The Break-In Breakdown: The Five Stages You’ll Pass Through When Breaking In Raw Denim
When you first slide your legs into a crisp pair of raw denim, you are taking your first steps on a long journey. The first steps on this journey are slow and (to be frank) a little painful. To be fully enjoyed, though, raw denim needs to go through this process. If we want to enjoy the full benefits of a beautifully faded pair, we can’t take a shortcut. Whether we’re on our first or our fiftieth pair, we all must pass through these five stages when we’re breaking in a new pair of raw denim.
The Hurdle (30-50 wears)
The first thing that those new to raw denim have to get their heads around is the fact that, with raw denim, comfort and beauty are not purchased—they are earned. This is most apparent when the pairs are brand new. They might be stiffer than everything you’ve ever worn before.
The tips of your fingers might be sore from struggling with the top button, and sliding your hands in and out of your pockets will leave the backs of your hands feeling raw and chapped.
Every time you take your pair off at the end of the day, it will feel as though you’ve been in a fight.
This is The Hurdle, and we cannot get to the next stages until we have cleared it. There are a few ways we can accelerate our progress through this stage. We can soak the denim before wearing it, which helps get rid of some of the starch that contributes to the denim’s stiffness. This might mean sacrificing some of the more dramatic contrast fades, but a lot of faders swear by this method.
If you’re choosing to keep your jeans dry, the first month will be a struggle. Any activities that force the denim to flex and stretch will help you get up and over The Hurdle inside of this first month. Hop on the bike and take your jeans for a long ride, take the stairs whenever possible, or simply do squats and deep knee bends to help you clear The Hurdle in a hurry.
The Long Straight (50-150 wears)
Not everybody clears The Hurdle, so if you make it this far, you can pat yourself on the back, but there’s still a lot of track ahead of you. When you reach the Long Straight, the jeans have started to relax around the waistband and behind the knees. We can slide our hands in and out of the pockets without wincing, and we can fasten the top button without a struggle. Putting on our jeans and taking them off is starting to become more of a pleasure than a pain.
It’s during the Long Straight that we fully set our creases and really start to see fades emerging on our thighs, in the seat, and across the top block. Here’s the thing, though. This process is very slow. The indigo chips off microscopic piece by microscopic piece, and it might feel as though we’re marching in place.
We need to be patient, to stay the course with our pair, and we can’t rush them into the wash in the hopes that the water will hurry the fades along. Unless you want those all-over washed- out vintage fades (a product of frequent washing), you should keep your jeans dry until the next stage. Newbies tend to rush that first wash, and the disappointing results teach them just how important it is to run their jeans on that ragged edge for as long as possible before that first wash.
If you spill something on your jeans, give them a spot clean with a damp cloth. If they get a little muddy, let them dry and then brush them off. If they start to smell a little sour, turn them inside out and hang or lay them in the sun. The UV bath is often enough to freshen them up and keep them rolling towards the next stage.
The Big Reveal (150-250 wears)
This is by far the most exciting stage in the process. You’ve done the heavy lifting, clearing The Hurdle and jogging down that Long Straight, and now it’s time to reap your rewards with the first wash. A good rule of thumb is to hold off on that first wash until you’ve crossed the 150- wear line, but we like to push it just a little further than this, aiming for six months of wear.
By this point, the thighs should have what looks like a glossy topcoat that glints in the light at certain angles.
Ride this glossy stage for a few weeks or even months, but not much longer than this. If you push it too far, you’ll be looking at diminishing returns. The rough particles of dirt and dust that have worked their way into the fibres will cause your jeans to rip and fray prematurely if left to their own devices for too long. If small holes start to emerge in the crotch or on the creases around and behind the knees, it’s almost certainly time for that first wash.
Wash them inside out on your machine’s coldest setting, using a gentle and colour-safe detergent. Most importantly, make sure to turn off your machine’s spin cycle. The spin cycle will leave unwanted and unsightly vertical streaks in your denim.
They’ll come out of the machine dripping wet. Straighten them out and hang them to dry. Wait until they’re bone dry to put them back on. The difference should be immediately obvious. The glossy topcoat is gone, and the white core of the cotton yarns will have its turn to shine. You should be able to see sharp contrasts between faded and unfaded areas. They’re far from fully faded at this stage, but it should be abundantly clear where they’re heading.
Fade Town (250-350 wears)
By the time you’ve reached the city limits of Fade Town, you’ve spent 8-10 months in your jeans. You have been through a lot together, and it shows. You’ll have pronounced fade lines in the top block, behind the knees, and where your denim stacks up around your ankles. There should also be significant lightening on the thighs, on the seat, and on the back of your calves.
The progress is still slow and steady at this stage, but you can feel things starting to accelerate.
The faded areas are spreading, turning dark indigo into lighter shades of blue, and the creases grow more pronounced with each passing day.
With the fade patterns fully set, you can be a little more liberal with your wash schedule. Some faders wash their pairs every six months or so, but waiting this long isn’t entirely necessary. A good rule of thumb is to wash them whenever they got properly dirty. If that glossy topcoat comes back, this is a good sign that they’re ready for another wash. If folks start complaining about the smell, it’s definitely time to freshen them up. Use the same washing technique we outlined above.
Denim Heaven (350+ wears)
At the centre of Fade Town, there’s a small square. This is Denim Heaven, and far too faders get this far. The streets of Fade Town are lined with shops selling beautiful crisp pairs of raw denim, and, once you’ve been through the process, these new pairs are too tempting for new denim lovers to resist. They purchase two or three new pairs, and the pair that brought them to Fade Town falls to the bottom of a deep rotation.
We understand the appeal. We sell raw denim because we fell head over heels in love with the process, and some pairs are just too beautiful to resist. If you want to reach Denim Heaven, though, it won’t be with a half-dozen pairs of brand-new denim stuffed under each arm. You need to resist the pull of new pairs and dance with the one who brought you until you both collapse, sweaty and exhausted, on the floor.
This takes at least a full year of daily wear, and the pay-off makes all the time you have invested in your pair more than worthwhile. The denim is butter-soft and, in places, it might be paper thin. You can, if you like, extend the life of your jeans with careful repairs, turning your fully faded jeans into a masterpiece of your own making.
It’s only when we reach Denim Heaven that we can finally say that we’ve done justice to our jeans, and it’s what we hope for every time we send a pair out the door. We want to see you take one pair of SOSOs to Denim Heaven and then come back for a second.
They are stylish beyond measure. life can be extended with careful repairs. When these repairs start to overlap, the jeans become a beautiful and entirely unique work of art. After a full year of wear (a little longer with heavyweights), you’ll have a pair of butter-soft and fully faded jeans that all have shelves groaning under the weight of new pairs, but it’s simply too tempting to start a new pair.
6 thoughts on “The Break-In Breakdown: The Five Stages You’ll Pass Through When Breaking In Raw Denim”
What’s your opinion on soaking ? I bought a pair of sanforized jeans about 6 weeks ago and have been wearing them daily. I’m seeing articles advising a pre-wear soak , as it’s good for the fabric yarns and clears out starch and other chemicals. I didn’t do this and am wondering should I do it now?
Now that you’re off to the races, it’s probably best to just continue with them dry until they NEED that first wash. Wash them carefully outside out in cold water and hang them to dry (wash by hand if you are worried about any shrinkage). If you really like how this pair turns out, you might want to keep wearing your pairs dry. If you want to try something new, try a pre-wear soak with the next pair. I soak most pairs before wearing them, but, as I say above, many faders swear by the other method. Hope this helps.
Cool. thanks for that. appreciate your reply. Interesting that you say to wash them outside out, usual advice is to wash inside out.. Shrinkage won’t be an issue ( I hope) is a machine wash at 30 deg acceptable in your view?
That should say “Inside out”. Definitely inside out. 30 degrees should be fine if you want to keep shrinkage to a minimum. Make SURE that you turn off the spin cycle.