The Ultimate Guide to Distressing Jeans for a Custom Look

Ripped holes and shredded seams add character.



We all love a new pair of denim that pairs well with our favorite tee or a crisp white button-down. It's hard not to, as jeans can be our go-to for many occasions. There are no rules—the fit can be skinny, straight, baggy, taper, mid-rise, or relaxed. And just as you'll find unlimited colors to choose from, there are also countless design features. You can opt for your pair to be ripped, torn, have patches, faded denim, and the much loved worn-in look, distressed jeans. “While fashion trends come and go, one style that remains a staple in our wardrobes is distressed denim,” says Emily L. Foley. "It’s a familiar go-to for most people and works with every denim style, from skinny jeans to boyfriend fit."

Meet the Expert

Emily L. Foley is a writer, TV spokesperson, and expert on all things fashion and beauty.

The good news is that while it can sometimes cost a pretty penny to get a pre-distressed look, you can also try your creative hand and do it at home. You can opt to use a pair that's been in your closet for a while and give it new life, or you can grab an inexpensive pair and customize them. "Just remember to start small," says Foley. "You can't make holes smaller, but you can always make them bigger," she says. Read on for our easy-to-follow guide to distressing jeans. 

Tools Needed

To get started with distressing your jeans, you'll need a few items on hand. You're likely to have most of these at home already, so setting up shouldn't take too much preparation.

  • Box cutter or scissors
  • Chalk, pen, pencil, or marker
  • Magazine or newspaper
  • Safety pin or straight pin

Preparing Your Jeans

First, put on the jeans you want to distress and mark the areas you want to cut using a pencil, pen, marker, or chalk. For the cleanest finish, chalk is the best option because it makes nice, thick lines that wash off easily. Pen or marker will potentially show at the end if you don’t end up distressing the line away completely, and pencil can be hard to see on certain denim washes. 

If you're going to put a hole in the knee area, you should start slightly above the knee—an inch or two—because if the hole is centered directly on your knee, it can rip further when you walk. On pairs sold in stores, you'll notice that knee holes are centered above the knee. Refer to photos of distressed jeans or any existing pairs you love if it helps your strategy.

Marking Areas to Distress

Mark the lines for each hole in a circular or diamond pattern, meaning that the longest line will be in the middle and then each one above and below will be slightly shorter (and the same length as each other), with the shortest lines being at the top and bottom. The lines should be roughly a half-inch to an inch apart, depending on how open you want your hole to be. Aim for five to seven lines, which should create a good size for distressing by the knee.

Making the Cut

Once you’ve marked the lines, take off your jeans. Place a rolled-up magazine or newspaper inside the leg to protect the back from your cuts. To start distressing the jeans, take a box cutter (you can also use scissors, but it’s much easier to be precise with a box cutter) and slice a slit on each line you marked. Be careful when cutting to ensure your safety and the cleanest result.

Creating the Distressed Look

After you've created slits, you'll want to pull each one up and pull out the white threads. You can do this with a safety pin, a straight pin, or your fingernail if that’s all you have. Try doing this without breaking the threads if you want a distressed but still connected look. Breaking the thread will create a gaping hole.

Finishing Up

Take a moment to evaluate if you want to continue pulling, keeping in mind that as you pull the white horizontal threads, you’ll also loosen up the blue (or black, white, or other colors, depending on the pair of jeans) vertical thread as well, and you can pull some of those out with tweezers. Removing colored vertical threads while leaving the horizontal white threads is what gives you the "netted" look you often have on distressed jeans.

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