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Shrink to Fit Jeans

These are the jeans that made Levi-Strauss famous.

Arriving stiff and in a deep indigo colour when new, these may take several swims to get broken in, at which point they will fit like a second skin and have faded to a mellow lighter blue.

Jeans label

Why shrink to fit?

When purchasing jeans, leave the acid, stone, and other artificial washes to the good people of Eastern Europe.

The best method of 'breaking-in' jeans remains the same: buy them with a snug fit, wear them new, jump into a hot tub or bath. Then go for a swim and allow them to dry-on, for a personal fit.

The concept of wearing jeans in water dates back to their very beginning and continues today. Levi's were originally produced in only three sizes, and the wearer would jump into a body of water like a creek, a pond, or a horse trough, to shrink them to fit as snug as a glove. Today, jeans are available in a variety of styles, from tight to loose fit, and are sold either pre-washed or shrink-to-fit and rigid.

Shrink To Fit Tanks

Levi Strauss has shrink tanks in some of their stores, allowing the customers to purchase a pair of jeans and submerge in a tank of water while their new jeans shrink. Then they stand in front of a "human dryer" so that their jeans will shrink to a personal fit on their body. Hopefully the next generation will be able to appreciate the same joys! The Levi's guys must work on this, instead of producing all these pre-distressed jeans, or it will be lost forever.

How to buy "rigid" shrink to fit jeans

Jeans label The size on this 501xx label is the size before the jeans have been washed, and identifies them as Shrink to Fit Jeans made of super tough XX denim. Buy your jeans one inch bigger in the waist if you like a snug fit and a couple of inches on the leg, so you can turn them up to suit and allow for further shrinkage during the first few washes. Do not alter the hem of your jeans until the shrinkage process is complete. Expect an overall shrinkage of 10%. See our table for details.

Better Quality

There is a difference between the standard Levis 501s and the 501 Shrink-to-Fit jeans. The Shrink-to-Fit jeans have the best denim and are just the most hardcore jeans you can buy. They may take up to a year to break in.

While you may agree with some of the comments regarding the variable and often lower quality of the Levi's 501 jeans manufactured outside of the United States, by and large the same negatives do not apply to the shrink-to-fit 501's. These are still made from the original indigo-dyed rigid denim manufactured Cone mills in North Carolina, and are still of good quality.

Button Fly

The two good things about Levis 501s is the weight of the denim and the button fly instead of a zipper fly. The advantage of the button fly is it does not jam or get stuck from mud and sand. The 14 1/2 ounce denim is the maximum thickness that is flexable enough to cling when wet. Any heavier, the denim will not cling when wet.

Remove the Back Pockets

Something you can also do is take the back pockets off. Just undo the stitching before you shrink them. In the bath some of the dye comes off, so it looks like there were no back pockets.

How To Shrink Your Jeans

Now we come to the fun part where you get your jeans wet. Wear your jeans in the bath and let them dry on you. To get a perfect fit the jeans need to shrink to your size, no further.

First Time

The first soaking of your jeans should be done in a good hot bath, as hot as you can stand it. Simply get into the bath and enjoy that lovely smell of new wet denim. Don't tuck in any other clothes or wear anything inside your jeans.

The water and anything else you wear turns blue after a while as the indigo colour is likely to run. Avoid soap as this causes the indigo colour to pale.

Soak your jeans in the water for at least ten minutes while you stand up, sit down, move around gently to prevent any patches occurring from any excess indigo dye. Stay in the bath until the water cools down. When you get out, drain the water away, squat down and squeeze the water out of the fabric.

If possible let the jeans dry naturally while still you're wearing them; this is how you get that perfect fit. The jeans will shape to your body and retain your form for optimum fit. You can almost feel them shrinking on to you.

Alternatively take them off and lay your jeans on a towel to dry, or hang them with clothespins so that no part of the jeans is folded over. Don't put them in the dryer or they may shrink too far and lose your shape.

Subsequent Soakings

Shrinkage of the jeans will occur over the course of the first three soakings, and continues slightly until about the 10th time. Always wash your "shrink-to-fit" jeans while you're still wearing them, at least for the first 3 to 10 times. Remember to let them dry on you, if possible. Soon you'll have the perfect swimming jeans. Enjoy!

Your Shrink to Fit Comments

Wear your jeans before you get them wet

Take it from an old guy who has shrunk to fit many times: Wear your jeans as much as possible before any wetting to stretch to your general shape.

Get them wet when wearing them in a hot bath or shower, stretch them a bit when wet by squatting and other moves.

Then wear them until they dry. They will shrink and retain the overall body shape they had prior to wetting but just smaller. (I promise!) ~ Bill

I thought that you would have worn the jeans in the tub (not in boiling water, though!) as this gives a more natural shrinkage. I just bought some Edwins and they suggest wearing the jeans for some time before the first soak. I'm going to try that. Thanks for your advice, though! ~ Tim

I wear the jeans for a few weeks at home before I shrink them. Once I have some desired creases I wear them in the tub with cold water for about 15 minutes. You'll feel them shrink. Take them off and hang dry until they're damp, then put them back on. Strech in them (squats, bend knees, etc...) to get the desired shape. I wear them until they are dry. You don't have to be that hardcore. ~ Bruce

I just bought a pair two days ago. The lady at the store told me to wear them a couple times before doing the tub shrinking. I have to say thank you again for the step by step process. ~ Peter


If you were wondering what sizes you should buy, coming from a person who doesn't wear baggy jeans or tight jeans, you should buy two sizes up and and length wise 2 inches longer.

Example: I'm a 36x34 but I buy these in a 40x36

The idea is to wear them immediately after your bath or swim until they dry on your body. Make sure you can be somewhere warm for several hours after you put the wet jeans on. Wearing wet jeans on a chilly day is a good way to give yourself hypothermia. ~ Tomas

If they're Levis STF they might shrink 1 or 2 sizes. Shrinking to fit your jeans is not a universal concept for all jeans. Most will shrink a bit but only unsanforized jeans, like STF's, will yeild large changes in size. If your jeans are sanforized, as most are, they won't shrink as much relatively speaking. ~ Vanessa


Nothing worse than jeans which just fall down and require constant hiking up to avoid wardrobe failures! The main purpose we wear jeans is to look body conscious, not like street people. When you wear your jeans in the water they'll shrink with form like your legs and style. If you just shrink them, they gonna shrink ugly. ~ Roger

Machine Wash

Let me tell you from experience that the last thing you'd want to do is to give 501 Shrink to Fits repeated machine washings. I bought a pair of grey 501 STF's and washed them more than once and they look horrible. Regardless of whether you wear them the first time or not, STF's will shrink after the first washing. Because this type of jeans will shrink, it is recommended that you purchase a few sizes bigger than what you normally would wear; especially in the inseam. Only wash them while you wear them in the bath or pool. ~ Brandon

Levi's STF Instructions

Having recently purchased two new pairs of Levi's 501® Shrink-to-fit jeans ($66 for both of them, btw), I have finished the first step in Levi's suggested care steps: "Wear them as long as possible before you wash them." I've worn a pair for six straight days.

Now it's time for the second step: "On the first watch, soak in a capful of Dr. Bronner's soap for 20 minutes," which I'm going to do in the bathtub. The hotter the water, the more they shrink.

Levi's mentioned that it's normal for the dye to color the water. What they didn't tell me was that my tub would look like the tub in Cabin No. 1 at the Bates Motel.
~ Rick

After I started washing them in my bath, I wanted to really wear my jeans so that they had a real custom fit and feel to them. In conclusion, Levi's suggestion about the first washing of the jeans was right on the money.

After wearing the new, stiff, unwashed jeans for as long as I could stand it, I wore them in lukewarm water with a capful of Dr. Bronner's Peppermint Castile Soap for about 20 or 30 minutes, giving them a good "hand wash" while I was at it. A lot of blue dye washed off the jeans, and my tub looked like I slaughtered a Smurf in it.

Then I let them hang dry. Once they were damp, I put them on and wore them until they were completely dry. I did this for the first few washings, and it worked perfectly. All is well with a pair of jeans that now fit like they were made for me. ~ Gee

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