This guide is co-authored by Thomas from Denimhunters and Bryan Szabo, founder of the Indigo Invitational.
Answers to 7 common questions about fading and washing raw denim jeans
The world of raw denim spins on an axis of fades. We all want them, and we all want to make sure that we’re doing the right things to bring our denim’s beautiful inner qualities to the surface.
Since fades take so long to develop, we want to make sure that we aren’t doing anything to undo our hard work. This is why questions about how we wash our denim are so common (and crucial).
We’ve already covered seven FAQs about buying raw denim jeans, but the questions don’t end when you buy your first pair. In fact, they’re only just beginning.
If you’re new to the raw denim scene, the answers below will help you come to battle armed with a proven fading and washing strategy. This is everything you need to know about how to fade and wash your raw denim.
Education and preparation make all the difference. You can find deeper dives on these topics in our archives. For now, though, we’ll just cover the essentials.
FAQ #1: How long does it take to fade raw denim?
The answer depends heavily on your lifestyle, the weight of the denim, and how often you wear them. Let’s look at each of these in turn.
One of the things that draws so many of us to raw denim is its ability to tell a visual story about us. Our lifestyle gets imprinted on what we wear. All else being equal, the faster we live, the faster we fade. Want sick fades? You’re going to have to work for them.
With a vigorous lifestyle, you can expect to see fades emerging in three to four months. If your lifestyle is more laid back, you’ll have to wait a little longer than this.
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This goes double if you’re wearing heavyweight denim. The heavy stuff produces some of the best looking fades, but the much-coveted whiskers and honeycombs don’t come quickly. Expect to wait at least a year for impressive fades—longer if you live a life of leisure.
If you’re a nine-to-fiver who only gets to wear your denim in the evening and on weekends, you’ve got an uphill climb ahead of you. If you make the absolute most of your available denim-wearing time (and if you’re somewhere in the middle of the denim weight scale), you might see impressive fades starting to develop within eight to twelve months.
There are plenty of faders who only wear their jeans part time and still manage to produce beautiful fades. They make up for their time away from their denim by wrench monkeying in the garage or climbing mountains in every moment of their spare time. They know that great fades won’t come to us. We’ve got to chase them.
Remember, most dedicated faders wear the same pair every day without fail for months (or even years) on end. If you want fades and want them now, live loud and live in one pair.
FAQ #2: How can I accelerate the fade process?
Short answer: you can’t (not without cheating, at least).
You can go to town on your denim with a scouring pad, sandpaper, or chemical agents. The result might be a pair that looks the part, but you’ve missed the point in a big way.
Raw denim, as a culture, is a movement away from artificial, store-bought fades and towards authentic, personal ones.
There’s a very small corner of the raw denim scene where people cut holes in their raws or use caustic chemicals to accelerate the fade process. In this corner (noses to the wall) is where they belong. This is unconscionable.
The only fades worth being truly proud of are the ones we’ve earned with blood, sweat, and gears. Don’t cheat.
FAQ #3: When should I wash my raw denim?
This is probably the second-most frequently asked question in denim circles (coming in just behind ‘what is the best brand?’). And you’ll find a lot of conflicting advice out there.
Standard practice for years was to wait six months to wash your raw denim jeans. But the dissenting voices have grown louder and more insistent over the past few years.
Pre-soaking and regular washing are now standard practice (and we advocate both), but this will, we know, produce howls of outrage from the minority.
We want to get out in front of this by washing away a few of the misconceptions surrounding washing or not washing raw denim:
1) Most raw denim isn’t truly ‘raw’
First of all, it is highly unlikely that your raw denim is truly raw (i.e., completely dry). 99% of denim (yes, including raw denim) comes to you treated in a process that uses either water or steam.
Unless it says ‘loomstate,’ ‘unsanforized,’ or ‘shrink to fit’ on the tag, your raw denim has already been wet.
2) Less washing = more holes
Second, beautiful fades are not the inevitable result when we hold off on washing our jeans for months and months. What is the inevitable result of this practice is jeans that break down prematurely.
Crotch blowouts and scar-like whiskers and honeycombs mean that you’ll need to repair your denim earlier, and you’re racing headlong towards that day when your denim is no longer wearable.
At the end of the day, it comes down to your fade philosophy. If sharp high-contrast fades are your primary goal (or your only goal), by all means keep your jeans dry. You’ll probably be forced to repair your denim considerably earlier than you would have otherwise, but for some people, this is a fair exchange.
If you want to balance longevity and fades, a washing regimen will help you find that balance. We start each pair with an hour-long soak in luke-warm water.
I still get blowouts, but I get them much later in the game than when I kept my jeans dry for the first six months.Thomas Stege Bojer
After your first soak, you should wash your jeans whenever they are no longer enjoyable to wear. This extends to the people you share space with.
If you get complaints about the stench, wash your jeans. If you leave greasy stains or brown streaks on the furniture, wash them. If they look dirty but don’t stink, you can probably let it ride a little longer.
FAQ #4: Will washing my raw denim often accelerate the fades?
Yes and no. Each time you wash your raw denim, you’ll be losing some of the indigo. So yes, each wash will fade your denim. However, the indigo loss will be uniform.
Think of each wash as an all-over fade. If you want sharper honeycombs and whiskers, frequent washing will be moving you in the wrong direction. If you want vintage fades (that more uniform washed out denim look), washing frequently is how you’ll get there.
Once again, it’s about striking the balance between extremely crisp fade patterns and clean jeans. If you care more about keeping your jeans dark and your fades crisp, you’ll have to sacrifice cleanliness and longevity.
I wash my jeans once every two months or so (more in the summer when my hands and jeans both get filthy).Bryan Szabo
FAQ #5: How should I wash my raw denim?
Whether you’re washing by machine or washing by hand, always wash your denim inside out! Always!
This helps minimize indigo loss and protects areas of the denim (the fly and the pockets) that might be exposed to unwanted stress in the washing process.
But the key reason you should turn your raw denim inside out when you wash it is to prevent those nasty vertical creases (the bane of faders the world over).
In the video above—which is part of the Denim Encyclopedia—Thomas shows you how to hand wash your raw denim jeans.
Use a coloursafe detergent. Woolite Dark is a popular favourite, and there are quite a few denim-specific detergents that will do the trick. If you really want to keep your denim dark, the detergent will make a difference, so choose carefully.
If you’re using the machine, the safest approach is to turn off the spin cycle. Spinning can result in creases (often those vertical ones). These lines will be with you for months or even years. Bryan had to learn this lesson the hard way with his first pair of Iron Hearts.
If you want your jeans to shrink, wash them in hot water. If you want them to stay the same size, use cold water.
Finally, keep your jeans away from the dryer. Like the spin cycle in the wash, they’ll emerge out of the dryer with a spider’s web of unwanted fade lines.
When they come out of the wash, straighten them out by hand and hang them to dry. If you want to keep them as dark as possible, hang them to dry indoors. If not, hang them outside in the sun.
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FAQ #6: My raw denim jeans are too tight. Will they stretch?
Yes, but not as much as you might hope.
The break-in period should be a bit of a struggle, but it shouldn’t be torture. If you can’t button your jeans, or if they’re extremely uncomfortable to wear, it is highly unlikely that they’ll stretch enough to become comfortable.
Yes, you want your jeans to be snug when you first try them on. Some people, though, take this too far, buying jeans that they can barely fit into in the store. Then, after the first wash, they end up with something that is unwearable.
This is one of those areas where you need to talk to the clerk before purchasing or, if you’re buying online, read the sizing information extremely carefully.
If you’ve ordered a pair online and they’re extremely uncomfortable, don’t wash them in the hopes that they’ll soften and stretch. The store won’t take them back after they’ve been washed.
Instead, send them back and go up a size. Yes, you’ll have to wait a little longer, but you’ll end up with a pair of jeans you actually want to wear every day.
FAQ #7: My raw denim jeans are too big. Can I shrink them in the wash?
As above, yes, but not as much as you might want them to.
Exposing your denim to heat can cause them to shrink, but not enough to turn a loose-fitting pair into a perfect, snug fit. And it depends on the denim.
If you’ve got a pair of unsanforized (aka ‘shrink to fit’) jeans, they’ll probably shrink at least a full tag size (4-5% in the waist, after you’ve stretched them out again, and as much as 8-9% in length).
Pay particularly close attention to the manufacturer’s or retailer’s suggestions. These might not be printed on the tag, so if you’re shopping at a brick and mortar store, ask how much shrinkage you should expect.
If your raw denim is sanforized (and most of it is), shrinkage will be minimal. This means the jeans you’ve got are the ones you’re stuck with. Use the two-finger method. You should be able to slide two fingers into the waistband at the back of your jeans. If you can fit your whole hand in, it’s unlikely that they’ll ever fit you right.
If in doubt, return the jeans. If you do anything to them to try and shrink them, you’ll no longer be able to do that.
Your denim education resource
This article and its companion piece cover some of the more common questions that denim experts encounter, but this is by no means an exhaustive list.
If, after reading this, you still have questions, visit the Denim Encyclopedia. If you still can’t find the answers you’re looking for, reach out to us here. We’re always keen to help new members of this constantly growing community.
Love Denim and Fades? Join the Competition!
The Indigo Invitational is a year-long fading competition. It’s free to join, and all brands and weights are welcome. All you need is a brand new pair of raw denim jeans, and the best fades win! Oh, and the prizes are insane!