The Ultimate Guide To DIY Distressed Denim

On May 20th, 1873, Levi Strauss and Jacob Davis successfully invented the blue denim pant: a sturdy, durable, and long-lasting pant originally designed for men working in the mines. A century later, Vivienne Westwood (nicknamed the grand dame of the punk era) would turn the fashion world on its head with a collection of purposefully torn, fraying, and otherwise destroyed apparel. Ever since the birth of the punk era, distressed denim has remained in the zeitgeist of both mainstream and underground fashion.

Recreate your own unique distressed denim wear with nothing more than a few common household items, a few spare hours, and these tips and tricks.

Before We Start Cutting, Let’s Talk About Distressing Basics


I cannot stress this enough: mark your desired areas of distress while the pieces are being worn. It’s incredibly easy to under or over-estimate where our clothing falls on our body when it’s on the hanger or laying flat. Use chalk, pencils, or pins to mark exactly where you’d like any holes, scratches, or tears to appear on your silhouette.

To avoid an unintended paper snowflake effect, slide a piece of cardboard or old magazine into pant legs or sleeves before distressing with blades or sandpaper.

If using bleach to distress your denim, make sure to work in a well-ventilated area. While the fabric is being bleached, make sure to check back on your denim frequently to avoid complete erosion of the material.

Not all denim is created equal; it can come in different weights and blends, both of which significantly affect the denim’s durability and distressability. Look to your tags to find your denim’s composition and cut accordingly.

Now, To The Fun Part: Fraying, Tearing, And Dying Your Way To New, Stylish Denim

Close-up of someone cutting a hole in denim jeans.
(Nor Gal/Shutterstock.com)

There are three basic components to worn-in denim: frayed edges, hems, or pockets; holes, scrapes, or tears; and faded color. Each component can be achieved through multiple techniques — use a combination of several techniques or stick with the ones that cater to the tools you already have at your disposal.

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Fraying: Create soft, fringey hems to your favorite denim pieces by following any of these fraying methods. Use on hems, collars, and cuffs.

Pinking shears create a clean zig-zag cut which will slowly fray over time with wash and wear. Pinking shears are best used for a subtle, long-lasting frayed effect.

  • Cut where desired, wash, wear, and repeat.

Seam rippers separate the individual blue and white denim threads for a realistically severe fray. Expedite the seam-ripping process by making your initial cuts with scissors.

  • Determine your desired fringe height and mark on your pant leg or sleeve cuff. To prevent your fringe from running further up the fabric with each wash, sew a straight-line hem across where you plan to cut. If you don’t mind the fringe growing with each round in the wash, omit this step.
  • Make small vertical cuts up to where you marked the fabric. Use your seam ripper to separate the individual threads of each section. The narrower the vertical cuts, the easier it will be to separate with the seam ripper.

The tear or cut and wash method is perhaps the easiest technique, but also the one that provides the least amount of control.

The name says it all. Use scissors or your hands to cut/tear a raw hem into your denim. Send through at least two washing/drying cycles to get your desired amount of fluffy, white fringe. Denim will continue to fray unless a hem is sewn just above the fringed edge.

The Basics Of Distressing Denim

Person wearing distressed jeans.

There are a myriad of ways denim can become distressed and just as many options for how to achieve the look. Use these methods for pant legs, sleeves, pockets, and any other flat area of denim you’d like to see roughed up.

A box cutter, safety pin, and tweezers can create natural patches of worn fabric, and the precision of these small tools allow you to leave as much or as little skin showing through the distressed area as you prefer.

  • Using the box cutter or craft knife, cut horizontal lines across the area you’d like to distress. For a more realistic look, vary the cut lengths to create hourglass, diamond, or irregular shapes.
  • Flip over each “flap” created by your cut and use the pointy edge of a safety pin to pick out horizontal white threads. Be careful to pick out these threads without breaking them.
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The more white threads on your distress patch, the more coverage there will be. You can always cut these strands later to reveal more skin, but you can’t sew them back once they’re gone.

As you pick out horizontal threads, a vertical fringe will begin to form. Using your tweezers, carefully pluck out the short, vertical strands to reveal a smooth block of thin, white, horizontal thread.

Sandpaper is great for creating dimensions to your distress. The coarser the grit, the rougher the final product will look. By using multiple gauges of sandpaper, you can create a denim piece that looks like it’s been worn for decades (even if you just bought those jeans on sale two days ago).

  • Determine where you’d like your well-worn spots to be on your denim and rub with sandpaper until your desired look is achieved. Be slow and steady — you can’t un-distress what’s already been sanded away.

For pockets and collars, use coarse sandpaper (around 30 to 60 gauge) to rough up the stiff edges of the fabric.

A tatter patch is a quick way to achieve that perfect peekaboo patch of distressed denim in half the time (and with none of the painstaking tweezing). With a variety of sizes, shapes, and printed design options, the tatter patch is a versatile and simple way of revamping (or repairing) denim.

  • The tatter patch might look complicated, but it’s no more difficult to install than an iron-on patch. With a bit of tracing, cutting to size, and ironing, a tatter patch can be installed in fifteen minutes. Click here for a full tatter patch tutorial.
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How To Easily Fade Denim

Close-up of faded denim.

The true testament to denim’s age is how much the deep indigo of raw denim has faded over time. You can speed up the process and turn brand-new jeans into soft blue vintage stunners with these simple tricks.

A 50/50 bleach-water solution and paintbrush provides the most precision in the placement and desaturation of your denim’s fade.

  • Use your paintbrush to saturate the knees, seams, back pockets, elbows, or collars of your denim pieces — areas that would naturally fade first.
  • Once saturated, check on your denim in twenty-minute increments until the fabric is lightened to your liking. Wash and dry denim as you normally would.

Sun fading is a longer, but more natural, fading process. All you need for this method is access to a washing machine and a few days of good weather.

  • Wash denim in hot water. Leave in full sun for 2-3 days until your desired look is achieved. Repeat as necessary.

Use tea or coffee to add patina to your denim. Patina refers to the golden luster denim acquires as oils from our skin and other elements from the environment absorb into the material over time.

  • Pour hot coffee or tea into a shallow pan. Soak your denim, making sure to arrange the clothing in the pan so areas with the most skin contact (knees, back pockets, and collars) get the deepest saturation.
  • Check on the denim in ten-minute increments or until the desired patina is achieved. Keep in mind, the denim will appear darker when wet. Once you’re done dying the fabric, wash and dry as you normally would.

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