How to sew with denim! This next series of posts is very exciting because I'm 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 guide – Parson 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.
Read More From Our Quilty Adventures!
WELCOME TO DENIM
Home of the Strong and the Snagless
How to Sew with Denim: 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!
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!)
Above is the Fly Away quilt pattern. Get the instant PDF download in the shop!
How to Sew with Denim: What to Pack
Before you sew 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 denim or chambray (What's the difference between denim and chambray? Read here!). 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!)
How to Sew with Denim: 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
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)
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. 🙂
It gets pretty cloudy here in Chicago during the winter months....
My Brother's Jeans, Melissa Averinos
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
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!
31 thoughts on “A Quilty Adventure Part I: How to Sew with Denim”
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
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!
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! 🙂
Go ahead and use the corduroy, but leave out the batting. It WILL be heavy, but yummy warm!
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.
I couldn’t have said it better myself. Thank you for the insightful comment!
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.
I have a HUGE pile of old jeans I’ve been collecting from friends and family over the years. I’m going to work on a denim quilt next but first I made the mistake of searching Pinterest and finding decorative pillows from old jeans. I made the front but need advice on what to do with the back. I’m worried that a cotton fabric is too light to pair with the denim. Won’t the denim pull and tear the lighter weight cotton after washing a few times? What fabrics are ok to sew to denim? The front of the pillow is blue jean chevron and beautiful and a lot of work that I don’t want to spend another week repeating. I want to put a solid piece or fabric, patterned or solid on back to complement the front.
If you don’t want to sew more denim to the back, I would recommend some linen or a cotton/linen blend. 100% linen is very strong and will be a beautifully compatible weight to your denim. A linen blend, such as Essex linen, is also a great, heavier weight option, but because it’s a blend, it won’t fray as much.
How do you quilt the jeans to the batting and backing? I am having a hard time the backing is full of puckers. Should I tie it instead? Any suggestions?
It sounds like your backing is not pulled tight during the basting process. Check out this post to see if it helps – https://suzyquilts.com/how-to-baste-a-quilt/
I have made a denim quilt for each of my four sons and one of my daughters. I have backed them with flannel, only to have the denim out wear the flannel. One of my sons wanted to put a new back on his quilt, plus it was wearing out on the top, so I made a deal with him, if you take all of the ties out, I will mend the top. We did and I had such fun putting patches on the blocks that needed fixed. Instead of putting a batt in it, this time we put a fleece back on it and tied it. Yes, I have taught my sons to tie quilts, and they have enjoyed working with their mom and sisters on different projects. The fleece will wear better than flannel.
I love this! And I’m sure your kids value time spent with you so much. Thanks, Maralyn!
I used scrap jeans for a “crown royal bag” quilt. I turned out really great.
These quilts are stunning. So, can you use denim with other fabrics of different weights in the same quilt? I’m making quilts out of my mother’s old clothing and I’m trying to figure out the denim issue. She had so many different looking denim jeans that are “so mom” to my siblings and I. Ideally I’d be able to mix them in with all of the scraps from her shirts/dresses, but it seems like they won’t mix well from what people have told me. As nice as it would be to have them all mixed in together for the quilts, would I be better off reserving all of her denim for a quilt of it’s own? Thank you!
Great question and some of it comes down to how thick the denim is. I’ve mixed denim with other fabrics of similar weight, but you may run into some problems with the drape of the quilt if you sew really thick fabric to relatively thin fabric. If you have enough, I’d pair up fabrics of similar weight and make multiple quilts.
I’m cutting up a pile of jeans for my quilt and getting excited! None of the tutorials I’ve reviewed address denim with stretch. Do you recommend adding interfacing? Some of the jeans I’m working with have a lot of stretch. Some not so much.
If your jeans have a bit of stretch that means they aren’t 100% cotton denim, but probably a cotton/spandex or cotton/lycra blend. Unless they are really thin, I would skip the interfacing and just try not to stretch them too much while sewing.
I was planning to pair a flannel whole cloth front to a whole cloth denim back (no batting), but am concerned hand stitching might be too difficult? Alternatively, I could forgo the denim for quilting cotton. What would you suggest? Thank you!
If you’re worried that it will be hard to push a needle in and out of those layers, I suggest cutting a small sample and testing it out. I wouldn’t want you to get carpal tunnel syndrome from a quilting project! 😉
How do you find the lightweight 4 oz denim behaves, especially for hand quilting? I’m thinking of trying it for backing a quilt, with some in the front as well, and I sew by hand.
It works great! Heavier denim can be a little bit tougher to pull a needle through.
trying to place an order and paypal keeps kicking me out.
how can I order with a credit card and avoid paypal?
I’m so sorry about this hassle! If you send an email to email@example.com someone can walk you through the process. There should be an option to pay with a credit card so you can avoid PayPal.
I made a Cathedral Window quilt using “loved” denim. It is so colorful and soft, and even though it’s denim, it is lightweight and warm. One of my favorites.
Do I need to worry about the Jean squares fraying too much once it is sewn together ? I am doing squares with a cotton backing and a batting in side.
And is a batting going to be too heavy ? Or do I use a flannel as the middle ?
As long as you’re seam allowance is no less than 1/4″ you should be fine. I also think batting is a good choice over flannel.
Thank you for all this information! If you prewash the denim to ensure the color doesn’t bleed, do you recommend prewashing the rest of the fabric? I’m thinking of making a cotton/denim blend picnic quilt with the quilt top made out of cotton fabrics and the backing out of denim.
Prewashing all of the fabric would be best.
I’m using my dads old jeans and old flannel shirts and do a random plus pattern quilt mixing the Jean pluses with the flannel pluses. Most likely more flannel than Jean pluses. But are there any considerations with sewing with denim and flannel together?
I would use a wider seam allowance if possible. Something closer to 3/8″ or 1/2″. Also spraying the fabric with starch before cutting and piecing would make your sewing more accurate.