged fabric that is more durable and less prone to fraying than denim made on modern, faster looms.

Though shuttle looms fell out of favor in the mid-20th century due to their sluggish production speed, they have experienced a resurgence in recent years as more discerning and demanding consumers seek high-quality, durable denim products.

Projectile Loom

Projectile looms are an alternative method for weaving selvedge denim, although they are not as commonly used as shuttle looms. These looms utilize a projectile mechanism to pass the yarns across the loom. While projectile looms typically weave much faster and allow for wider fabric production than shuttle looms, they may not produce denim with the same level of quality and durability.

Selvedge denim production, with its emphasis on quality and tradition, continues to appeal to those who value the craft and durability of the fabric. The weaving process and the use of various looms, including both shuttle and projectile looms, play an essential role in creating the defining characteristics that set selvedge denim apart from other denim products.

faded selvedge denim
Selvedge denim (such as the Heavy Antique Japan from Gustin pictured here) is revered for its durability and fades.

Is selvedge denim actually better?

Yes. Here's three reasons why:

  1. Selvedge denim has a finished-edge that can't unravel and doesn't require an overlock stitch.
  2. Selvedge denim has more interesting options than traditional denim. Selvedge denim mills are producing artisan quality selvedges like hand-dyed denim, persimmon-dyed jeans, and more that you would not be able to find elsewhere.
  3. Buying selvedge denim connects you to a rich history of artists with an extreme focus on quality.

What is the point of selvedge denim?

Selvedge denim offers superior durability and unique fading patterns over time, making it the best choice for denim heads.

Why is selvedge denim expensive?

Selvedge denim is generally more expensive because the shuttle looms used to produce it are slower and made a more narrow fabric than modern high-speed air jet weaving machines. Additionally, many of the materials commonly used in selvedge denim - such as natural indigo from plants, long-staple pima cotton, and more - are much more expensive than their generic counterparts used in denim that you would find from a larger brand.

What is raw denim?

Raw or "dry" denim is another term you may come across, which refers to denim that is unwashed and straight off the roll. Every piece of denim, whether destined to become a pair of selvedge jeans or not starts its life raw, though selvedge denim is often associated with raw denim due to their shared origins in traditional manufacturing techniques. You can find selvedge jeans in both raw and washed varieties, depending on your preferences. Denim that has been subjected to conditioning processes may have a more comfortable feel right away, but at the cost of character, durability and reward over time.

Raw denim is initially quite stiff but transforms significantly over time as it adapts to the wearer's body, work, and activities. As a result, raw denim jeans typically create unique creases and fading patterns. These fades can occur in several areas, such as the whiskering around the front pockets, honeycombs behind the knees, and stacking at the bottom hem. You're also likely to be able to tell which pocket a raw denim-head keeps their phone or wallet in!

Wearing raw denim is a project that rewards powering through the initial discomfort and sticking to it. Raw denim enthusiasts employ all sorts of methods to try and achieve sharper contrast and more spectacular looking fades. However your jeans fade, they will be a reflection of your life and experiences in them.

One more thing--when it comes to raw denim jeans, you should be aware of the shrinkage factor. Unlike sanforized or pre-shrunk denim, raw denim can shrink up to 10% after the first wash. This is crucial when selecting the appropriate size for a pair of raw denim jeans, as the initial fit may not be the final fit after washing.

Shop Gustin's selvedge denim collection

gustin #52 rainbow nep
#52 Rainbow Nep
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gustin #542 titanium super slub
#542 Titanium Super Slub
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gustin the 1968
The 1968
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gustin #25 natural indigo 2
#25 Natural Indigo 2
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gustin #587 slub indigo linen selvedge
#587 Slub Indigo Linen Selvedge
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gustin #7 the regular
#7 The Regular
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gustin #562 selvedge herringbone denim
#562 Selvedge Herringbone Denim
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gustin #529 cone mills double rainbow
#529 Cone Mills Double Rainbow
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gustin #567 vintage army selvedge
#567 Vintage Army Selvedge
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gustin #541 the rainbow selvedge
#541 The Rainbow Selvedge
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gustin #75 okayama standard
#75 Okayama Standard
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gustin #17 super heavy
#17 Super Heavy
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gustin #321 japan red fire
#321 Japan Red Fire
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gustin #581 japan 5x1 loose selvedge
#581 Japan 5x1 Loose Selvedge
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gustin #223 khaki selvedge twill
#223 Khaki Selvedge Twill
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gustin #230 cone superlight
#230 Cone Superlight
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gustin #547 gustinxvidalia - indigo
#547 GUSTINXVidalia - Indigo
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