Unsanforized Denim – Is It Worth It?

As more people gain exposure to raw denim from brands all over the world, we’ve been hearing a lot of questions that pertain to not just what unsanforized denim is but what actually is the difference between unsanforized denim and sanforized denim outside of the way they’re treated.

It’s a question that gets a pretty wide variety of responses from both unsanforized denim fans and detractors. With more attention being turned to this subject and information being a bit fragmented across the many forums, we thought it was time to dive a bit more into unsanforized denim and present information about that will hopefully help determine whether or not unsanforized denim is for you.

Unsanforized 14.5 oz denim Strike Gold 1109

Unsanforized 14.5 oz denim on Strike Gold 1109

What Does Unsanforized Mean?

To start, it’s important to set a baseline of what sanforization is. Sanforization is a process designed to eliminate the amount a fabric shrinks when washed. After coming off the loom, the fabric is fed through a sanforization machine which uses a series of rollers, moisture, and heat to stretch, shrink, and stabilize the fabric. Many times this is referred to as pre-shrunk and a vast majority of denim on the market these days is sanforized. Shrinkage with sanforized denim is typically limited to less than 1%. Check out our full guide for more info on the sanforization process.

A diagram of the Sanforization process


3sixteen SL-100x sanforized denim cuff

Sanforized denim on 3sixteen SL-100X

With that said, unsanforized denim is simply fabric that did not go through the sanforization process and therefore will shrink when washed or soaked. Unsanforized denim can also be referred to as “shrink-to-fit”or STF, which is a term used by Levi’s for their unsanforized jeans. Occasionally the term “loomstate“, which means that the fabric is unaltered and untreated after being woven, will be used to describe unsanforized denim.

The general rule with unsanforized denim is that you should give it a soak for a certain amount of time to allow it to shrink before you start wearing the jeans. This is why brands and stores will suggest sizing up one or two sizes with unsanforized denim. Sizing up will allow the denim to shrink to the right size when soaked for the first time.

Sanforized denim and unsanforized denim on Rogue Territory and eternal jeans

Sanforized Denim on Rogue Territory Stanton vs Once Washed Unsanforized Denim on Eternal 811

What Makes Unsanforized Denim Desirable?

Whether or not unsanforized denim is “better” is completely subjective but we’ll dive a little bit deeper on how unsanforized and sanforized denim differ from one another other than the shrinking aspect. As mentioned before, the sanforizing process applies heat, moisture, and pressure to the fabric to shrink and stretch it repeatedly.

While this process is very effective in removing most of the shrinkage from the fabric, it can also flatten the denim and cause it to lose some of its rougher characteristics. Some mills will even singe the hairs off the denim and mercerize it to achieve a more uniform and lustrous look. The result often times is a smoother looking denim that is ready to wear right away and still can fade very well with wear but ultimately, the fabric does lose some of its character.

Sanforized USDG and Momotaro denim

Sanforized Denim on United Dry Stock Goods Slight Fit 12.5oz Denim and Sanforized Denim on Momotaro 18oz Heavyweight “Tight Tapered”

Unsanforized and loomstate denim retains all the qualities that are caused by the type of cotton being used, how the yarn is spun, dyed, and how the yarns are woven together to make the fabric. These different characteristics are accentuated as the denim ages and result in very unique wear marks and fades. Often times with unsanforized denim, the jeans will still fade well even with less time in between washes which is a result of the denim not going through any treatment off the loom.

Unsanforized Denim on Flat Head 3012

Unsanforized Denim on Flat Head 3012

With that in mind, it’s important to note that not all unsanforized denim fabrics have the same characteristics and fading properties as that is largely dependent on the mill that creates the denim fabric. In general, most mills that offer unsanforized denim are very specliazed in creating high quality textiles and many work with each individual company to create denim with certain characteristics that become unique calling cards for each brand. This is why brands such as The Flat Head, Pure Blue Japan, and Samurai have denim fabrics that while are all unsanforized, will vary drastically from one another.

Unsanforized pure blue japan denim

Unsanforized Denim on Pure Blue Japan denim

The idea of unsanforized denim is great especially for those looking for more unique and distinctive fabrics but it’s not without some drawbacks. Because the denim can shrink anywhere from 1-2 sizes, there is a level of uncertainty when it comes to what size to choose.

The water temperature, duration of the initial wash or soak, and even the amount of agitation you apply to the denim during a soak can affect how much the denim shrinks. To help eliminate some confusion, stores like Self EdgeBlue in Green, Blue Owl, and Rivet and Hide have a knowledgeable staff that can offer sound advice on how to size and shrink the jeans they sill. And those willing to take the time, there is a large amount of information on forums such as Styleforum and Superfuture that can shed light on how to best size.

But even with the information available, there’s still a chance of the denim will shrink differently from expected not only from the initial soak/wash but also after the first wash after wearing. Without sounding overdramatic, it’s a try-at-your-own-risk situation especially if you lack experience with it. Many Japanese brands offer unsanforized jeans once washed to shrink the fabric in order to alleviate some of the uncertainty. In these cases, there will be no need to soak the jean again since the brand or store has taken care of that already.

Unsanforized 3sixteen+ 21BSP

Unsanforized Denim on 3sixteen+ 21BSP

It can be argued that unsanforized denim is desirable not just because of the fact that it’s unsanforized but also because the brands and mills that offer them are some of the best in the industry. Any denim coming from these companies, whether it’s sanforized or not, would be of the highest quality. For many people, the efforts needed to size and wash unsanforized denim properly is actually a desired additional step in personalizing the jeans and well worth being able to wear denim made by these well respected brands. It’s not to say though that sanforized denim is necessarily a lesser quality fabric.

If you take a look at our Fade Friday section, you’ll see some great examples of beautifully worn-in jeans from brands like 3Sixteen, Rogue Territory, and Tellason who use high quality and well-made sanforized denim from mills in Japan and America that have plenty of character and ages well.

Pure Blue Japan Unsanforized XX013

A pair of Pure Blue Japan XX-013 using unsanforized denim after 14 months, 5 washes, and 2 soaks

Sanforized 3sixteen SL-100x fade

A pair of 3sixteen SL-100X using sanforized denim after 14 months and 4 washes.

In the end, whether it’s unsanforized or sanforized denim, it’s important to remember that all the fuss about denim is all for nothing if you’re not wearing it so do your research on the brands, ask questions, make a choice, and start wearing your jeans.

The Flat Head 1005 unsanforized fade

Fading on a pair of The Flat Head 1005 that uses unsanforized denim

Young Lee

Young Lee

Young is a self proclaimed taco and denim enthusiast who plays in the San Francisco bands, The Soonest , and Theres Talk. He regularly posts pictures relating to denim and menswear on Tumblr, Liverpool and Main and Instagram, Young of The Soonest.

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  • http://www.promotestatus.com Chris wcrd

    I think my confusion is still that surely unless you buy unsanf and shrink to fit them wearing them on your first wash then you are ultimately just washing some jeans in water before wearing them…. This being the case why can’t the supplier provide them with this already done? Ie as mentioned above with the “one wash” option.

    So the key difference must surely be the level of washing/stetching and heat application? And any “finishing” effects post-treatment.

    Has anyone actually done any scientific research to outline the effects on the indigo of the heat sanf process?
    Whether its composition ultimately changes?

    I want to buy my first pair of Samurai this year but im baffled on how to size up… If they just wash them for me the % shrinkage would reduce on second wash and id be better able to assess what size to purchase initially.

    • thebottomclef

      The only down side about getting a one wash model is that they often will treat the denim to more than just a water bath. If you want to preserve the denim as being raw as possible, soak them yourself.

      • BelliCapelli

        Yeah, Kiya mentioned in a forum some time ago that “one wash” models are often washed and dried in large commercial machines. The pre-washing is definitely harsher on the denim than soaking and air drying an unsanforized pair on your own.

        • http://www.promotestatus.com Chris wcrd

          Thanks for you informative responses to all above

    • Vinyl Scratch

      Also, another thing that this article did not mention directly (but has been mentioned in others) is that when you soak the jeans yourself, it is often a good idea to put the jeans on while they are still somewhat damp so that the denim molds to your body and you don’t risk too much shrinkage. To me, this is most alluring thing about unsanforized denim, as it creates a very custom fit.

      If you buy jeans that have already had one wash, you not only run the risk of them not only being subjected to other things besides water, but you also miss out on this “custom fit” opportunity.

      • Ghost Poop Johnson

        I took a 4 hour drive to NYC to buy my pair of PBJ’s from Blue in green so I could talk face to face with somebody knowledgeable about sizing up, fit, treatment for unsanforized denim and all that good stuff. They were very helpful with guiding me in the right direction regarding sizing, but when I asked the staff member that was helping me about wearing them in the tub during the first soak, he kind of just gave me a weird look and told me no, you can just put them right in the tub.

        From most of the research i’ve done it seems like it’s highly recommended to wear them during the soak, which completely makes sense to me because that way they get a chance to shrink to your body in a sense. Anyways, just to be safe i ended up soaking them by themselves in the tub without wearing them, but 4 months later I kind of wished i would have worn them instead. I’m just not sure why the guy at BiG was so opposed to wearing them for the soak and why he acted like he never heard of that before. but i guess like anything else, it’s just personal preference

        • Vinyl Scratch

          That is some admirable dedication, mate. Seriously, I applaud your effort to seek out a better product and greater knowledge. But yeah, it strikes me as a bit strange that he had never even heard of it, because it does seem to be a pretty common belief nowadays that wearing them during the soak provides more control over the amount of stretch and a better fit.

          Sorry that they didn’t quite turn out the way you wanted. But thanks for sharing your experience. =)

          • Young

            yes, while wearing jeans when they’re damp is something that’s commonly talked about and done, i didn’t mention it because it’s not necessarily always a good idea since it can lead to overstretching in areas on stress. i’ve worn my fair share of unsanforized denim and have never worn them in the tub or worn them damp and have always gotten the fit i wanted since the jeans will still stretch when not damp.

            it really depends on the end fit you’re looking for. if you’re buying them to be pretty slim or skinny, then sure, you do run the risk of them shrinking so far that it’s impossible to put on so wearing in the tub you can limit the amount of shrinking but if you’re looking for a more straight slim or straight fit, it’s not necessary IMO. of course as long as you’re aware of the upsides and downsides, there is no right way of how you want to treat unsanforized denim.

          • http://www.promotestatus.com Chris wcrd

            Thanks for you informative response :)

  • felix

    Do you HAVE TO soak unsanforized denim? Can you not just wear them??

    • DuaneWuane

      but then when you eventually wash them…

    • thebottomclef

      You don’t have to soak them first by any means, once they do get washed they will shrink and then everything can be turned askew

    • Vinyl Scratch

      It’s all up to you, but the general consensus is that if you ever plan to wash them later on down the road, then yes, you should soak them beforehand. Otherwise, if you put off that initial soak, then when you finally do wash them they will no longer fit the same and your fades may not properly line up in the right places anymore.

      In my opinion, the only instance where you could get away with not pre-soaking unsanforized denim is if you plan to never wash them at all while wearing them. But again, this is all up to you.

    • Young

      yeah like everyone said, if you plan on never washing, then sure you don’t have to soak them but if you get caught in the rain, that’s going to result in some pretty weird looking jeans.

    • felix

      So I just won’t wash them at all.. No problem.
      I don’t like washed denim anyway.

  • Damian

    Buyers of unsanfozized denim should also consider the fact that different types of denim shrink very differently and that you might want to do a bit more online research before going through with the initial soak (and the initial purchase). I bought a pair of Iron Heart 666s’s that wound up shrinking very little after the initial cold soak. Through the guidance on Giles on the IH forum, I would up having to do two hot washes with detergent before the jeans shrank at all. The sales rep where I purchased the jeans tried to talk me into sizing up, but I’m glad I listened to Giles and went true-to-size.

  • BelliCapelli

    “Sanforization is a process designed to eliminate the amount a fabric shrinks when washed.” It would be more accurate to say that it minimizes or lessens the amount a fabric shrinks when washed. I’m sure most of you would agree that sanforized denim typically shrinks .5″ to 1″ in inseam even when hand washed in cold water and hung to dry. In my experience, sanforized jeans from a number of brands shrink will shrink more than 1% in all dimensions (Japan Blue expressly states that you can expect up to 3% on the tag of the 04XX series). This is important to keep in mind if the denim in question is tightly woven and doesn’t stretch much over time.

  • Spiraltoy

    There should also be a mention of the leg twist that acures on unsanforized denim and the fact that you get puckering where the thread that’s used to hasn’t shrunk with the jeans creating ridges and valleys that will fade much like the roping effect at leg openings.

  • Massive

    Another option that may not have been mentioned is buying raw denim yardage, washing it, and then making custom jeans out of that product. The result is that you get the raw denim that has been shrunk but you get custom fit. Of course you may not get some of the alterations that come in jeans because they were shrunk after having been sewn, like roping, twist, differential shrinking of the waist (ouch). Some of these are positive, while others tend to be seen as negative.

    The thing about using loomstate denim, then shrinking it for the customer, is that some customers don’t want that done, they want the real experience. The other thing is that it takes a lot of washing of cloth to get it really done with the shrinking. Normally three cycles. That is a huge expense. So you know larger makers are going to find some shortcut, and we will be back to debating whether the jeans would have been better if they had been sold unshrunk, and nature had taken it’s course.

  • jeandude

    So i bought a pair of simon miller raw unsanforized jeans that fit perfect and on the snug side, does this mean that when i wash them initially and each time after there going to shrink beyond wearing? Is there any way to avoid the shrinkage?