I finally bought myself an (expensive!) pair of raw-denim jeans. Now I'm hearing that I'm not supposed to wash them – ever? Won't they start to smell?"
Raw denim is dyed and left unwashed before sale. It is sometimes called dry denim. The idea is that it is not pre-shrunk or distressed. It is supposed to fade naturally in interesting patterns that will depend on your body – it will develop faded creases called "whiskers" (around the thighs) and "stacks" (around the ankles). Some aficionados of this variegated look maintain that washing the jeans will prevent these interesting effects from developing. The idea is that you want your jeans to look worn and old – in a personal way – quicker.
Indeed, there are even some forms of denim advertised to look dirty. Take Canadian manufacturer Naked and Famous, which sells a line of jeans called "Dirty Fade." Its cotton threads are supposed to fade to a natural light brown colour, rather than to white, to give you that just-mud-bathed look.
Levi Strauss officially recommends washing your jeans as infrequently as possible, no more than once a month (for environmental reasons more than anything, as cotton is a thirsty plant and its demands threaten global water supply).
Denim enthusiasts who go for the no-wash experience often wear their jeans for up to two years without any cleaning beyond using a damp cloth for individual spills.
Some claim that the way to reduce the proliferation of bacteria that cause odour is to place the jeans inside a plastic bag and leave them in the freezer for a full week. Scientists, however, say this is a myth. The Smithsonian Institution, on its blog, interviewed an expert on frozen microbes who said most bacteria will survive freezing – it's high heat that kills them. Another expert affirmed that it's the sloughed skin cells in the jeans that the bacteria feed off, not the jeans themselves, so washing is necessary to remove them.
However, the much-reported experiment of University of Alberta student Josh Le, who wore his jeans for 15 months without laundering them, demonstrated that not a whole lot of smelly bacteria build up on them anyway. He had analysts compare those jeans to a pair he had worn for only 13 days, and they found the microbial load to be about the same.
But really, is so much strategizing worth it for a few streaks on your jeans? They're just jeans. If you don't mind having a uniform colour to your denim, go ahead and wash them as often as you please.
Novelist Russell Smith's memoir, Blindsided, is available as a Kobo e-book.