The denim guide part 3 – principles of denim care

Welcome to part 3 of my denim guide. Part 1 was about the history of denim, covering what denim actually is, and where it comes from. Part 2 took a look at the all important matter of washes and cuts, or to out it plainly: what it looks like. This part is about how to look after your denim, and what the big deal about this is.

[Disclaimer: Denim is a very serious business, with serious guys having serious discussions about it in serious internet forums. I’m writing this guide based on my perspective on things and don’t lay claim to being 100% accurate on all arcane aspects of denimology.]

Now, until this point, it has been quite straightforward writing about denim. There is no real controversy surrounding where denim came from, or what fit of denim you should be looking for. The potential controversy comes into play when we come down to how you should care for your denim. Or, as the hardcore denim geeks will have it, how you shouldn’t care for it.


Main point:

You must never wash your raw denim. At least not until you’ve worn it for at least 6 months or more. The longer the better, according to the denim lore.

For most people, this rather bold statement elicits a few question. I’ll take a look at the most obvious ones:

1) “6 months without washing them? Won’t they smell?” Well, yes, probably, but there are a few things you can do to combat this. Airing them overnight will be good, and if it gets too bad pop them in the freezer and let the cold nuke the smelly stuff.

2) “I only wear them twice a week, does 6 months still hold true?” Ehm, no. That means you’ll have to wear them at least (7/2)X as long (for non-engineers that means almost 2 years). We can see how having several pairs of jeans can lead to a very serious commitment when it comes to trouser-wear. On the plus side, you may never have to wash a pair of trousers ever again. Make sure you include a section about your denim in your will though, so your descendants can take over.

3) “What happens after I wash them?”. This is when the spell is broken and the true inner spirit of your jeans will appear. The magic fades and patterning will appear, once the accumulated dirt and excess indigo is washed out. This is when you get to Instagram your prized strides.

soaking denim

My Iron Hearts having a little soak in the sun.

Secondary point:

Now, in point one we established that denim should not see water until it’s been worn at least 6 months. An easy rule to live by, right? Well, not so easy, as it turns out. If your new jeans are not sanforized (i.e. the denim is pre-shrunk before being made into jeans and hence almost immune to shrinkage) you may want to pre-soak them before starting to use them, to get the shrinkage in early on. It would be a shame to spend a year having them adapt to your body and personality only to have them shrink massively when you perform the first ritual wash.

There is also a question of starch. Some denim is very starchy when unwashed and can be stiff an uncomfortable to wear. A decent soak will do wonders for this. So making the denim more wearable, and getting that shrinking in early, makes a pre-wear soak seem like a pretty smart move to me.

So, a pre-wear soak? Isn’t that very much like a wash? This is a valid question, certainly. The difference appears to be that soaking should be carefully done, with only clean, warm water. For a really safe soak you should actually wear the trousers while soaking. This process can take an hour or two according to The Rules. You don’t want to jiggle around too much either, as you don’t want to wash out more indigo than can be helped. I suggest sending your family away for the day, as to outsiders this may be a little difficult to explain.

Joking aside though, the way denim wears is not to be taken lightly. Describing how denim wears has it’s own vocabulary, part English and part Japanese. Lets have a look at the Denim Fade 101:

Combs or honeycombs are the patterns of wear that form behind the knees.


Honeycombs or combs

Whiskers are the patterns that form around the crotch area.



Stacks are the patterns you get when you have the length of your jeans hemmed a couple of inches too long, but instead of going for turn-ups, you “stack” the extra length on top of your boots. This causes fades to appear around the ankle and upwards.


Stacks – Photo borrowed from ByBeatle (

Roping is the effect you get when the hem of the jeans fades to give a rope-like pattern.


Roping – Photo borrowed from ByBeatle (

So, the English words were OK, how about the Japanese part of it? Do you really want to know?

Iro-ochi refers to the fading of the actual indigo dye in the denim fabric, though specifically in exposed areas, not across the entire garment. So roping is iro-ochi, but acid-washing your jeans is not.

Tate-ochi refers to the occurrences of iro-ochi forming vertical lines in vintage denim. Vintage denim didn’t have the vigorous quality control of today’s fabric and thread width was less uniform. The indigo colour tends to fade most where the thread is thickest, creating a white or very faded line along a single thread.

Atari is not your classic games console company, but in denim terns it refers to the way denim fades in ridges and creases. A common area for this to occur is along the seams, where you get fades that can look like train tracks. Also long pocket seams, belt loops, along the hem and knees.

And that concludes the terminology lesson. Too much already?

So, after at least 6 months of daily wear, you finally come to the big day where it’s time to wash your probably quite ripe and mucky, sorry, I mean full of personality traits, jeans, how do you go about it?

Well, you could just ask your mother. After all, they’re dirty trousers so put them in the washing at 40 degrees and wait till they’re done. Maybe go a little easy on the spin-dry? Afterwards hang them up until they’re nice and dry.


My Iron Hearts enjoying a good drip dry. Heavy denim can take over 24 hours to dry this way.

That would be my preferred method, and I see nothing wrong in doing it that way. Looking around though you will find very many more specialised and fiddly recipies for that crucially important first wash. I’ll leave it up to you, wise and informed reader, how much fuss you want to make about it!

The next instalment will cover some of the odd facts and myths surrounding denim.


  • Scratch 13/12/2013 at 17:32

    Certainly one of the key differences between a first soak and wash is that a wash in a washing machine generates a lot of friction on the jeans. They rub on themselves, other things in the machine and on the drum of the machine itself as they have water forced through them.
    This is obviously going to have a “wearing” effect and remove more indigo from the denim. It’s also the reason why coloured things fade with washing.
    Soaking is totally static and gentle and just removes the excess indigo and starch from the denim if raw. Some denim is “juicier” than others I find – My Iron Heart 634’s are still leaving blue smears on things left in my back pocket and they’re 2 and a bit years old & they’ve been washed 4 times now.
    On the other hand, my Lee 101’s have only been washed once and no denim bleed is evident at all.

  • WDG 13/12/2013 at 17:55

    My question is how anyone can stand wearing thick, unwashed denim? I like my garments soft and comfy. I can image those 21oz feeling like wearing a denim armor.

  • Matthew Pike (@mat_buckets) 13/12/2013 at 21:13

    It’s a well complicated subject. And it’s easy to fall into the trap of knowing what your taking about if the subject ever comes up. I try go by the 6 mont rule but by that time I’m normally in need a new pair that actually fit.

    Buckets & Spades

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