Whether you’re an avid vintage collector or a casual thrifter, you’ve likely noticed that denim is among the most prized and the most ubiquitous of era items. This counter-intuitive truth is down to quality (real-deal denim is designed to stand the test of time) and timelessness (a good pair of jeans never goes out of style).
As such, when maintaining your own sustainably-minded wardrobe, learning how to take care of jeans is key. If treated correctly, denim will quite literally last a lifetime—or several.
“Levi’s—and in particular the 501 which is the icon, our first style—were built to last,” says Tracey Panek, resident historian at Levi Strauss & Co. Panek oversees the brand’s equally iconic archive, housing everything from the oldest pair of jeans in the world to a selection modern day offerings.
The original 501 style was crafted from 100% cotton and colored with a process called rope dyeing, in which white yarn is dipped in indigo, the iconic hue coating the outside rather than saturating the entire thread.
“Over time, your pant would wear—a unique factor of denim,” says Panek. “Because of this, the jeans become a scrapbook of a person and how they live their lives.”
Said wear provides Panek with hints at the lived experiences of the original owners of Levi’s archival pieces. One pair, referred to as “Spur Bites” due to its spur-torn hems, dates to 1890.
“It has wear marks in particular on the right side of the pant, so we can deduce that the cowboy was probably holding the reins of the horse in his right hand,” says Panek. “They’ve added a patch there, and you can see that detail in the denim.”
The archive also houses a pair of Steve Jobs’ 1980s 501s. “This was before the iPod, before the iPhone, and there’s a little square in the back of one of his pockets, I assume from a wallet,” says Panek. “Nowadays it would be from an iPhone.”
Aside from the visual time capsule that a pair of jeans can offer, the allure comes from the fact that they can actually last long enough to embody history. Levi’s were deemed an essential garment in WWII, donned by workmen and women alike; are favored by motorcyclists for their endurance; and are a go-to for bull riders. In short, there’s absolutely no reason your denim shouldn’t last forever if correctly cared for.
How to Take Care of Jeans, According to a Pro
1. Buy the Best Quality
With denim, investing in quality is sure to pay off. “Nowadays we talk about sustainability as a trend, but during eras like the Great Depression, it was just the way life was,” says Panek.
Because of this, Levi’s products have long been crafted with quality—from denim weight to overall construction—at top of mind. When selecting your next pair of jeans, look for 100% cotton options, as well as those that feel durable.
Editor’s note: I have a curated collection of vintage Levi’s that I’m very proud of, a variety of washes and cuts that fit me like a glove—modern denim doesn’t even come close. I challenge you to go thrift your own perfect pair!
2. Avoid Overwashing
“Levi’s were made so that you don’t have to worry about constant washing, and historically, they last longer that way,” says Panek. In fact, the term “blue-collar workers” actually comes from the indigo denim that members of the working class wore—and said denim’s ability to hide dirt.
Panek adds that spot-cleaning is the best option for cleaning up your jeans. And when it does come time for a machine wash, opt to air-dry your denim for preservation’s sake.
3. Mend and Patch Your Denim
Is your denim showing signs of wear and tear? “Do what Levi’s wearers have been doing for decades—patch them up!” says Panek, noting that the pants become even more idiosyncratic with such additions.
Fans of the brand have been patching jeans throughout history. First from necessity and then, with the advent of the 1960s and the hippie movement, for style’s sake, the colorful fabrics and stitching lending to each pair’s personality.
Bonus tip: “If you have a piece that’s destroyed, use that denim to patch other garments,” suggests Panek. There’s always a way to upcycle your clothing, keeping it in your closet and out of landfills.
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