If you’ve even dipped your toe into the world of selvedge denim, you’ll have heard that perennial question:
How often should I wash my jeans?
To those who haven’t dipped any digits into any trouser subcultures, it seems a ludicrous question. But if and when you wash your jeans can have a significant effect on how the jeans age and fade, and there are no shortage of guys who answer the question with a firm “never.” Why?
To answer this question I visited Montreal to meet with the founder and CEO of the most beloved and influential selvedge denim company in the world, Naked & Famous‘ Brandon Svarc.
When to Wash Denim?
“The whole fun is you wash whenever you want,” says Brandon.
There it is: thousands of experts and untold ink spilled on the topic, and your answer is that you should wash when you want to.
“People ask us that all the time, and there is no one answer.” Brandon adds. “You can’t just say ‘yes, you should wash your jeans, or ‘No, never wash your jeans. The whole fun of raw denim is that you get to decide.
“There’s this old guy who comes here, and he’s a doctor, and he says to me, ‘I heard that I’m never allowed to wash these jeans.’ (And of course, you can wash them as many times as you want.) But his son will come with him at the same time, and his son is a 24-year-old longboarder who loves ripping up his jeans and just beating the crap out of them, and he says, ‘oh, you can’t wash them, you never wash them.”
“You have these two guys who are the complete opposite. They’ll buy the same jean in the same size. Who’s right? The guy who never washes? The guy who always washes? They’re both correct because they do what they want. They do what makes them happy.”
[Related: Sanforized vs Unsanforized: Which Jeans Are Right for You?]
How Often to Wash Denim
So why the debate?
One of the main draws of selvedge jeans is that guys like the idea of cool, faded jeans. (Who doesn’t)
But while most people buy jeans pre faded, or maybe they buy dark blue jeans that fade with regular washing, denimheads take things a step further: they want to get the best, crispiest, starkest, highest contrast, fades they can get. (Well, a lot of them do, anyway.)
These are your battle scars. These are your beauty marks. These are your earnings. You suffer for your fades because they take so damn long. It’s appealing to guys who like the slow process of patina and the feeling of accomplishment that comes from owning something for a long time and making it their own.
So the question becomes:
How often should I wash my jeans to get the best fades?
One might assume that lots of washing will produce a lot of fading, which is true, but the fades won’t be so high contrast. Less frequent washing makes for higher contrast fades.
“Some companies will say, ‘Wash that after six months,’ or ‘wash at whatever mark,’ but that’s so silly,” says Brandon. “What if one guy is a bike messenger and he’s beating the crap out of his jeans every single day, and another guy is an accountant and he wears his jeans casually on the weekend, or in front of a computer? Those two dudes don’t have the same pair of beat-up jeans after six months right? So how could you tell them a magical number?”
Just like caring for boots, there’s a big difference between that forest firefighter and the computer programmer in Portland, so each guy is going to have a really different care regiment.
Wash them when you feel like they should be washed.
How to Make Those Sick Honeycomb Fades
I asked Brandon about the benefits of not washing, and it brought us to the topic of honeycombs and whiskers: the horizontal creases that accrue on the back of the knees and the top of the thighs, respectively.
It comes down to memory; jeans work a little like memory foam cushions.
“When you fold a piece of paper it makes like a memory to the fold, right?” Brandon says. “When you fold a piece of paper and you put it down on the table, it doesn’t just magically go back to the way it was. It’s the same thing with your jeans … it creates kind of memory.”
Of course if you want to have that very high contrast fade, then we recommend waiting as long as you can before the first wash.
Denim starts to crease and fold in those areas, and every time you walk, it makes those same creases. So those creases will start to bend and start to break through that rope-dyed Japanese denim and it reveals the white underneath. So you get these beautiful honeycomb fades, and that’s how you get a very high contrast fade — which is usually the preferred type of fading. If you want to see those really pronounced honeycombs and marks on the back pocket and whiskers on the front, then you have to kind of hold off a little bit more on your washing now.
If you wash them earlier and if you wash them more often, the fabric will lose that “memory.”
“They’ll start to straighten out, and then you’ll have to kind of start again to get that memory, to get those breaks in the denim.”
But if you don’t care about high contrast fades? Or if you actively want your jeans to fade more evenly? Go ahead and wash them more often! Just make sure you turn them inside out, wash them on their own or with other jeans (in case the dye bleeds), and dry them in the shade.
The more you wash, the faster the denim will fade overall, but the lower the contrast will be.
“These high-contrast fades, you get them if you don’t wash very often, but if I wash them with more regularity than some denim heads do,” says Brandon. “I think it’s a myth that, once you wash your jeans they won’t fade anymore. That’s nonsense; of course, they’re going to still fade. You can wash your jeans lots of times and they’ll still start to fade. It’s just that they won’t fade as high contrast the more you wash.”
Is It Unhygienic to Not Wash Your Jeans?
Is it unhygienic to wear jeans 100 times?
“It depends on you,” says Brandon. “If you’re that bike messenger, and you’re wearing those jeans every single day, and you’re going through the mud, and then you go to a party and someone throws up on you and you don’t wash your jeans? Yeah, that’s probably gross. But if you’re an accountant and you’re just wearing them on the weekends, you could probably go out a very long time without washing your jeans. So it depends on your lifestyle.
Do you live in Thailand or Hong Kong where it’s 40 degrees every day, you’re sweating your balls off, and your jeans are just so humid from your own sweat? Then maybe it’s gross and you should probably wash your jeans more often.”
When asked if he’s ever heard of possible health problems arising from having jeans that are too dirty for too long, he says he’s never heard of any issue, pointing to some research suggesting that the difference in bacteria between washed and unwashed denim is negligible.
“One of our previous employees had this done in one of his science classes in university. He did a study on it to see if the bacteria was different in a jean that was not washed for a long time or a jean that was just worn for a few days, and he found almost no statistical difference.”
Should You Put Denim in the Freezer?
If you want to kill bacteria but you don’t want to harm your fades, is it a good compromise to freeze your jeans?
This has been debated in many a forum, but the official Naked & Famous position is that it’s nonsense.
“The freezer trick is a bit nonsense-y,” Brandon says. “It’s not going to clean your jeans. But if you put baking soda or baking powder in there, that people put it in their fridge to absorb old food smells, I think it will it will work to some extent of maybe getting some of the smell out of your jeans. But you do put food in the fridge o keep it from going rotten, right? That arises from bacteria getting all over it. So it probably kills some bacteria, but I don’t know if that counts exactly.”
[Related: The Complete Guide to Selvedge Denim]
If you want slower high contrast detailed fades, wash less. If you want a more uniform, faster fade, wash frequently.
And if your jeans feel gross, they smell weird, they seem musty, and you really wish you could wash them but you don’t want to give yourself permission to do it for fear of disrupting the perfect fade?
Just wash your jeans, man.