If you’re into men’s style you know that ruggedness is having a moment right now. Raw denim, heritage boots, and flannels are everywhere. Even more so in the fall and winter when we put away the warm weather clothes and break out those sweaters and jeans.
What is raw denim? It’s 100% cotton that has not been washed or processed after the jeans have been sewn and dyed. Premium denim brands use fabric that was made on antique shuttle looms the slow way. This process makes them beautiful pure untouched indigo dyed gems for you to put your own personal stamp on. Commercial jean makers wash and process jeans with chemicals, stones, and lots of water to get a pre-faded look and softer feel to wash away the indigo dye.
Instead of being stressed by sandpaper, grinding tools, hot water and commercial dryers, raw denim is pure and usually much sturdier in weight (also making it much more environmentally friendly). Some commercial jean makers use inferior denim that weighs less than 10 ounces per square yard, making them very thin and thus not lasting very long. You might get 100 wears out of commercial jeans but raw selvedge denim might last for 500 or more wears. If you rotate a few pair of them you will get even more.
Why invest in high quality denim? Sure, the initial expense is higher than some jeans you can pick up in a store, but the price per wear is much lower in the long run. The superior fabric and the construction makes them rugged and tough. Is it going to cost you a bit more to buy garments that are handmade and sewn in the United States with American sourced materials? Yep. Is it worth every penny? Absolutely.
Here are three of my favorite brands and a pair of their jeans, each one at different stages in their wear. I’ll be laying them out in order from hardly worn to worn hard.
Freenote Cloth was started by brothers Matt and Andrew Broderick and based in San Juan Capistrano, California, a town that embodies the rancho era of territorial California. It’s the kind of town that embraces America’s rich heritage and its classic menswear. Freenote sources and manufactures its collection exclusively in the United States.
Freenote prides itself on authenticity. Not just in it’s mindset but in it’s ethics, style, fabrication and fit. I asked Andrew what he wants people to take away from Freenote products and he said “The quality of our products are something I take great pride in. We know our product is expensive and we want our customers to feel like what they purchased is worth it. I’d be stoked if people feel a little bit better wearing Freenote. You can feel good about wearing an American made garment, supporting small business, and that you’re buying quality that lasts.”
Freenote is most proud of their customer service and relationships. “If someone has a problem with one of our garments you know we will fix it. You can get a hold of us, we can have a chat, and we can get your problem dialed in. These clothes contain my heart and soul.” Matt and Andrew are down to earth guys that love their craft and pour everything they have into their work.
Pictured are a new pair of Freenote Rios Slim Straight raw 14.75 oz selvedge denim. These are the newest of the three pair of denim we’re featuring. I’ve only had them a month or so and they still look pretty new. In time they will start to show some awesome wear, but for now I have to be patient for them to develop some character.
They’ve got a contoured waistband and a super sweet leather patch from Red Wing Heritage. The 1/8” double needle stitching is second to none but the Japanese herringbone pocket bags are my favorite feature (found in almost all of their pants). All of the hardware is from Kentucky and I love the copper button-fly and custom rivets and button tacks. They have a regular rise, slim thigh, slim knee, and moderate leg opening. You can feel the attention to detail in every stitch and hem.
Shockoe Atelier is one of my favorite small brands based in Richmond, Virginia’s historic Shockoe Bottom neighborhood. Shockoe Bottom was once a bustling center for tobacco and cotton traders and their showroom is more like an art studio where anyone can watch their product come to life among the hum of sewing machines used by their denim artisans. That’s the thing with small brands, you can go hang out with them and observe their craftsmanship firsthand.
It’s all about the details with Shockoe Atelier. They are meticulous with their craftsmanship. Their tobacco leaf logo is emblazoned on both sides of the copper buttons, which are finished in black and backed with leather. The single-needle contrast stitching outlines everything perfectly. They feature denim from the United States, Japan, and Italy.
I’m wearing the 14.50 Slim Kojima and I’ve been rocking them for about 3 months. They’re starting to get some real character, developing some “whiskers” at the upper thigh and “honeycombs” behind the knee. More importantly they’re starting to form to my shape and fit like a glove. They bend the same way each time, and are starting to stretch in all the right places.
The Slim Kojima is completely handmade in small batches in their shop in Richmond and the denim is from Collect Mills in Japan. They have a low-mid rise with a slim seat and thighs with a tapered leg. It has a veg-tanned leather patch from a small-batch family producer in North Carolina. They feature an indigo warp and a natural weft. Shockoe offers free repairs for the life of the jean. Are you going to find that with a large manufacturer? Nope.
Tellason was started in San Francisco by Tony Patella and Pete Searson. You can sense Pete’s passion for denim the minute you meet him. “San Fran is the home of denim, the heartbeat of blue jean culture. We’re probably making more jeans in the city than anyone else right now.”
Pete and I have talked on the phone several times, but what always comes through are his convictions about his denim and how it’s made. “We source all of our raw denim from Cone Mills White Oak plant in North Carolina and make the jeans here in San Francisco. We only use raw selvage denim, thread from North Carolina, pocketing from Tennessee, the leather patch is from Tanner Goods in Portland Oregon (all of the leather is sourced from the Pacific Northwest and vegetable tanned.).” The same is true of the buttons and rivets. All American.
“Tellason is 100% committed to the city of San Francisco and will make our jeans here and only here, forever. Moving production somewhere else to save a couple of bucks just won’t happen.”
I have a pair of their Ladbroke Grove 16.5 oz and they are hefty. I’ve been wearing this pair just over a year. They are starting to get some fades in the areas that get the most movement and flex, giving this pair it’s own unique wear pattern that tells a tale of its journey during the last year.
Like the others, Tellason focuses on customer service. They build relationships with their customers and take care of them. Problem with your jeans? Give them a call and they are eager to take care of you. If you call the office you are likely to get Pete or Tony. Not only are they the owners, but they are the only employees. Tellason also offers free domestic shipping both ways. “So go ahead, order as many pairs as you want to try on at home and ship back the ones that don't fit.”
There is a time and place for thriftiness. But there is also a time to invest in American quality that’s built to last, even if it costs a little extra. The upgrade means investing in garments made with outstanding materials and crafted with extraordinary precision by the kinds of guys you would love to hang out with. Check out these brands to start your raw denim journey and you’ll probably never go back to run of the mill jeans again. I certainly won’t.
Read Primer's full intro guide to raw and selvedge denim.