Today, I found myself yet again bemoaning the fact that Levi 501 shrink-to-fit jeans are no longer made for women … or even in men's sizes small enough for a woman my size to wear. They were my favorite jeans of all time, and I wish I had known back then I would not be able to buy them now, because I would have stockpiled dozens of pairs. But, every so often, when I think about it –usually when I am wearing an uncomfortable pair of jeans– I go to the Levi web site to verify that it's still true that I will be forever denied the joy of a pair of Levi 501 jeans.
Well, it's still true, of course, but while staring longingly at the page and wondering how many milkshakes a day I would have to drink to gain enough weight to wear the smallest men's size, I took a moment to read the information blurb.
Raw, rough, and as pure as jeans can be, Shrink-to-Fit™ is the real deal. Before 1984, this was the only way you could get your jeans. Not washing them for 6 months and dragging them behind cars was all part of the breaking-in process. These are for all you denim purists who want to leave a mark—every crease, tiny hole, paint splatter, and fray will be your very own.
This is not the first time I have run across the idea that back in the good old days of the 80's and earlier we didn't wash our jeans for six months, in order to break them in. This will also not be the first time I have complained about this particular marketing strategy, but I feel I must … because it annoys the ever living hell out of me.
Maybe back in the day fancy-pants city dwellers who owned twenty or more pairs of jeans and didn't do anything in them but sit in coffee shops or crawl malls didn't wash their jeans for six months and drug them behind cars to break them in, but out in the real world, we bought new jeans, wore them, and washed them as regularly as we washed our underwear and other clothing. You know … like once a week, when they were dirty and piling up and we needed clean clothing. I have never known anyone, at any time in my life, that didn't wash their jeans for six months, and if I ever did, I would have thought they had a mental condition.
Now, to be honest, there was a bit of a routine involved with getting Levi 501's to fit perfectly. It wasn't entirely necessary –they would eventually fit nearly the same anyway– but it did seem to speed up the process. I will now relate to you the method that I, my friends, and my family members used to prepared our Levi 501's (and most jeans).
First, you buy the jeans slightly larger than you need them to be. They do, in fact, shrink an inch or more. If they fit snugly when new, you would not be able to wear them after the first washing, so buy the correct size.
Next, put them into a washing machine set for hot water. Don't put in detergent.
Now for the boring part: hover by the washing machine. When the spin cycle after the first hot water wash cycle has ended, stop the machine. Take out the jeans and try them on. If they are still quite loose, repeat this step until they almost fit perfectly.
Once you have achieved a close enough fit using the prior step and are wearing the wet jeans, go about your day. I know, that sounds crazy, but hear me out! Prepping jeans was a summer activity, so going about a day usually meant hanging out in a park, or the back yard, or going to a swimming hole or riding bikes around town. In my case, there was often the feeding of livestock or working in a garden or some other outdoor tasks too. Wet jeans don't stay wet all that long, especially in the heat of a Texas summer.
The very best thing to do though –and the most fun– was going to a swimming hole and swimming, playing, and napping in the sun while wearing the jeans, but just wearing the wet jeans (usually still quite warm when pulled from the washing machine) until they dry while doing anything at all would leave you with a nicely fitting pair of jeans. The important thing is that you're moving and not just sitting still or lying around motionless. The fabric needs to be stretched in the places that require freedom of movement, like knees and hips and the all-important butt region.
Once you have finished your day –or when the jeans are completely dry– wash them again. This time a full cycle, with detergent, and COLD water. Do NOT put them in the dryer. Hang them up on an outdoor clothesline or on a hanger in the house, and let them air dry. In fact, don't let them see the inside of a dryer until they have begun to show some fading and fit like they were made for you. In other words, you will be air drying them until they no longer look and feel like brand new jeans. Since you'll be wearing them and washing them every week when they get dirty (like a normal person), this really doesn't take more than a few weeks. I think I started tossing mine in the dryer in about the fourth week or fifth week.
If one were lazy, one could skip this whole process, wash the jeans with cold water and toss them in the dryer. After a few weeks of washing like this, they would fit well enough, but they would never achieve personalized fit perfection. I owned a couple of pairs I treated this way, and while they were OK, they were never as awesome and comfortable as the ones I took the time to shrink through the prior method. Never.
And how did we get all those awesome fade marks, small holes, paint splatters, and other wear marks? We freaking WORE our jeans and did things at the same time. If you sit on your butt all the time, your jeans will never wear out, and then I guess you would have to drag them behind a car to make it look like you had a life, but really, that would just make you look like a loser. There is no way to distress a pair of jeans by dragging them around with a car (or any other means) that will look natural. The only way to get natural wear marks is to wear the jeans and have enough of a life that stuff happens to your jeans.
Now I should mention here that back in the day, no one viewed shabby looking jeans at a status symbol. Shabby looking jeans with lots of holes, tears, extensive fading and stains were shabby jeans that needed to be replaced. Jeans that look like many of the brand new pairs one can buy in stores today would have been relegated to the dirty tasks in life, like shoveling livestock shit, painting houses, or working on cars. They wouldn't have been worn to work, school, or really anywhere in public unless one was doing the aforementioned dirty tasks in public. Shabby jeans were either a sign you didn't give a damn about your appearance or you were too poor to buy new jeans, neither of which anyone wanted anyone else to be to thinking about them.
So … yes, Virginia, people in the past used to wash their jeans more than once every six months, and if you went back in time and suggested to them they shouldn't, they would laugh in your face and think you insane, which would be my reaction if anyone I knew said they weren't washing their jeans for six months in order to break them in. Jeans, under normal operating conditions, get just as dirty as shirts, and you wouldn't wear a shirt for six months without washing it … would you? Probably not. It would be gross.
I can hear some people asking “You don't wash your jeans after every wearing, do you?” No, of course not, though it depends on what I've been doing. At any given moment, jeans exist in three states in my house: clean jeans that have just been washed, jeans which have been worn shopping, or out to dinner, or around the house doing normal household tasks, and jeans I have been doing heavier work in like painting, yard work, or other messy or sweaty labor. All jeans fall somewhere into these three categories.
During the week, if I am leaving the house, I will usually put on a pair of clean jeans, unless I have a pair of jeans lying around that have just been worn around the house while I did dishes or played Plants vs. Zombies. I will wear the same pair of jeans around the house for about three days before they don't fit right anymore or start to feel dirty. Then they become jeans I can do messy tasks in, and if I am doing anything messy or dirty, I put on jeans that are already dirty. During the course of a normal week, I usually only use three pairs of jeans (unless I have really been doing a lot of dirty work). I do the laundry on Sunday or Monday, and the cycle starts anew.
So now you yet again know my feelings on the fable that people used to not wash their jeans and intentionally mistreat them in order to break them in, and you have learned a method for breaking in jeans that will create personalized fit perfection. Go forth and wash and wear your jeans!