One of the best favors you can do for yourself is to stop buying pre-washed, pre-shrunk jeans at the mall or second-hand jeans and start breaking in and shrinking you very own pair of Levis 501 Shrink to Fit. But why buy new jeans when vintage or broken in jeans are so easy to find? Quite simply you can get a better fit if you shrink the jeans yourself rather then buying a vintage pair.
Getting the Perfect Fit
Denim shrinks when it gets wet, traditionally cowboys would buy a new pair of raw denim jeans (which are very, very stiff) and walk into a river and then wear the jeans for several months without washing. The jeans would shrink and conform to the wearer’s body for the perfect fit. This is one of the huge reasons not to buy vintage jeans, they will have been fitted to someone else’s body so the same size and brand will not give you a constant fit.
Shrinking Your Jeans
It’s really easy to shrink Levi’s. Buy a pair that is a little larger then the size you want them to end up (check the labels!), fill up your bathtub with warm-hot water and soak the jeans in them for about an hour then let them dry. If you let them drip dry all the way you should have a very stiff pair of jeans ready to break in. If you want your jeans to be a little more wearable drip dry until they are just damp (no longer dripping), then throw them in a dryer on “air” or “tumble” dry for one cycle.
I’ll be honest wearing the jeans is a little uncomfortable for the first day or two, but the longer you wear them more they will slowly break in and you will get a really nice fit. You should wear your jeans for about three to six months without washing, this is key because it will help lock in some of that deep indigo color.
After breaking them in, turn your jeans inside out (helps a bit to keep the color), pour a small amount of Woolite Dark into your bathtub, then fill it up with warm water (if you want to shrink the jeans a little more) or cold water (avoids shrinking and helps lock in color) and agitate your jeans around in it for a few minutes. Woolite will help keep some of the color in as you wash, then rinse with cold water and let dry either by drip drying, or on the air setting in the dryer.
How often you wash will determine the fade of your jeans. If you want rich darker colors, wash as little as you can stand. I only wash mine every few months, which is actually fine. If you want a dramatic fade, wash a little more often.
I’ve been wearing the pair of jeans in these photos for about four or five months and first washed them about three months after purchasing. They still have a nice deep blue color and fit great. I have two other pairs at varying degrees of wear, including one which is faded a little more and a pair that is hardly worn for nicer events where I can still wear jeans.
How to Buy
You should be able to find Levi’s 501’s at an outdoor or western wear store. I buy mine at the Portland Outdoor Store for around $45, which is a good deal for the quality and durability of the jeans. If you want something different look for the following…
- Look for raw, unwashed or unstanforized denim. This means it will shrink to your size.
- If you want the fanciest pair of jeans possible, get raw selvage denim. It will cost north of $150. I have yet to get a pair, but it supposed to be the longest lasting and highest quality material you can buy.
- Don’t buy anything that is already distressed. It is much more satisfying to break it in yourself.
- The Selvedge Yard has some great photos of Bing Crosby‘s denim tuxedo.
- Art of Manliness has another good intro to buying jeans.
- This question on Quora has a lot of great suggestions on small brand denim jeans, the prices might cause dizziness.
Finally if you didn’t take my advice last week and watch Put This On, go watch the episode on denim right now.