Jean Theory

If we had to rank the pieces in our wardrobe in order of most to least essential, our denim would be the undisputed MVP of our closet. Ranging from favorite laid-back weekend standbys to dark and form-fitting looks that work for more formal occasions, our jeans are the foundation of almost all of our outfits. Therefore, when we find a pair that fits just right, we want to keep them in top form. With that in mind, we spoke with Laura Van Camp and Maddie Zirkle of Charlottesville, Virginia-based Jean Theory to get the lowdown on how to care for our denim investment pieces. Here, they share the essential rules for keeping jeans looking—and feeling—tip-top for many seasons to come.

Give your jeans an initial wash. You may hesitate to follow this advice, especially since it contradicts the ultimate jean care golden rule (see below), but bear with us. Cleaning your new pair is important for two reasons: First off, as with any new item, they’ve likely been touched by many—and possibly treated with chemicals. Secondly, if you purchased a particularly dark pair of jeans, an initial wash will set the dye and prevent it from transferring onto lighter fabrics, like (shudder) an ivory sofa.

Now—avoid the washing machine. When your dark denim hits the suds, the detergent will act to fade it—and fast. And distressed jeans, which are already quite vulnerable, will be further thinned and frayed by being tossed in the wash too often. According to Van Camp, jeans with a good amount of stretch last 3-5 wears before losing their form. For more rigid jeans, you can wash them every 8-10 wears. Some people choose to go months between washes—which is, of course, purely up to the wearer.

Freshen up. Sometimes, jeans need a little revitalization between washes. If your denim is in need of de-wrinkling, giving them a once-over with a steamer before wearing can do the trick. Alternatively, you can hang them in the bathroom while you take a steamy shower to loosen up the creases (this will also help tighten up a stretched-out pair, as will 10 minutes in the dryer on a low setting—just remember to turn your jeans inside-out first!). “You can also breathe new life into your jeans by spritzing them with a mixture of white vinegar and water,” Zirkle recommends. “Then hang them outside to dry.” And if you happen to spill something on your favorite pair between washings, try spot-cleaning with a cotton swab and clean cloth; a Tide Stick or baby wipes—Zirkle’s personal secret weapon—can be very effective on stubborn stains.

Be gentle. When you’re ready to wash, proceed with caution. Van Camp stresses that it’s key to read care labels, as different washes and materials will warrant different guidelines, but in general, the following rules should apply:

  • Turn your jeans inside out
  • Choose a mild or specialized detergent (i.e., dark color detergent for dark washes) or add a cup of distilled vinegar to your cycle
  • Always use a cold water wash
  • Opt for the gentle cycle
  • Don’t overcrowd—wash three to four pairs at a time, max

Skip the dryer. While no one wants to put their favorite jeans out of commission for a day, putting them in the dryer is a big no-no. According to Zirkle, the heat of the dryer and tumbling damages the fibers in your denim and can make the fabric stretch, ripple and shrink. So, as tempting as it might be, have a little patience and hang your jeans up to dry by the waistband using a clip hanger.

Fold and stack. To protect the integrity of your jeans, the best way to store your denim is to fold your jeans into fourths and stow them in a drawer or on a shelf. It’s also key to store your white denim separately from darker blues to avoid dye transfer.

Know when to let go. If you follow the above guidelines, your most-treasured pairs of jeans can last for years. However, when they inevitably wear out—or whenever you’re ready add another favorite pair into the rotation—seek out a store like Jean Theory in your town, where the employees specialize in helping you find the perfect pair. In addition to helping you find the ideal fit, many denim retailers (Jean Theory included) will even allow you to trade in your gently loved denim, giving an even longer life to jeans that are still in great condition.

TSG Tip 297  from Laura Van Camp and Maddie Zirkle of Jean Theory in Charlottesville, Virginia. Jean Theory is featured in The Scout Guide Charlottesville.