What’s the Difference Between Chambray and Denim?

difference-between-chambray-and-denim

Here’s the kind of stuff I think about when I’m laying in bed at night: What will I do when Scrappy goes off to college? What is that thing stuck to the ceiling? Oh, and WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN CHAMBRAY AND DENIM??

That last one was really getting to me. I had a dream about driving away from Scrappy’s dorm room and through my tears I couldn’t figure out the weave of her blue-hued tunic. Was it denim? Was it chambray? It was all pretty emotional.

So, I set out to find out what the difference was between chambray and denim once and for all, and share that answer with all of you… even though it was my question and not yours.

What's the Difference Between Chambray and Denim?

Like most mysteries, this one can be solved with a good old-fashioned magnifying glass. If you don’t have a magnifying glass handy, allow me, Sherlock Suzy, to tell you what you’ll see if you take a good close look. Now onto the mystery of the vast and narrow difference between chambray and denim...

Anatomy of Chambray

This fabric has a straight-up plain weave, but there’s a twist. The warp* is made up with a colored yarn (often blue), while the weft* is (often) white yarn. In a plain weave like this one, the warp and weft threads alternate one over the other.

BUT WAIT… isn’t that exactly what denim is?

Actually, no. Close, but no.

*What the heck is weft and warp? In weaving, yarns that run vertically on the loom are called the warp. These yarns are fine, yet strong. They make up the core of the fabric, providing structure and support. The weft yarns then weave in and out of the warp. Green House Fabrics came up with a great diagram to show this. You can even see how a twill is on the diagonal! Oh, but now I'm getting ahead of myself. Keep reading..

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sewing-with-chambray-fabric

In the photo above the chambray on top is Birch Fabrics and on bottom is a rayon chambray. (Oh yes, they don't have to be cotton.)

Anatomy of Denim

OK, yes, so denim also has a colored yarn in the warp and a white yarn in the weft, and yes, it is woven, BUT IT’S NOT A PLAIN WEAVE, PEOPLE! It’s twill. See, told you it was different. In twill fabrics like denim, the warp thread goes over two threads in the weft, before going under one.

This is why the back side of denim is usually lighter in color than the front side, while the two sides of chambray usually look pretty much the same. You’ll also notice that denim has that familiar diagonal pattern on the back, while chambray is more of a criss-cross (this can be a great quick litmus test in the denim vs. chambray debate if you need one!)

sewing-with-denim-fabric

The denim above is Distressed Triangles.

Now I Know, Let's Sew!

Can you believe that in 4 minutes we just solved one of the great fabric mysteries of our generation?? Next time someone off the street stops you and in a panic asks, "How do I get to North Ave. and what the heck is the difference between chambray and denim??" You'll know just what to say....unless you don't know how to get to North Ave.

Now that you know how to win this fabric-identification argument and appear to be a genius, here are a few more tips you should have stashed in your tool belt if you want to include either chambray or denim in your next sewing project.

sew-with-denim-and-chambray

Sewing with Chambray

Typically, chambray fabric is 100% cotton (although you may find the occasional blend out in the wild. Member that rayon chambray above?) Whether it's cotton or not, y’all know what to do – prewash it to pre-shrink it before sewing. The prewash should be with hot water, as well as a hot tumble dry. It's gonna shriiiiiink.

If it's a dark chambray, I highly recommend tossing a healthy pour of Retayne into the washing machine during your prewash. Here's a quick refresher on the two main chemicals we talk about dumping into our washing machines here at SQ:

  1. Retayne: sets dye into fabric. Retayne PREVENTS fabric dye bleeding by locking dye into fabric. DO NOT use it if you are experiencing a fabric bleed situation. I keep a bottle of Retayne in my laundry room and pour some into every prewash that includes highly saturated color fabric.
  2. Synthrapol: releases dye from fabric. Knowing that, I don't think I need to warn you not to dump this into your washing machine when washing a quilt....cause you know that, right? Use Synthrapol when either dyeing your own fabric or working to get naughty fabric from bleeding. Read more about fixing fabric bleeds here.

Also good to know about chambray – it likes to wrinkle. It’s really good at it. Pressing it with a hot iron (on the right setting) and using some steam usually does the trick. Here's my pick for the Best Iron for Sewing.

Sewing with chambray can be pretty stellar, since it’s so soft and lightweight. There is about a 10% stretch across the grain, but nothing you can’t handle. To add some stiffness, use a bit of starch. Read more about using starch here!

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Sewing with Chambray Recap:

  1. Prewash, possibly with Retayne.
  2. It wrinkles pretty easily and also stretches a bit so...
  3. Iron with steam and/or use starch.

Sewing with Denim

You know I have a whoooole blog post on this, right? Cause in our Quilty Adventure Tour, we cover all the main substrates. See below for the list!

Now watch out, sewists. We’ve got a bleeder. Brand new denim often bleeds out some of the indigo dye that’s typically used to color the fabric, so it’s definitely worth a prewash AND use that Retayne (see above).

Prewashing will often soften thick denim up a bit, too, so some quilters actually prefer to wash it twice! Denim also likes to fraaaay like cray, so use a fresh blade on your rotary cutter, and consider zig-zagging or serging raw edges depending on what you’re working on. A 1/2" seam and pinking shears is also a great way to eliminate some fraying.

chambray-denim-Difference

If you’ve ever owned a pair of jeans, you know that denim does stretch out a little… but raw denim isn’t going to be as stretchy as your stretchy jeggings. If you hold denim firmly while sewing and avoid pulling it, you can avoid any major stretching probs.

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Denim can be really heavy, durable, and long-lasting, but also comes in lighter varieties, aaaaaalmost like chambray. But not quite. And now you know the difference!

Sewing with Denim Recap:

  1. IT BLEEDS. So do all the things you know you need to do.
  2. IT FRAYS. So stay sharp.
  3. It's mega strong. Just like you.

One Last Tip

Before letting you go, I wanted to share one last tip about the difference between chambray and denim – when it comes to ironing, there is no difference! A crisp seam is what we quilters love and in this video I snagged from my Instagram stories (hence the weird vertical orientation), I show you an amazing and eeeeasy way to get your denim and chambray to lay perfectly flat.

Do you have a chambray or denim project you'd like to share? Or maybe some tips you learned along the way? Let us know in the comments!

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Suzy Quilts

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7 thoughts on “What’s the Difference Between Chambray and Denim?

  1. Lisa says:

    eek birch yarn dyed chambray in hankie 19 inch squares don’t look so much fun to me anymore …see I was thinking of cutting them into rectangles to make a baby blanket…but …if I wash them they will shrink maybe fray maybe bleed? I think Birch fabrics needs to slide some your way so you can set me straight on this fabric!

    • Suzy Quilts says:

      Here’ the skinny on Birch chambray – it’s soft as butter, does not bleed, and yes, frays a little…also wrinkles more than your average quilting cotton. If you check out the second quilt I made using my Indian Summer pattern, you can see a throw using only Birch chambray. The key to making so many HSTs with this stuff was starch, starch, and more starch.

  2. Arlene says:

    That is very good info. Thank you, Suzy. In your research, did you also find out how the 2 fabrics were named, and why they are blue? History is an important aspect of fabricolism 😜

  3. Linda says:

    That was a blast! It’s been a while since I was in Fabric class, warp weft weave!!!! Very fun and informative.

  4. Pingback: How is Fabric Made? Understand the Process in 3 Steps - Suzy Quilts

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