Dark, light, stone, acid, whiskering, distressing… Oh, the places your denim can go! Or, where it’s been, rather. Part of what makes denim so special -and why I have such a warm, tender part reserved in my heart for it – is that it has so many different manifestations. Throughout the ages (or decades, as the case may actually be) designers and scientists alike have developed a myriad of ways to manipulate the washing process to change the look of denim fabric.
Here’s a quick primer on common denim washes, so you can sound extra smart and savvy when you’re describing your favorite new pair to jealous friends.
An acid wash finish creates significant contrast in the color of denim fabric. In order to create the random, irregular, acid wash look (that was ever-so-popular in the 1980s), the dry denim cloth is first bleached then put in a rotating drum in close proximity with granulated pumice soaked with prepared hypochlorites (fancy chemical term for bleach). This process fades the cloth both chemically (the bleach) and mechanically (the rough pumice pieces scraping the fibers). After lots of tumbling, the granules are eventually removed and the cloth is washed and dried in order to neutralize any left over hypochlorites.
ESD Style Tip: The acid wash is not a wash to be taken lightly. It’s bold, and best worn as a short, in the summer. You don’t find many modern incarnations of acid washed jeans these days, but a vintage pair of cut-off shorts are funky and fun for the beach or with polished separates to give it a more modern look.
A sanded finish is achieved with a combination of pumice stones, enzymes and sand, natch. This process is used to create the illusion of aged denim. Although the purpose of this is typically just for aesthetics, this method also loosens the fibers in the denim, making it fit more comfortably and giving it more ease of movement. You can also sand denim by hand in places for a specifically tailored look.
ESD Style Tip: Jeans with a sanded finish are best for the weekend. They’re going to be softer and slouchier than most pairs, and look best in a boyfriend cut, paired with wedge booties and a more dressed-up top.
Stone washing is a process that gives denim a worn-in, more relaxed look, and gives the fabric added softness and flexibility. The process physically removes color and adds contrast. The fabric is typically put into a 250-pound washing machine along with pumice stones (yep, the same kind you scrub your fee with). The fabric and stones are rotated together for a set period of time. The washing time dictates the final color of the fabric- the longer the denim and stones are rotated, the lighter the color becomes and the more contrast is achieved. The denim is then rinsed, softened and tumble dried.
ESD Style Tip: A stone washed denim can actually manifest in a pretty big spectrum of blues. The lighter washes are ones I typically reserve for weekend wear, while the darker ones are our pairs-for-all-occasions since they can easily be dressed up or down.
Rinsed denim is about as dark as it gets, and it refers to a wash process that’s just a quick rinse with water and potentially some softener, in an industrial machine. Without hypochlorites or pumice stones in the wash, the fabric retains much, much more of its (natural or synthetic) indigo dye.
ESD Style Tip: A nice, dark denim in a trouser or skinny fit is perfect for dressing up at the office or a night out. Just be warned with rinsed denim: Almost all manufacturers attach a hang tag to inform you that the jeans should be washed separately and inside out, as the dyes in the denim still remain and will start to release when you wash them at home.
[Sources: eBay Guides, Oki-Ni, and Project Cotton]
[Photos by Nando Alvarez]