Since the early 2000s, when the urban lumberjack look exploded on the menswear scene, selvage denim has become the de facto below-the-waist choice for men of discerning taste. But now that the hearty jean has become a commonplace item, it’s easy to forget that not all selvage is of the same quality.
“You can get selvage denim from Uniqlo, made in Japan, for $39.90,” says Walker MacWilliam, a creative consultant at the cult store Blue in Green, which specializes in Japanese denim and which features a very Instagrammable wall of jeans. “We sell denim for literally 10 times that. It’s a very different proposition.”
MacWilliam and his team work closely with rare and hard-to-find brands that worry more about quality than quantity. It’s hard to get your hands on, but when you do, you'll get it right away. "There are reasons that you’re paying so much," Macwilliam says. "It’s about where the yarn is sourced, how the yarn is dyed. These are still made with very intense, manual labor processes.”
Beyond knowing what selvage denim is from a technical standpoint (which you can do right here), it’s important to know that there are different levels of quality out there.
How It’s Made
Naturally, the actual denim — and how it’s woven — is a big part of what determines the quality and makes some brands worth the extra money. “Most jeans today are made on projectile looms, which has increased availability and a more affordable price point,” says Sean Smith, retail associate at Brooklyn Denim Co. in Williamsburg. “But, the tradition and attention to detail as well as the signature selvage finish produced from shuttle looms come in at a higher price point and this distinction separates the two.”
Know the Brands
Nick Coe, the founding editor of Heddels, an online resource for quality-made clothing and menswear, suggests getting to know where your jeans are coming from. “It's not always the case, but if the denim mill and factory are a complete mystery, you're probably better off moving on to another pair,” he says. After all, brands that use quality materials want to flaunt that fact, not hide it.
Coe suggests figuring out what is important to you in a pair of jeans. “Since there are so many great selvage denim options on the market, and so much of the buying process is based on taste, I always recommend people do as much research they can beforehand,” he says. “What brands resonate most strongly with you? What color, fit, and weight of denim do you like the most? What, if any, design details do you favor?”
Spot a Fake
Like anything else, there are swindlers in the selvage market, whether it be purposeful deceit or innocent misunderstanding. The number one way to make sure you’ve got the real deal is to flip the jeans inside out and make sure there’s that red — or blue, or green, or pink — line at the seam, a natural byproduct of the weaving process. However, that’s not even a guarantee these days. As Heddels notes, some manufacturers are replicating that detail to mimic real selvage, duping unsuspecting customers. The best thing to do is only buy from reputable brands that specialize in selvage.
The Touch Test
MacWilliam suggests actually holding a pair of jeans to assess their quality, since a lot can be learned from assessing the weight. “Weight comes from density — how compact the weaving is — but it also comes from the amount of yarn," he says. "We sell 22-ounce denim, 18-ounce denim, and most denim is like 14 ounces, so these are a minimum of 4 ounces heavier." While you’re up this close, check out the color and the “grain” of the fabric. “Texture is a big thing,” he says. “These will inherently have more texture to them. And because it’s a very manual process, the color is a much richer shade of blue.”
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Beyond the Denim
While the quality of the actual denim is certainly one of, if not the, most important aspects to consider, there are other key things to look out for. “Selvage is certainly an eye-catching and good-looking denim detail, but I always take notice of any other construction finishings that are unusual and/or innovative,” Coe says. His list includes details such as the pocket bags (standard thin twill versus a sturdier fabric), the stitching (single versus chain versus an alternative technique), the belt loops, whether or not the rivets are exposed, if the buttons are custom to the brand or generic, and even whether the back patch is made from paper, leather, or another material.
The more high-end the label, the more nuanced these details become, to the point of obsession for both the craftspeople making the product and the potential buyers. Things like washes and the type of thread used can make a big difference to denim-heads, but maybe not as much to the average shopper. “This gets into the subjectivity,” says MacWilliam. “Does it really matter? To these people, it really does.”