10 Things You Should Know About Sewing with Raw Denim

Most sewing projects start by preparing the fabric. This usually involves washing or at least rinsing the fabric to remove sizing and other chemical stabilizers and to pre-shrink any shrinkable fibers. When sewing with raw denim, all those usual preparations go out the window. Why? It all comes down to dye.

In woven fabrics like denim, there are two types of threads: the warp, which runs end to end in a bolt of fabric as it’s being produced on a loom, and the weft, which runs side to side. To produce the distinctive pattern of color and texture in denim, the weft threads are left white, while the warp is dyed using indigo before the weaving process begins. In most denim, this dye is given a final set with a washing process that can be done before or after it is cut and sewn into a finished product. With raw, or dry, denim, however, this process is left up to the wearer, allowing you to create custom patterns of wear for a truly one-of-a-kind look. Wearing raw denim for up to a year before washing distresses the fibers unevenly, meaning that when the excess dye is finally rinsed away, the pattern of color left behind is unique to your shape and movements.

Raw denim jeans can be purchased ready-made, but the price will easily run to several hundred dollars. If you’re ready for the challenge of working with sturdy fabrics, a pair of handmade raw denim jeans might be just the place to start. Before getting started, though, check out these ten secrets for success:

1. Don’t prewash!

The whole point of raw denim is that it can’t be prewashed. That means that you’ll want to factor in a bit of shrinking once the that wash finally does happen. Keep in mind, though that the fibers will stretch a bit during the wearing process, so you don’t want to go overboard. A slight addition to the ease of your pattern, depending on the desired fit, should be all you need.

2. Use high-quality, 100% cotton denim

For raw denim projects, you want to avoid mixed-fiber denim, which can cause uneven wear patterns. Choose a sturdy denim in a medium to dark shade for the best results.

Denim comes in two types depending on how it’s woven. Conventional modern looms, called projectile looms, are very fast because they shoot single lengths of thread across the width of the fabric. This is ideal for producing a lot of fabric quickly, but because each weft thread is only as wide as the fabric being woven, it leaves a raw edge on the fabric.

Shuttle looms, by contrast, are more traditional–some would even say old fashioned–in that they use a single weft thread that is woven back and forth through the whole length of the fabric. This slower process creates what’s known as selvedge denim, a fabric highly prized for its unique texture.

Though selvedge denim is often touted as being stronger than conventionally woven denim, the truth is that those beautiful finished edges don’t necessarily make your garment any sturdier. They do, however, make a great construction detail and are an indication of excellent quality. If you have the option of using selvedge denim, it’s a great choice for raw denim projects.

3. Use sharp cutting tools and cut one layer only

Since you don’t have the option of prewashing your fabric to adjust any issues with the grainline, it’s important to cut carefully. As with any particularly heavy fabric, sharp scissors and rotary cutting blades are crucial. Make sure you have a nonslip cutting surface beneath your fabric if you’re using a rotary cutter so every pattern piece is cut precisely.

You’ll also want to be sure to cut only one layer at a time. Not only is this easier on your cutting tools, but you’ll also avoid twists in the grainline that can make the hang of the final garment awkward and uncomfortable.

4. Sew with denim needles

While most projects can be accomplished more or less successfully with all-purpose needles, in this case it’s worth it to get the specialty version. Denim needles are designed to be both sharp and sturdy, to handle the bulk of seams without breaking and to provide the clean look of decorative topstitching without switching to another needle.

5. Use heavy-duty thread

There’s no sense in using a lovely sturdy fabric like denim with a flimsy all-purpose thread. Make sure to use a sturdy cotton thread for both top and bottom feeds, and to adjust your sewing machine’s tension to handle the change. Use some scraps of denim to test your settings before attempting to start in on your actual project.

6. Get an even feed

When working with bulky layers of fabric, it’s easy for the bottom layer, which is pushed forward by your sewing machine’s feed dogs, to travel a tiny bit ahead of the upper layers, making for uneven seams. You can avoid this in several ways. One option is to use a Teflon foot, which lets the upper layer of fabric slide smoothly along, though you’ll probably want to increase the height of your presser foot as well. The best option, however, is to invest in a walking foot. This attachment feeds both top and bottom layers under the needle at the same rate, and is as handy for working with fine or slippery fabrics as it is for heavy-duty material.

7. Use an edge-stitching foot

The decorative top-stitching on a pair of blue jeans is as classic a look as the denim itself. While you can manage it with a regular foot and careful sewing, an edge-stitching foot keeps your stitches perfectly aligned without the fuss.

8. Manage bulky seams carefully

With thick fabric like denim, seams can quickly become unwieldy. There are several techniques that can help reduce that awkward bulk. One of the simplest is being sure to press seams as you sew. Removing extra fabric is also a quick fix. Miter corners, notch curves, and grade your seam allowances wherever possible to keep seams thin and flexible. Since raw denim still has chemical stabilizing in it, you may find that even carefully pressed and graded seams are inflexible. In that case, use a rubber hammer to soften and flatten the seam allowances as you go. Not only does this make it easier to continue work on your project, but it will make the jeans more comfortable to wear once they’re finished.

9. Use a “hump-jumper” for lumpy seams and starts

Not only are all those lumpy seams tricky from a construction point of view, they’re also a hazard to your sewing machine. The abrupt change between bulky overlapping seams and general stitching can bend your needles and apply uneven pressure on your work, causing missed or uneven stitches. Use a “hump-jumper,” Jean-A-Ma-Jig, or a folded length of denim to lift the back of your presser foot into line with the front whenever you’re stitching across uneven seam lines.

10. Wait six months for that all-important wash

After all your hard work creating your jeans with raw denim, it’s now time to wear them. And wear them. And wear them. If your jeans are uncomfortably stiff, or if you have a sensitivity to the sizing, you can soak them in cold water before wearing the first time, preferably in a bathtub so they can lay flat. Let them drip dry; whatever you do, don’t put them in the dryer! If you wear the jeans daily or almost daily, you’ll develop the distinctive wear patterns that make raw denim so desireable within six months or so. If you don’t wear them regularly, you’ll want to go longer, maybe up to a year. Meanwhile, spot clean your jeans with water for stains and spills, if necessary. You’ll also want to kill off any bacteria that may be lurking in the fabric by occasionally putting your jeans in the freezer overnight. Bacteria can weaken the fibers of your denim, so don’t skill this step! Otherwise, your jeans may fall apart when you finally wash them.

When you’re ready to reveal those unique wear patterns, wash your jeans in a gentle wash cycle using a very mild detergent designed for dark clothes. Let them air dry, and admire! The most distinctive wear patterns develop where the jeans move the most, around the crotch, knees, and cuffs, with crisp folds and light fading that highlights the patterns. If you don’t see the kind of wear you’re looking for, you’ve likely washed your jeans too soon, but you can improve the look by wearing the jeans another six months to a year without further washing. Even if you are pleased with the effect, you’ll want to preserve that wear by washing the jeans only occasionally, and always using the gentlest process you can.

Have you made a pair of raw denim jeans? Have tips or tricks you swear by? Share them in the comments below!

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