A Quilty Adventure Part I: How to Sew with Denim

how-to-sew-with-denim

This next series of posts is going to take you on the adventure of a lifetime (and y’all know me. I never exaggerate.) Prepare yourselves to boldly go where few quilters have ever gone before: on an exploration of seldom-used, underrated, crazy-difficult or just plain strange fabric options that you may have never even thought of before.

Are you excited? I’m excited. And a little scared. But we’ll have each other, right?

Our first stop? Denim.​

Now, denim has that rough ‘n tumble, don’t-mess-with-me vibe that can be a little intimidating. But here’s the thing about denim – if you work with it, it softens right up.​

Let’s take a tour...


Quick sidenote, I mentioned a new book that just came out in my holiday gift guideParson Gray Trade Quilts: 20 Rough-Hewn Projects. There is an entire section about quilting with denim, so pick it up if you haven't already.

free-denim-quilt-pattern

Click here for a free denim quilt pattern!

WELCOME TO DENIM

Home of the Strong and the Snagless​

The History

You may know denim by its other name, “jeans,” or maybe even “dungarees.” Both of these words actually come from other (non-English) languages.

“Jeans” is derived from the name of a city in Italy, Gênes (though we call it Genoa.) Sailors from this town in Italy wore jeans like it was their job. “Dungarees,” on the other hand, is one of the only Hindi words that made it into the English language. The word translates to “coarse fabric,” and denim-like scraps have been found in India dating back over 5,000 years. Ah-mazing!

Special Attractions

Denim has some pretty special attributes, and you’ll want to keep them in mind while sewing or quilting with the fabric.

First of all, it’s super strong, and lasts a long, long time. This can be a big draw to using denim, especially for projects you want to stick around for a few generations. Another great attraction? The stuff doesn’t snag.

Denim, I’m really starting to like you…

To get the softest, color-safest version of denim you can, pre-wash your fabric, and pre-wash it alone. Color run-off is pretty common with denim, which you may have noticed if you have ever washed new jeans with a white shirt. (My sympathies! I’ve done it, too!)

quilting-with-denim

What to Pack

Before sewing with denim, make sure you stock your sewing kit with the right gear.

Because of the growing popularity of sewing with denim in the quilting world, some fabric manufacturers have released their own lines of lightweight chambray (a.k.a. denim). If that's the case, you may be able to get away with treating it the same as regular quilting cotton broadcloth.

However, if you are cutting up an old pair of jeans or getting denim meant for apparel, that means you need to use HEAVY DUTY EVERYTHING. Denim’s tough. To make sure you don’t damage any of your tools, use the sharpest, strongest ones you have. This means extra-sharp scissors and rotary cutter blades, heavy duty needles (these are very good when working with denim) and heavy-duty thread (upholstery thread works!)

The Itinerary

If you’re about to explore denim (especially on a quilt level), you need to have a plan. We already talked about having sharper than sharp tools, but here are some more tips to keep in mind during your denim adventure: 

  • Use a longer stitch than normal. Maybe even do a test-run of this stitch, to make sure you’re tension is correct. After quilting with thinner, more delicate fabrics, denim’s a whole new animal.​
  • Iron your seams flat OR make sure when joining seams, they are going opposite directions. Denim is pretty bulky and if two seams are joined right on top of each other it will create a thick bump you may not be able to sew through.
  • Take your time. You’re going to want to hold denim as firmly as you can while you feed it into the machine. No pushing, no pulling, no risking a broken needle. Hold it firmly, and let denim do it’s thang.
  • Put your presser foot in the air like you just don’t care. If you think your presser foot can’t get any higher than its high position…check again! It probably can. And you’re going to want it as high as you can get it to reduce tension on the denim. Another option is to switch out feet and use a walking foot.

Meet Some of the Locals

Make sure you check out these awesome denim-based quilts. Denim can be much more elegant and modern than you think it can! Just take a look at a few of these:​

Fishing Net Quilt (Get the pattern!), Caitlyn Williams

denimquilt

Caitlyn is one of the most talented people I know. Just to give you an example – she made my wedding dress...and it was straight up couture. Ya, she's MINE and you can't have her. 😉 

Anyway, she used castoff jeans to make this quilt top. Since the denim was so heavy, she opted out of using batting and is using a beautiful plaid wool as the backing that you can kind of see popping out around the edges. To achieve the gorgeous variation of color, Caitlyn used both the front and the back of the different pairs of ripped up jeans.

A couple tips she has to sew with denim, after getting halfway through making this quilt:

  • For the sashiko stitching, she is using the sharpest needle she can find and changing it often. She is also using 2 strands of embroidery floss to get that nice thick stitch.
  • For those who have hand quilted before, you may be used to catching multiple stitches at a time. Since the denim is so thick, Caitlyn pointed out that she can only stitch one stitch at a time – so the process does go slower than if using lightweight cotton.
  • By not using batting, you do see some of the bulky seams through the backing, but that adds to the distressed look of the quilt
  • She used an 80/12 machine needle and changed it relatively often. 

Lake Michigan in Denim, Yours Truly (me...Suzy)

denim-quilt-suzy-quilts

I wrote all about popping my denim cherry in my previous post about this quilt. Sooooo...instead of telling you more about it, I'm just gonna post some cute pictures of Scrappy. 🙂

denim-half-square-triangle-quilt
quilt-dog

It gets pretty cloudy here in Chicago during the winter months....

denim-quilt

My Brother's Jeans, Melissa Averinos

my brothers jeans quilt

Where to begin with this quilt...well, first, I should say that it was the QuiltCon 2016 Best In Show Winner.

While at QuiltCon I found myself losing track of time standing in front of this quilt. Every time my hand drifted up to touch one of the many textured details, I had to slap it down and remind myself that "YA CAN'T TOUCH THE QUILTS." 

Seeing this up close...well...it changed me. I'm not trying to be overly dramatic here – the thought and process behind this quilt opened me up to thinking about textiles and family and emotion and depression and the energy that you feel when you are holding something in your hands and remembering a person who is no longer alive. I know I'm rambling, but this quilt...even simply typing about it I get choked up.

OK, let me start over. My Brother's Jeans uses recycled denim – and not just the new-ish looking denim, but the stained, and ripped parts. Aside from adding rich texture to the quilt, there is a thoughtful reason behind this.

The story is such an inspiring one, only the artist herself can do it justice. As stated by Melissa in her description of the quilt, "The denim in this quilt is from my brother Michael's work jeans, which I rescued from the dumpster after his suicide in 2009." 

To read more about her and her process behind this quilt, visit this blog post.


Woven Denim Quilt, Mister Domestic

woven-denim-quilt

Weaving with denim? We just shot up to the next level. I have yet to try this technique, but I think we can all admit that it's not just stunning to look at, but makes you want to reach through your computer screen and stroke it. Right?? That texture is making me drool all over my keyboard!

I did a little bit of research and it looks like Mister Domestic sells a pattern with weaving instructions.


Before You Check Out

If this is your first time hangin’ with denim, you're probably having a bit of culture shock. Denim’s strength can also make it a little hard to sew with if you’re not used to it. My advice? Try it anyway! Don’t worry about not being perfect! And make sure to share your experience with me and your fellow travelers in the comments below!​

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5 thoughts on “A Quilty Adventure Part I: How to Sew with Denim

  1. Stephanie says:

    Love the thought of sewing with denim. Never thought about a full on denim quilt. I want to start on one right away. Great post. Thanks

  2. Jenni says:

    So I made my daughter a denim quilt top out of her old jeans about 5 yrs ago and have never finished it. I just don’t know what to do. What fabric to back it with? batting or no? I bought red corduroy to back it with but that seems crazy heavy. I need help!

    • Suzy says:

      Corduroy would definitely add weight. Have you thought about using regular lightweight cotton for the backing? Or even flannel? That could add a nice cozy contrast. If you go with flannel, you could get away with no batting, depending on how warm you want the quilt to be. If using lightweight cotton broadcloth, though, I’d use batting so you can’t feel/see the bulky seams of the quilt top.

      It’s going to be fabulous once you’re finished. You can do it! 🙂

  3. Ellen Hatfield-Nicholson says:

    Thank you – I’ve been working on some rather improvisational salvage denim baby quilts and was about to put a queen sized version on the long arm. Your notes and comments were very helpful – and your link to Melissa and “My Brother’s Jeans” was an …epiphany. Thank you, thank you. Quilters come from so many physical and spiritual places. So many of us work away quietly toiling in basements, sewing rooms and unused sunday school rooms. It is an art which speaks to our very human sense of warmth and comfort – and sharing that universal prayer for comfort.

  4. Allison P says:

    Very interesting article. Thanks.

    You might be interested to know that the word “denim” is from the French – “serge de Nimes” – Nimes being the town in France where serge was mostly woven.

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