The Good Times Skirt | tips for sewing denim

I like practicality and utilitarian in my design work so denim has always been one of my favourite fabrics. I like the way the fabric ages to tell a visible story of wear and history.

Denim is a very durable, strong fabric, traditionally woven in a twill weave and made from cotton with indigo dyed warp (vertical/lengthwise) threads and white weft (horizontal/across) threads that gives denim its characteristic look. In the last 20 years or so fashion and technology have had an impact on denim with the addition of other fibres such as elastane and Tencel to give a different feel and finish. Some of these fabrics will not be as hard wearing as traditional denim.

Denim comes in many weights but for The Good Times Skirt, you are looking at using 9-12oz denim, with around 2% elastane (lycra/spandex) for a bit of comfort stretch. Try and be thoughtful and intentional about the fabric you choose, the aim is to produce a garment that can be part of your wardrobe for years to come.

Denim is not a very difficult fabric to sew but it can get a bit bulky, so having a few tricks in your sewing arsenal can make sewing it a smidge easier.

PRE-WASH YOUR FABRIC | 

Denim will shrink, and the indigo dye on the darker denim will run. Wash separately at 30° with plenty of room in the machine and you can pop a cup of white vinegar in the wash with your denim to help fix the colour. I tend pre-wash dark unwashed denim twice to avoid blue fingers while sewing. Denim also frays quite a bit so consider neatening the raw edges before washing or sewing into a loop first. Washing your denim with room in your machine for the denim to move (don’t pack it tightly in!) and ironing whilst still damp will help prevent white lines appearing on the surface.

I prefer not to tumble dry anything, ever, as I think it breaks down the fibres (especially lycra) and that can’t be a good thing. That fluff in the tumble dryer must come from somewhere. I don’t actually have a tumble dryer anymore (but I also don’t have small children and I work from home so can time the washing for a sunny day – I’m in England and laughing as I write that optimistic statement) but if you’re likely to throw your denim in the dryer later it’s probably best to treat it the same way at the pre-wash stage but it’s advisable to check the wash care instructions for your cloth first.

There is, of course, the denim purist method of not washing and wearing denim for 6 months to a year and popping in the freezer occasionally to kill off any bacteria. I read that the other day that the freezer idea is under debate, but hey ho!

TIPS FOR SEWING DENIM |

  • Use sharp scissors or a rotary cutter with a fresh blade.
  • Denim can be quite sturdy and bulky, test interfacings on your denim to make sure you are happy with the result, many sewing decisions are just down to personal taste.
  • Facings are best cut in lightweight cotton, to help reduce bulk.
  • Use a Jeans needle – size 90/14 for lighter denim, 100/16 or 110/18 for heavy denim
  • Test topstitching and stitch tension on scraps of fabric before you start.
  • Topstitch with a slightly longer stitch than you usually use, around 3mm, but do a test to see what’s good for your machine.
  • Think about topstitching colours and weight of thread. Do you want your topstitching to stand out or blend in?
  • Topstitching with your usual weight in a matching or tonal colour thread gives a subtle look.
  • Consider using a heavier weight thread to make a feature of topstitching, use either Jeans or buttonhole thread and your usual thread in the bobbin. 
  • If your machine has an extra spindle on top can also use ordinary weight thread for topstitching but thread the needle with a double thread to give the appearance of a heavier thread.
  • Press as you go and use lots of steam.

BULKY SEAMS |

Reduce bulky seams by trimming and grading seam allowances. For very bulky corners and seam junctions, tap the area with a hammer! Protect your garment with a piece of folded denim below and cover with another scrap and just gently tap until it softens. A very useful tip for the corners of the waistband and if you are hemming jeans.

LEVELLING FOOT/BUMPER/HUMP JUMPER | honestly, I’ve heard all those terms so not making it up…

So what often happens with thicker fabrics like denim is the back of your presser foot isn’t level with the front when you sew (or vice-versa at the end of a seam). That’s when you get problems with uneven topstitching because the fabric is not feeding through evenly. It happens when your hemming jeans at the intersection of the seams or anywhere there is a lot of bulk to stitch over, and your stitching looks a bit messy with different length stitches.

All you need to do is fold a scrap of fabric and place behind or in front of the thick bit you’re stitching and under the machine foot to keep it level as you sew over thicker areas. You can buy a special gadget or use a piece of card, but I like a bit of fabric so I can fold it to the right depth.

My new machine has a levelling presser foot with this screw thing you can push in to keep the foot level. (I’ve got a Juki). It’s sometimes useful, but not always, so lo-tech scrap of fabric is still winning.

FINAL TIP |

Take your time! You can literally crank the wheel by hand and go one stitch at a time if necessary, especially over those thick tricky bits. Happy sewing!

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