You’ve probably owned jeans your entire life and it’s likely that you’ve been wearing jeans since even before you can remember wearing them. Jeans are everywhere, after all. So you may think you already known an awful lot about jeans. But do you? For instance, can you wash your jeans? How often? And can you put jeans in the dryer? There might be a lot you don’t know about caring for jeans the right way. But knowing how, when and if to put jeans in the dryer is essential. To keep your jeans looking and fitting great, you need to know how to maintain and care for your jeans the right way.
The Skinny on Jeans
Today, denim is responsible for over $100 billion in retail sales per year. Yes, more than $100 billion. Per year! That’s one of those numbers that’s so big, it’s not really possible to understand how big it is. And yet when you look at the entire history of fashion, denim is kind of late to the party. Many other items of clothing were invented first. Even the modern white wedding dress is a look that’s older than blue jeans.
Jeans were not officially patented by tailor Jacob Davis and retail store owner Levi Strauss until the 1870s. That means the standard men’s suit, the poncho and all kinds of different accessories and clothing items were created before blue jeans. But in a way, jeans were thousands of years in the making.
The Ancient Beginnings of Jeans
Modern denim, the material most often used to make blue jeans, is made with cotton fibers that are woven together. When fibers are woven together like this, it’s called twill. The history of making twill fabrics and weaving is actually thousands of years old. People have been weaving since at least 10,000 B.C.E. That’s before the pyramids were built! It wasn’t until thousands and thousands of years later, in the 1700s, that high-speed weaving machines were built so people could stop making twill fabric blends largely by hand.
Indigo, that distinct blue dye that gives jeans their color, has been in use for about 5,000 years. That’s older than the Great Wall of China. Synthetic indigo dyes weren’t created until 1865, just a few years before two men would patent blue jeans and change fashion for ever.
The Accidental History of Denim
It was the 1600s and Nimes, France was a popular city for textile and clothing makers of all types. They worked a lot with a blue fabric that was imported from Genoa, Italy. Genoa began making this fabric, and started making pants with it, back in the 1560s. These pants, popularly worn among merchant sailors, were known as “Genoese” or “genes.” You’re probably starting to see where this history is going.
The textile makers in Nimes, France were buying a lot of the blue material when they got an idea: why shouldn’t they make their own blue fabric instead? They could save money by making their own material, rather than giving money to Italy to have it shipped in.
So, a group of now-unknown weavers took fibers and wove them together in a diagonal pattern, dyeing one set of fibers with blue indigo dye. However, they didn’t get the results they expected. The fabric they created was not the blue fabric from Italy.
It was better.
These nameless weavers in Nimes, France had invented the first denim, a material that came to be known as “serge de Nimes,” which was shortened later to “denim.”
What Makes Denim Special?
Why does denim stand apart from other fabrics used to make pants? You’ve worn khakis, soft cotton sweatpants, polyester yoga pants, linen pants, nylon pants, heck. Maybe you’ve even worn leather pants. But when you’ve got to run out the door quickly, you probably grab for a pair of jeans. When you want to look great or when you want to feel great, you reach for your jeans. They aren’t like anything else you’ve got in your closet, not even all those other pants. So why is denim so different?
Denim is made from cotton, just like lots of other pieces of clothing. But it’s the weave that makes it special. That diagonal weave pattern developed by those long-forgotten textile makers in France is what gives denim its strength. When woven in this pattern, soft cotton becomes even tougher, resisting abrasions and tears. Denim is somewhat thick but it’s soft and once it’s broken in, it’s flexible. It’s a little bit stretchy and over time, it will conform to your body and mold to your curves and lines. This is why jeans are so flattering.
Cotton pants were nothing new in 1870. Even cotton twill pants were nothing new. Heck, even denim pants weren’t a brand-new concept. So…what about jeans was so special and unique that two dudes patented their design in 1873?
When it comes to making jeans, it’s really all about the rivets. Tailor Jacob Davis was tasked by the wife of a local worker in Reno, Nevada to create a pair of pants that could actually stand up to his tough job. She was constantly mending his work pants because they were just too weak. Davis took her complaint to heart and began to work on a new design for work pants.
He came up with the innovation that would define jeans: copper rivets. He added these little pieces of metal onto the corners of pockets and at the base of the fly, adding new strength to these weak points. It changed everything. He went to Levi Strauss, the retailer who sold him the denim fabric to make the jeans, and the two filed a patent together. To this day, Levi Strauss is still one of the most famous names in jeans. Levi Strauss & Co. continues to be a leading brand in jeans, with multiple styles available. Some designs of Levi’s jeans have been sold and worn for decades and decades.
Evolving in the Modern Era
For several decades, jeans were the go-to workwear for miners, ranchers and people with tough jobs. Jeans spread all over the U.S. and the world as work clothing because they were tough, easy to care for and comfortable to wear. But they were still workwear.
It wasn’t until the middle of the 1900s that jeans really became a fashion item. Young people were the ones who started the trend, with sex symbols of the day like James Dean and Marilyn Monroe getting photographed wearing the pants. Suddenly, jeans were young and hot and cool. And just like that, everyone wanted a pair.
Jeans went designer in the 1970s, with many of the big names creating their own expensive pairs of the tough pants. Calvin Klein, Gloria Vanderbilt, Guess and many others designed high-fashion jeans that were strutted around on runways and in the world’s most stylish cities.
Today, jeans are a must-have, go-to garment that pretty much everyone owns at least one pair of. But when it comes to washing and drying your jeans…do you have a clue of how and when and why you’re supposed to do it?
Denim may sound like some kind of super material. And yes, it is strong and durable and resistant to tears and wear and all of that. But like anything else, denim will break down and wear out over time. The more you wash it, in fact, the weaker denim will get. And unlike many other fabrics, denim doesn’t need to be washed every time you wear it. Experts agree that jeans should only be washed after every few wearings, say four or five. Unless your denim gets dirty, there’s no need to wash it more frequently than this.
First and foremost, always follow the instructions as outlined on the tag of the jeans. Most of the time, the instructions will tell you to wash your jeans in warm or cold water. You should also wash your jeans on a gentle cycle. While denim is quite tough, you don’t want jeans to be twisted and pulled a lot during the washing process because this can cause them to lose shape. Avoid hot water, as the heat can make cotton shrink. Jeans that aren’t made with cotton won’t have this problem but most jeans are made with denim that is made from cotton, either in whole or in part.
Turn jeans inside-out before washing them to prevent fading and to keep abrasions from marring the surface of the jeans. You can wash jeans with other clothing items but remember that denim is thick, heavy fabric compared to a lot of other clothing fabrics. Washing delicate silk items with heavy denim could result in the most delicate items being damaged. Jeans should only be washed with jeans of a similar color or other heavy fabrics in a similar color.
Some fashion experts advise washing jeans only by hand to keep them from losing their shape. For a piece of fashion made out of such tough material, jeans sure take a lot of special care! But if you think all this is a lot, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Can you put jeans in the dryer? Ask 10 style experts and you could get 10 super dirty looks. There are a lot of opinions about jeans and the dryer and many people will tell you that these two things just don’t mix.
Putting Jeans in the Dryer
To dry or not to dry? That is the question. Most experts advise against putting jeans in the dryer at all. Ideally, jeans should only be line-dried. In bright sunlight, jeans can take around two hours to fully dry this way. On a humid or cool day, it could take several hours. So clearly, this is not the method of choice for the time-conscious.
The problem with drying jeans in the dryer is shrinkage. As you know, cotton denim shrinks in heat. So even when you do machine-dry your jeans, they aren’t going to dry all that quickly. The only time you should put your jeans in the dryer is when you actually want them to shrink because they’ve lost shape or no longer fit you. However, there is no guarantee that jeans will shrink at all or that they won’t shrink in an odd, uneven way.
Unless you buy jeans made with raw denim, which hasn’t been treated, your jeans have probably already been pre-shrunk. They could still shrink a little more in the dryer, however, or some part of them could shink, which makes them hard to wear. You might not want only the legs to shrink up and get shorter, or see the waist get reduced a size or two. This is why many experts advise not using the dryer for your jeans.
If you’re in a time rush or you haven’t really got another method of drying jeans, however, it’s okay to use the machine. But just like with washing jeans, you have to take some extra steps in order to prevent damage to the material and keep your jeans from shrinking. First, make sure the jeans are still turned inside-out or turn them inside-out again, as this should have been done before you washed your jeans. Make sure jeans are zipped up and buttoned and snapped wherever necessary. This will prevent snaps and zipper from snagging the jeans and causing abrasions.
Next, put jeans in the dryer on a very low heat setting. Remove your jeans while they are still damp and allow them to dry flat. This is the safe way to dry your jeans in the dryer, though you may still notice some shrinkage after you wash your jeans. Loosen them back up again by putting them on and performing movements with them. Try lunges, squats and jumping jacks to loosen up that denim and get it back to feeling great.
Yes, you can put jeans in the dryer. It just takes some extra work and a few extra steps if you don’t want the jeans to shrink, or if you do!
Cottonworks – History of Denim
DenimHunters – How Denim Went From Workwear to Fashion Statement
Ellicott & Co. – Denim: A Mythic History
Lee – Drying Jeans
Whirlpool – How to wash and dry jeans