Levi’s 501 Shrink-To-Fit (STF) Denim – The Ultimate Guide

If I can summarize Shrink-To-Fit (STF) in one word it would be “personalization” – how can 501 STF be personal? Aside from the unique historical aspect of the Levis 501, the step-by-step process of getting your pair to fit specifically to your figure is personal within itself.

This guide was made to detail important segments of the STF process as a whole. We’ll start with general rundown of unsanforized denim then lead into the historical concepts of the Levis STF which in order to help readers understand  popular fits and the characteristics behind each of them.

Lastly, we’ll give a rough guide on my own personal method of shrinking your pair without the worry of overly shrinking your waist. We must note that as even Levi’s has conflicting ideologies on how a pair of STF should be wash or not washed, whether or not my method is right or wrong isn’t the real goal. Our intent is to inform those interested in picking up a pair to with enough insight to know what they will be getting into.

Sanforized vs Unsanforized

Before diving into the history of Levi’s 501, it’s critical to understand what separates a pair of Shrink-To-Fit 501 apart from any other jean in the market by exploring its technical nature.

Here’s where the sanforized vs. unsanforized conversation comes into play. Sanforization is a post-weave process patented by Sanford Lockwood Cluett in 1930 and known for its ability to shrink denim that would be otherwise shrunk down later in the consumer process after washing. The cotton is taken through a series of steps including stretching, shrinking and fixing a woven cloth in both length and width.

Or in more detail, the cotton is first moistened by water and/or steam in order to soak the cotton fibres and join them closer together as strands. Second, the cotton strands enter an endless rubber belt and belt squeeze them between a pressure roll and a rubber belt cylinder to stretch out the denim dramatically.

Next, the cotton is fed into the pressure zone and upon leaving it, the surface returns to its pre-squeezed (stretched) size. The effect of this action shortens the warp yarns, which packs the weft (filling yarns) closer together. It is at this very moment that the shrinkage occurs. After compaction, the fabric enters a dryer where the fibres are locked into their shrunken state and the moisture is removed from the fabric.


Sanforization process

Sanforization is highly praised for its ability to ensure the fabric (or in our case, denim jeans) will shrink no more than 5% after it’s washed for the first time, as opposed to a potential 10% for unsanforized fabrics. Prior to the 1930’s the sanforization process did not exist, leaving unsanforized as the only finishing method available.

As there is no pre-shrinking in respect to unsanforized denim, the first initial wash is probably the most important step for a long healthy life for denim with this quality. Without this important first wash the cotton fibres will not be reinforced and become liable to tear or rip, making it a critical initial step in the successful personalization of a pair of denim.

Understanding the sanforization process helps us identify the historical concept of the STF 501 and ultimately helps make an informed decision regarding the specific style or fit that you’re looking for.

Levi’s History 501 & 505-0252

Turning now to the historical background, we go way back to the 1860’s when Levis Strauss first started selling dry goods like denim pantaloons and duck canvas bottoms. Despite the fabric not being the most breathable, Strauss sold duck canvas bottoms since they were sturdier than denim. As such, one of the oldest items in Levi’s archive are the 1870’s Duck Canvas bottoms.

During the California Gold Rush, however, many miners complained that the pockets would tear and rip in certain pressure points. Strauss turned to Jacob Davis, a tailor from Reno, Nevada, to reinforce the pairs with rivets and extra stitching.

Since Davis didn’t have enough the means to patent his idea, he partnered with Strauss to help him patent the riveted pants. Thus, it wasn’t until the 1890’s when the first pair of 501 Shrink-to-Fit were made, and not until 1967 when Levi’s finally introduced a pre-shrunk (i.e. sanforized) pair.

Vintage 1890' 501 Calico

Vintage 1890′ 501 Calico

The modern Levis shrink-to-fit can be credited to the 1947, which has also been nicknamed the “Steve McQueen” jeans due to their slimmer fitting top block and slight taper. The 1947’s also had no extra details like crotch rivets, clinchers or suspender buttons. The 1947’s also had the famous double needle stitched arcuate that is seen on modern Levi’s.

1947 501-Steve McQueen

Vintage 1947 501XX – “Steve McQueen”

The 1954 501z (which later became the 502-0117) is probably the most influential STF pair since it’s been widely credited by denim enthusiasts for beginning the trend of sanforizing denim. Sanforization was already placed on the market with the 1950’s Levis Twill Chinos but had actually yet to make the leap to denim.

The 1954’s also had one very unique feature that was used to help sell to some of the more picky customers on the East Coast – the zipper fly. The zipper fly was a huge success with the East Coast market, but also left the pair slightly warped after washing since the jeans shrunk and the zipper fly remained unchanged.


1950’s Levis Advertisement

Levi’s began to use the same process of sanforization from their twill chinos in the denim, trying it out to counteract the wavy-zipper problem on the freshly created 505-0252 which contained the same zipper fly and a card-stock patch. Due to its popularity the 505-0252 became the leading pioneer of pre-shunk denim in Levi’s archives.

After gaining a sense of different fits under the 501 & 505 naming schemes, there’s more of a rationale behind taking a brand new pair of jeans and tossing them into the tub to reach the ultimate experience when dealing with STF 501’s.

1967 pre-shrunk ad

Vintage Levis Pre-Shrunk advertisement (left), 1967 505-0252 (right)

Washing Your 501 Shrink-To-Fit

There are multiple theories when it comes to washing or not washing your jeans. Though many recommend wearing for as long as possible before washing and it’s hard for some to soak a crisp pair of raw jeans, it’s the most important step to give your denim a long life (as you’ll lessen the chance of rips, tears, and pesky blowouts).

We’ve covered soaking raw denim in previous articles, but have re-capped below in the context of the Shrink-To-Fit.

Step 1

Fill a tub with the hottest water available. Fill it up halfway or at least enough so the pair can be fully submerged underwater.

Step 2

Next, find items that can help hold down the pair underwater since jeans tend to float. Have the pair sit in the tub submerged for at least 20 minutes, you will see a bluish tint around the edge of the water since the indigo is slightly bleeding out.

Step 3

Once the 20 minutes have passed, hang your pair over a shower or tub since it will drip. Once you feel the pants are moist (not wet) put them on to ensure that your pair doesn’t shrink past your hips. This method also tends to make a better fit since it drys up on your body.

Step 4

Wear the pair until they have fully dried. Be careful to not sit on any  furniture or walk on white carpet if your pair tends to drag at all since it will bleed and stain.

Step 5

You’ve successfully shrunk your STF pair, now wear as much as desired.

1954 shrink to fit front

1954 501z Shrink to Fit; Before (left), After (right)

1954 strink to fit back

1954 501z Shrink to Fit; Before (left), After (right)

Levi’s Vintage Clothing also made a short video on how to tub wash your jeans. It varies a bit from my personal method but different methods is what Levi’s STF is all about.

Friendly and Final Reminders

  • Most Levi’s STF do not shrink 10% as advertised, many tend to shrink between 6-8% after the first wash.
  • If you buy an anti-fit pair like the 1933’s or 1955’s 501, shrinking will not change the overall fit of the jean. It will just become smaller but the straight fit will stay a straight fit.
  • The slimmest STF pairs in the LVC collection are 1954 501z, 1947XX and the 1978 Small “e
  • The 1966 “Bob Dylan” and 1978 501 have a lighter synthetic indigo dye so it tends to fade much faster then any other 501.

Alexander Ramos

Based in Los Angeles, Alex spends his time studying management at California State University, Northridge. He also interns for HVW8 art gallery during his spare time. Brands that he enjoys consist of Edwin jeans, Iron Heart, Levis and Momotaro.

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  • deathorglory

    Cool article! I have two STF and I have wondered wht to do with them in re. to soak or not soak. I`ve reckon its much better to soak them! Would love a bigger picture of that 501 history chart!

  • budley5

    Nice piece, but somewhat distorted… Here’s the exact truth about how Levi’s obtained one half of the original patent for riveted pockets from the real inventor, Jacob Davis of Reno Nevada:

    Jacob Davis, a tailor in Reno, was one of Levi Strauss’ regular fabric customers. In 1872, he wrote a letter to Strauss about his method of making work pants with metal rivets on the stress points–at the corners of the pockets and the base of the button fly–to make them stronger. As Davis didn’t have the money for the necessary paperwork, he suggested that Strauss provide the funds and that the two men get the patent together. Strauss agreed enthusiastically, and the patent for “Improvement in Fastening Pocket-Openings”–the innovation that would produce blue jeans as we know them–was granted to both men on May 20, 1873. In return Strauss offered that Davis could move to San Francisco and be responsible for the management of production. At first, production took place in private homes, but soon it became necessary to establish a factory, which Davis became head of.

    Around 1907 Davis sold his share in the patent and production to Levi Strauss & Co., but remained head of production until his death years later..

  • budley5

    I have written a book titled ‘Guaranteed to Shrink Wrinkle and Fade’ about my part in taking Levi’s from purely cowboy gear to worldwide Icon status, between 1964 and 1974. I will gladly offer a free link to it to any denimheads out there who might want to read such self-aggrandisement. E-mail me @ budley5@gmail.com

  • Zeke

    Okay, I may look stupid for asking this, but is it possible to find selvedge 501s from the mainline red tab brand in the States anymore? I knew they were available for a while but they’ve disappeared from the Levi’s website. I imagine they stopped making them as not to under cut LVC, but I don’t know that. I just want a pair of raw selvedge 501s.

    • Harry Ross

      Good question! I’ve struggled to find any mainline selvedge 501s in a raw state however there are a handful of beautifully broken in pairs on ebay going for < $100. Get them while they're still there!!

    • Jason Timpson

      They pop up now and again. Check eBay. I see them there all the time.

    • Domenico Jean-Michel Basquiat

      They do have them in the mainline, yea i’d check ebay also, or if u have an actual freestanding levi store where u live.

    • Dave Hough

      They are back but in limited sizes and colors

  • http://www.bucketsandspadesblog.com/ Matthew Pike

    That clears it up then, very handy article.

  • Tony

    What is wrong with all of you. It’s dudes like all of you that has takin a product like levi and turn it in to something that it was never. Pants for homos. In my day you threw your pants in the washer and then threw them in the dryer. They were made a lot tougher back then like the real men that wore them. You all are as soft as the fax denim that they make this crap out of these days and then over charge for. Lees are looking better and better all the time, levi don’t even advertise to real men these days like lee’s.

    • ijustwishi

      Haha who ARE you?! Are you an actual person? How did you even manage to find this “homo” site?

    • rachelsanders

      What’s really interesting is that clothing reflects socioeconomic status. Expensive jeans denote high socioeconomic status. So, in fact, men who take a great deal of interest in fashion are going to be much more successful in attracting women, as these men are demonstrating their access to resources which is what women are evolutionarily attracted to.

      So, wearing expensive Levi’s jeans makes you THE MOST STRAIGHT MAN POSSIBLE

  • Denimhead

    Anyone who buys into the “don’t wash for 6 month deal” is nuts. Think of all the sweat, piss, dropped beers, dry humping girl juice. Wash the jeans and you can still have a killer fade. I wash all my raws and whenever i stop by an overpriced denim store they usually comment on what a dope fade I have achieved, saying “never washed yeah” No washed all the fuckin time.

  • Chen

    Love the video. Hate how if you watch selfedge’s explanation on how to fit raws they say sitting while in jeans is a terrible mistake and causes elephant knee. Wow. Self Edge is selfing themselves out of me ever shopping there.

    1st don’t diss a tried and true method.
    2nd elephant knee is for folks like you guys (SelfEdge) that dont know how to size your denim right to begin with, and a little stretch helps with motion. Dam I hate hearing people preach about stuff they don’t understand. Keep wearing your denim 2 sizes too small.

  • Gregg R

    That was a great read. So much info….incredible. This website is an absolute pleasure to read everyday, I have learned so much in just a few short weeks, I find myself spending all my extra time right here. EVERY ARTICLE is a keeper IMO. Keep em’ coming.:-)

  • Jett129

    I have a question-Does soaking raw denim jeans turn the bath tub blue?

    • Dave Hough

      It will rinse out if you take care of it right away

  • Faxon

    Hey there. When I was young fit and skinny in the 1970’s I lived in 501’s. I bought them at a store that catered to working men (me a female) and they were about $16.95 a pair so I waited until they were on sale for $14.95. I threw them in a hot washing machine and then dryer. They were still like wearing cardboard for quite a while, but they fit great and lasted forever. Even though I actually washed them. Will you young folk please explain- how can you wear a pair of jeans for weeks or months without washing them? Don’t we all have orifices down there that… stuff comes out of?

  • Rubén Darío Salas

    Dear friends, I have recently been blessed to get a lvc 1890 501xx, what an awesome purchase! It fits very baggy and long on me (as it’s supposed to) and I was wondering if I should shrink em in the bathtub so they last longer. Will these jeans shrunk too much?

    I also got a pair of lvc 1947s, I wanted to have the first model and then the one that changed it all, unfortunately this one fits about two sizes snug on my waist but it’s perfect everywhere else, what should I do then? Will it stretch with regular wear?

    Thanks for all your help! Love this website!