Stinky Pants: Sulfur Black Unbranded Jeans

I got my first pair of raw selvedge denim jeans in 1999 after doing some work for Von Dutch right before they opened their shop on Melrose Ave, and way before they over saturated the market with trucker hats. The jeans were awesome and held up for several years of heavy use. Over the years I’ve tried several brands with varying degrees of success but the most common complaint I’ve had has been the cost vs. quality. Not naming names but I know we’ve all had $200-$300 ‘premium’ brand jeans fall to shit in 6 months.

A few months ago I heard about the ‘Naked and Famous‘ offshoot ‘Unbranded‘ and figured for $70 they were worth a try. I ordered a pair of tapered indigo and with the exception of the giant leather tag liked them – the denim was a nice weight and the cut fit me well. After they broke in I decided I was happy enough with them to order another pair. Having never owned black selvedge denim I figured it would be fun to see how they’d fade. Blue Owl Workshop had my size so I added them to my cart and waited a few days for them to arrive.

The mailman came with the goods and I started to unpack my dungarees. Upon opening the package a wave of sulfur stink, like a thousand burnt matches, hit me hard. Having no other sulfur black jeans as reference I figured this might be normal and would die down after a few days. I put them outside for 2 days, brought them back in, and the smell was still just as bad. Figuring the stink was in the fabric deep I decided to try a light acid (vinegar) soak – I’ve done this to hundred of garments in my lifetime with great success. With these jeans however, nothing. When that failed I tried to go the other way with pH – using a baking soda solution to soak. Again, nothing. Still thinking this was just a normal fact of life with sulfur dye I sent the jeans in for hemming and thought the smell just needed more time to break down.

When I got them back from blue owl about 4″s shorter they seemed to not smell as bad, the sulfur was a bit less and there was now a dyer sheet fragrance in the mix. They had done another soak and I thought maybe the tide had finally turned. I put the pants on and within two hours had to take them off – the dryer sheet smell got overpowered with the sulfur odor as soon as my body heat warmed up the fabric. I emailed ‘Unbranded‘ to see if they had any advice and have yet to hear back from them. By this point I was getting annoyed and turned to the internet for help.

I found mention of similar problems on several websites but no one had any solutions that would work for me. Some suggested returning them, this wasn’t an option since I had them hemmed. Others said fabreeze was the cure, but I didn’t want to spray them down with that because it just temporarily masks the smell with one almost as bad. Several sites suggested freezing to get rid of other smells so I tried that – the cold did seem to reduce the smell until they warmed back up. Getting desperate I did another vinegar soak and let them hang for a few hours till they were still damp at which point I put them back in the freezer and froze them solid. I let them thaw back out, and the smell was still there.

After this many failures I was about to give up and resign these pants to my donation pile until I read on wikipedia: “Sulfur dyes are water insoluble. They have to be treated with a reducing agent and an alkali at temperature of around 80 degrees Celsius where the dye breaks into small particles which then becomes water soluble and hence can be absorbed by the fabric.”. This explains why soaking did nothing – if the dye was the source of the smell and insoluble in water then no length of time underwater was going to help. This got me thinking, what if I exposed them extreme heat? 80°C is about 176°F – no issue for an oven. I preheated my stove to 400°F and turned it back to 250°F once it was hot enough (I did this to prevent the heat from coming back on while the jeans were inside). Flipped inside out and folded to fit on my center rack I stuck them in for a few minutes and shut the door. When I pulled them out the smell was worse than ever, with visible fumes coming out of the fabric. I opened the window and turned on the fan, refolded and repositioned the jeans back on the rack and waited some more. I was careful to keep repeating this process so the pants wouldn’t scorch. When I was finished the smell had lessened to such a degree I could actually wear them for an entire day.

After another overnight soak I noticed the water had turned more grey than any of the prior soaks. To be thorough I gave the pants a 2nd oven treatment and a few clean water baths until the rinse water was no longer turning color. Once the fabric dried the smell was finally gone.  With all the abusive treatments the denim still looked good and maybe will pay off in the long run with some nice fades. Ultimately I don’t think I’ll every buy another pair from ‘Unbranded‘, not because of the dye problem but how they ignored my email. Trying to save a buck cost me when it came to customer service. There are too many other companies out there who are willing to work harder to retain me as a customer.


12 thoughts on “Stinky Pants: Sulfur Black Unbranded Jeans

  1. Here from “Bad with Titles”, and MUCH thanks. Yay for solving problems with research!

    I’ve avoided buying certain jeans because of the smell, but my favorite brand is of the stinky variety. I will try this.

  2. Pingback: Raw Denim Cleaning – Vinegar Soak, Oven Treatment | Rawr Denim - Home of Everything Raw and Denim

  3. Thanks so much for this great tip! I was distraught thinking I was going to have to throw out my new favorite jeans because the smell was so bad. Nothing seemed to work, but I just did this oven trick and its like night and day! I may not even need to do another round in the oven. Thanks for saving my day!

  4. just bought a pair of these and heard about this problem afterwards…
    i wonder if all the Black ones suffer from this problem….i have a pair of the indigo ones that smelt just fine when i purchased them…

    at least now i know how to fix them if i run into the same issue. my fiancee is used to seeing my other pants in the freezer….i think she’ll have a meltdown if she finds me baking my denim.

    maybe i’ll wait until she’s gone out.


    • It doesn’t seem like they all do. I’ve seen a few pair of the sulfur blacks that haven’t had the stench at all. This particular pair you could smell from a few feet away as soon as they came out of the bag.

      • there’s a slight sulfur smell to them….really, nothing too pungent .. going to give them a wear tomorrow and if i smell like a match stick they’re going in the stove.

    • I put them in slightly damp with just water. The damp fabric steamed the smell right out but also shrank the denim a little more, they feel like they are about 1 size smaller than another pair I have in indigo. I’m actually wearing that pair right now. They still look good and are finally showing some subtle sulfur black fades in the knees.

  5. Thanks for your post… my son’s new Wrangler jeans smell horrible so a little internet research brought me here. They are in the oven at the moment and we all have our fingers crossed…

  6. Yeah I suffer from stinky levi’s real bad. Sometimes it can be incredibly embarrassing, as I won’t know that they smell until they warm up. ie just as I arrive to work. I have tried everything. Here are a few observations that might be of interest:

    An older pair of the same cut/color/brand will stink almost immediately (c.f new ones).
    I once wondered if the type of detergent made a diff? So I washed in a detergent called CT18 (its a highly caustic truck wash). Did the trick!! However its not really practical, but will test this again. Wonder if steam cleaning is better?

    Have to keep trying for fear of social embarrassment. I shower everyday! I only wear my jeans one day! I don’t fart in my jeans! this is driving me crazy, and is sooooo embarrassing. Surely someone can work this out.

  7. I am chemically sensitive and to reduce the smell of new jeans, I wash them a couple of times and then turn them inside out and hang them in the sun for 3 weeks or longer. I do a few days of sun right side out, too. This has worked quite well on RW&Co jeans. One of them lost the smell completely. Two others, one of which is black, have lost 85% of their smell so they’ll have to stay out longer. I wish I knew a faster way to de-tox them. They ‘re all stretch jeans which makes me leery of using high temperatures. Plus I don’t want them to shrink.

    Interestingly, one dark blue pair put blue dye into the wash water as I washed them 7 times before sunning. After 3 weeks in the sun, I washed them again, and this time the wash water was a murky dull yellow colour. I know from a university website that the sun will transmute moth ball chemicals in fabrics to something that no longer smells, so I assume the sun transmutes the dye chemicals, too.

    I bought a black cotton dress which smelled in places like someone’s perfume, to which I have sensitivities. I hung it inside out in the sun for about 3 weeks and the perfume smell disappeared 100%. Love the sun!

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