Fruit flies live longer than fashion trends these days, but a classic pair of durable jeans are timeless. Spending extra for a pair of longlasting jeans actually makes sense. Today we’ll explore what to look for and where to find durable jeans that will just keep looking better as the years roll by.
Stick around to the end of this article (or skip there) for some top picks for rugged jeans. By then you’ll be an armchair connoisseur of spotting durable jeans too.
Some folks may not have time to read this whole guide so here’s the low-down on what to look for in a durable pair of jeans:
- Raw (untreated, distressed, or “washed”)
- 13 oz weight denim or heavier
- Selvedge denim (from Japanese or Italian mills)
- Sanforized (preshrunk)
- Suggested Durable Brands: Levis Vintage Collection, Real Mccoys, Edwin, Rag & Bone, Unbranded Brand, APC, Nudie Jeans Co, Naked & Famous
What Exactly is Denim Fabric?
Denim is a durable 100% cotton twill fabric typically dyed in indigo blue. It is prized for its exceptional durability and the unique “fades” it develops with age and use.
Attributes of Denim
Twill is a very durable fabric often favored for furniture upholstery, workwear etc. It is thicker and covers better than plain weave fabrics, and is usually woven with a 3 to 1 pattern vs the 1 to 1 pattern of a plain weave.
Twill is recognized most easily by its characteristic diagonal weave pattern.
Denim’s unique high-contrast “fade” effect is actually the result of the inherent weaknesses of indigo dye. Indigo has relatively weak color-fastness compared to other dyes. This is why jeans tend to lighten at creases, the knee, butt and hems as the indigo wears off.
These unique contrasts are called “fades” and are highly prized by jeans enthusiasts who go to insane lengths just to develop this look. There is actually a huge subculture of fanatical jeans freaks who compete in ongoing international fades competitions such as the Indigo Invitational on Instagram
How Long Can a Good Pair of Jeans Last?
10 Years is a perfectly reasonable lifespan for a solid pair of casually used raw denim jeans.
Variables that will affect the longevity of a pair of jeans include:
- Environment/usage conditions
- Build quality
- Care and cleaning
- Prompt repairs
- Proper fit
What to Look for In Durable Jeans
Stick With Medium to Heavy Denim Fabric
Generally, the heavier the denim the more durable the jeans will be. Of course, comfort is a trade-off the heavier you go.
Jean fabrics is measured in Ounces per Square Yard. Heddels.com classifies jean fabrics in three categories:
- Light: Under 12oz
- Medium: 13oz-16oz
- Heavy: Over 16oz
If you want a solid, durable pair of jeans you should be at 13 oz and up.
Keep in mind that heavier denim stiffer the jeans will be take longer to break-in. Think of it like breaking in a pair of leather shoes.
Also, the heavier the denim is, the more strain it will put on stitching and seams. So, if you’re going go “whole-hog” for super heavy-duty beasts like the Unbranded Brand’s 21 oz (See them on Amazon), just remember that the thread and stitching need to match the fabric or they could fail prematurely.
“Raw” Denim is a Must
“Raw denim”(AKA “dry denim”) simply means that the denim has not been color correct, artificially distressed or broken-in any way.
Most jeans these days have been pre-broken in by chemical treatments(AKA “Washed”). “Washed” are typically pre-faded, are softer and more pliable at first, the chemical baths can severely weaken the fibers and shorten the life of the jeans.
Raw Denim: Pros & Cons
- Best fitting jeans ever
- Unique high contrast “fades”
- Very durable- fabric is not weakened or artificially distressed
- Higher satisfaction of ownership
- Takes time to break-in.
- indigo dye transfers easily at first(AKA “crocking’)-avoid light leather couches etc for a while.
- Sizing must account for shrinkage: is it preshrunk(sanforized) or unshrunk(loomstate)?.
Raw Selvedge (Self-edged) Denim
Selvedge denim is a more durable form of denim produced in narrower bolts of fabric by vintage shuttle looms. These antique shuttle looms are unique because they can also produce clean, finished edges on the denim fabric as it comes off the loom- hence the name “self-edge.”
By comparison, mass-produced denim is made on faster wide width projectile looms which have a rough unstable edge and a less dense weave.
You can spot selvedge denim by its narrow finished edge often seen on just under the leg hem
NOTE: Selvedge denim can be found in “raw” or “washed” forms, but for the toughest jeans you should get “raw selvedge denim.“
Selvedge denim’s clean, stable edges make it the denim of choice for the most durable jeans out there.
The downside? Selvedge costs more.
Look for Denim from Japan
To be clear, not all denim from Japan is super tough.
“Made in Japan denim” has become a bit of an oversold marketing term (similar to the term Egyptian Cotton”. What you want is Japanese Selvedge denim.
It takes a lot more time and expertise to produce selvedge denim. It’s a dying trade. These days high-quality selvedge denim is mainly only produced in specialized Japanese mills where the traditions run deep and skilled workers still know how to operate the antique looms.
Some brands that use genuine Japanese sourced raw selvedge denim in all or part of their line are: Nake & Famous, Real Mccoys, Hiroshi Kato, Edwin, Levis Vintage Collection, Unbranded Brand and APC.
So Yes, the highest quality denim in the world does come from Japanese mills, but not all Japanese denims are created equal.
If you want the toughest jeans, it is imperative to get “selvedge Japanese denim” woven on antique shuttle looms.
Most jeans (raw or washed) come sanforized. Sanforized denim is not a chemical wash or break-in treatment. It is just a heat and steam treatment that pre-shrinks the denim.
Without sanforization a pair of jeans would typically shrink by around 10% after the first laundering. So, unless your an expert on shrink fitting your jeans, stick with sanforized jeans.
Most jeans today(raw or otherwise) have been sanforized and would typically say otherwise if they were not. Raw unsanforized(AKA: loom-state) jeans are not that common at all.
To Summarize: You should be looking for 13 oz or heavier raw Japanese selvedge denim that has been sanforized.
Raw Denim Perk: Epic Fades
There is a whole sub-culture of “denim-heads” out there devoted to the art of developing the most striking and unique fades as possible. It’s a trait that is unique to raw denim and a hard-earned badge of honor.
One of the dirtier secrets of creating amazing fades on jeans like these is to rarely(if ever) wash them.
For example, The CEO of Levis Jeans, Chip Bergh, admitted that he hadn’t washed his jeans in over a year. You can check out his “Dirty Jean Manifesto” here.
Be careful though! You might just become a denim-head yourself and start sleeping in your jeans as some of these folks do!
Durable Jeans: Top Picks
Finding truly rugged raw selvedge jeans online is actually a fairly massive pain in the butt because most are smaller jeans manufacturers. (I found myself on a lot of unreadable Japanese websites)
I’d recommend EndClothing.com. They clearly “know jeans” and have done a great job of pulling together most of the best “hardcore” jean brands into one place online. They’ve also got some helpful sizing instructions for the various jeans.
Amazon’s selection is pretty spotty with a few exceptions: namely, Naked and Famous and Unbranded Brand, but even those have a limited selection on Amazon.
Yes, many of the recommendations below look quite similar, such is the case with raw denim. However, they will all develop unique eye-catching fades with time.
Levis Selvedge Vintage 501’s (Most Iconic)
You can’t get a more iconic pair of durable jeans than these. Levis 501’s defined jeans like Kleenex defined tissue paper. The Vintage 501’s are a special line that hearkens back to the Levis original tough selvedge shuttle loom jeans. They are available in multiple variants many of which have been washed/rinsed.
Unbranded Brand UB201 (Best Value)
When it comes to raw selvedge jeans you won’t find a better deal than Unbranded Brand’s sanfordized UB201’s. As the name suggests Unbranded can offer lower prices because thet spend no money on marketing.
In return, you can get your hands on a pair of really durable selvedge jeans for far less than other name-brand jeans. I think they’re an awesome deal. (Check the latest price -Amazon)
A.P.C New Standard Jean
A.P.C has a great reputation for making durable Jeans. The 14.5 oz raw selvedge denim New Standard, in particular, has become favorite for denim-heads.
Naked & Famous Weird Guy Cut
I’m not a fan of the name..but their jeans are exceptionally rugged. Naked & Famous Jeans are based out of Montreal and produce class-leading Japanese selvedge jeans.
Basically, you aren’t a true denim-head if you’ve never heard of these jeans- Yes, they are actually quite famous.
You can check the latest price here (Amazon)
Nudie Lean Dean Dry Japan Selvedge
What is the deal with all the “naked” jean names? Yeesh! Again, not a fan of the name, but I can’t deny their durable reputation. FYI: “Dry” means Raw denim. The Lean Deans are another excellent example of a well built long-lasting pair of jeans. You can find them over at Endclothing.com.
Real McCoy’s Lot. 906s Jean
These rugged 14.75oz selvedge jeans are inspired by classic early 20th-century denim classics. Joe McCoy’s jeans have an exceptional reputation for durability.
Edwin ED-55 Unwashed Selvedge
These 14 oz regular fit jeans are pretty stiff at first, but you’ll be rewarded a long satisfying relationship with them. They’ll develop high-contrast fades.
Edwin Jeans are actually hard to find in North America, but End Clothing does carry them.
Rag & Bone Skinny Jean(in Raw Indigo)
Rag & Bone make purist jeans. Their 14 oz (Fit 1) Skinny Jean in Raw Indigo will last a long, long time. They’ve got an extensive line worth checking out if you’re not into skinny jeans. You can check these jeans out here.
Some Other Great Resources:
For more on other categories of super durable pants head over to my article on the most durable pants.
Also, if you’re wondering how to take care of raw denim jeans, artofmanliness.com has a very helpful article.
Heddels.com also has a wealth of knowledge for aspiring denim-heads. Here’s a great guide to buying your first pair of raw denim jeans.