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Levi’s Vintage Clothing 501 Shrink-To-Fit: Wash and Wear Guide

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Get it right! How to shrink your 501 jeans

If you’ve ever bought a pair of LVC’s rigid American made shrink-to-fit jeans you’ll probably be familiar with the challenging decision it is to choose the right size. Especially before we’re talking $250 jeans.

In addition to finding the right fit for your body type and your style, be it the looser cut 1955 or a slimmer 1954, one of the most crucial aspects of making the “right” choice is the consideration whether you’ll wash your jeans or not.

We’ve touched upon the topic numerous times (have a look at our comprehensive guide here), but now Levi’s also stepped it up and put together three short, informative and entertaining animated videos about the three ways you can choose to go; keeping your jeans unwashed, soaking them in the tub or machine washing.

Keep ’em rigid: Never Wash your LVC Jeans

Some of you like to wear your shrink-to-fits without ever washing. That’s cool, but you’ll have to remember that never washing really means never washing. You can dry clean as a final way out should you end up getting your jeans dirty (which you probably will). Arguably, the wear effect on a bone dry rigid jean will give the most dramatic look, whether it’s the most authentic look is another discussion. To remove odor Levi’s suggest that spraying your jeans with vinegar when they’re airing might help. Yet the easiest way around it is probably just hanging your jeans outside in dry weather for a few days. Nevertheless, despite what Levi’s are saying throwing your jeans in the freezer won’t do any good.

Sizing your Shrink-to-fits the never-wash way

If you plan to not wash your shrink-to-fits, buy them one size smaller in the waist and in your true length. After a few wears the waist will stretch to your size. Remember that shrink-to-fits are generally labelled with the actual inch measurement after shrinkage. For detailed information on the five best selling fits consult our guide on the topic.

Dip in the tub: The original shrink-to-fit way

The second and “original” way around getting the perfect fit is putting them on, climbing into a filled bathtub, and letting them soak on your body for up to half an hour. After you’ve drained the tub, squeeze the excess water from your legs and get outside in the sunshine to dry the jeans into your shape. Alternatively you can bend and stretch while wearing them indoors until you can carefully slip out of them and hang them to dry in your shower stall. When your jeans get dirty, simply climb back into the bathtub and wash with a little soap.

Sizing your Shrink-to-fits the original way

If you plan to shrink your 501s in the bathtub, buy your true waist size (once again, tagged waist size refers to post-shrinkage measurements) and size up two in length. After shrinking your jeans in the bathtub, remember to stretch the waist back out while they’re still wet; this will help achieve a slimmer silhouette.

Wash ’em good: Machine wash before wearing

To Americans the shrink-to-fit concept is nothing new. The way most of them have been shrinking their 501s for decades is by washing them thoroughly before they start wearing them. Wash your 501s inside out at 86° F / 30° C. Levi’s recommends you not to tumble-dry as it’ll shrink the denim too much. Dry in the open air if you can, or hang them in a warm place until the denim is crispy dry. Long-term shrinkage will occur over several washes.

Sizing your Shrink-to-fits the machine wash way

If you plan to wash your 501s before you start wearing them, buy two sizes bigger in both waist and length.

For more advice read our guide.

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  • CVanDriel

    Nice article it is reassuring to read another “real” article instead of all the “interview” advertisments we get practically every day. Anyways rant over, I would also like to point out that putting them in the freezer to remove the smell does work although it is not a permanent solution, the bacterias that cause the bad smell just hibernate which causes them to smell less for a couple of hours of wear. My advice would be, except for airing the jeans which is solid advice, is Febreze. This really helps with the smell, or you could just wash / dryclean them…
    I’ve owned all of the modern (post-’44) Levi’s reproductions and always buy them one size bigger then my normal denim size (Except maybe for the ’47 depending on what fit you wish to go for.) soak them in the tub with hot water and wear them while they’re still wet. When I decide to wash them I just pop them in the machine 30° with a bit of Woolite black (I suppose that you could use any detergent for dark colours but I’ve got no experience with those.) and once the cycle has finished I wrigle myself in and they will stretch back to your normal size in an hour or so (I recommend doing this for most denim this way they’ll never shrink too much.). If they’re not too dirty I give them a quick cold handwash.

  • ThomasKonrad

    As far as I know from experience, LVC’s tag sizes represent the size in raw state. Of course, there are inconsitencies, but if you buy a W36 47, you’ll have 36″ raw. I know, there was a 55 that was two inches oversized, but that was in 2009. The 55 I bought in 2011 is definitley not 2″ oversized. It is nearly true to tagged size raw and shrinks the usual +-2″.

    • Driftwoode

      I think you’re correct, Thomas. The tag sizes on all Levi’s shrink-to-fit (LVC or Red Tab) are true to size–they do not represent the size after shrinking. I’ve been buying 501 rigid for over 30 years and this has always been the case, at least in the USA. Perhaps it is different for countries outside the U.S., but in my case, I always buy a tag size that is 1 inch bigger in the waist and 2 to 3 inches longer in the inseam. Hot soak inside out in the tub for 2-3 hours, hang to dry, and I’m ready to go!

    • Denimhunters

      Hi Thomas,
      Thank you for your comment. In fact we did a full year wear & tear project with 5 of the LVC fits (1944-1966) taking measurements both at the beginning and at the end of the project. You can read about it here: http://denimhunters.com/az/lvcwt/lvc-1944-1966-size-guide. As you will see most of the jeans measure their tagged size after wash (we apologies, but measurements are only in centimetres).

    • CVanDriel

      The size tagged on a raw STF 501 is one size larger then your normal Levi’s size (Subject to change on some models.) but the size tagged before washing is your true waist size i.e. the size you measure in “‘s. In my case that would mean that I should buy a waist 34 STF because I measure about 34” and wear a waist 33 in normal Levi’s or Lee, Tellason, etc.. I would like to point out that Japanese brands tend to use true size for their sizing meaning I wear 34 waist in Japan Blue, Momotaro, Big John and Big E. Complicated isn’t it.

  • Rob

    Great guide, but I do disagree with one suggestion. If you’re going to machine wash and hang dry, or wear dry, only size up 1 in the waist at most. My recommendation would be not to size up any at all, but I’ve never even heard of anyone sizing up 2. That may be fine if you use a machine dryer on the hot setting, but I’m even skeptical about that. The inseam suggestions are fine, but unless you’re really big in the waist, I wouldn’t even consider sizing up 2, regardless of what you do. This is based on my experience with dozens of pairs of 501 STF’s and I’ve used every method mentioned several times.

  • Joël Rittiner

    My GF accidentaly put my Shrink to Fit for machine wash then dryer prior to original shrink. I bought my jean for tub shrinkage, and now they are too slim. As it was only 1 wash, is there a way to shrink them back bigger ?

    • Denimhunters

      Hi Joël,
      Bummer, better demand she subscribe to Denimhunters from now on and study the basics of raw (and unsanforized) denim washing under the “Guide” section in the menu bar.
      Anyway, if you’re able to button/zip the jeans, and you’re able to wear them, then they will stretch out a bit.
      Good luck – and let us know how it works out.