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Shrink to Fit: A Guide to Shrinking the Classic Levi’s 501 STF Jeans

Your new favorite jeans cost less than $50 and will fit you perfectly.

 

Rarely does the company that invents something become the beloved version for everyday shoppers and snobs alike, while maintaining a very affordable price. But this is the case with Levi’s. Considered the go-to starter pair for raw denim by denimheads, the Levi’s 501 Shrink-to-Fit jeans are a smart investment whether you’re frugal or snooty.

Most jeans that you find in stores have been created with denim that was “sanforized,” a process invented in the 1920s that limits post-wash shrinkage to only 1%. Prior to this, and still true for raw denim today, a pair of jeans would shrink 7 to 10% after the first wash, and continue shrinking slightly on subsequent washes. This means you have to account for the shrinkage when buying raw jeans, requiring a sizing up of several inches.

Why go through all the hassle? Well, raw denim has a few other unique properties. When cared for correctly, raw denim shapes and molds itself to the wearer’s body, resulting in a pair of jeans that not only fit your measurements, but also your unique shape.

Ever try on a pair of jeans that fit great in the waist and inseam, but were too baggy in the thighs or too tight in the calves? That’s because everyone is unique, and the shape and sizing a brand’s designer decided on may not work for your body. Raw denim takes all that out of the equation.

Prior to sanforization becoming standard, getting the perfect fit caused folks to do some pretty eyebrow raising things just for their jeans. Famous myths on the web include dragging a fresh pair behind a car and dropping them overboard behind a boat.

Among denimheads, the process of wearing in a pair of raw jeans is a part of the charm. As the denim shrinks and conforms to your body, it also develops fading and whiskers with a more natural appearance than those bought pre-distressed at a store – a point of pride among those devoted to the practice. There’s a whole glossary of terms for specific types of distressing including “whiskers” on the tops of the thighs, “honeycombs” on the backs of the knees, and “stacks” on the ankles.

Raw denim like my 501 StF’s are stiffer than typical jeans. This creates less loose movement in the denim, allowing “stacking” or more breaks at the end of the pant leg without the fabric flapping in the motion.

My Shrink to Fit’s were my first adventure into raw denim and I have been very impressed with how great they look and fit, compared to how much I paid. Traditional Levi’s 501 Shrink to Fits can be found for around $40 online on sale, and in many stores. The 501 offers a classic straight fit, which keeps us stylish in these slimmer times, while also accommodating everyday items like boots.

For those unconvinced, the care process may tip the scale into the downright dirty. Raw denim producers recommend not washing the jeans for up to 6 months after the initial sizing wash to allow them to complete the fitting process, a gross-sounding proposition.

However, you may be surprised at how unsmelly your jeans remain, but there are a few remedies for those who can’t bear it anymore. The most common recommendation for sour jeans is to place them in the freezer overnight – the cold kills the smell without causing the shrinking and fading a full wash will incur.

As with all jeans, raw denim should be washed in cold water (except during the shrinking process) and inside out to preserve the indigo. Diehard denimheads even suggest throwing on your jeans and sitting in the tub to maintain the size and shape when they need a cleaning.

I’d say for those with less conviction to use a washer with cold water and line dry, while limiting cleanings to only when it’s absolutely necessary, whether that’s 6 months or sooner.

There’s a breaking in process with raw denim, just as there is with a proper fitting pair of shoes. The raw denim may feel stiff or tight in some areas for a few days, but it will loosen up as the denim learns to fit your body.

If you search how to shrink your 501s you may get overwhelmed as I did while researching it. There are a lot of very dedicated folks who take this very seriously – many of whom contradict each other in the process. But I actually found it to be quite straight forward when doing it myself.

I first learned of the concept a few years ago when I came across this post on Thighs Bigger Than Your Head. I chose to follow Levi’s recommended process with a few of Tommy’s practical tips thrown in and am super pleased with the results.

Proper Sizing

The most important part of the process is correctly sizing up to accommodate the shrinking. Levi’s instructions offer a table that explains how many inches to add based on your normal size. Fair warning, you may not be the size you think you are due to “glamor sizing,” a common practice among retailers over the last few years that puts smaller sizing labels on clothing that is not accurate if checked with a measuring tape.

Waist Size Up Inseam Size Up
27-36″ 1″ 27-34″ 3″
38-48″ 2″ 36″ and up 4″
50″ and up 3″

Based on this table, I sized up 1 inch in the waist, and 3 inches in the inseam. You can see in the before and after photos just how dramatic the shrinking process is.

Levis 501 Shrink to Fit guide how to

Hot Bath

When unsanforized denim comes into contact with water, it shrinks while drying.  So, we need to get these puppies wet. Plug your bath tub and turn the hot water all the way on (obviously be careful, it’s hot). We only need enough water to submerge the jeans all the way. Once you get to that point, turn your jeans inside out to protect as much of the indigo dye as possible, and place your jeans in the water, making sure they get completely wet.

Levis 501 Shrink to Fit guide how to

You can see how the deep indigo comes off in the water. Don’t worry, it shouldn’t stain the tub. It left no trace when I drained the water.

Hang Dry

After an hour of soaking, pull your jeans out of the water and hang them by the shower head with a pants hanger. We want as much of the water to drip off as possible.

The inky water left over.

Towel Dry

After your jeans have stopped dripping, lay them flat between two towels on the floor. I was concerned that the wet dye would come off on the towels so I used blue towels. The towels did get some blue on them, but all of it came out when they were washed.

Walk along the towel to push as much water out of the jeans as possible. Turn the jeans right side out, and repeat the towel walking.

Wear Dry & Fitting

Now you should have a very damp but not soaked pair of blue jeans. The key to not over-shrinking is using your body as a guide. So, throw ‘em on and wear them until they’re dry. “Wear soaking wet jeans until they dry? I don’t even like getting out of the pool.” I can hear you saying, but mine dried in less than an hour except for the thicker spots, and it really wasn’t that uncomfortable.

This is really the secret to getting your jeans sized the right way.

Don’t sit on any light couches or chairs while the denim is wet, you might transfer some dye.

Wear them with pride

Now comes the easy part. Wear your jeans often, with pride. They’ll shrink, conform, and distress to your body and life. After some time, you’ll have your new favorite pair of jeans, and they cost you less than a meal for two at a decent restaurant.

Tips for maintaining your jeans

  • Wear them as much as possible
  • Limit the washing to only when it’s actually needed. Use Febreeze or the freezer method for killing odor until then.
  • The more you wear them, the looser they’ll get. Getting them damp, or a full wash, will tighten the fibers again.

Pick some up on Amazon.

About

Andrew is the founder and editor of Primer. He's a graduate of American University and currently lives in Los Angeles. Read more about Primer on our About page.

 
  • Frank C

    and this is why i freaking love primer baby

  • John

    I tried STF’s 2 years ago. While it didn’t turn out to be my cup of tea, I did learn some useful things: 1) I now only wash my jeans 1-2 times a month, inside out, 2) I line dry them to preserve the forming that has occurred during that time, and 3) if they do get into the dryer by accident, I use what I call the “wet forming” method above to resize them, i. e. I get them damp, put them on, do a few squats etc. then throw them on the line to dry.

  • http://www.whyietc.com Daniel

    @John

    The “wet forming” method makes a lot of sense, I’m going to start doing this with my jeans. I started wearing my jeans longer and not washing them as often a while ago, now to not dry them and maybe even get raw denim jeans next.

  • Christopher

    Can you use the “wet forming” with khakis or other cotton pants? I am between sizes a lot of the time and would rather buy the smaller pair and stretch them a bit instead of buying the bigger pair and having the waist taken in by a tailor.

  • DaveD

    Does anyone else find the front pockets of 501 STF to be too small? I’ve got two pairs and I have a tough time getting my front pocket wallet, keys, swiss army knife, etc. to all fit in the pockets.
    I also wish they’d make STF in different cuts. I’m not a super fan of the 501 cut, would prefer the 514.

  • Jay

    Andrew – can we get info on the belt and shoes (boots?) in the photos? Thanks! Is that belt the DIY one from a while ago?

    • http://www.primermagazine.com Andrew

      Jay,

      Of course, sorry for not including it.

      Belt: DIY for $23

      Boots: Red Wing

  • Richard

    After that first initial bath and damp wear, what if they are still too large?

    • Joshua Kaplan

      Richard, any luck I have the same problem?

    • martin

      I wasn’t happy with the first shrinking (they were still bigger than i wanted), so thought what the hell and just repeated the process a second time….the length didn’t really shrink much the second time but the hips and upper legs did (which is exactly what I wanted).

  • Chris.

    Interesting – I thought this was going to be a “throw them in the dryer” tutorial. Very cool.

  • Nathan

    What color are these?

  • http://www.primermagazine.com Andrew

    Nathan,

    These are the ‘standard’ color most stores carry of the STF. I believe it’s the “Rigid” color.

  • John

    @ Christopher: Yes you can do this with chinos etc. but you’ll definitely need to iron them after they dry and it may not look as pressed as you might like. Again, I only do the wet forming when stuff gets into the dryer by accident. Otherwise, wear, wash, and line dry.

    Cheers!

  • John

    @ Daniel:

    Yeah, I do the wet forming with new pairs, too. Its a great way to get a new pair of jeans feeling like you’ve had them for a while. I got away from the STF’s because the fit, while technically correct in the waist, hips, and length, was too loose in the thighs and tight at the ankles and bled dye no matter what I did. A pair of 501 in Rinsed will look the same as the pic above.

  • Jake

    Will all STF 501′s have a label that explicity says “Shrink to Fit”? I have a pair of the dark rinse wash 501′s that I do not recall saying anything about STF, but I want to make sure before I wash them.

  • http://Www.primerMagazine.com Andrew

    Jake,
    Yes absolutely. There will be a giant label on the tag. Regular 501′s won’t benefit from this.

  • http://www.mattsayar.com Matt Sayar

    I usually wear 32Wx32L, so according to the chart, I need 33Wx35L. On Amazon, they have 33Wx31L 32L 33L 34L and 36L. Is this a conspiracy to keep me from buying the jeans, or should I go up/down a size on the length?

  • DaveD

    I actually ordered mine with the normal waist size and while they do shrink a bit after initial soak, they’ll stretch out enough to be comfortable. But those first few hours of wearing them after soaking can be annoying. I also found the length shrinkage to not be as great as I thought. I normally wear a 30 L and bought a 32 L and I think they’re still too long. Although, I haven’t actually washed them, so perhaps they’ll shrink more…

    • gjhghhvvbj

      ghgf

  • Monte

    If you want a slimmer fit don’t size up and sit in the tub with the hot water so the waist doesn’t shrink too much. The pants may feel a but tight but they will loosen up as daved also said before me

  • http://Blog.bridgetteraes.com Bridgette Raes

    Hey, thanks for including a link to my article on glamour sizing! Much appreciated and I hope valuable for your readers.

  • Rob

    Do these ever become soft? I’m a huge fan of the 501 but I’ve never tried shrink to fits because they’re SO stiff. I get that they’re stiff because they haven’t been washed, but how soft is it realistic for me to expect them to become within a few weeks? God do I love the feel of soft jeans.

  • Rob

    P.S. The common term for “Glamour Sizing” is Vanity Sizing. It absolutely kills me to see vanity sizing creeping into men’s clothing sizes.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vanity_sizing

  • John

    @ Rob: Not really. The stiffness is one of the reasons they develop the personalized patina. Some folks even iron and starch them to enhance this. For me, I just got a pair of pre-washed 501s in Rinsed.

  • RHGLACA

    GROSS!
    I’ve been on wondering why hipsters sometimes smell like they have no idea what soap is for… now I know, it’s their pants!
    I’m sorry but I live by the wash after every use rule when it comes to clothing. You’re kidding no one if you think Fabreze does anything more than add a flowery smell to your funk.

    • Jroc

      Capitalist

  • http://virilitas.com/ Shawn (Virilitas.com)

    The jump-kick photo is awesome.

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  • Dgmoney

    Tried this recently with great results. I first tried on some preshrunk 501s in the fitting room to gauge my size. Turns out a 33×32 was a great fit. I then sized up using the table but could not find the exact measurements (34×35). I bought a 34×34 since it was on the shelf and had great results. I will be doing this again for sure.

  • Robert

    Any comments on the rise and thigh width?  I’m tall and skinny.  I understand they shrink in the waist and length, but if the crotch is too long and the thighs are baggy I just can’t do it.  

    • http://www.primermagazine.com/ Andrew

      They have a taller rise than you may be used to, but the crotch isn’t long and the thighs aren’t tight.

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  • John

    Have you found the jeans to stretch out after repeated wears? I am worried that I should buy true to size b/c I’ve heard they will stretch

    • http://www.primermagazine.com/ Andrew

      They haven’t stretched very much, perhaps a little in the waist.

  • Tom D

    Wow, great article.. I got a pair and am very pleased with the results so far. However, I happened to be sitting around for a while during the first wear, and the knee area has stretched quite a bit… to the point where its noticeable when I’m standing straight. Any way to fix this or will I have to get a new pair?

    • http://www.primermagazine.com/ Andrew

      You can try dipping the knees in warm or cold water and see if it tightens back up.

      • Tom D

        Dunked the knees in hot water for about an hour and let them dry. There’s no longer a huge stretch, but a very slight one. In other words, perfect! Thanks. This seems like it would be a pretty common issue, I’m surprised no one else has asked about it…

        • http://www.primermagazine.com/ Andrew

          Excellent! Nice work! I may try them on mine at some point.

  • Bob

    Great tutorial Andrew,

    I am breaking in a pair myself. I wonder if this process will help them look epic after some wear. I am curious how yours look now after 3 months of wear? Can you share?

    Cheers,

    Bob

  • Ben

    Thanks Andrew for the great article!
    Talking about sizing, do you mean to add up some sizes to your normal size or to the size you normally have when you buy Levi’s?

    • http://www.primermagazine.com/ Andrew

      If you know your Levi’s fit use that. I didn’t and still came out ok.

  • davis

    I tried this in October of 2012 and wanted to share my results for anyone that is considering this.

    I sized up according to the charts and found the waist and length to to fit great, but the thigh and ankle to be too loose for my taste. I wear them a lot regardless but next time I will stick to preshrunk 501′s.

    Good luck!

    • rogun

      501 STF’s are really loose, imo. I know lot’s of people who size down 1-2 sizes from what Levi’s recommends in the waist. This is particularly true if you’re skinny, imo. I size down 2 in the waist, or 1 size down from what I wear in everything else, and although they’re tight at first, they stretch out to fit nicely. I have the same problem with them being too big in the thigh and ankle (actually think it’s the calves for me), and they fit much better this way.

      • davis

        Thanks for this post. I might try this soon.

  • Sean

    The last 2 Pairs of Levi’s I owned didn’t even last 6 months while only wearing them to university. This sounds like a great technique that I will save for a good pair of Raw denim jeans, but due to the severe deterioration in quality I won’t be buying Levi’s again.

  • jerichosolocam

    Andrew,
    I found this article on Levis STF very helpful. I’m sitting here in damp ones as I type this. I wondered how you wash them next time? By hand? Use Dr. Bronner’s? Cold or hot? By the way I bought my normal waist size and +2″ in length and they’re shaping up nicely.

  • jerichosolocam

    Andrew,
    I found this article on Levis STF very helpful. I’m sitting here in damp ones as I type this. I wondered how you wash them next time? By hand? Use Dr. Bronner’s? Cold or hot? By the way I bought my normal waist size and +2″ in length and they’re shaping up nicely.

  • jerichosolocam

    Andrew,
    I found this article on Levis STF very helpful. I’m sitting here in damp ones as I type this. I wondered how you wash them next time? By hand? Use Dr. Bronner’s? Cold or hot? By the way I bought my normal waist size and +2″ in length and they’re shaping up nicely.

    • http://www.primermagazine.com/ Andrew

      I just dip them in water. So far so good.

  • Casey

    Do you wear these at your actual waist (i.e. belly-button level) or down more towards the hip/pelvic bone?

    • http://www.primermagazine.com/ Andrew

      Lower than belly button but they ride higher than the hips.

      • Casey

        Awesome. Buying my first pair of STF 501′s tomorrow, so thanks for the quick response back.

        Just found your site actually, but already becoming a fast favorite. Definitely will be coming back.

        • http://www.primermagazine.com/ Andrew

          Nice! Glad you like it!

  • Bobby Polk

    is there a way i can maybe “loosen” up my 501s somehow….theyre pretty tight in the groin area

    • http://www.primermagazine.com/ Andrew

      Yeah, they’ll stretch a bit if you do some lunges. They won’t shrink back until you wash it. If that doesn’t work, get them wet and try it again.

  • Ali

    If i leave it to dry without wearing them damp will it shrink to its smallest size? Then if its too tight, can I repeat the process and, rather than shrink, expand the jeans to my size?

  • Ivor

    What style number/leather color are those Red Wings?

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  • Kevin Chau

    So did you wear your pair for “6 months” before the initial wash? Or did you wash them as soon as you got them?

    • http://www.primermagazine.com/ Andrew

      I did the initial wash immediately, they didn’t fit otherwise.

  • Dave II

    I’ve got some 501s.. they fit perfect… these things last good
    Anyway.. I just bought two more pair (same size) and after washing
    in hot water and drying in the dryer, they’re still to big!
    Only differance I can see is the old ones say 501xxx, and the new ones
    say 501. No xxx – are these differances something to affect shrinkage?
    At whatever rate LEVI’S 501s are the best jeans! I’ve been wearing them
    Since 1966! Was born in 63.

    • http://www.primermagazine.com/ Andrew

      Hey Dave,

      Yes unfortunately there are two kinds of 501′s, shrink to fit and regular, pre-shrunk. The shrink to fit’s are labeled with the xxx. So, I believe you picked up a pair of preshrunk 501′s, which is why they didn’t shrink enough.

  • J Rock

    Just did this… it worked PERFECT! literally PERFECT! Follow step by step and you’ll be fine. thx Andrew

    • http://www.primermagazine.com/ Andrew

      Nice! Glad it worked out.

  • Gerri

    About to buy my first STF’s. So, what happens if they’re washed & dried in machines? Thanks.

  • Isaac S.

    Thanks for the great instructions! My normal 501 size is 33×32 so I bought a 34×34 in Shrink-to-Fit and they fit great; better than the pre-shrunk 501′s even!

  • Cruelty

    “Now comes the easy part. Wear your jeans often, with pride. They’ll shrink, conform, and distress to your body and life”

    how is it possible that they shrink simply by wearing them? (not moistening them as this sentence implies)

    I asked a Levi store staff, and he said that they ofc they can’t shrink, but that they do conform.

    You also say in another passage of the text that they loosen up as they are being used, so that’s a bit contradictory, don’t you think?

  • Anon Anonymity

    My jeans are still too big after I shrunk them, what do I do??????

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