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Not Your Boyfriend’s Jeans: Distressing Denim

Ah jeans…one of the most ubiquitous articles of clothing in modern American culture, yet one that makes most sewists break out in a cold sweat.  After all, jeans are HARD, right?

Well, I’m here to tell you that no, jeans are not hard and they may be one of the most satisfying things you ever make!

I was among the large majority of sewists who are scared to death of jeans until the spring of 2015.  Closet Case Patterns had released the Ginger Jeans pattern the previous fall and I’d been trying to work up the nerve to make myself a pair ever since.  Finally one day I decided to just go for it.  And you know what?  It wasn’t hard!

Don’t get me wrong, jeans aren’t easy by any means.  They take time and precision and you have to do things in a specific order or else you’ll end up with the wonkiest zip fly ever.  I wouldn’t recommend them for a beginner, but any intermediate sewist can tackle a pair of jeans and have great success.

This particular pair of jeans is made from another Closet Case Patterns jeans pattern –the Morgan Jeans.  I’ve been wanting a pair of boyfriend jeans for quite a while now but never pulled the trigger on a pattern until this one released.  Can’t settle for anything less than the best!

For my Morgans, I chose Cali’s designer dark blue 12oz non-stretch denim.  The Morgans specifically call for a non-stretch denim, and while I could easily make it with stretch denim and either size down or have a little extra wiggle room, I opted to stay true to the pattern for this pair and go non-stretch.

This particular fabric may or may not be available by the time this post goes live because Cali tends to have small amounts of their designer denims.  But never fear!  If this one is sold out, there are a number of other designer denim options that would make great jeans. I particularly love this waxed denim.  Some of the stretch denim options are particularly interesting.  This striped denim in particular would be lots of fun for a pair of skinny jeans.

(Here is a piece of gratuitous jeans-making advice, which I can’t go without mentioning because it is SO important! ALWAYS CUT DENIM IN A SINGLE LAYER!!!!  This is so important that I will say it again. ALWAYS, ALWAYS CUT DENIM IN A SINGLE LAYER!  Denim has a twill weave, which makes it really, really hard to get the grainline straight if you are cutting in two layers or on a folded piece of fabric.  Off-grain denim means twisty legs and ain’t nobody got time for that.)

I love a sleek pair of skinny jeans, but most designer boyfriend jeans have been pretty majorly distressed.  And of course if you actually get your boyfriend jeans from a boyfriend, they are probably pretty worn in!

With that in mind, I embarked on my first attempt at distressing jeans.  For reference, this is what my jeans originally looked like right after I finished them:

Step 1: Research

The first thing I did before going anywhere near my newly-minted jeans with sandpaper or scissors was research.  Where were jeans typically worn or distressed?  How much distressing did I need to hit my “sweet spot”?

I did a lot of Pinterest searching to find what I considered the “perfect” boyfriend jeans (in fact, I have a whole board here), and even did some on-site research.  I went to various RTW stores and studied their distressed jeans to get an idea of what I wanted to do.

Step 2: Sandpaper

After I did my research and decided how much distressing I wanted (some, but not too much), where (pockets, seams and front thighs) and what kind (mostly wear but some tearing), I was ready to start.  I put on the jeans to determine exactly where I needed to distress, and then got out the sandpaper.

I used a medium-grit sandpaper (100 grit) for my distressing since I wanted to get a worn look, but I didn’t want to tear the fabric.

Step 3: Scissors & Tweezers

The wearing done, I was ready to make a few small tears in my jeans.  To do that, I cut small horizontal slits in the leg of the jeans where I wanted them torn, and then used tweezers removed the indigo threads between those slits.

This method works for either a heavy or lightly distressed pair of jeans, depending on your preference.  If you love the look of jeans with the entire thigh torn out, just make lots of slits and remove lots of threads to get that look (a word of warning, though, the threads that are left can weaken and tear, leaving you with a bigger hole than you may have intended).  I wanted minor distressing, so I kept my cutting to a minimum.

Step 4: Fading

The sandpaper and tweezers did a great job giving me some strategic and well-placed rips and wearing on my jeans, but even after all that, they were just too dark and crisp looking to look really worn in.  Sanding wasn’t effective in fading the color on the thighs, knees and seat, so I needed to try some fading techniques.

I started off with washing and soaking them.  Those are good, non-committal ways to start fading, but it was pretty obvious that fading my jeans this way was going to take a loooong time.  I didn’t want to go the bleach route, because while it would fade my jeans quickly, it would also damage that nice denim fabric.

So instead, I researched and experimented.   I started with a salt soak.  Back in my research step, I learned that ocean water and salt water can be a really effective way to fade and soften denim.  So I gave it a shot.  I took found my husband’s 5-gallon bucket that he used to use for transition when he did Ironman triathlons, filled it with 2 gallons of water and mixed in 2 cups of salt.  Then I submerged my jeans in that saltwater mixture and walked away.  I left them soaking in that saltwater for 2 full days before I pulled them out.  When I did, I discovered that the salt hadn’t even put a dent in that dark denim!

So I moved on.  I was worried that I was going to have to resort to bleach or natural fading over time, but someone suggested RIT color remover as an alternative and I decided to give it a shot.  As you can see from my photos above, it didn’t give a dramatic fade, but it did fade them enough to look somewhat broken in.  I decided to call it good enough!  And if you do attempt to fade jeans this way, beware that you will still need some bleach on hand to clean your tub afterwards 🙂

Step 5: Wash

With the distressing and fading done, it was time to wash! And wash and wash and wash.  Not only does throwing the jeans in the laundry a time or two get rid of all those chemicals, but it also continues to wear the fabric naturally.  Just keep in mind that washing will wear out your denim fabric, so once the jeans are perfectly distressed and faded, wash your jeans in cold water and air dry them rather than putting them in the dryer.

After the color fading, I sent mine through the wash 4 times, the last time with fabric softener to remove the remaining dye and continue to fade the jeans.  Then I machine dried them once to get the denim to soften a bit more. Going forward, I will air dry these suckers!

Now go find a pair of jeans and a few supplies and sit down for a fun DIY project!

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