A Guide to Breaking-In Denim

December 4th, 2014

The beauty of denim, especially raw selvedge denim, is the process of breaking it in. A good jean will stretch and mold to fit your body, and the dye will gradually rub-off according to how you move in them. After a few months of solid wear you’ll be left with a go-to jean that fits like a second skin and is uniquely your own. But washing them improperly can ruin all of this.

Washing jeans, or not washing jeans, has become an artform for many denim enthusiasts. I’ve heard all kinds of crazy strategies to avoid shrinkage and achieve the perfect amount of distressing; from wearing them in salt water and drying them with sand, to storing them in the freezer to kill bacteria. Both of which seem a little extreme.

To get to the bottom of this issue once and for all, we spoke with a handful of denim experts to find a consensus on how to properly care for denim. Here’s the basics.

Buy Small & Stretch

The key to buying a well-fitting jean is allowing room for them to stretch. If they fit “perfectly” in the fitting room, after a week they will be too loose. When you try them on at the store they should be very tight in the waist, seat, and thighs. I’m talking almost-too-tight-to-walk tight. You have to trust that they will stretch significantly as you wear them, especially in areas of consistent pressure.

Break-In Before Tailoring

If you plan on having your jeans hemmed or altered, make sure you’ve fully broken them in first. In some cases they will get slightly longer as they stretch and get looser, but they could also start to shorten due to the “crinkling” effect behind at the knee and at the hips. Every pair of jeans will break-in differently depending on the rigidness of the denim, so make sure they are done changing before altering them for good.

Wear Hard & Wait 

The longer you wait to wash them the more the dye will rub-off naturally, which is the secret to getting that awesome one-of-a-kind whiskering effect. Many denim brands say to wait at least six months, some even a year. The key is holding out. If they start to get a little funky you can steam them, hit them with some Febreeze, and hang them outside to air-out.

Soak & Hang

When you’re ready to wash your jeans for the first time, don’t use the washing machine or the dryer! The washing machine will scrub out too much of the dye, and the dryer will shrink them and completely ruin their fit. Simply fill your sink or bathtub with lukewarm water, add in a small amount of Woolite Black, and soak for one hour. You can turn your jeans inside out if you really want to preserve the dark indigo color in the cotton. After an hour, roll them in a towel to drain excess water, then hang them to dry.


There will be little shrinkage due to the wetting and drying process, but this should be minimal. The fit you’ve been working on should come back after walking around in your clean jeans for an hour or so. Since the denim has never been rinsed, the first wash is the most important as it sets the creases and fading marks into the jeans. You’ll still get signs of wear afterward, but they won’t be as dramatic.

That’s it. Enjoy your perfectly broken-in jeans!

Thanks, as always, for reading. 

Yours in style,

Dan Trepanier

Shop Custom Menswear Made in America


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  • SL

    I bought APCs painfully tight, after about 12-14 days of wear, my balls are still being absolutely crushed. Not sure I can take it anymore

  • EMI

    bit late to this discussion, only found this site recently – interesting stuff and has definitely inspired me to take some of my clothing to a tailor. My experience with raw jeans it’s indeed possible to buy too small in the hope that they’ll stretch. Some fabrics are pliable and will give more than others too, but sausage thighs are never a good look, and the restriction may eventually drive you crazy, especially if you’re an active person. I’ve bought very tight in the past with the hope that the denim would stretch enough – and in most cases after two to three months just have a jeans that still hasn’t eased up enough to move freely. To conclude, I’d advise snug, but not tight. If you’ve had this downsizing experience before, I’d advise taking one size up.

  • ChrisD

    I’ve found the “buy really tight and stretch” philosophy is a little over-stated among denim geeks online, resulting in legions of dudes who can’t bend over to tie their shoe and showing through their crotch blow-out after 3-4 months.
    I’d give a softer statement to new raw-purchasers..buy them a “little” on the snug side.

  • Sid

    Thoroughly enjoyed the article, useful content, though I will try this crazy idea of freezing the pair to kill the bacteria, too bored steam ironing lately!

  • Oisik

    After suggestion from many style blogs, I got jeans which were initially very tight on me. I was expecting them to stretch over time but I found out something: jeans that are heavier (>12-14oz) do stretch a little over time. However, jeans that are thinner in their fabric (<10oz) do not stretch. This is because the weave is tighter. So, it is advisable if you are going for a summer weight denim, get your size which is comfortable to you.

    • ChrisD

      My experience is the opposite.

  • Not_Friendly

    The new website is very nice… I have a pair of APC’s that are raw denim that I’ve had for 3 years. It was my first time trying this brand and style. They was very uncomfortable at first wearing the jeans because they were almost true to my size. I got them one size up for my own preference, because i just felt awkward in them. After months of wearing them, they do shrink and the whiskers do show which is pretty nice. Besides paying $200 for them i would say raw denim is pretty nice once you see the dye and the designs starting to form. Sidenote: I have never washed these jeans. Please dont judge :-}

  • Nick J.

    Love the article…i have always had a problem with buying jeans at the right size and then having them stretch into the wrong size. I buy painfully small now.

  • Shawn

    I’ve never worn raw denim before. How bad is the dye transfer from the garment to other items (let’s say, white leather sneakers, car seats, shirt tails, etc.)? Second, if I’m not ready yet to shell 200-300$ on some 3sixteen or the like, what’s my option (I know of Levi’s 501 and GAP which has a raw/selvedge line).

    • Lance

      Uniqlo has a decent raw selvedge for about $49. The dye definitely rubs off over time. My white sneakers have a blue indigo mark near the top. I would be careful on light colored fabric furniture as well.

    • Zane

      I have a pair of selvedge from GAP. I was wearing them with my white Stan Smiths a lot during the Fall and there were barely any indigo dye marks. In fact, after approximately 3 to 4 months of heavy wear (roughly 4 to 5 times a week), hardly any fade marks were present. Apparently GAP soaks their denim in sulphur dye, which prolongs the fading process. So if you are a fan of the fade marks, I wouldn’t recommend GAP. The GAP selvedge jeans does however, fit extraordinary (comes available in skinny, straight and slim) and it’s extremely affordable. Definitely a great pair for those entering the raw denim scene.

      • AdamE

        I’ve gone through a few pairs of the GAP raw selvedge jeans. I’ve worn them with white Stan’s and the only color transfer I get is when it rains.

        To help set the colour, I often put a little vinegar in a tub full of water and soak the jeans once….

    • JoeFromTexas

      http://www.weargustin.com – well regarded Selvadge jeans for about $81.

    • JBells

      I have a pair of “unbranded brand” which is affiliated with Naked and Famous. Very affordable at ~$100 and they fade very nicely. The only thing is they have a very short rise. So they are worn more at the hips, plus its hard to fit in if you have a booty.
      I’ve worn them mostly with suede chukkas and the dye did transfer.

  • JoeFromTexas

    First – I’m digging the revamp and new ideas. Second, I have a question I’ve been trying to get to the bottom of: is shrink-to-fit and un-sanforized the same thing and how do you size them (do you still buy them tight rather than a size bigger as is commonly suggested)?

  • TO

    Love the cover shot. This explanation is simple and easy! Nice guide.