I am SO excited about this post and excited to finally share the results of my bleaching and distressing experiments. I spent a couple of weeks experimenting with different ways to wash the denim, varying levels of bleach, and different distressing methods. I’m going to break the post out like that, too.
PLEASE NOTE: This pattern is written for non-stretch fabrics, so that is what I experimented with for everything in this post. Stretch fabrics with spandex in them will behave very differently–especially in bleach, where spandex can turn yellow.
In this experiment, I was working with Cone Mills 10.5oz non-stretch denim in indigo, which is what is included in the jean jacket kits.
I sewed two final jackets after testing–one for my model, and one for myself (which is what you’ll see me making in these sewalong photos). I learned a lot on each one and I’m excited to show you. So, let’s jump in!
Anything that can be done in the washing machine falls under this category.
REGULAR DETERGENT: Upon receiving my denim, I washed it with Tide Free & Gentle in a regular cycle by itself, then dried it. It softened up significantly, as it comes off of the loom feeling very stiff.
BAKING SODA: After that, I washed the same fabric it in a regular cycle again with just a couple of cups of baking soda. I’ve never heard of anyone using baking soda on denim, but it is a natural fabric softener, so I thought I would give it a go. I didn’t notice a huge change after this wash–honestly, any additional softness could probably be attributed to a second run through the washer and dryer.
COCA-COLA: Yep–the drink. One of my testers shared this video with our test group, and a can of coke was one of her suggestions. I’ve seen people clean a lot of things with coke (which makes me think a second, third, fourth time about drinking it…), but denim was a new one. So, the same denim went into a third wash, this time with only a 20 oz bottle of coke. It actually made the denim softer to the touch (not in drape) and gave it a sort of fluffy texture (which is fairly visible in the photo above), so I would try this again. I didn’t notice any change to the color, but I did notice some brown color seeping into my bleach later on, which I think was the coke.
STONES: Pumice stones, lava rocks, or any stone that is rough in texture, but has no sharp edges. You can actually do this before or after you’ve cut into the fabric and sewn your jacket. I chose to wash each of my jackets with 6-8 stones after sewing them but BEFORE adding my hardware, as the stones could scratch all of those beautiful buttons up. I didn’t notice a huge change doing this, so I would say you can probably feel okay about skipping it if putting stones in your washing machine makes you nervous.
I have a top-loading machine, and didn’t hear the stones at all, which I was kind of surprised by considering the only other thing in there was a jacket. In theory, the stones ride their way up the center agitator, then drop onto the top of the fabric, repeating the entire cycle…so I think this is much milder than I was originally imagining, and the lack of conclusive results reflected that.
I spent an entire day experimenting with bleach. In my initial experiment, I used 4 parts water and 1 part bleach. After washing my denim several times, I cut a bunch of strips and dropped them all in my bleach-water solution (I kept one out as the “before”). I removed strips at 15 minutes, 30 minutes, 45 minutes, 1 hour, 2 hours, 3 hours, 4 hours, 5 hours and 6 hours. I was surprised to see that most of the color change happens within the first hour.
I also topstitched a few strips as I was curious how the topstitching thread would react to the bleach just in case someone wanted to bleach a completed jacket (answer: the thread color started to run into the fabric, so I wouldn’t recommend it for longer than an hour).
Once I had all of my strips washed and dried (to inactivate the bleach), I placed them next to the topstitching thread and metal buttons I planned on using. I had pretty specific visions for my both my jacket and my model’s jacket, so this was an easy choice. I chose to bleach one cut of denim for ~25 minutes (left in above photo), and the other for ~35-40 minutes (right in above photo).
To start, I ran each cut through the washing machine on just a rinse/spin cycle to get it completely wet, but not dripping. You want the fabric to be wet so that it will soak up the bleach solution evenly, but not so wet that it dilutes your solution.
I knew I would have too much fabric to lay completely flat in my bathtub, so I actually put some heavy latex gloves on and stood over the bathtub scrunching, moving, turning, straightening, squeezing, and flipping the fabric the entire time (kind of type-A, but I wanted it to be very even). I got my swatch (chosen strip from my initial experiment) wet and laid it next to the bathtub so that I would be able to tell when I was getting close to the color I wanted.
Once it was the desired color, I removed it, squeezed out as much bleach-water as possible, rinsed it in a second bathtub (because I wanted to use my bleach-water again for a second cut of denim, but you could just drain your tub and rinse there), and then immediately ran it through the washer and dryer to inactivate the bleach.
I’m happy to report after all of that that my denim was 100% even with not a blotch in sight. I repeated the process for my second cut of denim in the same bathtub full of bleach. I wanted the bleach-water to cover my fabric, so I ended up using 5 parts water and 1 part bleach (I think I used around 1.5L of bleach). I would encourage you to repeat this experiment for each different kind of denim you use, as the results could vary!
Now that we’ve talked about getting the fabric soft (washing), and we’ve gotten it to the base color we want (bleaching), let’s chat about some distressing techniques to give your jacket that worn-in, well-loved look. You can go as mild or extreme as you want here–from adding a few highlights here and there to full-blown holes.
Here are a few things you can use to distress:
- Dremel + sanding band
- Cheese grater (to create holes–I didn’t experiment with this because I wasn’t interested in getting that extreme with my distressing!)
And here are the areas I used them:
- All seams
- Across bust (top pocket area)
- Across back (bottom of back yoke, top of back panels)
- Across welt pocket areas
- Inside fold of collar
- Underarm/elbow folds
- All edges/corners
I did some experimenting on scraps to see what I liked best.
Ultimately, I used 220 grit, 150 grit, AND 120 grit in different areas. I liked to use the different grits to build on each other, using the coarser grit (120) to add highlights to the above-mentioned areas, and building on that with the finer grits (150 and 220) to smooth things out. I also found that I much-preferred sanding by hand (vs. a power sander) because it gave me a lot more control–but experiment here!
I primarily used sanding to create highlights. Look at pictures of ready-to-wear (and see my list above) for some examples of where to place them. This is where sewing crosses over into art theory! 🙂
To create a whiskering effect in the elbow and underarm fold areas, I put the jacket on, scrunched the fabric up appropriately (like it does when your arm is down at your side or your elbow is bent), then sanded with some 220 grit paper while wearing it.
The last thing I tried to accomplish was adding some extra “wear” to the areas that would naturally show more wear over time–this is the inside fold of the collar, all edges, all seams, and elbows (which I did while wearing the jacket). It’s important to note that you MUST do all sanding to your seams before topstitching. Otherwise, you will completely destroy your stitching. My method was to sew the seam, create the flat felled seam, use Wonder Tape to secure it, sand the seam from the right side of fabric, then topstitch it.
The other thing I did was use a rotary Dremel + sanding band along all of the edges, the welt pocket, and the inside fold of the collar. You just need to lightly hit these areas and keep it moving. If you stop in one place, it will quickly sand entirely through your fabric (see the exposed white weft threads on the edge?).
BEST TIPS FOR BLEACHING + DISTRESSING
Here’s what I learned:
- Washing will change the feel of the fabric significantly, but not as much the look. The only exception here is after you’ve finished sewing the jacket together, the BEST thing you can do to make it look legit is to wash + dry it 2-3 times. This gives the seams that scrunchy, worn look.
- Use bleach to achieve the darkest color you ultimately want on the jacket.
- Then, use distressing to create the lighter areas (highlights).
- When sanding denim, try to sand with the warp threads (along the grainline). You want to keep your weft (white) threads intact as much as possible. Sanding the blue weft threads will create the most impact. Also–keep a lint roller nearby as you will have blue fuzz going everywhere!
- Try not to leave any sanding for after you’ve topstitched. As I said previously, you can’t sand across topstitching. That being said, sometimes I would feel an area needed more distressing, so I would very carefully sand around topstitching. This is tedious, though, so try to avoid it.
- Don’t over-sand. Running your jacket through the wash will remove a lot of loose indigo fibers hanging around, and you may be surprised by how much some areas lighten up.
In summary, my jacket’s denim was washed and dried three times pre-cutting (detergent, baking soda, coca-cola), bleached, washed and dried again (to remove bleach), cut + sewn (being distressed with sandpaper while sewing), washed and dried again (with stones), hardware added, then washed and dried again (normal cycle with detergent). After bleaching, distressing, and six wash/dry cycles, I’m left with a very soft jacket that feels broken-in and well-loved. I know it will continue to get softer with wear, but this is a fantastic place to start.
I had a BLAST doing this experiment. I felt like I was creating a work of art, which is what slow sewing is all about, right? I looked forward to moving forward each evening because I was so excited.
I hope all of this helps as we prepare to jump into the actual sewing of the sewalong later this week! I had hoped to put together a video for this post, but haven’t been able to find a well-lit, kid-free, quiet-house time to do it in the past couple of weeks. If I get my chance in the near future, I will absolutely come back and update this post.
I’ll be back on Thursday to start sewing!
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I love this post!
I sewed a lot of jeans last year, and I tried bleaching denim, but did not really know what I was doing. I will have another go now that I have read your tutorial.
Great! I’m glad it’s helpful. 🙂
This is awesome Alina!! Now I want to bleach all the denim! Ha ha!
It’s super fun!! I LOVED this giant experiment.