Tips on Choosing the Right Denim Weight of Jeans, Plus Some Brands to Explore
By Ellen Rubin
Denim, like most fabrics, comes in various weights – from 5 to 32 ounces (oz).
What do these numbers actually mean?
Denim is measured by how many ounces are in a square yard of fabric. While there are no official standardized designations, usually lightweight denim is 5-12oz, mid-weight is 12-16oz, over 16oz is considered heavyweight. Many people consider 13-16oz mid-heavy-weight.
Designers and manufacturers will choose which denim is most appropriate given the season and type of clothing being made. Lightweight fabric (denim or otherwise) is usually much more supple and flowy. It’s often reserved for tops, some skirts, and summer clothing.
Most jeans, shirts, and jackets are made with 11-13oz denim. More of a mid-weight denim. There is enough heft to make it durable, comfortable for most weather, yet has enough give to make it very wearable.
You will most likely find heavy-weight denim used for upholstery and occasionally for jeans and jackets. This weight will require a longer break-in period because the fabric will be stiffer.
Denim weight matters for your comfort. Wearing heavy-weight denim in summer may be too hot, and light-weight denim in winter won’t keep you warm enough. Knowing the weight of the denim you’re purchasing will give you a good indication of whether it has 1-2-3-or 4 season wearability.
Factors that Influence the Feel of Denim
Denim weight is a combination of how thick the yarn used to make the fabric is, how tightly woven the yarns are, and even how much the yarn weighs. Different fibers have different weights. If cotton is blended with polyester rather than elastane, there will be a weight differential, as well as having different stretch and durability characteristics. So, 11oz blended denim will be different depending on what it is combined with.
Even if the fabric is all cotton, different looms will weave fabric in different densities or yarn count (mass per unit length). This video explains yarn count. Traditional selvedge jeans are often made on older shuttle looms, especially Japanese selvedge jeans. The denim from these looms is actually packed in tighter than completely automated bullet looms, yet retains its flexibility and softer hand even though they may be a higher weight.
Denim weight isn’t the only factor that will determine how stiff the fabric is. For instance, how was the fabric processed: has it been prewashed, softened using ozone treatments (the result is much like stonewashing but better for the environment), or is the cotton blended with other fabrics to highlight a particular characteristic such as elastane (stretchy) or lyocell (flowy).
Raw jeans will feel stiffer, regardless of the weight, because they haven’t been prewashed and still have the starch used in cutting and sewing. Many denim enthusiasts believe that it’s essential to start with raw denim so that as the jeans age, they will show the whiskers (lines around the crotch area) and honeycomb (behind the knee) patterns that reflect the wearer themselves. Even in raw denim, lighter weights won’t create distinct patterns the same way that mid- to heavy-weight denim will because it doesn’t crease as deeply.
The counterpoint to this is that the mid- to heavy-weight denim has a much longer break-in period, and can be, quite frankly, uncomfortable.
Finally, fabric weight may dictate the style, especially of jeans. Very heavyweight denim requires a baggier fit. If the jeans are cut skinny, you just won’t be able to move and there will be a lot of skin abrasion and fabric-on-fabric abrasion. Conversely, lightweight denim moves very well so it’s more suitable for skinny jeans, very high-waisted or very wide-legged fashion jeans.
Some Sustainable Jeans Brands to Explore
Or see our complete guide to sustainable jeans and denim.
Lightweight Denim – most denim shirts will fall into this category
- Wrangler – offers a wide selection from 11.7 to 15.25oz. Many are blended fibers.
- Matt & Bow – 11.5 to 12.4oz.
- Levi’s for everything denim. Many of their jeans are now 12.5oz (downgraded 10 years ago from 14oz). Levi’s notates which choices are sustainable. They also have many different blends available including hemp (which they characterize as heavy-weight).
- Patagonia also offers at a cotton/Tencel/hemp blend in 13.8oz. Their organic cotton jeans are 12oz.
- The Unbranded Brand offers selvedge choices in everything from 11oz stretch to 21oz heavyweight.
- Naked and Famous offers a range from 5.5 tech denim, 9.5oz Japanese selvedge all the way to 19oz, and even 32oz heavyweight denim.
- Iron Heart has some mid-weight selvedge at 14oz, but their jeans go up to 25oz selvedge jeans. Their denim jackets are in the 14-22oz range.
Final Thoughts on The Denim Weight of Jeans
There are an endless number of factors that combine to create denim including fiber content, type of loom, and density of weave. There are also finishing factors that affect the feel of the denim. Whether you are purchasing light-, mid-, or heavy-weight denim, these factors combine to create a unique fabric that when matched with the right garment, make up something that will be beloved, durable, and wearable.