12.10.2010

How to Shrink To Fit (STF) your Levi's

Being a vocal and ardent supporter of Levi's, particularly the rigid 501 shrink-to-fit model, I get many questions about sizing and methods for shrinkage of said jeans. So many such that I feel it necessary to create a document to point to should anyone else ask.
So here it is, the definitive TBTYH guide to STF Levi's.
What we're workin' with.
A quick disclaimer, this is my proven method for myself. You may find it doesn't work for you because of your body type/size. If you're here because your thighs/butt are big, this should work for you in general. Some of my internet friends have reported to me that they've actually had to size up in 501s to accommodate their thighs!
Before you do anything, if you've never tried on a pair of Levi's or you haven't worn a pair in many years, get to your local Sears (I'm pretty sure most carry the standard indigo rigid 501s). Try a few pairs on to get a feel for how the pre-shrink waist will fit. Levi's recommends this:
If your waist is 27"-36", Increase size by 1"
If your waist is 38"-48", Increase size by 2"
If you want your jeans to still remain fitted after the shrink-stretch cycle, I would recommend subtracting one from each of those 'size-up' numbers. In other words, get your regular Levi's size for waist sizes under 36" and one size up for sizes over 36". If you like your fit a little slouchy after you wear them in, take the Levi's advice.

For the inseam, Levi's recommends this:
If your inseam is 27"-34", Increase size by 3"
If your inseam is 36"- up, Increase size by 4"
Once again, I would alter this advice. I favor a 31.5" or 32" inseam on most of my pants. I find that a sizing up two inches on the inseam of my STFs yields the best results for me. So unless you are freakishly tall or want a crazy tall cuff, I'd say size up two in the inseam. The caveat here is that Levi's only makes even-numbered inseam lengths. You'll have to deal with that fact. I can tell you that via this method, based on actual measurements of my jeans, that are tagged and measured to be a 34" inseam will shrink about 2.5 inches to ~31.5".

Alright, so you've figured out your size...oh great, you got a pair online in a color you like on crazy discount because Levi's has many periodic sales Now you're ready to shrink them... Aside: right now I am shedding a single tear for the "verde" greencast 501s that are now unavailable (don't worry, I haven't even started on my third and final pair). For this particular demonstration, I'm using a lighter brown pair of 501s. The procedure is the same regardless of color, however.

In order to shrink your jeans, you're going to have to expose them to water and then dry them. There is nothing magical about it, if your unsanforized denim gets wet then dries, the fabric is going to shrink, plain and simple, temperature of soaking and drying be damned. Conventional wisdom says you will get maximum shrinkage via an ultra hot soak and a hot dry. 
 
If you have a bathtub, start filling it with the hottest water your hot water heater can generate (remember to engage the stopper).

Gather your jeans and turn them inside out. This will minimize the amount of dye that leaves the fabric during the soak.
 
Next, throw them into the tub of hot water. You don't have to wait until the tub is full. As long as the jeans are fully covered in water, you can stop the flow of water and take a break. One hour is usually good enough. If this is your first soak/bath, check the tub periodically to make sure that you aren't losing water due to a leaky stopper. You don't want to come back to a pair of jeans in an empty tub.



Break time. Make yourself a sandwich, grab a beer or two, chill out for a while. After an hour or so, your jeans will be well soaked through with hot water. Fire your hand into the scalding hot tub and grab your soaking denim. Heavy, huh? Get some kind of pants hanger that can support the weight of your 501s + the water they carry. I had to wedge a washcloth in one kind of pants hanger to increase the friction in order to hold the jeans up. Hang the jeans up for twenty or so minutes to drip dry. Essentially, you want to just get rid of the serious moisture on the outside of the garment.



After the jeans are no longer dripping, lay a towel on the floor of your bathroom, place the jeans on top, then lay another towel on top of that. A drying Levi's sandwich is what you're going for here. Warning: your towels may pick up dye from the jeans. Don't worry about this, as it washes out fairly readily.

Next, imagine you are squishing grapes between your toes making wine in Italy and step on every square inch of the towel above the jeans, with both your feet, at least twice. This squeezes the extra water out of the jeans and shortens the drying cycle.
Step in the name of love. No, I'm not always wearing denim.
Rip those jeans back right-side-in and repeat the foot-blotting procedure on the exterior of the jeans.


If you're gonna wuss out, hang dry exactly like I described to drip-dry or hang on a hook from the back-most beltloop. About a day should do it depending on relative humidity. If you're planning on truly shrinking-to-fit, strip down to your skivvies, seriously. Or more. You get better heat transfer going commando. Put on your jeans! Wear them proudly while very damp. In the Northern Hemisphere, this (December) is not a very pleasant time to shrink jeans. The best time to do this is late Summer, early Fall, in my opinion. Sometimes you have no choice, however. If you get the chance to shrink in warmer weather, go outside and take a walk or bike ride. This will greatly decrease drying time.

Some tips while wearing your awesome damp Levi's:
  • Avoid sharply bending your knees. 501s have a serious tendency to stretch out in the knees, especially if you do full, ankles-below-knees squats while the jeans are wet.
  • If you're working with a darker color (especially indigo), lay towels on any upholstery you sit on. Wet denim is very prone to transfer its dye. Towels are easier to wash than your couch.
  • If you run up against your bedtime or you're just sick of wearing damp pants, hang them to dry for however long it takes. The parts that take the longest to dry are the hem, the pockets and the fly.
After the jeans are dry, the process is complete. You've done it. Start wearing the hell out of your new Levi's.
Wearing the crispy cardboard jeans for the first time.

60 comments:

  1. Great looking jeans! Congrats on the custom fit!

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  2. that fit is damn near perfect. i always thought 501's were way boxier than that. nice one.

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  3. Jay: Thanks.

    Luke: It's all relative. I have big legs so they suit me pretty well. The cut of 501s has evolved significantly throughout the years. They slimmed them up a bit within the past few.

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  4. What size did you go with there?

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  5. I never knew you can shrink jeans like this! Great step-by-step!

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  6. j: 33W,34L.

    Mel: Thanks! Unwashed, unsanforized denim will shrink after washing/drying.

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  7. Have they relaxed back out after wearing? (i.e. do you have to keep repeating this process?)

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  8. Tim, they will relax after wearing. I usually end up soaking mine every three to four months to counteract this.

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  9. Thanks for this! I have the same problems with the fit of pants that you seem to have, so this is great. Gonna give it a try.

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  10. Are these actually tagged as Khaki or are they the Tobacco color that Levi's has on clearance now?

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  11. No, you are correct. They are officially "Tobacco" according to Levi's. I just avoid referring to them as such because I have never seen actual tobacco that light of a brown. The last photo of me wearing them is about the best representation of the color. They are kind of a golden tan kind of color.

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  12. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  13. Thanks for clarifying, I've been meaning to get a pair but wanted to make sure I ordered this color and didn't end up with the wrong shade.

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  14. I'm curious if I'd be able to fit 501 STFs. I am 6'3" 245 lbs with 29" thighs. Currently the only jeans I can find that fit my thighs and butt are Levi's 560, but I'm not a fan of the cut or color. Could I size up in the waist for a looser fit in the thighs, then have the waist shrink down a bit?

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    1. Don't know about 501's but you might like 569's: they have the same relaxed fit of the 560's but they don't taper in at the leg opening and are instead a true straight leg. Sears, Jcpenny or other department stores may have them, Levi's outlets are the best bet though. Good luck!

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  15. Oh, for reference I usually wear between a 38-42" waist and 34-36" inseam depending on manufacturer (560s are 38x36).

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  16. You certainly could try sizing up. Just be aware that the shrinkage will only be about an inch (maybe closer to two if it's >38") in the waist and it will stretch back out a bit with wear.

    If you have access to a Sears department store, I would suggest going and trying some 501s on.

    Good luck!

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  17. Just stumbled onto your blog! Great advice for a guy like me (my formative years were dominated by hockey. TBTMH indeed!).

    I've never tried a shrink-to-fit, but after this post I might! Only thing I don't like about Levi's, and I know you wrote about this, is the leg opening isn't small enough for me. Yes I have TBTYH but I also clock in at 5'8" and wear a size 8 shoe. In my opinion an 8.5" leg opening gobbles up my feet in anything other than boots.

    The question is, to taper the leg before or after shrinking? Logic says afterwards. This may require some looking into...

    -G

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  18. houseofwindandthunder: Thanks, I gotta spread the word somehow.

    Gary: Welcome and thank you for stopping by. Definitely taper after shrinking. Good luck, man.

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    1. Thanks for the reply Tommy! Just tossed a pair of Tobacco STF in the tub earlier today. Was really inspired by your color choice and hoping these come out the same. Wearing them around now to dry them out, but they don't seem to have shrunk much whatsoever.

      I don't know much about Levi's lore, but I thought I read something to the idea of the XX fabrics noted on the tag are a different/newer denim and don't shrink the same way as older Levi's to.

      Or maybe I'm just totally making this up haha. Just thought I'd keep you updated, a year+ after finding this blog. Hope you start writing again!

      -G

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    2. I'm interested in the results, Gary. I'm looking to completely update my wardrobe and I was very inspired by this post--looking for jeans that will fit better than normal.
      I have to admit that I'm very skeptical. In the case that they do shrink as much as needed, will they not shrink to the point of being too tight? Perhaps when they finally dry, they become the desired looseness?

      Anyway, Gary, or anyone else, please let me know the results.

      Thanks!

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  19. Would there be any benefit to boiling water on the stovetop to get it extra hot?

    Also, with natural vegetable dyes (such as Madras), I have heard that soaking the clothing in salt water makes the dye stick better. Do you know anything about that with Levi's jeans? Couldn't hurt...

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  20. I just finished this process, and dried them while wearing them on a 60 minute brisk hike in 65 degree weather. It worked perfectly. I initially bought 2" larger in the waist as per Levi instructions, read your post, and took the jeans back to exchange them for actual wast size before shrinking the first pair. I'm glad I did.
    Thanks for the instructions.

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  21. Just finished wearing mine dry; got my waist size, 2" longer in the inseam. These don't seem to have shrunk much at all. The water coming from my faucets is extremely hot, and I let them soak for more than an hour. After drip drying, they still felt really large, so I thought that maybe they would shrink while drying; but no such luck.

    They fit almost perfectly in the thigh region, however they didn't shrink to my calves at all and the inseam didn't seem to reduce much either. Would you recommend me soaking them again, and maybe tossing them in the dryer for a bit? I'm at a loss otherwise.

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    1. Charles,

      That is strange. I'm inclined to think that there is some quality issue with the pair you got. All of my STF jeans have shrunk noticeably in length.

      You can try soaking again, it can't hurt. Maybe try a flat dry. If you do go with the dryer, turn the jeans inside out and throw them in with a few dry towels. Just know that you might get dye on the towels and the inside of your dryer as a result.

      Good luck.

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  22. Don't know how active this place is, hope I can get an answer. How do I measure my inseam? Never worn Levis before, generally whatever I can find (Carhartt, Lees etc.)Always a 32x32 but I don't know if that's "leg length" or the "inseam". Thanks.

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    1. http://www.jeans-custom-made.com/measurement-instructions.html
      Scroll down for a graphic demonstrating the measurement of inseam.

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  23. What belt are you wearing? Thanks!

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    1. I'm not quite sure. That belt is really old and has no label indicating any brand. Sorry.

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  24. If I wash these, will they need to be reshrunk? Can I dry them in the dryer or will that ruin things?

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    1. After one wash or soak and subsequent drying, the jeans will shrink to pretty much where they end up. You can expect normal slight stretching with wear and slight shrinkage post additional washings after that.

      You can dry them in the dryer but I wouldn't recommend it because it usually results in weird creases that don't look good.

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  25. How much shrinkage do they actually see through the thigh? I tried some on the other day and with the upscale in waist and inseam the thigh fight about right. I'm more than a little worried that I could end up with jeans of perfect length and waist that shrink too much through the thigh.

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  26. Thanks for the awesome post. I just picked up my first pair of 501 STF's and they are my first go with raw denim. Your post made it super easy. One question though, I have had the jeans for a week now. I followed your method exactly. They are beginning to stretch out a bit. Should I go for another hot soak, or suck up the looser fit and wait until whiskering starts before soaking them again? Will there still be some more shrinkage?

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  27. Got shucked here from reddit, and very excited. We seem to have similar proportions, although you're a bit taller, so I hope to get plenty of useful information from here. I'm very excited to see 501's featured here, because I thought they were much baggier than this and had avoided buying them. I need to look for some, since they look like a cost-effective alternative to try for my first pair of raw jeans.

    As a side note, wooooooooof!

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    1. Jeremy I couldn't agree more with your side note. Jeesh!

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  28. Used this on my first few pairs of STF. My first pair I sized up 1" for a comfortable fit and only soaked in lukewarm water. 34x34. I got 2 more 32x32 and did the same. The waist didn't shrink much and they're my "tighter" jeans.

    So today I found some black STF at Marshall's in a 35x34. I decided to go with HOT water for 90 minutes. I realize they'd have greater potential to stretch out but for $27 thought it was worth the gamble.

    FWIW they shrank up to about 32-33. It's great how you can play with time/temp to get your desired fit. I may do the 34's in hot water when I funky wash them the first time

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  29. I followed this, got mine true to size in the waist and 2" longer in the inseam. They fit perfect in length and in the seat/thighs, but from the knee downwards they're a bit too loose for my taste. What would you recommend doing to fix this? I've had them about a month, but I could certainly rewash them.

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    1. Sorry I'm getting back to you so late. If you haven't already figured it out, there's nothing much you can do aside from taking them in. If your tailor can taper for a reasonable price, I'd say go for it. Good luck.

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  30. What kind of shoes are those?

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    1. Clark's bushacre II, beeswax color. I have a pair myself and love them although they do stain easily so a good waterproofer is a must if you get a pair. Also Clark's run very big so go a size down. I'm usually a 12 and 11's are still quite roomy

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    2. Correct, kind of. Those are the Clarks desert boots in beeswax leather. Essentially the same thing except for the sole material.

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  31. Thank you so much for this. Me having hams for thighs, I was looking for very long to find these jeans, as they are a bit hard to find in my country. However, I ebayed that bitch, and found your great step by step guide, and now I have a pair of great jeans.

    For my fatty-brethren out there: I recommend not going above your regular size, as they are actually pretty damn large, even for your fat ass.

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  32. Thanks for the detailed post. After the initial soaking, shrinking, and wearing-in process, do you wash and dry them ever? Concerned that drying them would shrink them way too much.

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    1. Yes, when they get funky, I wash and usually hang dry. Pretty much all of the shrinking is done in the first soak-dry cycle. Any subsequent soak-drys will generally just get them near wear they were after that first one.

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  33. Hello — thanks for your instructions, which worked to the letter.

    The one problem is that in the latter stages of the jeans-on drying process, when they seemed to be really dry through the leg (just the waist and fly to go, dampness-wise) I did kind of a squat to take laundry out of the machine. Now the knees have gone really baggy. Anything I can do? Will putting them through another hot-water soak and tossing them in the washer help?

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    1. Another cycle of wet-dry should tighten up the knees.

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  34. This is a great post. I did 3 pairs of WxL:31x32 STFs so far, and they all turned out awesome, fitting dead on at around ~30x30.

    What I have been doing is an express version of this, directly machine wash them inside out in cold water&gentle cycle for 30 minutes without any detergent. Take out, towel dry exactly as shown here, then go commando & wear with care, at least for a day.

    Sundays work great for this.

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  35. I gotta say, it always bothers me when guys say they have big thighs when they've got absolutely normal sized thighs, as it is very clear you do from these pictures, and thus make guys like me who have certifiably large thighs feel really shitty. So, I hope you created this blog years ago and you've decreased your thigh size, or something. Otherwise, stop the false self-deprecation.

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  36. Edit to my comment above: If you actually meant it in terms of muscle, and meant it in a good way, forget I said anything. Your thighs might be big and muscly for all I know, I can't tell.

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  37. Just did my second pair. Went up 2 inches in waist and did my size inseam. Seems like they come a bit larger than what they say. I wear a 32 inseam and it's usually right on the money. I tried these on and they were half way down my foot before shrinking. This was with them high on the waist. Sitting in wet pants as we speak.

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  38. So what I'm understanding is: if you shrink Levi 501's, the waist and length with shrink, but not the thigh part of the pants?

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  39. Excellent procedure. You may have to tweak the sizing for your body type, but otherwise it works out rather well.

    I started today with a W35 L34 and it seems to have gone down to a W34 L32. I did have to "stretch to fit" a bit due to the taper from the hips to the waist. I'm going to wear these a bit and may shrink another pair (W36 L34) to compare (Indian Summer, please!).

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  40. Success! I wear a 34 or 35 waist and I'm about a 32 length, but I like to cuff. Bought 35x36 501's and went through the process and they're perfect, slim in the legs and they are perfect. a 3 inch cuff, a little longer than I normally go, but they're great. Thanks!

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  41. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  42. Levis DOES make a 33 inseam, especially in the blue rigid, the most popular color.
    I just bought a pair in 34 X 33 that will shrink to be 33 X 30's...

    If you have an even numbered inseam, like most people, as in length of 30 or 32 etc, then buy the odd number length 3 inches bigger as recommended on the tag. If you are a 34 X 32 you have to buy STF's in 35X35... If you are a 33X30 like me, you buy them in a STF 34X33, and so on...

    Try Amazon or eBay.

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  43. Thank you bro. I bought one pair few week. Cannot wait the result. Haha..

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  44. Just bought a pair of 38x36- I measured my waist with a tape measure and it was 38" but I tried on a pair of 501 original fit and 36 fit well on the waist, but tight on the thighs (I just dropped 50lbs since the new year so I don't know my size) I hope I got the right size.... If this goes well ill shell out the doe for some 1993's

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  45. I'm not sure how to reconcile these two pieces of advice from the post:

    "If you get the chance to shrink in warmer weather, go outside and take a walk or bike ride."

    And:

    "Avoid sharply bending your knees. 501s have a serious tendency to stretch out in the knees, especially if you do full, ankles-below-knees squats while the jeans are wet."

    Have you discovered a way to ride a bike without bending your knee...? I'm asking in earnest because I thought I could put them on wet and take a ride on my motorbike to dry them really quickly. However, if bending the knee causes lots of stretching, riding any two-wheeled vehicle seems a terrible idea.

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  46. I bought 34x34. I am a 33x33. The jeans have shrunk to 33x33, so I wouldn't buy too big.

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