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How to Break in Raw Denim, According to the Experts

Denimheads say you have to wait months or even years before delicately hand washing your precious high-end jeans. These experts say otherwise.

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Chandler Bondurant

Across the internet, you’ll find articles, forums — hell, entire websites — devoted to the art of denim maintenance. Some connoisseurs insist you need to wait a year before washing jeans if you want Instagram-worthy fades; in the meantime, they suggest, getting the stink out is as easy as throwing them in the freezer.

To find out if caring for a simple pair of jeans is really that complicated, we spoke to experts at three of the world’s most respected denim shops: Kiya Babzani, co-owner of Self Edge; Jeremy Smith, co-owner of Standard & Strange; and Okayama Denim owner Merv Sethi. The washing machine is not your enemy.

How to Break in Raw Denim

Skip the Waiting Game

According to Sethi, it’s true that you have to put in some time before washing — but a year is overkill. The difference between two months and 12 months, he says, is “marginal.”

Kiya Babzani agrees, and says fades are mostly the result of actually wearing the jeans. “The way indigo loss occurs on denim is through wear, not through washing,” he says. “Indigo is a large molecule that doesn’t really penetrate cotton fibers, so it’s sitting on top of the cotton fiber. The only way to get it dislodged” — that is, create a fade — “is to actually scratch it off.”

As a general rule of thumb, 30 to 60 wears (that’s one to two months with everyday use) will set the kind of creases prized by denimheads. But fastidiously marking a calendar might be overboard.

“Being overly precious about denim ruins the experience a bit,” says Jeremy Smith. “You want these garments to be part of your life, and to show it.”


Don't Fear the Machine

When you do get around to washing your jeans, there’s no need to baby them. Just flip them inside out and throw them in the washing machine on a cold-water cycle.

“If you want your denim to age in a natural and vintage fashion,” Babzani says, “then you should treat them how they were treated in the forties and fifties. They were worn regularly, and then washed regularly.”

And though hand washing is indeed gentler, your denim doesn’t require it. “From all the clothing you own, including all your t-shirts and everything,” Babzani adds, “the one that can withstand a washing machine the most is a pair of jeans.”

As for detergent, use something mild, like Woolite Dark, Tide Natural or Dr. Bronner’s. And don’t succumb to any internet rumors: “Don’t freeze your jeans and don’t spray chemicals on them — just wash when dirty,” Smith says. “Jumping in the ocean is good for Instagram, but then you have to get all that salt out before it tears up the fibers.”

One thing the obsessives get right is avoiding the dryer; the heat can cause fabric to shrink, and tumbling will prematurely wear out the fibers. Instead, air dry your jeans after washing by hanging them.

“Generally, the pocket bags and the crotch area are the last areas to dry,” Sethi says. “So if those spots are no longer damp, your jeans are probably ready to wear.”


Wash, Rinse, Repeat (Yes, Repeat)

Good news: you don’t have to think too hard from now on — just repeat the wash and dry process as needed. “Dirt kills fibers, so you’re not doing anyone any favors by having stinky, dirty jeans,” Smith says.

There’s no correct length to wait between cleanings. Jeans are rugged and hard-wearing by nature, so every month or two might be fine. But climate and lifestyle will both play a role.

“If you sit at a desk all day long, you can probably go two or three months without washing your jeans,” Babzani says. “But if you’re in New York City, in the summer, walking around in your jeans, you probably want to wash them a little more often.”


Darn It!

Holes in your jeans shouldn’t mean a trip to the Goodwill pile — or even a patch, for that matter. Many tailors and denim-centric shops now offer darning services, which Sethi says is a superior method of repair.

“Rather than adding another piece of denim below or above the hole in patchwork fashion, darning essentially recreates the original fabric using only needle and thread,” Sethi says.

And while some major repairs may require patches, Babzani also opts for darning whenever possible because “it’s generally a little more comfortable, because there’s no patch and no interfacing used.”

If your jeans have large holes, however, reinforcement may be necessary. But it’s amazing what can be salvaged, according to Smith.
“We had a guy hit a deer on his motorcycle in his new denim, and we were able to get it cleaned up pretty well with our repair program,” he says. “I haven’t seen much damage that can’t be fixed.”

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