How to distress jeans—our simple guide to help you customize your denim at home

We asked fashion experts how to distress jeans for unique and stylish denim

How to distress jeans: composite of three street style shots of women wearing distressed jeans
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Learning how to distress jeans yourself is an easy way to breathe new life into your old denim. 

You probably this of your jeans as one of your wardrobe essentials. But as great as the best jeans can be, putting your own stamp and style on our denim makes them stand out from the crowd. Customizing is a clever way to inject your favorite jeans with a bit of personality and also helps you to increase their lifecycle in your closet. 

Fashion trends are cyclical and while you might hear that certain denim styles are flitting in and out of fashion, distressed jeans are a look that never really dates. If you’ve had a pair of unworn jeans or denim shorts hanging out in your wardrobe, it’s time to rethink their style and give them a new look by adding some distressed details. 

composite showing two women wearing distressed jeans

(Image credit: Getty Images)

How to distress jeans

How to choose the right jeans

Opt for a pair of jeans that you've either had lots of wear out of and are perhaps past their 'smart days', or opt for a pair that you've never really got on with—especially if this is your first foray in customizing jeans—it's good to have a pair to practice your technique on.  

Color: 

When it comes to color, it doesn't really matter if you pick blue or black jeans. Light wash blue jeans though tend to give a more laidback vibe, while black distressed jeans will give a more grungy aesthetic. 

Style:

Most jean styles can be distressed and ripped to give you desired look. In the battle between boyfriend jeans vs mom jeans, or whether you opt for straight-legged jeans, or skinnies, really comes down to your body type and what style you'll get the most use out of. Just remember that jeans with lots of stretch will behave differently from traditional, weighty jeans. 

Equipment list

To distress your jeans you will need:

  • Tailor’s chalk, 
  • Box cutter and a fork or 
  • Cheese grater plus a piece of cardboard
  • Sandpaper
  • Razor and or scissors

A six-step guide to distressing jeans

  • Step 1—Slip into your chosen jeans or shorts and stand in front of a mirror. 
  • Step 2—With a piece of tailor’s chalk, gently mark where your jeans naturally crease and fold as you move for the most realistic look. For example, many people make the mistake of placing a rip on the center of the knee rather than below it where the fabric would naturally rip first.
  • Step 3—Once you’ve marked where you want the rips to go, place your jeans on a work surface and slip a piece of cardboard underneath the area to prevent cutting through to the other side of your jeans.
  • Step 4—Gently core a series of lines horizontally with your box cutter to create a series of narrow rips.
  • Step 5—Next, take a fork or small cheese grater and gently run it along the lines you’ve previously scored to start opening up the fabric and create a frayed effect. You can also use sandpaper to lift the edges of the frayed areas.
  • Step 6—Finally, if you want to loosen up the denim fibers more, throw your denim in the washing machine on a cold wash.

Baukjen’s Head of Design, Natalie Grant, has this advice:

“To achieve a distressed look, try using sandpaper to lighten the surface, paying special attention to the thigh, knee, and bottom areas for an authentic look. 

"Alternatively use a razor or scissors and rip horizontally for extra distress. It’s also worth noting that holes can go a bit wobbly with stretch denim, a non-stretch denim will give a better finish.”

Stylist tip...

This trick will also work for more than just jeans though. Try it on any denim items you want to distress. A distressed denim jacket will be perfect for spring. 

How to style distressed jeans

how to distress jeans: composite of three women wearing distressed jeans

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Styling distressed jeans means focusing more on the jeans than on the distressing. Think about the shape and color of your jeans, as you would with any other pair, and keep the rips as a secondary consideration. 

Of course, you can team your newly distressed jeans with any of the best hoodies or sweaters for a super casual look, but the fashion crowd has also been working their ripped jeans for smart/casual occasions. 

Sharpen up your jeans with any of the best blazers or a smart camel coat for a more tailored finish. Adding heels to your distressed jeans will also help to give them a dressier feel and will add versatility to this look, taking it from a shopping outfit to a brunch look with ease. 

w&h thanks Natalie Grant, Head of Design, Baukjen, and Kristen Turner, wardrobe stylist at ehowBeauty for their time and expertise:

Antonia Kraskowski is a freelance fashion editor with over 15 years of experience in the industry. 

Having started her career at Conde Nast working for titles including Easy Living, Glamour and Vogue New Markets, Antonia went on to work in the fast-paced world of newspapers and weekly magazines, becoming Fashion Editor at Express Newspapers and Magazines in 2014, a role she held for five years before going freelance.

Her career has seen Antonia travel the world, shooting in 18 countries and styling campaigns for brands ranging from Ben Sherman and DKNY to Wallis.