Let's face it: Finding the perfect pair of jeans that look good is only half the battle—they have to feel good too. If you've (finally) found your perfect-fitting denim match but they still feel stiff and uncomfortable or if your favorite pair isn't as pillowy-soft as it once was, don't hit the reset button just yet. Thankfully, there are things you can do to break in your new jeans and soften your old ones—sans chemicals. The result? You'll feel more comfortable wearing them (and be more likely to keep them on rotation). Stiff blues will soon be a thing of the past.
The following tips can be used to soften your favorite pair, from white jeans to colored rinses and dark-wash denim. Keep in mind that anything you do at home to treat the fabric of your jeans may change their look and feel, so you may want to experiment with a less expensive pair of jeans before trying these techniques on pricier designer versions.
Keep reading to learn our step-by-step, eco-friendly, all-natural guide to softening stiff denim fabric.
What You'll Need
- Jeans you want to soften
- White household vinegar
- Plastic bucket or tub
- Fine-grit sandpaper
- Four clean tennis balls
- Clothes washer and dryer
Remove Clothing Tags
First things first: Cut off any manufacturer's tags from the inside of your jeans using sharp, pointy scissors. Be careful to snip close to the threads but not directly on top of them to avoid puncturing the fabric. Pop the tags in your pants drawer in case you need to refer to special washing instructions or sizing information later.
Turn Jeans Inside Out
Turn your jeans inside out before washing them—especially when you're going to be purposely aggravating the fabric to manipulate its feel—to preserve their look. This is important if you want to avoid fading on a pair of dark-wash jeans or don't like the look of distressing. Of course, if you like distressed and abraded details, you can skip this step entirely.
Soften With a Vinegar Soak
White vinegar is a natural solution that can soften denim fabric. Make a softening solution for your jeans by combining eight cups of hot tap water with one cup of standard white household vinegar (like this one from Heinz, $9) in a clean bucket or plastic tub. Place jeans into the solution, making sure to fully immerse the fabric, and soak for several hours or overnight. A vinegar soak not only softens denim, but it can also preserve the color in dark-rinse jeans and prevent dye bleeding, especially when the jeans are brand-new.
PS: If you're worried about your jeans smelling like salt and vinegar chips, know that the vinegar scent will evaporate when your jeans dry.
Put Jeans in the Dryer
You'll need to dry your jeans before continuing to the next step in the softening process. (Don't worry, you'll wash them again to get the vinegar out). Throw your jeans (still inside out) into the dryer and dry completely. If you're concerned about shrinkage, use the lowest heat setting.
Roll Jeans Into a Ball
When your jeans are fully dry and still hot from the dryer, roll them into a tight ball. Start at the hems and roll tightly (just like you would a sleeping bag), working up to the waistband. The goal is to get the jeans into the smallest, tightest ball possible. Then use a bathrobe belt or a long piece of fabric to tie the jean ball so it stays condensed and leave it to cool for half an hour to an hour. Rolling your jeans this way when they're still hot from the dryer stretches the denim, loosening the tightly knitted fibers of the fabric, for a softening effect.
Sand Your Jeans
To get that lived-in look without putting in the hours of wear, sand your jeans. To do this, unroll them and—while they're still turned inside-out—use a small square of fine-grit sandpaper (like this one from 3M, $7) to gently scrape the interior surface of the denim fabric. Start at the top of the jeans and move the sandpaper square in horizontal strokes to scrape the fabric. Take your time scraping your way along the fabric (you can brush away the bits of loosened fiber that come off the jeans as you go), and move down to the hems.
Wash Jeans in Warm Water
Next, place the jeans (still inside out) into the washing machine. Wash jeans by themselves, without detergent, choosing the warm or medium temperature water setting on your washer. If you're laundering only one pair of jeans, go for a low-water setting (if your washer has one) to preserve water for smaller laundry loads. Wash the jeans alone—or only with other pairs of jeans—for optimal results.
Dry Jeans With Tennis Balls
Put your freshly washed jeans into the clothes dryer, adding four new (clean) tennis balls—these mini ones from Hyper Pet, $6, will do the job. The tennis balls will give your jeans a strenuous "massage" as they go through the dryer cycle, helping to soften the denim fabric for a worn-in feel. Be sure to set the dryer on low heat to prevent shrinkage, especially if your jeans have a high amount of stretch. Or if you don't mind a bit of shrinking, you can opt for the hottest setting, which will further soften the jeans.
Wear and Repeat as Needed
Wear your jeans often to soften the fabric and mold them to your body. You should also wash them frequently (though you might not want to put 100% cotton jeans in the dryer as often), which will help to continue breaking down the fabric so that they feel worn out and softer against your skin.
Denim provided by: Free People
Model: Aimee Simeon