Vintage Jeans Distressed, Destroyed, or Demented?

Vintage jeans are meant to look old, broken in, yet cared for. The purpose of pre-washing jeans prior to selling them is quite simply to allow us to skip the breaking in process.

Distressed jeans, on the other hand, are meant to look like they have been through some horrific life experiences that have left them anxious, agitated, strung out.

Destroyed jeans have been to war! They have been wounded, ripped and torn and have the scars to prove it. Yes, they suffer post-traumatic stress, they have lived through hell with us, and they will forever be our buddies. Now, you can pay for this distraught, tormented look, you can fake it with a little craftiness, or you can actually live through it.

My preference since the first pre-washed jeans hit the market has been for simple prewashed and preshrunk denim. I’ll let all of the destruction and distressing of my jeans happen the old fashioned way, I’ll work for it. I have, however, had my share of breaking-ins.

Die-hard blue jean lovers will most certainly not agree. They will only buy untreated jeans and will sometimes wear a pair for up to six months before the first wash. This is to guarantee a very specific type of wear marks, true to the reality of the actual experiences that the jeans have been subjected to. I really do admire their integrity. To learn more about their love for jeans, check out the home site of Nudie Jeans and their die-hard approach to vintage jeans, or visit our page on caring for your blue jeans.

A Revolution in Clothing

Although this is a relatively new development in the blue jean industry, it has totally revolutionized it. On the average, women will pay $34 more for a pair of vintage jeans, according to Cotton Inc. You could say that it has become every bit as important as the cut of the jeans, and is discussed by true aficionados much like wine connoisseurs discuss the aging of fine wines. Achieving the desired results is not cheap, as it can take up to four or five production steps beyond the actual construction (sewing) of the jeans.

Let’s take a closer look at the actual construction of the fabric in order to understand why the aging of jeans has such an appeal that we are willing to pay a premium for it.

Textile Science:

Please bear with me. Some knowledge about textiles will help you to more fully appreciate what vintage jeans are all about.

Denim is a fabric traditionally woven with what is known as a twill weave. This is simply a weaving pattern that produces parallel diagonal ribs. It is made by passing the weft threads over one warp thread and then under two or more warp threads. The weft is the yarn which is shuttled back and forth across the warp to create a woven fabric. In the USA, it is sometimes referred to as the “fill” or the “filling yarn”. The most common twill used for jeans is a 3×1. A 2×1 twill is used in lighter weight denim.

The yarns used in making denim have a very high twist, a process that gives the yarn much greater resistance both to tensile stress and to abrasion. The original dye used to color the warp comes from several species of plants, but nearly all indigo produced today is synthetic.

Traditionally, the denim was woven with a pre-dyed warp and a natural (white) filling. The weft dominates the front of the fabric (3 to 1) and thus gives the appearance of an almost completely blue surface. The back of the fabric is dominated by the natural colored fill.

Some contemporary jeans are dyed in the fabric stage, thus producing darker dye jeans that retain their color longer, as yarns in both directions are dyed. To produce this darker dye jean effect, sometimes the finished garments are dyed.

The twist of the yarn is so tight that the indigo dye can only color the surface, leaving the center fibers white. The enclosed white fibers are eventually exposed through wear and washing, as the superficial indigo is worn off. Obviously, the fabric will fade more in areas that are exposed to greater friction. It is this peculiar quality of denim, aside from its durability and comfort, that has so endeared it to consumers. It is this quality that has sparked the huge trend that vintage jeans have become.

The Vintage Look:

The vintage jeans look has become a catch-all phrase for any aged denim garment. It is meant to portray a worn-in, classic, yet trendy and stylish appearance. The first instances of “pre-washing” can be traced to the 1960s and had the sole purpose of breaking in the new pair. That era is long gone.

This is my interpretation of where vintage jeans end and distressed jeans begin:

  • Vintage Jeans: The fabric has been softened, shrunk, and faded. Excess dye has been removed. Some controlled fading in some areas, such as thighs and rear.
  • Distressed Jeans: The exposed white fibers have begun to show wear. Filaments have been broken by friction, no longer just discolored. Some parts of the jeans, such as the edges of pockets, begin to show abrasion marks in the form of fraying. Stains and a certain level of dirty jeans look can be a part of this stage.
  • Destroyed Jeans: The integrity of the yarns has been broken. The fabric will have actual rips, holes, tears, and/or lacerations.

Originally, breaking-in meant only shrinking and softening. Many of us still remember the days when a new pair of jeans were so stiff that they could stand on their own. It would take us weeks of discomfort and repeated washes to break them in. Many of our friends in the sixties would wear them in a bathtub to shrink a new pair and guarantee a true to your shape tight jeans fit!

Once broken in they became a very personal one of a kind garment. As they aged, we became more and more attached to the comfort and unique appearance that they gave us. True vintage jeans!

The more we used and washed them, the more a part of us they became. They mellowed like very fine wine and they grew old with amazing sensuality. Unfortunately, they also deteriorated, developed holes. They were slowly “destroyed”. We would space washes further and further apart in an effort to prolong their life. Like any living creature, they developed, matured, aged, and eventually had to be put to rest.

We didn’t have such an array of cuts to choose from, and breaking and aging them was a very slow, personal process. Throwing out an old pair was a painful loss, as we had to break-in another, and we could never be sure if they would ever be as good as their predecessor. The more we wore them, the more we mistreated (distressed) the denim, the more it became ours. Modern vintage jeans washing techniques have simplified all of this, and in a way also robbed a whole generation of the joys of breaking a pair of new jeans.

Let’s Distress this Denim

Industrial pre-aging of jeans makes results predictable and offers a huge gamut of options. Some of the processes employed to make vintage jeans are reproducible controlled techniques and others are very expensive, hand made finishes. Choose your favorites, but remember that you are buying into what is by definition a “half-aged” garment. It is estimated that a distressed pair of pants has gone through what would have been 25 regular washes. If used and washed frequently, they will not last as long as you would want. Check out our suggestions for the care of your vintage jeans to get the most mileage out of your investment.

Some of the processes available are listed below. There is no limit to what designers can achieve with these options, so rest assured that you are bound to find something that suits your own taste and personality:

Most Common Finishes

  • Enzyme Wash: Creates an antiqued look by taking advantage of the catalytic ability of enzyme cellulase. The enzyme catalyzes the hydrolysis of the cellulose fiber and so leads to the breakdown of fibers on the surface of the fabric and the subsequent loss of the indigo dye they have encapsulated. Since this process is not abrasion based, it does not damage the fibers the way that a stonewash does and creates a great vintage jeans look. It does, however, require the use of special softeners and smoothing agents. This should theoretically give the jeans a longer life.
  • Fraying: Fraying is the actually directed destruction of denim fibers in a selected area. Natural-looking wear of the fabric can be simulated on tops of waistbands, pockets, or hem of the jeans.
  • Garment Dyed: The garment is dyed after it is sewn to achieve an intense saturation of color
  • Hand Sanding: A way of reproducing wear patterns, such as whiskers, chevrons, or other damage marks in localized areas, simulating long term wear
  • Rinse: Garments are washed with softener to soften the fabric and this process can be done with clear softener where it only achieves a softer touch. A black softener can also be used to achieve a softer touch and to darken the denim. This is one of my favorite approaches to vintage jeans.
  • Sandblast: Jeans are sprayed with sand by hand before washing to create a used and old look in specific areas of the garmentSun bleached: A combination of sandblasting and bleach which gives the denim a very soft powdery feel.
  • Stone-wash: The garment is washed with pumice stones. The stones break some of the fibers and release the indigo dye. giving the fabric a lighter, weathered look and soft feel. There are different levels of destruction for this wash: light, medium, and heavy. Different size stones give different effects. Bleach can also be added during this process to lighten the color and further age the garment. The process is fundamentally an abrasion technique.
  • Tint: A little tint (color) is added to the garment to change cast, hue, and color appearance. This achieves different tonalities and shades, changing the fabric color. This finish was made very popular by Diesel Jeans some years back when they used it to achieve a “dirty” look. A brown dye was used to achieve this look.
  • Torn Jeans: A manufactured tear, made to appear natural.
  • Whiskering: Pigment is removed in areas where natural wear would occur due to creases, as in the crotch area. In my opinion, very difficult to pull off and usually looks phony.

A lot of what today we refer to as “vintage jeans” has started to develop a meaning beyond the old, used jeans look. Some combinations of finishes can take on some truly edgy, fashion-forward characteristics. Treatment on top of treatment can create results that are totally novel, impossible to achieve through regular wear.

Now, if you’re a bit of the do it yourself type, you may want to learn how to make your own vintage jeans at home. It’s easy and fun, but it takes practice to achieve results anywhere near what the professionals offer.

Some awesome results can be still be achieved with these simple methods.

Vintage Jeans and You

If you take your “second skin” as personally as I do, whatever road you decide to take in the aging of your jeans should reflect your taste. Don’t jump on the latest fashion bandwagon just because others do. Think about the concept of vintage jeans as one more way to portray who you are through the clothes you choose to wear.


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