4 Tips to Help You not Mess Up Your DIY Denim Distressing

Helmut Lang painter straight jeans, $275

Distressed, patched, and otherwise altered jeans can cost $200 and more, so it’s tempting to try to get the look with jeans already in your closet. But it’s not always that easy! Learn from my mistakes and save yourself some time and money.

If you’re ripping the knee area, start small and high

Mark where your knee falls on the front of your jeans, or better yet have someone else do it because bending over might hike up your pants. Make the mark an inch or two above the center of your knee and start to weaken the fibers with sandpaper. You want to start high because walking will make the rip larger if it’s too low. After sanding, use scissors to create a hole… but start small because it’s bound to only get larger as you wash and wear your jeans.

Joe’s high-rise distressed skinny jeans, $175

Iron before fraying

It’s easy enough to cut the hem of your jeans, then throw them in the washer to get a nice fray going. But it’s also easy to find that you’ve cut each leg a different length.

To avoid uneven pant legs, iron your jeans before cutting, and use a ruler to measure equal distances on both legs and mark with chalk where you’ll make the cuts.

DL1961 frayed black jeans, $198

Pre-heat your jeans when adding a patch

Patches tend to peel off pretty quickly if they’re not properly adhered. One trick is to preheat the fabric by pressing the iron to the area where you want to place the patch, then add the patch to the hot denim.

You’ll want to use dry heat (no steam) to get a good seal, and you also might want to place a piece of fabric or a (clean) tea towl between the iron and the patch to prevent burning it. For good measure, turn your denim inside out and have one more go with the iron.

Check that all edges of the patch are sealed before tuning off that iron.

Katya Dobryakova flower eye patched jeans, $

Choose light-wash jeans for paint splatters

It’s probably obvious, but light wash jeans will provide a better canvas for your paint, which won’t show up as well on a dark wash. You don’t want to do all that work for nothing.

Place a plastic tarp or lots of newspaper on the ground (preferably outside), and choose a paint that will withstand the washing machine. Any latex paint will work, but you can also cut it with alcohol or fabric paint to make the dried paint less stiff and hard. Fabric paint can also work, and it will have a softer feel, but you need to set it with heat, and it may fade over time.

If you want smaller splatters, use a small brush; for larger splotches, use a larger one or even just use your hands to flick on the paint (wear gloves, obviously). You can get crazy with multiple colors or use a single tone.

True Religion paint splatter jeans, $124 (on sale!)

Wash jeans before bleaching

Denim bleaches more readily when it’s wet.¬†Use low solution bleach and put down paper or plastic to create your work area. If you want a streaky look, use a paintbrush and paint the bleach onto your jeans. You can even create a bit of bleach-art (smiley faces, rainbows, clouds, whatever your heart desires… oh, maybe hearts!) on your jeans with this method if you’re feeling creative.

Or, you can tie off parts of your jeans and dunk them in a bucket of bleach for a more dramatically bleached look.

For each method, expose your denim to the bleach for about 20 minutes. Then put them through a cycle in the washer with no other clothes unless you want them bleached as well!

J Brand bleached, cropped jeans, $89

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