Denim is a very popular fabric these days and is synonymous with jeans. Because the fabric is so common, many sewists have limited experience with it so I wanted to offer some tips and tricks for sewing denim.
First, however, some background. Today term “jeans” usually refers to a specific style of pants, called Blue Jeans. These“rivet-reinforced” denim pants were invented by Jacob W. Davis, along with Levi Strauss & Co., in 1871. We did a post a few months about highlighting this story of Levi Strauss, who perhaps more than any other individual or institution has done more to expand the role of denim in our society.
Origins of Denim
However, given this important American contribution to the success of denim, what most people don’t know today is that denim was actually invented in France. In fact, the word “denim” comes from the French “de” which means from and “Nîmes” which is a wonderful town in the south of France where denim was invented during the Middle Ages. So denim literally means “from Nîmes”. Originally called, “serge de Nîmes”, the name eventually shortened to denim in 1864.
Nîmes is an ancient Roman city most famous for its colosseum and aqueduct known as the Pont de Gard which stands over 160 feet high over the Gardon River and was build in the first century AD as part of a 50km system to carry water to the prosperous Roman colony of Nemausus, today know as Nîmes.
The contemporary use of the word “jeans” actually comes from the French word for Genoa, Italy (Gênes) as sailors from this town were known to wear these cotton trousers. Jeans are also often referred to as dungarees which means coarse fabric and is one of the very few words from Hindi, one of the major languages from India, to make it into the English language. Cotton fabric dating back over 5,000 years has been found by archeologists in what is today West Pakistan and India.
The world's beloved “jeans” have been around for a very long time!
Characteristics of denim
Denim is a very strong, long-lasting fabric that has been extremely popular for over 100 years. Anyone who has owned a pair of jeans knows you must not skip your pre-wash. In many cases, they will shrink a little bit but also pre-washing will soften the fabric somewhat – the more you wash the softer they will become. It's always advisable to wash new denims alone, otherwise there's a good chance some color will run off and transfer on to other clothes.
Denim is also one of the longest lasting fabrics on the market. Jean owners know their jeans have been with them for a very long time! The irony – just when you get them exactly where you want them, they start falling apart!
If you need to tailor your denim or have a tear, you must arm yourself with high quality thread and very sharp, strong needles. Average thread and needles will not work with this tough fabric. If you are sewing your own jeans from scrap, make sure you have the proper tools for the job:
Tools & Sewing Suggestions:
- Use sharp tools. This includes both using sharp professional-grade sewing scissors as well as sharp rotary cutters.
- Use heavy duty needles, either ones made specifically for sewing denim like these Schmetz Denim Needles, or a universal needle that is at least size 90/14. If the denim is particularly thick, make it 100/16. These needles will have a reinforced blade to minimize needle deflection and reduce the risk of broken needles or skipped stitches.
- Use heavy duty Jeans Thread, particularly for the topstitching associated with flat felling or if you can't find this, you might also try upholstery thread.
Denin Sewing Methods & Seams:
Again, you must have sharp tools. A very sharp pair of scissors or sharp blades in your rotary cutter will make cutting patterns much easier. Depending on the thickness of the denim, you might have to cut through the denim in layers, one layer at a time. If this is needed, make sure your flip your pattern pieces as you go along. It's also suggested that you purchase really strong pins, average pins will more than likely bend, unable to penetrate the fabric.
Denim is not the easiest material to work with, you might want to take small pieces and practice cutting; using a seam ripper and running a stitch test to determine how it looks, if the tension is correct and the best length for the stitch. You may want to use a longer stitch than normal which should be between 3 and 4.
Pay attention to your seams, there's a knack to creating seams which will save you a great deal of time. Have your iron nearby and press the seam as flat as possible. Try and cut back on bulk, as much as you can, by trimming the seam as you sew and miter any corners.
Take your time sewing, hold the fabric as firmly as you can while feeding through the machine, do not push or pull. If your sewing machine is having difficulties with a particularly bulky seam, you might want to use the hand wheel. It's pretty easy to break a needle when sewing denim, so be careful.
Even though your standard presser foot should be just fine, you might want to consider purchasing a Jeans Presser Foot if one is available for your sewing machine like this one for a Bernina. It will make your sewing a great deal easier. Also, consider using a walking foot which should keep the fabric from shifting around. Depending on the year and make of your sewing machine, a jeans presser foot might or might not be available. The older your machine, the less likely you will be able to find one. Also consider an edge stitching foot for top stitching, it will be well worth it.
Denim is one of those materials that can easily fray which is why it's important to have sharp tools. Note: If you go for a zig-zag stitch over the cut edge, on the interior seams, it will keep the material from fraying.
A beautifully flat-felled seam will give you the exact same look as those jeans you buy at the store. A flat-felled seam is also a great deal stronger, especially for stress or pressure areas. For more advice on flat-felled seams, see this article.
Do you have any tips or tricks to share about sewing denim? Please let us know in the comments below.