Menswear

Getting the Right Size in Rigid, Shrink-To-Fit 501 Jeans

I recently treated myself to a new pair of Levi’s Vintage 501® jeans, made in the U.S.A. with selvedge raw denim from the dearly departed Cone Mills White Oak plant in Greensboro, North Carolina, the last selvedge denim mill in the United States. The mill shut its doors after 112 years in business on December 31, 2017, and Levi Strauss is using its remaining denim reserves from the mill for its Vintage line.

The denim is glorious. It’s tough, heavy and sturdy, the way denim is supposed to be. And like all raw and rigid denim, it will shrink if/when washed. With that, a question remains: What size to buy?

The right answer depends on how you plan to wear them and how you plan to wash them. Some men like to keep their jeans rigid, rarely or never washing them. Others like to stick them in the washer and dryer like the rest of their cottons. I’m somewhere in between.

In washed and pre-shrunk denim, my regular fit for a pair of Levi’s is 30W x 32L. But because of the unwashed, shrink-to-fit dynamic of raw denim and how it shrinks when it interacts with warm water and heat from a dryer, I have to size a little differently.

I already have a pair of shrink-to-fit 501®s that I just wash and dry with the rest of my clothes. The size I bought was 31W x 34L. After several wearings, washings and machine dryings, they’ve shrunk to a pretty good size, and they’ll shrink even closer to a 30W x 32L over time. These are my “doing dirty work” jeans – the one’s I’d wear when doing chores in the apartment, working on my bike or cleaning out my mom’s garage.

How the new 1966 501®s look from the front. New rigid denim jeans are always “big” before the first wash.

The plan for my new 1966 Vintage 501®s is a little different. I want to keep the dark, rigid character of the denim without being too precious about it. For now, even as I sit here typing, I wear them unwashed and rigid so they can “learn” my body and its movements as I work around the apartment or take the dogs out for a walk. I’m breaking them in like a new pair of shoes, wearing them like task pants in the evenings or on weekends when I’m off the clock.

Born in the U.S.A.

After a few months, they’ll be ready for their first soak in water. This first soak will involve me putting them on and literally soaking in a bathtub of warm water and a little Dr. Bronner’s Peppermint Castile Soap for about 45 minutes, which will be a great time for me to catch up on the last issue of The New Yorker that I will have surely not read.

When I’m done with the soak and all caught up the previous week’s politics and culture, I’ll drain the tub, take the jeans off and leave them in the tub for an hour or so to let most of the excess water drain from them. Then they’ll go over the shower curtain rod overnight until they’re bone dry.

Close-up of the label and the back pocket.

Putting them on for the first time after that first soak is a very interesting feeling. Everything the denim has “learned” about my body and its movements is all there, and the jeans start to have a truly genuine custom fit. Down the road, the creases, fade marks, scuffs… they’ll all be mine, not artificially manufactured in a factory.

Unless my jeans get really stained or splashed with something nasty, I don’t wash them that often at all. A few times a year, probably. For those washings, they go in the machine with other darks. But unlike those other darks, they never see a dryer and, instead, get slung over the back of a chair to air dry.

I treated my last pair of shrink-to-fit 501®s like this about 10 years ago, and the jeans really lasted. I’d still be wearing them today if I hadn’t accidentally put them in the dryer, which shrunk the waist to an unwearable size. Live and learn. I’ll be more careful with these.

At present, my current denim inventory includes these new vintage 501®s, that other pair that I wash and dry with regular laundry, and two pairs of selvedge denim 511s for my slim-fit moods, which I also hang dry. Essentially, I’m all set and out of the new jeans market for many years.

An interesting tidbit… When the 1966 Vintage 501®s arrived, they came with the most helpful bit of information about how to care for the jeans. Levi’s essentially recommends one of three different care methods, each depending on how one plans to wear them. Here’s the rundown (I’m going with #2.) :

  1. Keep ‘Em Rigid
    1. Buy ‘em small. If you’re not going to wash your rigid Levi’s 501® jeans, buy one size smaller in the waist and buy your true size for length.
    1. Don’t wash ‘em. After the first few wears of your new jeans, the waist will stretch to your size.
    1. The worn look. The wear effect on a true rigid jean will always give the most dramatic look.
  2. Dip In the Tub
    1. Measure up. If you plan to shrink your rigid Levi’s 501® jeans in the bathtub, buy your true size in the waist and two sizes bigger in the length.
    1. Relax ’n’ soak. Shrink your jeans in a warm bathtub for at least 30 minutes.
    1. A snug fit. A tub shrunk jean will shrink to fit snugly to your body shape.
  3. Wash ‘Em Good
    1. Buy ‘em big. If you plan to machine wash your rigid Levi’s 501® Jeans, buy two sizes bigger in the waist and two sizes bigger in the length.
    1. Laundry day. To achieve your size, machine wash your jeans inside out at 86 degrees F / 30 degrees C.
    1. Easy does it. Leave the laundromat with everyday jeans you can wash and wear.

Unfortunately for the new buyer who’s never done this before, Levi’s doesn’t include this explicit information on the pages of their website featuring shrink-to-fit denim jeans. They should.

At a 34L, the unwashed new jeans are extra long, making a little roll-up necessary during the break-in process.

Some may read this and ask Why would you go through all this trouble for jeans, George?
Here’s the thing: pre-treated denim and stretch denim have hidden costs. The pre-treating process with acid washing is extremely toxic, and stretch denim literally weaves plastic into the fabric, which, over time, stops stretching and breaks down into a toxic form, just like regular plastic does. That’s simply an unsustainable model for me. I’m happy and willing to go through all of this for 100% cotton, non-stretch, raw, unwashed, untreated jeans that will last me many years longer than the other bastardizations that pass for denim these days.

For more on this, check out my post on The Real Cost of Jeans, which includes a fascinating podcast from 99% Invisible about denim.




2 Comments

  1. What are your thoughts on this process without a tub? Could I soak them in a large basin/container without my body being involved until maybe the drying process? I am typing this out while currently wearing a stiff pair of 501s but my tiny Chicago apartment only has a shower. I am pretty sure I could convince my wife that a move to Cleveland for more room and a bathtub would be totally worth it…and then I could wash my jeans.

    • Ha! Make do with what you’ve got. I think a soak in the sink would be okay. Drip dry in the shower stall. Then, when they’re still slightly damp, put them on and wear them until they’re dry-dry. (But crank up the heat. Those Chicago winters are bitchy. Don’t risk pneumonia.)

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