How to Distress Your Own Denim

Tatter your jeans by hand with this easy, four-step guide.
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Photo: Melodie Jeng/Getty Images

Photo: Melodie Jeng/Getty Images

"Basic" may have adapted a negative connotation in recent years, but there's no shame in seeking advice on theoretically simple sartorial conundrums. In our latest column, "Back to Basics," we're here to guide you through life's most common (and important) fashion and beauty concerns.

When I brought home my first pair of distressed jeans from the seminal pre-teen retailer that was Abercrombie Kids, I soon after showed them to my dad expecting to receive an enthusiastic stamp of approval. He loves denim, and spent much of my childhood doing yard work and other miscellaneous chores in his own pair of well-worn carpenter jeans. But rather than immediately endorsing my own store-bought holey pants, he simply said this: "You bought them like that?"

I haven't purchased a pair of pre-distressed jeans since. Years later, I realized my dad was right: Denim almost always looks better after years of natural loving. But if you don't have time on your side, that wear-and-tear game is easy to hack. Distressing (and tailoring) is an easy, wallet-friendly way to give a pair of tired jeans new life. I swear by this video tutorial (3.4 million views and counting!) for all of my distressing projects, but after a few tries, you'll be able to tenderly cut up your denim without any expert guidance. In the meantime, we're here to help. Here's your complete guide to D.I.Y.-ing the worn-in, ripped denim of your dreams.

What you need:
A pair of jeans 
A pen
A blunt razor blade
A shaving razor
Cutting gloves
Scissors
Access to a washer and dryer

Step 1: Map out where you want the distressing to hit

Put the jeans on and, with a pen, mark the areas where holes would appear naturally. That includes the knees, as well as over the front and back pockets and areas on the upper thigh. Mark two inch-long lines at the top and bottom of where you'd like your holes to be — the size your these is your choice, of course, and can be as big or as small as you see fit. When that's done, take the jeans off.

Step 2: Set up your workstation

Place one pant leg on top of a raised box — most sturdy shoe boxes are perfect — and slide a thick magazine into the leg underneath the first spot you'll be distressing. This will keep the denim taut, and will prevent any unwanted slits and rips from making their way onto the fabric.

Step 3: Begin cutting the denim

Put the cutting gloves on. Take a (safe!) razor blade and add slits between the lines of the section you're distressing, starting at the bottom mark. Allow half an inch or so of space between each line. Stop when the slits reach the top line you marked earlier. These slices don't have to be perfect, but watch your fingers and — please! — be very careful. (Razor blades are no joke.) Once you've finished, move the magazine to repeat the process on all areas you want distressed. Finally, use your fingers to pull the threads of the slits apart for an even more authentic lived-in look.

Step 3.5: Trim the edges of the jeans

This step is optional, but goes a long way in enhancing the distressing you've already done. Take a pair of scissors and trim off the top centimeter of the back pockets and the cuffs. You can also make a tiny slit in other areas of the pants — including on the hemlines and pockets, or anywhere you'd like — and take a shaving razor across the top of that slit to remove some of the cotton and coloring.

Step 4: Throw 'em in the laundry

Wash and dry them twice. And just like that, you're done!

Do you have any tips we didn't get to? Leave your expert distressing tricks in the comments below.

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