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Distressing Denim

Ever since the grunge-era ‘90s, distressed or ripped jeans have been part of the trend cycle. The current iteration of distressed denim ranges from slight frays to thigh-sized holes, with retailers across all price points. From Old Navy’s sale price of $27.47 for High-Waisted Button-Fly O.G. Straight Ripped Cut-off jeans to Acne Studios’ Organic Cotton Denim Wide Leg Jeans that are faded and distressed for $470. It’s the fading that brings up the price point.

I personally refuse to purchase distressed denim. But I do understand the appeal and sometimes like the look and feel of a lived-in pair of jeans. When asked how to distress jeans, my first answer is always this — wear them! If you want jeans that look like they’ve been loved to pieces, love them to pieces. Eventually, they’ll weather and rip and fade in all of the right places. Of course, breaking in jeans takes time, and if you have a pair of jeans now that fit great and you want to customize them with some frayed or shredded detail, there are ways of achieving that look. If, like me, you refuse to pay for distressed jeans but want to flaunt lived-in denim every so often, here are a couple of methods for DIY distressed jeans.

First, consider the type of denim you are working with. Jeans that hold up best to at-home weathering and distressing are made of 100% cotton. Elastane, the thread that gives stretch jeans their flexibility, will curl and collapse when compromised too much. You’ll want to start with raw or rinsed denim. Then, you’ll want to pattern out where you’ll be distressing your jeans. Are you going for a naturally distressed look where holes or fraying naturally occur? Or going for something more dramatic along the seams? Now, you may have cut rips or holes in your jeans growing up, but it’s generally not recommended to make large, single cuts or slits when distressing denim yourself. There’s a not-so-fine line between distress and damage.

Once you have your denim and decide on the area being distressed, you have two standard approaches to utilize. There’s the grinding method, which is rubbing at the material with a tool, like a pumice stone or sandpaper. For this method, start slowly; it may take more than one session to fully achieve the level of distress you’ve planned. Start by making small abrasions around the knees, hems, pocket edges, and buttonholes. You’re ultimately breaking up the yarn of the jeans, and then you should wash them to encourage the treated areas to fray. Wash cold and air dry; repeat to the desired effect.

Next is the tearing method, which surfaces the white yarn around a hole. First, use chalk to mark a horizontal line(s) in varying lengths on the leg of your jeans, preferably the front of the leg. Distressing on the back of jeans is try-hard and just too gimmicky for my taste. Next, scrape; don’t cut along those lines with a kitchen knife or boxcutter. Again, go slowly. Once you feel you’ve created the effect you’re looking for, throw in the wash to agitate the tear and help separate the denim’s white threads from the blue ones. You can further distress the tears after washing with tweezers and scissors to pull away and cut only the blue yarns. Cutting the white yarns will damage the denim and cross that not-so-fine line mentioned above.

Even though I refuse to buy new distressed jeans, I’m very open to thrifting denim. In my mind, this is almost as authentic as wearing your jeans to shreds in order to achieve a distressed look. Thrifted jeans have a lot of benefits. They are less costly, more sustainable than new denim, and are fun to detail with patches, use as patterns, or as a source for extra denim material. I also love the idea of a pre-worn jean as a source for cut-off shorts here in this summer. So, instead of buying jeans with pre-made holes, consider the more budget-friendly option of distressing a pair of jeans you already own or scoring a worn-in pair from a thrift store.