If you like to keep your wardrobe on trend, but you wince at the thought of spending a couple of hundred dollars on worn-out jeans, don’t worry! You can have your stylish distressed jeans and save you money, too. You just need to learn how to distress jeans yourself, and you can turn an old pair of jeans into a stylin’ new outfit!
The most popular way to distressed jeans is to use scissors and a thread-pulling technique to open up the weave of the denim. Other popular methods include using sandpaper to soften the fibers in the fabric. Using sunlight or bleach to fade and whiten the denim can give it a distressed, worn-in appearance.
In this article, you will learn ten easy methods for distressing jeans. You will discover the quickest and easiest ways to distress your jeans. Finally, you will find tips on how to style distressed jeans.
What are Distressed Jeans?
Distressed jeans have a worn-in appearance, like raw-denim jeans, after a few years of constant use. They often have a faded or vintage finish and may also feature rips or tears. Unlike many types of brand-new jeans, new distressed jeans should have a soft, flexible texture.
While distressed jeans often sport worn-out patches and frayed threads, they have some key differences from ripped jeans. The main difference is that ripped jeans have tears in fashionable spots, while distressed jeans should have worn-in spots where the denim naturally wears out, such as the knee and the top edges of the pockets.
Both distressed and ripped jeans remain trendy today. Celebrities continue to wear unlikely outfits like a crop top turtleneck paired with vintage distressed jeans or a faux fur jacket paired with a tee and distressed high-waisted jeans.
That said, distressed jeans present a distinct image not suitable for every occasion. Many workplaces that allow jeans still forbid wearing ripped or distressed denim. This old-fashioned stance probably stems from the very real fact that distressed jeans have served as a symbol of rebellion and counterculture for decades.
Originally, jeans had a workday purpose, as miners, cowboys, and blue-collar workers wore them for hard labor in the late 1800s. Hollywood changed that when it launched subversive images like actor Marlon Brando wearing jeans to look cool. As early as the 1950s, wearing denim instead of trousers became a sign of rebellion against the norm.
But the idea of distressed jeans took root in Britain in the 1970s, when the punk rock movement raged against many of society’s unfair standards. The idea of dressing in a way that defied convention gave the movement a way to express how much they disliked the status quo. People wore ripped, worn-out, or faded jeans and decorated them with safety pins or patches to make them look even wilder.
This carried over into the grunge movement of the 90s, which generally had an anti-fashion stance that prompted a messy style like wearing worn-out, baggy jeans. By the early 2000s, the skinny jeans craze eclipsed the popularity of distressed denim for a while. But in recent years, styles like “business comfortable” and “athleisure” have driven the need for more comfortable clothing back into the spotlight, making distressed jeans popular.
How to Distress Jeans: 10 Methods
You can turn your old jeans into a stylish or subversive statement yourself with a few tools like sandpaper or scissors and a bit of elbow grease!
Of course, you can buy pre-distressed jeans from plenty of big-name brands if you prefer, but making your own saves money. It also allows you to recycle old jeans that might have landed in the trash can. You can even go to a local thrift store to get thrifted jeans to distress if you want to turn this into an environmentally friendly fashion statement!
One of the easiest ways to distress jeans is to use sandpaper to wear away the finish on the surface of the denim and break down the fibers in the cotton threads. Have you ever noticed how your jeans eventually get thin and worn out in key areas like the knees or the fronts of the thighs after years of use? Applying sandpaper takes all those years of wear and boils them down into just a few minutes of brisk sanding!
- First, get some fine-grit sandpaper. You can use a sandpaper sponge for easier gripping, or put on a pair of work gloves and use a regular sheet of sandpaper.
- Set up your jeans for sanding. Use tailor’s chalk to mark out the sections you want to sand. Key areas often include the knees, the front of the thighs, the top edge of the waistband and pockets, and the hem around the ankles.
- Cut a piece of cardboard to slide inside the legs as you work so that you do not rub through to the back of the jeans.
- Rub the sandpaper up and down, following the line of the vertical blue threads you can see in the denim. For a slightly softened, faded look, you only need a bit of sanding, just enough to rub off the finish on the surface of the denim. For a distressed, worn-through look, keep sanding till you eat away at the cotton threads in the fabric.
- Repeat this step in every part of the jeans you marked with chalk.
- Finally, run the jeans through the washer to let the sanded threads fray and look faded.
One of the most precise ways to create distressed jeans is to use scissors and artfully cut a few threads out of the weave in the denim.
- Mark the spots that you want to distress using chalk. This step helps you avoid accidentally turning your jeans into one big hole!
- Next, carefully cut two horizontal snips in the center of these areas, placing the snips half an inch apart.
- When you look closely at this section, you will notice that white threads run through the denim horizontally, in the same direction as your snips. You want to leave those white threads in place. Tiny blue threads loop up and down through those white threads, though, and you want to remove the blue threads.
- Use your fingers or tweezers to carefully tug out the blue threads along the length of your snipped section.
- Finally, use your fingers or super fine-grit sandpaper to rub the white threads and soften them just a little.
3. Bleach in Washer
Another popular way to distress jeans is to use bleach to give the pants a washed-out, faded appearance. This quick method provides the easiest way to mimic a vintage look for your denim.
Please note that you should take precautions when using chlorine bleach. It has dangerous fumes and will burn your skin if you don’t handle it properly.
You can use bleach to fade your jeans in several ways.
- For the quickest option, simply add bleach to your washing machine according to the instructions on the packet.
- Put your jeans into the wash and run the cycle through.
- Take them out and check to see if you like the more faded appearance all over.
For a more artful process, use a paintbrush like this:
- Spread a plastic tablecloth or tarp on your workspace and make sure you have a window open nearby.
- Smooth out your jeans on the workspace.
- Mix one cup of chlorine bleach with one cup of water in a disposable container.
- Use an old paintbrush about one inch wide–the bleach will damage the bristles and you will have to throw it away later.
- Dip the brush into the bleach solution and sweep it up and down the jeans. Make sure you paint extra bleach on the spots you want to look most faded, like the knees, the seams, or the tops of the pockets!
- Once you feel that you have painted on enough bleach, leave the bleach to sit overnight.
- Run the jeans through the washer in the morning to remove the bleach. If you skip this step, the bleach could linger in the fabric and hurt your skin. Plus, it will keep eating at the denim and make it more faded than you wanted.
One easy way to simulate the worn-out look of authentically distressed jeans is to fade them in sunlight. This method will lighten the color of your denim and make it look like you have worn out faded spots through years of use. This method does take a while, but it offers a gentler alternative to using bleach.
- Run your jeans through a hot water cycle in the washer, but do not put them in the dryer.
- Instead, take them outside. Set up a plastic tablecloth in a sunny patch of grass and use rocks or tent pegs to hold it in place
- Spread out the damp jeans on top of the tablecloth.
- Leave them to rest for a whole day in the sun.
- In the evening, check to see if they look faded. If you like the appearance, flip them over so the back of the jeans can fade the next day.
- You may need to leave each side facing the sun for two to three days for the best fading effect.
One of the fastest ways to distress your jeans is to use a disposable razor to rough up the fibers in the denim. This slightly risky technique is not as precise as using scissors, but it will give you quick results.
- Try on your jeans and stand in front of a mirror to decide what areas you want to distress. Use chalk to draw rough outlines around these sections to keep you from accidentally distressing more of the denim than you wanted to.
- Take off your jeans and set up a workspace with a big piece of cardboard or a large cutting board. Cut a small piece of cardboard to go inside the jeans behind each section you distress, as this will keep you from damaging the reverse side of the pants as you work.
- Slice across the bottom of the first distressed area with a razor blade or a box cutter. Add thin slices every half inch up to the top of the area you marked.
- To quickly rough up the sliced area, use the kind of cheap razor with a plastic handle and scrape it over the surface of the denim.
- Use the shaving razor again to rough up the hem and the top edge of the pockets or any other areas that you want distressed, like the side seams.
- To finish the distressed look, run your jeans through the washer and dryer two times. This will fluff up cut threads and create a soft, fuzzy surface on the distressed areas.
Believe it or not, a simple dinner fork can create a beautiful distressed hem at the bottom of your jeans! You will want to use slightly too-long jeans for this method, as you will need to remove part of the bottom of the leg to create a cool distressed finish.
- Start by using sharp sewing scissors or kitchen shears to cut away the stitching at the hem.
- When you look closely at the raw cut edge, you will notice thicker white threads circling the jean leg in horizontal lines. You want to use the fork on the raw edge to scrape at those white threads, tugging them free so that a whole bunch of white threads forms a distressed edge.
- Starting about an inch above the raw edge, scrape the fork down to the edge. Repeat this in a circle all the way around the hem. A fork works well because the prongs scrape the fabric’s surface to wear it away and snag on those white threads, breaking them free from the denim.
- Next, turn the cuff up and repeat this on the inside of the hem, scraping down to the raw edge.
- Once you have a worn-out circle of fabric around the hem and lots of white threads hanging down, put your jeans in the washer to finish the process.
7. Cheese Grater
You can use a cheese grater to distress jeans in several different ways. This fast method literally slices away layers of denim, though, so approach it with caution! You may want to practice on old jeans you don’t want anymore before grating a pair you like.
Also, you will want a hand-held grater, not the square one that stands on its base.
- You can remove the finish from the bottom of the jeans in just seconds using a cheese grater. Put the jeans’ hem on top of a cutting board and rub the grater up and down on the hem. You will instantly see fuzzy white threads as you grate.
- Distress the knees of your jeans by inserting a small cutting board or folded magazine inside the leg. Then scrape the grater from the top of the knee to the bottom. Repeat the motion until you have almost worn through the denim.
- You can also quickly distress the top edge of the front and back pockets with just a few swipes of the grater. Watch your fingers as you work and make sure you don’t accidentally run the grater over your skin, though!
8. At the Knee
Pretty much all distressed jeans sport faded, torn, or frayed patches on the knee because this is a stress point that will wear out naturally over time in most jeans.
You can distress your jeans at the knee using several different methods:
- For a worn spot or even a torn hole at the knee, try the sandpaper method. This only takes a few minutes and will eat through the denim fibers to give them a distressed look.
- For a softened, white patch at the knee, try painting the jeans with bleach and add extra brush strokes of bleach on the knees. This will give you a naturally distressed look.
- For a ripped and distressed look, use the scissors method to pluck out of the blue threads from the denim at the knee and leave just the horizontal white threads in place.
9. At the Ankle
Some distressed jeans have a gently faded hem at the ankle, while others have a wildly frayed fringe of white threads at the bottom of the ankle. You can decide how much you want to distress your jeans at the ankle by picking one of these methods:
- For a more natural, lightened look at the ankle, use the bleach paintbrush method to fade the hem. You do not even need to cut off the original stitching, meaning that you won’t alter the length of the jeans.
- If you want a roughened surface around the ankle, try using the sandpaper method. This will create authentically worn-away patches at the hem.
- For a much more distressed and fringed style, try the fork or the cheese grater method. These techniques will remove the stitching at the ankle and leave a circle of frayed white threads as a fringe around the hem instead.
10. At the Pockets
One unique way to distress jeans at the pockets is to use a bobby pin. You can also use any of the other methods listed above, like using sandpaper to rub at the stitching along the top of the pockets or using bleach to fade the top edge of the pockets. But if you want some precise distressing at the pockets, try this technique!
- Use your fingertips to scrape the rubber tip off the end of a bobby pin prong. Unbend the pin to a right angle.
- Hold the flat edge of the pin at a sight angle to the pocket fabric and scrape back and forth anywhere you want a subtly distressed patch.
- You can scrape just a little to form whitened areas on the pockets or continue scraping to make a hole at the corner or edge of a pocket.
How to Distress Jeans Quickly
The best way to distress jeans quickly is to use the cheesegrater, sandpaper, or razor method. All three of these techniques produce instant results because the sharp edges will tear or cut through the cotton fibers on the surface of the denim. The danger here is that you can quickly grate or slice too far into the jeans, though!
If you don’t mind spending a bit more time, you can create more natural-looking distressed patches using methods like bleaching, sun bleaching, or scissors.
How to Distress the Bottom of Jeans
The best way to distress the bottom of jeans is to use the fork or cheesegrater method to create a faded, frayed white edge around the ankle.
You could use any of the ten methods described in this article to distress the bottom of your jeans! For example, if you want more precise distressed spots at the ankle, try using either the sandpaper or the bobby pin technique to distress small sections of the hem. For a soft, distressed fade at the bottom edge, paint a generous line of bleach around the ankle and let it sit overnight before rinsing it away.
How to Style Distressed Jeans
You can style distressed jeans in many different ways because this type of jeans remains so popular today. Wearing distressed jeans gives an edge to an everyday outfit and makes you look cool and subversive.
Check out the five top distressed jeans outfit ideas listed here to get some ideas for your own wardrobe!
- Wear close-fitting distressed jeans with a loose blouse and ankle boots for a casual but dressy vibe.
- Try pairing a printed jacket or blazer with high heels and distressed skinny jeans for an even more dressy outfit, perfect for wearing to a party or girl’s day out.
- For guys, buy into the semi-grunge style by wearing looser distressed jeans with an open flannel shirt over a tee or layering a jacket over a plain hoodie. Top off the style with a baseball cap and sneakers or combat boots.
- For a dressier outfit for men, match distressed black jeans with a grey tee and a black leather jacket.
- You can also wear your favorite distressed jeans in the cooler seasons if you match them with an oversized coat! Layer a loose, long coat over a long-sleeved sweater or tee for both men and women for the perfect winter outfit.
You can distress jeans using basic household tools like scissors, a fork, or a cheese grater. You can create a vintage faded distressing on the denim using bleach, sunlight, or sandpaper. For precise distressing, you can use a razor or a bobby pin with its head removed.
Distressed jeans give your outfits a trendy look and make you look more like your favorite celebrities. They also make jeans softer and comfier to wear day to day. You can create casual outfits by pairing distressed jeans with items like flannel shirts or hoodies or create dressier outfits by contrasting the informal distressed denim with heels or a blazer.