Denim has come a long way in the past 20 years. Remember when it was thick and stiff with very little give and it took forever to “break in” a pair of jeans? It was pretty darn hard to sew on, too. But now that we have the magic of stretch denim, most denim is softer, more comfortable to wear, and much easier to sew. Plus it comes in all sorts of different colors and washes (and even prints!) making it a lot more fun. There are still things you need to know before you sew with it, however – if you don’t want to break needles, curse yourself, and decide never to sew again. Not to worry, because I’ll tell you everything you need to know to sew with stretch denim.
(Now, you may be thinking, I’m never going to go to the trouble of making an actual pair of jeans for myself, and you know what? Me either. But don’t discount stretch denim! It’s still a great fabric for skirts and dresses. AND I’ll be back Wednesday with a tutorial showing you how to sew the easiest ever little girl skinny jeans with a few simple modifications to a leggings pattern.)
7 tips for sewing with stretch denim:
1. Prewash! Denim shrinks AND fades in the wash, so you want to get both of those done before you cut out your pieces and start sewing. Some people even recommend pre-washing twice, and if I were making jeans for myself I probably would. I prewash and machine dry my denim, because I machine wash and machine dry most of my clothes, including jeans. If you always hang dry your jeans, you can hang dry your denim. (If you don’t want the color to fade, you can try soaking it overnight first in warm water with a cup of white vinegar added.)
2. Remember that since most denim now has some stretch, you’ll want to be sure to place your pattern pieces so the stretch is going width-wise. Additionally, most stretch denim has vertical lines (called tate-ochi) running through it, where some threads are a little lighter than others. If you cut any of your pieces sideways, you’ll see this pattern running the wrong way.
3. Denim frays quite a bit, so you’ll need to plan on finishing any raw edges. I have a serger, which finishes edges as you sew, but if you use a normal machine you may want to zigzag along the cut edges of your pattern pieces before you get started.
4. Use a denim needle. Really, this is the single most important thing to remember when you’re sewing denim. If you’re just hemming jeans, you might be able to get away with a larger size universal needle, but if you’re actually sewing a piece of clothing together you’ll end up going through multiple layers of denim at once, which will break needles right and left… unless you just start with a denim needle and save yourself the hassle.
5. Go slowly across areas where you have multiple layers of denim, and if your machine struggles, turn the wheel by hand instead of using the presser foot to get through very thick areas (such as where seams meets, etc). You can even pound the seams that you’ll need to sew over with a hammer to flatten them out a bit.
6. Be sure not to pull the fabric through the machine, because (since it’s stretch denim) you may end up with stretched out seams. Just try to feed it as evenly as possible under the presser foot. If your seams that go along the stretch (such as hems) are getting wonky and stretched out, try the same techniques you’d use with knit fabric:
- longer stitch length
- lower presser foot pressure
- raise the presser foot
- walking foot
- higher thread tension
- tissue paper under your fabric (I consider this a last resort because I don’t like picking the paper out of the seam later on)
I find that most of the time all I need to do is press seams with plenty of steam and they’ll shrink back up to size:
7. Topstitch! If you’re making jeans, one of the best ways to give them a more professional look is to topstitch in a contrasting color (orange/yellow, light blue, and white are the most common). Commercial jeans are almost always topstitched in a chunky thread, so either buy actual topstitching thread (best option) or heavy duty thread (next best option) or run two normal threads through your machine and needle (see an example of that in this post from Serger Pepper which includes a few more denim tips). I use topstitching thread in the needle only, with all purpose thread in the bobbin.
There are specific topstitching needles, but I just stick to the denim needle even when topstitching. At some areas you may want a double row of topstitching (like around pockets, the fly). I actually sew those two rows separately, still using the denim needle. I’ve tried using a double needle to get super even results, but my very basic machine had trouble handling thicker thread in a double needle.
So now you know how to sew with stretch denim! Check back on Wednesday to see the easiest-ever pair of skinny jeans I made for my daughter using just a leggings pattern.