MN2208 Dawn / MN2211 Ash / Sewalongs / Tips & Advice / Tips & Tutorials

How to fade and distress denim

While I was developing and testing the Ash jeans I became pretty obsessed with finding different ways to customize my denim including how to fade and distress denim. When you start buying denim to make jeans it becomes pretty apparent that there isn’t a huge amount of variation in colour and finish. Don’t get me wrong, I love indigo, but I don’t want all my jeans to look exactly the same.

Today I’ll give you a few ideas and tips for distressing and fading your own denim, using items you very likely already have at home!

How to distress and fade denim, tutorial on Megan Nielsen Design Diary

The very first thing I do before I experiment on any fabric is to cut out some swatches. This helps you test finishes without ruining your work experimenting on a completed handmade pair of jeans. All my swatches are roughly 10cmx10cm (4″x4″).

I cut the first swatch before I prewash the fabric. On the back of the swatch, I write in fabric marker where I bought the fabric and the stretch percentage of the fabric. As I mention in the Ash jeans instructions, regardless of what the listed fabric content is, you must ALWAYS check the stretch percentage of your stretch denim before you start sewing. I have found the stretch percentage to vary wildly across denim that list the exact same content of spandex/lycra/elastane. If you need help calculating stretch percentage, check out this post.

I cut a second swatch after the fabric has been prewashed and I write on the back with the fabric marker that it is a washed sample. The light denim above didn’t change too much after washing, but darker denim especially can change quite drastically after prewash.

After this, I cut all my experimental swatches from the prewashed fabric. Don’t experiment on unwashed fabric, as unwashed fabric includes chemical finishes that can alter how dyes take and how effective bleach is. Once you have cut all your swatches make sure you write on the wrong side what you are going to test on that swatch. Make sure you do this before beginning experimenting as once you start it can be very difficult to remember what you did on each swatch.

In the above swatches (which I used for the Ash V1 samples, and which I purchased from Knitwit) you can see that I tested lightly sandpapering the fabric, soaking in Rit colour remover, soaking diluted bleach solution, and spraying bleach directly on the fabric from a spray bottle. You can see that these applications really altered the fabric quite drastically.

Rit colour remover was an interesting one to try. I only left the swatch in for a few minutes and it turned bright green. I completely freaked out, began rinsing it and the colour returned to blue. Once dry it became obvious that it had done a pretty good job of evenly removing colour from the fabric. I will absolutely use this again as it resulted in a really nice even fade.

For the sample I soaked in diluted bleach I decided to leave it for a few hours to see how much I could push the fade. It didn’t seem to do much for the first hour or so, but after a few hours had pulled out most of the colour. There are a few overbleached spots, but ignore those as they are overspray from the last swatch experiment.

The final swatch I simply placed in the laundry sink and sprayed with bleach from a spray bottle directly. I left it for only a few minutes then rinsed it. It resulted in a very mottled fade, which I quite like, but is probably a little too drastic for my personal style.

After all of this, I decided I liked the sandpaper most, so when it came to my finished Ash View A slim jean sample I didn’t like how uniform light blue it was, so I took the sandpaper to all the seam edges and roughed them up a bit. It’s a subtle change that helped everything stand out a little more.

Overall I think this fabric took to distressing and fading applications very well and the swatches stretch didn’t seem to be compromised, but I am unsure if it would reduce over time with more washing.

How to distress and fade denim, tutorial on Megan Nielsen Design Diary

Some fabrics on the other hand don’t really take to fading well. In the above samples from Spotlight, I soaked one swatch in diluted bleach for a short time (less than 2 hours) and the second sample for almost 4 hours. In both bleached samples, you can see that dye was not removed uniformly. The colour did change quite dramatically, but I decided the uneven coverage would be bad in a website sample. I did decide that I kind of liked that mottled colour of the short time bleached sample, so I did the same to the rest of the yardage and plan on making myself a pair of flares with it!

If you are going to try and fade your denim with bleach or Rit colour remover I would recommend that you do this to samples first, then your yardage before you even consider sewing it. Bleaching finished jeans is something I personally wouldn’t do as I would be too terrified to ruin them after all that hard work!

How to distress and fade denim, tutorial on Megan Nielsen Design Diary

Ok let’s chat about some distressing you can do after you have finished your jeans. The most obvious and well-loved is sandpaper! I decided to try this on one of my first samples so that the risk was pretty low.

Have a look at your ready to wear jeans and you’ll see that the places your jeans tend to wear a lot are at seam edges as well as where you sit etc. I took my sandpaper to the edges around my pockets, the inseam, the centre front and centre back seams, the yoke seam, and also the top edge of the waistband and the bottom edge of the hem. I didn’t do a lot, but I think you can see that it immediately gave the jeans a nice worn-in look. Make sure that you don’t sandpaper the topstitching as that looks terrible (ask me how I know) and also compromises the thread too much.

With all of my other handmade jeans, I didn’t do any distressing at the seams and simply wore them all the time. It took an entire winter of normal wearing and washing to reach the same level of wear on the seam edges.

Personally, I won’t be sandpapering the seams of all my jeans, but I will be applying it to very dark indigo jeans that look a bit too flat and samesy.

How to distress and fade denim, tutorial on Megan Nielsen Design Diary

The last and easiest method of adding a bit of distressing to your jeans is to rip and fray them! Frayed hems are having a moment my friends, and it’s SO easy to do! I’ve seen a lot of recommended ways to do this like using Exacto knives and ripping at the weave – honestly, after a wash it didn’t really make any difference compared to just cutting your fabric and washing it. Here is my favourite pair of Ash jeans (View A slim leg). I cut them with a step hem which I have seen around a lot lately and then simply washed them and wore them letting the fray develop naturally. There really isn’t much need to overcomplicate things, just cut your hem and let it fray!

As with the other swatch tests, it is worth examining your washed and uncut fabric to see how it frayed in the wash. Some fabrics will fray better than others, and I’ve definitely noticed that some of my denim’s are more inclined to develop a really solid frayed edge.

How to distress and fade denim, tutorial on Megan Nielsen Design Diary
How to distress and fade denim, tutorial on Megan Nielsen Design Diary

 Finally when all is said and done I like to safety pin all my samples together so that I can refer to them later. I also like to pin them together with any stitch tests I have done. Here are a few stitch tests I did next to their washed/unwashed swatches.

I have piles of swatch bundles in a drawer at my sewing desk and it really helps me to keep track of everything!

How to distress and fade denim, tutorial on Megan Nielsen Design Diary

At the end of the day no matter what you do time will take over and your jeans will fade and distress themselves with washing and wearing. Above you can see some of my jeans together with the original swatches I cut (the bottom two pairs are cut from the same fabric). Isn’t it amazing how much the colours have changed? I love a good worn-in pair of jeans!

I hope this has encouraged you to try customizing your denim with a bit of distressing/fading! If you have any questions let me know in the comments and I’ll do my best to answer them!


Here’s the full list of Ash posts and tutorials:

Ash & Ash Curve

Order Ash today in sizes 0-20 and Curve sizes 14-30

About Author

Meg is the Founder and Creative Director of Megan Nielsen Patterns, and is constantly dreaming up ideas for new sewing patterns and ways to make your sewing journey more enjoyable! She gets really excited about design details and is always trying to add way too many variations to our patterns.

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Miriam Otte
Miriam Otte
6 years ago

I highly recommend that you caution your readers to use a dust mask when using bleach. Even though it is a common household item, it can be very toxic to your lungs.

6 years ago

Thank you for this post, it’s a great resource!

Roberta Seenan
Roberta Seenan
6 years ago

Very interesting results! When I was a teenager (1970s) I distressed my jeans using a scrubbing brush and laundry detergent, as all the jeans in the shops were dark then. It worked very well.

Ayesha Mark
5 years ago

Thanks for this blog, never knew all these facts about jeans.


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