To Do, To Don’t, and What do I know?

The latest jeans

So after my great Skinny Cargoes affair, Claire of Sew Incidentally asked if I would consider putting together a do’s and don’ts post for jeans. Since I’m such a master at them, and all that.


So, aside from the fact that she must be confusing me with some other blogger, I thought I’d give it a shot. Especially as I decided to crank out one last pair of denim to get me through Me-Made March.

Now, it didn’t take me long after deciding to “take my sewing to the next level” last spring, to decide that I wanted to tackle jeans. Yeah, I’d successfully managed to make my first blouse, what horrors could denim possibly hold?

This was spurred on by a number of factors. The biggest one was probably stumbling on the Jeans sewalong thread and summary thread on Pattern Review. I read literally every post of that 85-page thread. The idea of making my own jeans really appealed to me. First of all, I live in my jeans. Second of all, I’m picky about my jeans and how they fit. Third of all, I have pretty darn long legs. All of those factors combined means that I have spent a LOT of money over the years on jeans. Buffalo. Guess. Rarely under $100 for a pair. You get the idea. And always with that terror—will the fit I like go out of style? Will they be long enough? Even if they seem to fit when I try them on, will I wear them for a day and realize that they’re too short and too loose? Will I tear through the “artfully worn” knee within the first half-hour of putting them on (that pair was Guess, I returned them)? Speaking of which, when is that pre-tattered look going to go out of style? It was in style when I was in high-school (mid nineties). It was in style five years ago when the hubby and I went to NYC (and shopped at Gap. I know, we should be shot.) And it was EVERYWHERE last time I was tying to buy commercial jeans, which was one year ago. I haven’t really looked since, maybe it’s gone away?

Despite the wonky stitching on the pockets (I suck at free-motion embroidery), these are probably still my favourite self-made jeans.

Now, I have a very clear list of things I’m looking for in my jeans. As far as I’m concerned, stretch-denim is the greatest invention of the 20th century (ok, after the birth-control pill). I like them low-rise, with a very fitted leg. I’m flexible on the degree of flare, although for preference I’ll go with what I tend to call a “stovepipe” leg, which is fitted in the thigh but absolutely straight below the knee; I’ve only ever once found this style in RTW.

If your list is different (as it doubtless is—few people are as fond of I am of the low rise, for perfectly good reason), some of my methods won’t apply, especially if you’re not looking for snug-fitted stretch-denim. (What, not everyone wants their jeans to look like they were sprayed on?!?) But I do hope you’ll be able to glean some nuggets from the dross, or at least be encouraged to tackle your own.

Incidentally, based on the PR thread, I used the Jalie 2908 pattern, with an assortment of modifications to make it suit my taste that are mostly detailed here. I like this pattern, but then I’ve only ever sewn two pants patterns, the Jalie one and the Burdastyle Ellen pant. Both were pretty painless, doubtless due to my minimal curvatures in this area. So I wouldn’t consider my endorsement to be the be-all-end-all in this area.

Anyway, without further ado,


  1. pay attention to the % stretch, not the % lycra; expect to resize slightly depending on the individual stretch of your fabric.
  2. buy enough fabric for two pairs of jeans—the first one can be a hopefully-wearable muslin, and you’ll know what to expect from the remaining fabric stretch-wise.
  3. wash and dry your fabric on hot at least once; then let it sit or hang (“relax”) for at least a day or two, as the heat can bunch up the lycra fibres, creating fabric that will stretch too much after wearing.
  4. My foot for topstitching. Not necessarily the best, just the best from my limited selection.

  5. do figure out which sewing-machine foot works best for topstitching. A lot of people prefer a straight-stitch foot as the sides are narrower and you can see right up to the needle. I don’t have one, but I find my rolled hem foot (of all things) works the best. An edgestitch or possibly even blind-hem foot are also good options.
  6. play around with your topstitching options. There’s jeans

    I wrap my topstitching thread around the bobbin-winding doohicky to increase the tension (AKA cheat)

    thread, topstitching thread (really heavy), upholstry thread, or even regular thread in a stretch straight stitch (triple stitch) if your machine does it. You will probably need to raise your top tension if you’re topstitching with a heavy thread, and may even need to cheat.
  7. be prepared to baby your machine over the thick parts (at least if you, like me, have a wussy modern machine. Sometimes I need to just turn the hand-wheel for several stitches. Or hammer the crap out of the seams (preferably with a rubber mallet. I use a regular hammer or even my rock hammer and if I’m not careful the edges will cut the fabric)
  8. construct the front first, then the back. Have another pair of jeans around for reference. Attach the pockets after sewing the two sides of the back together, and centre them relative to the topstitching, rather than the true CB.
  9. If you’re doing anything other than the simplest of pocket-embroidery, you will want to stabilize the pockets, either with wash-away or tear-away stabilizer or even interfacing. I recommend the removable stabilizer, though; permanent interfacing interferes with the pocket’s ability to stretch and causes butt-flattening. (Ask me how I know 😉 ). Use a cardboard template to press your pockets’ seam-allowance under. Speaking of pockets, I use a size-K pocket on my size-Q pants. My derriere is compact, and I don’t like the bottom of the pockets to go below my actual bottom. YMMV.
  10. Look up your favourite fly-insertion method EVERY SINGLE TIME. My

    What passes for a successful fly around here.

    favourite is Debbie Cook’s; a lot of other people recommend Sandra Betzina’s video. (I have a hard time following video instructions, for some reason.) Also take a long, hard look at some RTW flies while you’re doing it. It will help. Oh, and interface the fly, too. (The fly isn’t actually hard. It’s just really easy to do the wrong way around, which is mildly annoying. The topstitching is a bit tricky, too, but you can manage.)

  11. once you have your jeans stitched up the side, before applying the waistband, do put them on and wear them around the house a bit (preferably for a few hours). This will give you an impression of how much the denim will relax with wear. You may also want to do a trial wash (serge the top edge first) at this stage, as washing and drying are another wild-card for stretch fit.


  1. be afraid. You can totally do this. Denim is heavy, but lovely to sew.
  2. use a pattern or fabric you don’t like. Remember that *perfect* pair of jeans you’ve been mourning since the day went to that great warehouse in the sky? Those are the ones you’re trying to re-create. You won’t, of course, but with any luck you’ll make it into the right ballpark.
  3. cut your waistband on the bias. I use a contour waistband on mine, stabilized with a light-weight interfacing. If I had to go with a straight waistband, I’d cut it on the lengthwise grain, to reduce stretch. My RTW jeans often have about 50% stretch in the fabric, but only about 10% stretch in the waistband (how do they do it?)
  4. sew over the bottom of the zipper when you’re topstitching your fly. Instant recipe for broken needles flying into eyes.
  5. add or remove length at the hem. Unless your jeans are drafted perfectly straight, there’s shaping between hip and knee, and knee and ankle; you need to measure your length to the knee and add (or remove) both above and below to keep the proportions right.
  6. add a wedge to the side back rather than the centre back because you weren’t paying attention. (yes, I did this once.)
  7. if you’re making skinnies, don’t narrow the leg so much you can’t get your foot through (unless you’re adding zippers!)
  8. freak out about wrinkles below your butt. These are not trousers that are supposed to fall straight down from the widest point. There will be wrinkles.
  9. try to finesse the slightly-too-tight waistband fit by putting your button too far over. You’ll just end up with a gapy fly.
  10. feel self-conscious about your wonky-topstitching, or those almost-invisible darts in the yoke. No one is looking. Seriously, they aren’t.

I extend my pocket-linings all the way to the front fly. This interfaces the fly while stabilizing (i.e. slimming) the front, and is super-easy to draft.

I have to admit I feel a bit bad about these lists. They’re tailored so specifically to my “jeans ideal”, which I know is not everyone’s cup of tea. I don’t have much to say about fitting—other than curving the back yoke and taking in the outseams a little bit, and of course the inevitable length adjustment, I haven’t done any (stretch-denim is fairly forgiving). Certainly no messing around with crotch-curves as the intrepid Patty does on a regular basis these days. While I’ve made a crapload of adjustments to the pattern, the majority have been for style or personal preference (pocket linings that reach all the way to the fly to interface it, contour waistband, smaller pockets, etc.)

Coming up with the top 10 was hard (as you can see since so many of them are actually two or three suggestions!). There’s lots of other little points that I could’ve thrown in there.  I didn’t even mention the buttonhole, which has been my waterloo. Mostly, I resort to doing them by hand—not too bad since there’s only one—but on this most recent pair I eased up on the waistband interfacing and was able to work it by machine. My machine can’t do a nice keyhole shape, sadly, but no one else is going to notice anyway.

New skinnies---rear

And I still haven’t really showed you photos of the new pair! So I’ll be quick: this is my first “truly skinny” pair of jeans (the other ones all have stovepipe legs). I made them to replace this pair of RTW jeans that are beginning to bite the dust, and are verboten this month anyway. As you can see (You might have to click through to the full-size photo), I included the same cute little top-stitched dart on the lower leg as in Syo’s pair.

As I doodled out my pocket detail, I

A subtly naughty pocket

realized I’d created an homage to Mary-Nanna’s white knicker jeans (and Steph’s tribute… and of course this alleged Japanese fashion trend which I’m happy to learn is indeed a hoax. I thought it was a bit fishy when I first saw the pictures a few years back, but you never can tell with the Japanese. 😉 ) Mine is a bit subtle, but those of you in the know… well, now you know! ;). If I ever find some white stretch denim, I promise I’ll do full out undies-pockets. The nice thing about making my own skinnies is I can keep the calf-width where I like it and just narrow below; so many skinnies are made for those toothpick-legged adolescents with no calves.

New skinnies, front view

Beyond that there’s not too much to say about them. I used much the same procedure to narrow the bottoms as I did with the skinny cargoes (except I only had two seams to work with, not four). I kept the full length this time, to get that “legwarmer” bunchy look around the ankle that I crave so badly (yes, I like my pants and my sleeves to look extra long. It’s such a rarity for me). Since there’s no zippers in this pair, I had better hope they don’t shrink at all in the wash or I may not get my feet through them next time ;).

So, this is officially my first pair of truly skinny (self-made) jeans… and I hear that apparently the bootleg cut is coming back. If it ever actually left. /sigh. I’m so non-trendy. Oh, wait. That’s a good thing.

I still think I like the stovepipe leg the best, though…

Oh, and this would be my first outfit for Me-Made March. Not terribly innovative, I know, but it’s far too cold out right now for the frillies and the pretties. Hopefully that will change over the course of the month…



Filed under Sewing

34 responses to “To Do, To Don’t, and What do I know?

  1. whoa, these are amazing! great job!

  2. wow those are great tips. I especially like the one about wearing the jeans around the house for a few hours to see the “stretch factor” before sewing on the waistband. you clever girl.
    great modeling as always!

  3. Seeeeeee! I so knew that you had some awesome jeans-tips to share hun :)! And – v. timely they are too as it seems that a certain NY fashion-figure collector
    is proposing a jeans sew-along soon.

  4. Darci

    Thanks for all of that GREAT jean insight! I’m currently making the Jalie 2909 trouser (and desperately trying to avoid back gaposis) but the jeans are on my list, too! I’m a bootcut gal, but I can certainly appreciate your desire to find jeans that you love, wear lots and look great on you. If I still had your body, I’d be rockin’ the skinny jean, too. Yay for MMMar’11!

  5. CGCouture

    I thought your tips were good ones. 🙂 I’d like a little more info on the pockets into the fly thing, though. How/when is it stitched in? Or is it glued in? LOL! I’m sorry, too many questions. I think I like your “stovepipe” idea. I’d always favored slight bootcut (because sometimes I actually wear real cowboy style boots) but sometimes the “flare” on RTW is a bit excessive.

    • For the pocket-into-fly, I treat it basically like a sew-in interfacing or an underlining; I attach the pockets before the CF seam is sewn, and usually run a zig-zag or something along the top edge of the pieces to hold the pocket linings in place. Then they are caught in the CF seam, the fly topstitching, etc. I don’t find any gluing or fusible is necessary although some kind of an edge-finishing stitch around the fly pieces might not be a bad idea. You could certainly use an adhesive in this area if you wanted to. (I should note my pattern is for a cut-on fly; a separate fly piece might need to be handled a bit differently).

      In RTW I used to always go for the narrowest boot-cut I could find; I don’t really have the hips for full-on flares. Then, of course, the skinnies took over, which have their own set of problems. 🙂

      • CGCouture

        I’d be using the 2908 pattern you have, but I don’t remember it having a cut-on fly. Was thinking it was seperate….hmmm…easy enough to make it that way if it’s not though.

        • It is cut on for 2908. Like you said, though, easy enough to alter either way. 🙂

          • CGCouture

            Eh, I was wrong–wouldn’t be the first time. 😛 I just thought of this comment as I was tracing/cutting the pieces for my second attempt at 2908. I guess what I was remembering was the piece that they give you to cut the interfacing for the fly, which is something I’ve never seen in a pattern before.

  6. CGCouture

    By “glued” I meant, do you use iron on adhesive, wonder tape, etc. Sorry about that.

  7. I just had to check out that Japanese fashion thread – OMG – now that is JUST too bizarre for words – those skirts crack me up, it is what I had in mind, only of course much more subtle … like your jeans and jean pockets very much.

  8. Wow! Thanks for the tips! Your jeans always look fantastic and all that fabulous top stitching! I’m definitely bookmarking this post for reference when I sew my jeans:)

  9. Your jeans look amazing, and just perfect for you. I really like your tips, although one would not work for me.
    I am a very different shape from you, and if I wore my jeans around the house without the waistband, it would stretch out the top – even with staystitching, and it is already hard enough to get the transition from small waist to (cough) very generous derriere, so maybe this is a figure specific tip!

    • Hmm… it may be. For me the point is to get them to stretch out, so that I can take it in if I need to. The fact that I wear my waistband fairly low also minimizes the waistband-to-hip difference (one of the reasons I started wearing low-rise in the first place, many moons ago). This step probably isn’t a big deal if you’re not looking for a painted-on look anyway ;). I have also tweaked the side-seams after attaching the waistband—it works for minor fixes but the inside finish just isn’t quite as nice.

  10. Great tips!
    Your new jeans look fab on you and are really YOU!
    Stovepipes have always been a favourite of mine too, and never go out of fashion in my opinion. DH was wearing stovepipes (and winklepickers!) when I met him – 26 years ago!

  11. Thanks for all the tips! They are great looking jeans.

  12. Excellent post. I’ve made 6 pairs of jeans now (starting on my 7th right now) and even though my list of Needs in my jeans are different to yours, I agree with your tips, ESPECIALLY changing the waistband and extending the pocket fronts on those Jalie jeans.

    And to me, personally, Burda magazine’s method of fly insertion actually makes the most sense to me, since I can remember it each time without referring back to it. Who’d have thought, eh?

  13. Yay jeans! I am so in love with that dart on the calf. These are great tips… I think I’m the most intimidated by the topstitching. I just am not very good at it! I’m working on a raincoat as a sample for the shop where I work and There’s some CRAZY bad topstitching on the pockets – and, of course, once stitched there’s no going back with laminated fabric! I’ll definitely start out with topstitching in non-contrasting thread!

    • The nice thing about jeans topstitching is it’s *mostly* straight—once you find the right foot for a guide it’s almost easy. The hardest part is the fly, but really that ends up mashed and curved as you move anyway, so it’s pretty hard to tell. Personally, I’d love to see you use some of your infamous “fancy stitches” instead of regular topstitching ;).

      And you can definitely, definitely rip it out of denim! 🙂

  14. Hullo T!
    I’ve just awarded you a ‘Stylish Blogger Award’ 😉

  15. This is great–jeans are on my list this year and I’m sure I’ll be referring back to this post. Thanks for taking the time–it’s really all about the details and work you can’t see that usually makes a killer garment.

  16. I am definitely filing this post away for future use. When I get the courage to make jeans. Might not be for a decade or two though.

  17. Thank you for the tips! Love the new skinnies.

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  21. Robyn

    Thanks for so generously sharing your tips! I think I’m ready now — for fun, if nothing else 😉 I’m not sure what kind of stretch denim to buy — I’ve read about the “good stuff” vs. the “not good stuff” but I’m not sure what that means. I can find “premium stretch denim” on and other places. Is that good stuff? About $10/yd, or should I expect to pay more and look for “Italian” or something?

    You’ve really helped me, and you look awesome in your jeans, too. That’s encouraging all by itself 😉

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