All you need is a knife, some sandpaper, and a cheese grater (yes—a cheese grater!).

What You Need

  • Pencil
  • Scrap of cardboard
  • Craft knife or a sharp paring knife
  • Rough-grained sandpaper
  • Cheese grater

Follow These Steps

  1. Make Your Mark(s)
    Before you bust out a blade, turn to a softer tool (a pencil, in this case) to map out a strategy. The distressed denim look is all about creating the illusion of a well-loved pair of vintage jeans, so the distressing should be in areas that would become naturally, well, distressed over time. Spots that typically see a lot of wear and tear are the knees, the backs of the hems, and the tops of pockets and the waistband. Make pencil marks around the areas you want distressing, so you don’t go overboard or cut in the wrong place. Pro tip: To measure where the knee would be without actually putting on your jeans, fold the hem up to the center point between the legs—where the leg of the jeans fold should be right where they hit your knee.
  2. Cut ‘Em Up
    Now for the fun part. Grab a craft knife or a sharp paring knife, and make horizontal cuts through the fabric at the knee(s) and the backs of the hems. One long cut (nearly from seam to seam) will result in a large, clean opening, while many shorter cuts will create a more natural, torn look. Pro tip: Slip a piece of scrap cardboard (the flap of a box will do) between the leg while you’re cutting to avoid slicing through both sides accidentally.
  3. The Finishing Touches
    To give your distressed denim the most natural look, you’ll want to do a little more than just chop them up. Go over the tops of the pockets and the waistband with a piece of rough-grained sandpaper to create a worn-in appearance (the blue will soften to a lighter shade, and the threads of the fabric will break and become a little fuzzy). Pull a cheese grater over the areas you’ve cut—this will pull out the white threads and make the rips seem lived in, rather than cleanly sliced. Pro tip: While you can distress almost any pair of jeans, those made from a stiff cotton denim (no stretch) will yield the best results. (Shown here, Levi’s 501 jeans, $64; levi.com.) And now for the clincher—run your jeans through one laundry cycle to really bring your efforts to life.

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