- Jul 11, 2006
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INTRODUCTION Oftentimes, when asked a question about breaking in or taking care of denim, people will respond “Just wear them. Just wash them. They’re just jeans.” While it is true that jeans are traditionally work wear and should not be coddled like the finest samite, and there should be a certain carefree nonchalance when it comes to wearing them, it is nevertheless understandable that after spending a great deal of money and time on jeans you want to achieve a certain result. Anything worth doing is worth doing well, and breaking in jeans is no exception. Hopefully, this guide may help in that quest. If you are very experienced, or of the ‘They’re just jeans’ mindset, this guide is obviously not for you. It should be noted that this guide is the distillation of years of personal experience and extensive reading of various denim sites. I make no claim to be an expert, and this is not gospel. YMMV. Feel free to experiment and try different things. If you disagree with anything, please lodge a complaint with the front office at 1-800-WHOCARES and you will promptly get a full refund. BASICS Step 1. Hot soak the jeans for a few hours in the tub. ***This step is important if jeans are raw, it will get most of the shrinkage out of the way and prevent creases from shifting after washing. If you sized down considerably, it may be advisable to soak the jeans while actually wearing them in the tub. It is less critical for one-wash and sanforized jeans that do not shrink as much. Step 2. Hang dry until slightly damp, then wear jeans while still damp to help form creases. Remaining in a sitting position for a while until they are fully dried will help to develop and set the creases nicely (more limber persons may attempt crossing legs as well). Watch a movie or something during this period. ***Be careful with white/light colored furniture, walls, or clothing. Many raw denimz will bleed indigo. Step 3. Engage in usual daily activities. The jeans are meant to reflect the patterns of your life, so do the things you normally do. You may be tempted to take ….err....extraordinary steps to create, enhance or “improve” your fade, actions that you wouldn’t normally do if you weren’t wearing denimz. This would make you what is technically known as a ‘poser’ (see below). Step 4. Many people ask, when should I wash them, how often, what methods, etc. This is a subject for an entire treatise unto itself. As a general rule, the longer you wait the more prominent the fades will be. Often you will hear the ‘no washing before 6 months’ rule popularized by Nudie but there are many different views on this matter (see below). ADVANCED TIPS AND PITFALLS Sanding – You may be tempted when first starting out to accelerate the fading by sandpapering, pinching creases, or rubbing yourself repeatedly on rough surfaces. This is generally known as ‘cheating.’ There are no penalties for cheating, of course, except the artificial looking fades that invariably result and the subsequent flaming ridicule you receive when you post pics of your denimz online. Natural fades almost always look nicer (Takashi's 'holy grail' Eternal 811s, adsurgo's contest winning samurai 0500XX), so have patience. Items in pockets – Oftentimes, denim wearers will put various items in their pockets solely for the fade outline that results around said item. In general, this is the mentality of a noob who is entranced by the magical novelty of fading. The most common items are wallets, cell phones, chapstick, zippos, keys, etc. Because these items are pretty useful and commonly used, having fades of these items is generally acceptable. However, many aficionados find that symmetry of whiskers is attractive (a great example here: was ist los?'s Warehouse Doubleworks 660) and avoid having item fades on their front pockets. In general, item fades that reflect your life and personality are ok. For example, some people put chewing tobacco canisters (snus) in their back pockets to create a circle. This is OK if you actually use snus, otherwise you are a ‘fake’. On the extreme end, some people put odd items like brass knuckles in their back pockets to be cool. This is widely considered to be the act of a douchebag. Even if you routinely use brass knuckles in your daily activities, it is not recommended to advertise this fact. Selection of denim type – Many different factors will affect fade. One of the most prominent of these is the properties of the denim. Quality. Denim quality is a critical parameter with regard to quality of fading, but even the meaning of ‘quality’ is oft-debated. Many Japanese brands are considered quality (Samurai, Eternal, Sugar Cane, Flathead, Warehouse, 45RPM, Oni, Pure Blue, Studio d’Artisan, etc.) as well as some American brands (5EP, Rag & Bone) whereas ‘mall’ brands are considered low quality (True Religion, 74AM, Old Navy, Abercrombie), even at the same price range. A common question is what makes one denim company higher quality than another. Just to use TR as an example, this brand focuses more on styling and marketing. Much of what is paid for is the garish branding, the flaps or horseshoe stiching, and terrible predistressing. If the loud branding that advertised ‘I paid $300 for these TRs’ were removed, would people still pay $300 for them? Unlikely. The denim itself is average; usually people who claim it is high quality mistake quality for softness. Japanese denimz however focus obsessively on the denim itself. This is manifested as extremely high number of indigo dippings, anal attention to details, and nice hardware. The end result is denim that has superb fading characteristics. Some may object, ”But my TRs don’t rip, whereas Japanese denimz do all the time! Therefore TRs are higher quality!” Unfortunately, it is not possible to compare wearing TR every once in a while to a club to people wearing raw denimz very hard, every day for a year, with few washings. If TRs were worn every day and as hard as Japanese raw denimz often are, they would quickly become tattered like rags. Another factor that clouds the issue of quality is that some Japanese companies are so obsessive about faithfully replicating US garments from the early-mid 1900’s that period elements such as all-cotton threads are introduced that could arguably be said to weaken the jeans. Historical fidelity, slight imperfections and repairing are viewed by such companies as part of the spirit, evolution and living quality of the denimz. Of course, some don’t appreciate this philosophy and prefer stronger modern poly-cotton threads; luckily, many high quality denimz using this thread are available as well. However, even among various ‘quality’ brands, there are differences in resistance to fading. Flathead and Warehouse are reputed to have ‘fast’ fading, whereas Eternal and 45RPM are said to be ‘slow.’ Different brands can also fade to different shades of blue, and some experimentation or browsing denim pics will be necessary to discover the hues you prefer. Some relatively inexpensive raw denimz may also have decent fading characteristics as defined above (Uniqlo, GAP raw Morrison, Levi’s 501 STF, Good Society, RRL's on ebay). However, as a general rule the higher the quality the better the experience. Because breaking in jeans is a long process of many months, experienced users usually recommend getting the highest quality denimz possible from the outset so that the large amount of effort expended is not rewarded by mediocre or disappointing results. Natural vs. synthetic indigo. In general, natural indigo is prized more and is more expensive, but for some reason tends to be harder to break in nicely. Weight. Heavyweight denim (19-21 oz) appears to be harder to fade than lighter denim. It may be possible to break in such jeans nicely, but examples of good fading from very heavyweight denimz are scarce. Slubbiness (unevenness). Slubby denim (Oni, Pure Blue) tends to produce rougher and more diffuse looking fades than smooth denimz (SDA, Eternal). This is largely an aesthetic issue and is a matter of personal preference. Because they are qualitatively different experiences, many denim fans like to have representatives of both slubby and smooth denim types in their collection. Fit. In general, skinnier cuts lead to tighter and straighter whiskers and combs ('accordion-like'), while looser cuts generate wider and more angled ones. Washing considerations There are as many different ways to wash denimz as there are individual wearers. There is no ‘correct’ rule here, but nevertheless some principles may be gleaned. In general, more frequent washes will yield a more ‘vintage ’ or faded-out look, whereas less frequent washes will yield a more high contrast look. This also depends on the denim quality; for example many Japanese denimz have so much indigo that they retain high contrast fades even after repeated washings. Excellent results can be achieved with both methods. Here is an example of a ‘holy grail’ denim Sugar Cane 1947 from Grand Master Ryu that was washed every month for a year. On the other hand another Denim God, naoto asserts that jeans should never be washed before a full year of wear (example: Warehouse 1001XX). You can even go 4 years without ever washing. Which way is better? Only you and your nose can decide. There are those who favor washing jeans by soaking, and those who prefer machine washing. It is unclear which if any method is ‘better,’ but it is obvious that soaking will subject the fabric to less stress and introduce fewer distortions of creases, if that is something of concern to you. Machine washing may ‘reset’ the pattern of creases which can lead to a ‘messy’ or ‘overlapping’ pattern of combs. If washing by machine, jeans should be turned inside out to avoid insults to the indigo. Specialty detergents can be found specifically for washing denimz but probably any bleach-free detergent will be acceptable. Many people favor Dr. Bronner’s as a gentle and relatively easy to obtain option. Dry cleaning is generally not recommended as it will weaken the fabric over time. Eliminating odors – Wearing the same denimz every day for a long period can lead to a condition known as ‘funk.’ To combat odors while avoiding premature washing, one technique is to freeze jeans in a Ziploc bag. Alternatively, one may use febreze, or simply air out the jeans for a while. Airing them out outside in the sun for a few hours may help. Stretching / soaking – Jeans will inevitably stretch out over time. A belt can help prevent stretching of the waist. In addition, soaking will shrink them back down. The hotter the temperature, the more the shrinkage. For maximum shrinkage, follow with a machine dry on the hottest setting. Stiffness – The stiffer the denim, the sharper the resulting fades will be. Some people prefer the stiff feel of raw denimz, while others prefer a softer feel. Hang drying after soak/wash will restore some of the initial stiffness, while machine drying will make the jeans softer--but may lose some creases. Starching is another technique that may be used to regain stiffness. While wearing damp jeans, spray starch as desired onto whiskers and combs. Allow to dry, preferably in a sitting position. If used in moderation and occasionally, this is a generally acceptable technique for those who favor the crisp feel of raw denim, although some purists may consider starching to be 'wack'. Starching should be used in moderation as it may lead to overly sharp and artificial looking fades if overused. Repairs - It is inevitable that any jeans, if worn hard enough, will need repairs. You can take them to your favorite tailor or specialty repair shops like Denim Doctors, but I highly recommend learning to do simple repairs yourself. Aside from accidents or trauma, the area that usually goes first is the crotch. The best time to make repairs is before the crotch splits, ideally as soon as you notice the seam starting to open up. As they say, a stitch in time saves a huge ass rip, or something like that. An easy fix is to take a patch of denim (if the patch is also raw denim, make sure to soak it as well so it doesn't shrink) and attach to the inside crotch area as shown here. The idea is to reinforce the perimeter of the patch, as well as along the intersection of the seams at the crotch. Dark blue thread is usually the most inconspicuous. Storing jeans - Hang jeans up by the belt loops on hooks, or on pants hangers like chicken's jeans collection with the clips on the waist (not on the hems). Jeans can also be draped over a chair, bending them at the whiskers and knees to preserve the creases if so desired. Dumping them on the floor, folding them in the middle over a hanger, or hanging them by the hems will tend to muddle or straighten out the creases. Designing a custom jeans storage system is probably going overboard.