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Fabric Focus: DENIM - The Switzerland of fabrics!

Denim is one of the few fabrics that crosses all walks of life and as such I wanted to find out more about it and how tips on using it when making clothes.

In a recent episode (35) of the Sew Mindful Podcast I got chance to pick the brains of Harriet Kjellman. Harriet is a woman of many talents, one of which is her own design collection based on this fabulous fabric - denim.

Harriet Kjellman's denim collection 6.2 Design Company
Denim collection courtesy of Harriet Kjellman

You can listen to the full interview on your favourite podcast app or here but I have also included some of the highlights from our chat here for you.

Jacqui: A huge welcome Harriet! Can you tell us a bit about who you are and what you do?

Harriet: I am a...

  • Fashion educator : private, vocational, college, university

  • Creative Entrepreneur : supporting mainly university students and start-up and small businesses with their product development through my fashion consultancy and tuition business

  • Fashion designer : Small collection where I put my own creative vision and philosophy into > focusing on education

Harriet Kjellman
The fabulous Harriet Kjellman

Jacqui: Why did you decide to use denim as the focus for your design collection? What properties does it have that particularly stand out for you?

Harriet: Firstly there is the symbolism of denim. I think of denim as the Switzerland of fabrics: no religion, social, sex, region. It is accessible to and worn by all walks of life.

It is also an ideally appropriate material for my business ethos. I focus on creating garments with minimal manipulation. I can also create the whole collection from two versions of this versatile fabric meaning there is no waste as all garments are cut to order.

As a fabric denim has some great qualities that make it not only easy to work with but comfortable and functional to wear.

  • Wearability: breathable, mainly made from natural fibres making it comfortable in a range of climates for a variety of activities

  • Durability (depending on fabric) / longevity: it generally has a long life and is one of the few fabrics that is still considered fashionable even when it is worn through or damaged

  • Versatility: Broad range of use from clothing to accessories

  • Sustainability: Opportunity to source sustainable options

  • Upcycling: because of it's durability it can be crafted into different garments and accessories throughout it's life

Jacqui: What would you say are the biggest challenges in working with denim?

Harriet: Denim does require some preparation especially for first use. Because it is made from cotton it can suffer from shrinkage when washed so when making garments from it be sure to wash the fabric before cutting out.

I tend to wash my fabric a few times not only to reduce the chance of shrinkage but also because I use black denim which is dyed. To reduce the transfer of dye from the fabric while making up the garment and also when first wearing the garment, pre-washing is key.

Pre-washing denim fabric
Pre-wash denim fabric before cutting out

Washing does have environmental considerations as I am conscious of the impact of detergents. However the nature of denim is that it can be worn many times before washing so pre-washing before making can be countered by fewer washes once made.

There are also considerations in terms of cutting out your fabric. There are different weights of denim ranging from lighter weights like Chambrays to much heavier weights.

The lighter and medium weights can be cut like other fabrics where you fold the fabric and cut two layers at the same time or cut pattern pieces on the fold.

Heavier weight denims can be too thick to cut through easily when folded so are best cut as a single layer. This can mean you need to create full pattern pieces for any that would have been previously cut on the fold.

As with cutting any fabric it is best to use sharp shears or rotary cutters.

One of the key distinguishing features of denim garments is the addition of the haberdashery. The zips, rivets and buttons are often metal and add distinctive details to your finished denim clothes.

To add rivets and some of the specialist denim buttons it is best to use tools designed for that purpose. These are available for home use on small scale but if you are thinking of doing a lot of denim projects then more industrial tools might be a consideration.

Denim metal rivets and buttons
Metal rivets and buttons synonymous with denim

There are specialist companies like DM Buttons in the UK that provide services to fit jeans buttons and rivets for you to your garments too if you are not confident to apply them yourself.

Jacqui: Are there any special things to consider when sewing denim fabric?

Harriet: When working with any new type of fabric it can take some getting used to so the best advice is to take it slow to start with.

If working with heavier denim this will give your machine chance to handle the thicker fabric. It is also helpful to use very sharp pins or in some cases bulldog or fabric clips when working with thicker layers.

For jeans and denim jackets the seams are often sewn to maximise the durability. This means using flat-felled seams or in some garments a faux version of the flat-felled seam. These are most iconically recognised by the two parallel lines of stitching particularly on the in-seam of jeans.

It is also important to consider what seam allowances you need to allow you to do the seam finish you want to use. Don't be a slave to a pattern. If you want to try a different seam finish then adjust your pattern and seam allowance to allow you to do that, for example if you want to do a wider paralell topstitch then give yourself a slightly bigger seam allowance to work with.

Generally higher quality garments will have a true flat-felled seam so even when you are buying ready-to-wear- you can get a sense of the quality by checking the seam. If you can see overlocking on the inside then it is a faux-flat-felled seam which is easier (and cheaper) to manufacture.

My top tips when sewing flat-felled seams are:

  • TIP 1: Sew all seams that need to be flat felled first for ease of access

  • TIP 2: Attempt to make the make the jeans as nice inside as they are on the outside > rolled hems

  • TIP 3: Consider which direction you press your seam allowance as this affects the look of the jeans once fading starts to appear

Jacqui: Denim is synonymous with top stitching and it can be challenging for home dressmakers to replicate. Can you tell us more about the types of threads you use when sewing with denim and how you use them?

Harriet: Thread thickness impacts the visibility of the thread. To replicate the ready-to-wear topstitching it is best to use Upholstery thread or top stitching thread.

Jeans are most commonly associated with orange or beigey hues of thread to contrast with the colour of the denim.

For my designs I mainly use white thread on black denim and black thread on the pale denim. But it is also worth playing with using matching colour thread.

Threads are often made from polyester which means that they fade at a different rate to the denim. Over time the matching colour thread can start to stand out creating a new feature of the garment. Explore and have fun!

You also need to ensure that you choose the right needle when working with denim. Use a sharp new needle as you will be sewing through multiple layers. Make sure that the eye of the needle is generously larger than the thickness of your thread (approx. 40%) to avoid breakage or slipped stitches. Specific topstitch needles do have a larger eye.

For light and medium denims use size 80/12 or 90/14 needles. For heavy denim use size 100/16.

For your TOP STITCHING to get the twin needle effect sew as follows:

  • ROW 1: 2-3mm away from the seam

  • ROW 2: 6-7mm away from row 1

If you are using your sewing machine foot as a guide:

  • ROW 1: zip foot / half foot > edge to follow the seam line

  • ROW 2: sew from the opposite end and use the right edge of the foot as a guide on ROW 1

When deciding on STITCH LENGTHS here are my tips:

  • TIP 1: Use longer stitch length when sewing heavy duty materials or several layers

  • TIP 2: Stitch length can be used as a decorative feature

When sewing pattern pieces together you can use a medium to longer stitch

Top stitching can be longer from size 3,5-5 on a normal domestic sewing machine


Thank you so much to Harriet for sharing these fabulous tips. Let us know in the comments if you have tried working with denim and whether you have any favourite tips and tricks that you'd like to share.

If you would like to find out more about Harriet and her work then you can reach her here:

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