Understand Selvedge Denim

By definition selvedge is the contraction of “Self Edge”, a shortcut for “Self-finished edge”. Actually it is an unvarying finish of a fabric at its end, most of the time colored, made to avoid fray, as a result it is more resistant.

To understand what “selvedge” means, you need to understand a bit of history on fabric production.

Before the 1950s, most fabrics — including denim — were made on shuttle looms. Shuttle looms produce tightly woven strips (typically one yard wide) of heavy fabric. The edges on these strips of fabric come finished with tightly woven bands running down each side that prevent fraying, raveling, or curling. Because the edges come out of the loom finished, denim produced on shuttle looms are referred to as having a “self-edge,” hence the name “selvedge” denim.

During the 1950s, the demand for jeans increased dramatically. To reduce costs, denim companies began using denim created on projectile looms. Projectile looms can create wider swaths of fabric and much more fabric overall at a much cheaper price than shuttle looms. However, the edge of the denim that comes out of a projectile loom isn’t finished, leaving the denim susceptible to fraying and unraveling. It’s been pointed out that contrary to what you may hear from denim-heads, denim produced on a projectile loom doesn’t necessarily equate to a poorer quality fabric. You can find plenty of quality jean brands from denim made on projectile looms.

Most jeans on the market today are made from non-selvedge denim. The pros of this have been the increased availability of affordable jeans. I recently needed a pair of jeans in a pinch while on a trip and was able to score a pair of Wrangler’s at Walmart for just $14. But consumers have been missing out on the tradition and small quality details of classic selvedge denim without even knowing it.

Thanks to the “heritage movement” in menswear, selvedge denim jeans have slowly been making a comeback during the past ten years or so. Several small, independent jeans companies have sprouted up selling selvedge jeans. Even some of the Big Boys (Levis, Lee’s) in the jean industry have gotten back to their roots by selling special edition selvedge versions of their jeans.

The problem with this selvedge denim revival has been finding the selvedge fabric to make the jeans, because there are so few factories in the world using shuttle looms. For a while, Japan held a near monopoly on the production of selvedge denim because that’s where most of the remaining shuttle looms are; the Japanese love everything post-WWII Americana, and they’ve been sporting 1950s-inspired selvedge denim jeans for a long time now.

Japan remains the world’s top producer of high-end selvedge denim.

But there are a few companies in the U.S. producing denim on old shuttle looms as well. The most prominent selvedge denim mill is Cone Cotton Mill’s White Oak factory in North Carolina. White Oak sources the cotton for their denim from cotton grown in the U.S., so their denim is 100% grown and woven in the USA.

Our follow up post will be about the difference between raw and selvedge denim, stay tuned!

Understand Selvedge Denim

Understand Selvedge Denim

Selvedge Denim

{courtesy “The Art of Manliness”}