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Sewing Denim

Few fabrics can claim to have fostered an iconic cultural identity (think Marlon Brando in The Wild One – 1953, James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause -1955, or Henry Winkler as “The Fonz” in the 70’s sitcom, Happy Days), a geographical identity (jeans-wearing cowboys of the American West), a political statement (from the Beat and Woodstock generations), and be so universally pervasive in post-modern society as is the humble denim. Spanning over a century of continuous use, from unassuming beginnings as worker overalls to today’s haute couture fashion, our love affair with denim endures.

It is the California gold rush miners of the 1850s, the American Western working cowboys, assorted notable rebels, hippies, big-screen movie stars, rock bands, contemporary youth, and glitzy high-fashion trend-setters that have made denim clothes, particularly denim jeans, a uniform de rigueur of sorts. A pleasant oxymoron of conformist individuality if you will. But what has this got to do with sewing? Plenty!

Denim is an extremely durable, sturdy fabric as it is twill-woven, usually out of cotton with colored warp and white weft threads. The weft thread passes under two (twi- hence the word “twill”) or more warp fibers, producing the familiar diagonal ribbing on the reverse of the fabric. The distinctly identifiable, resulting fabric is extremely tough, sturdy and long-lasting, can be light to heavy weight, blended with Lycra for stretch-ability or other poly fibers for enhancement, can have a variety of surface finishes, designs, and colors. It is the denim seam that gives most sewers some headache.

To ensure the best seaming, use the best thread available to reduce skipped or broken stitches and produce visually pleasing, even top-stitching. I find the Coats Dual Duty Plus® Extra Strong Jeans Thread to be helpful in sewing the thick jeans seam.

Use new sewing machine needles for medium to heavy weight woven fabrics when sewing a new denim project. Old machine needles can become quite dull without noticing reduced performance in other woven fabrics.

The bulky seat seam in jeans is the most troublesome as it is difficult to prevent the machine needle from stalling when crossing over an intersection of seams. Use the minimum amount of presser foot pressure and slightly lift the back of the presser foot as it rides over the seam allowing for a uniform stitch length.

And of course, be sure to wash the denim fabric before sewing to remove some of the fabric sizing which can stiffen the denim considerably. Consider allowing for more than the usual pattern’s 5/8” seam allowance as the edges of washed denim can curl and fray somewhat. Adding liquid fabric softener to the rinse water after washing helps soften the denim fabric and coax it into being a more user-friendly fabric.

Denim has truly attained the status of a universal fabric, is a continuing classic, and notwithstanding its at times maddening idiosyncrasies can be fun to sew! For a free denim project, try Coats & Clark’s project instructions for a denim organizer that can be found on sewing.org.

Sew happy, sew inspired.

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