Selvedge denim. What the heck is it and does it matter to me?
Every industry and profession has its own secret language. It serves to help people in the field communicate in a standardized way despite language differences. It also serves to exclude non-professionals in that field from practicing or claiming to have a high level of understanding of the relevant material. It’s a handy way of making yourself more valuable. In my years working in sports medicine/fitness/performance I’ve been guilty again and again of tossing out latin anatomical terms and physiological references that only someone with a similar background and education could understand. It makes my athletes and clients more dependent on my expertise and keeps younger, less experienced professionals in their place if they get to cocky about what they know. With time some of the common terms from any industry make their way into the everyday language of the average person.
The world of fashion and apparel is no different, encompassing its own secret set of terms and directions that are apparently very important but make absolutely no sense to the everyday consumer. One of the terms that has recently started to make the transition to consumer products is “selvedge” or “selvage”, most commonly used in reference to selvedge denim. In its most simplistic definition, selvedge refers to the way that the edge of a woven fabric is finished so as to prevent the edge of the fabric from unraveling.
Denim is woven on a loom. Prior to the 1950’s it was woven on shuttle looms, usually 30 inches wide. In selvedge denim made on a shuttle loom one piece of thread is woven back and forth as opposed to individual threads being used for each weave. This creates a smooth edge instead of the frayed edge that we are used to in most of today’s clothing. A pair of jeans made from the material produced on these narrow looms takes about three yards of fabric. For economic reasons, manufactures wanted to use the entire 30 inches so they finished the edges of the fabric with a straight outside seam featuring colored thread. Different types of fabrics would be distinguished by different colored threads.
As jeans gained popularity in the 1950’s shuttle looms were replaced by faster and less expensive projectile looms. These new looms produced wider pieces of denim that could then be cut and sown together. Thus the end of selvedge, at least temporarily. Some of the older looms made their way to Japan. In the 1980’s there began a popularization of classic Americana in Japan and this included vintage clothing. Adopting older American styles, Japanese fans started to roll up the hems of their jeans. A look that would show off the selvedge in vintage jeans. With time the selvedge itself became a symbol of quality. A special detail that showed the wearer had real, authentic garments. Something unique and special. Some forward thinking Japanese manufactures saw this growing trend, as well as the trend for nicer cuts of denim in general, and began producing high quality, selvedge denim. Flash forward to today and there is an entire sub-industry of premium quality denim, much of it featuring selvedge.
Does a pair of jeans have to be selvedge denim to be high quality? Not at all. There are lots of high quality denim available. Jeans that look great, will hold up and generally cost a lot less than selvedge denim. There is also lower quality denim that is finished with a selvedge edge. Even though they have this mark of quality, they can be more reminiscent of bargain quality jeans instead of a premium garment that is made to last though years of wear a tear. What high quality selvedge denim does offer though is a pair of jeans that will fade and pattern in a unique way making a one a of kind, very personal item. Is it worth the extra price? That is a personal question and if you are on a budget, probably not. You can get a some very nice jeans that cost a fraction of what a high-end brand costs. If you are a clothes aficionado and want something that you know is high quality and special then perhaps its worth taking a dive. And while I usually do not recommend shorter men roll up the bottom of their pants legs, it only highlights that you are short and generally doesn’t look flattering, this may be one time when you can consider breaking the rules.