Fashion & Style

Is Your T-Shirt ‘Nibbled’ or ‘Mothbitten’?

“You wore it in a lake, you wore it sliding down a dirt hill,” says Blaine Halvorson, founder of clothing company MadeWorn.

But you didn’t really.

The goal of MadeWorn’s rock-concert T-shirts is to mimic a shirt that was worn at least once a week for 20 years, Mr. Halvorson says.

They sell for $160 and up. Each one is sanded, stretched, nicked and torn for 10 to 15 minutes by a staff of four employees at his Los Angeles art studio. In addition, the shirts go through multiple wash cycles and get hung out in the sun.

Mr. Halvorson makes shoes, jackets, jeans and other garments as well, working with nature and chemistry to perfect their wear and tear. He has poured coffee over shoes buried in dirt piles and has let animals stomp on swatches of leather (the outcome was too smelly to wear).

Designers call it “distressed” when fabric has been worn to look old and weathered. Now, using an arsenal of everything from air guns to lasers to dremel rotary tools, retailers and designers say we have hit a moment of peak distress. Holes, rips and tears have become shortcuts for people trying to convey they have carefree, unfussy lives and adventures under their belts. Worn details appear in everything from jeans to T-shirts and even dresses that are marketed as “nibbled,” “mothbitten” “shredded,” “destroyed” and “loveworn.”

Dawn Carter says she loves the faded shade of black, loose threads around the edges and holes of a MadeWorn T-shirt she recently bought. “The little nicks and holes are how an old fabric would wear over time,” says the 45-year old psychologist in Newport Beach, Calif.

“It does seem to be extreme at the moment,” says Mo Riach, head of design for Topshop, a British label that includes a $28 “long-sleeve nibbled T-shirt” specked with holes. A $60 pair of shredded “mom shorts” are sold with “ripped details, authentic trims.”

Clothing designers ask Bill Curtin, owner of BPD Washhouse in Jersey City, N.J., which processes denim, “how can we destroy it to be completely shredded but still wearable?” he says.

Sometimes, creating a look of destruction can require several meetings with a designer. Mr. Curtin recalls recently following a pattern that specified a ripped knee hole. When he met with the design team, however, they felt the opening oddly resembled an elephant’s face.

“The shape itself turned into something that looked conversational and not abstract enough,” he says. “We had to go back in and add more destroying to it.”

Overall, denim distress requires a two-phase process that can take up to eight hours, says Mr. Curtin, and labor can cost five times the price of the fabric. “When you buy a $200 jean, you’re getting a jean that’s been touched by a lot of hands,” he says.

The “dry process” involves manual abrasion, including sandpapering by hand and using a dremel tool on belt loops, waistbands and on the fly, “so that the yarn starts breaking and threads come through,” he says. Increasingly, designers want to see holes, he says. “Some of them like to keep the yarns so you can see them crossing over a hole. There are others who want skin to show through,” he says. An air-pressure gun is typically used to clear out extra threads. A solution of potassium permanganate is then sprayed on the fabric to encourage more fading.

Then, the “wet process” involves a series of laundry cycles, usually at 60 rotations a minute, with some combination of pumice stones, enzymes and softeners.

For the “ass rip collection,” by Re/done jeans, someone has used a knife to make a slit in the area below the right back pocket, where the jean might naturally tend to tear over time. It is sanded down with sandpaper “so the threads start hanging and the color fades,” says Sean Barron, co-founder of the Los Angeles-based label that specializes in reconstructing jeans from old denim.

Runway fashions led the way as labels such as Comme des Garçons and Maison Margiela have showcased models wearing holes and tattered shreds for several years. Kanye West’s Yeezy menswear line has also featured torn sweaters and sweatshirts since 2015, which helped bring distress styles to mass-market appeal, says Sidney Morgan-Petro, senior retail editor for WGSN, a fashion trend forecasting company.

The pre-ripped and torn versions of Pam & Gela track pants and T-shirts now outsell the clean versions by 40%, say co-founders Pamela Skaist-Levy and Gela Nash-Taylor. “We love to shred over the shoulder. It looks cool and feminine but also tough,” says Ms. Skaist-Levy. The line’s $165 Destroyed Holey Annie sweatshirt features box-cutter rips around the neckline and shoulder area.

“It’s expensive because it’s all done by hand,” says Ms. Nash-Taylor. The tears “have to be placed strategically, otherwise it looks like Swiss cheese.”

A Basic Annie sweatshirt without the holes is less expensive—at $135.

Jill Goldman, a 54-year-old filmmaker in Los Angeles says that her Holey Annie sweatshirt adds something “punk-rock edgy” to an outfit that can be dressed up with heels, to give a look that says “you’re not trying, but still chic,” she says. She appreciates that the holes in her sweatshirt look natural yet evenly distributed.

“I care about where my holes are placed,” she says. “If I were ripping my own clothes, it would look terrible. I would never do that.”

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