Since the picture above constitutes the grand total of my (un)sewing the last couple of days, I thought I’d talk about jeans.
I just checked back and realized it’s been over a year since I made my first pair of jeans for myself! Wow. Where did that time go? Geez, I was so darned proud of that first pair. Funny considering I really hate wearing them now, although more because of the fabric, which I never did like, than anything else.
Anyway, inspired by Carolyn’s autopsy of her recently-deceased black jeans, I thought I’d muse self-indulgently a bit over one of my favourite things to stitch up.
Depending on how you count it, I’ve now made seven or eight pairs of jeans for myself. Nine if you count the Lekala sailor shorts. These fall into two categories, stretch and non-stretch. Since I made my first pair of non-stretch jeans not that long ago, I can’t really comment on quality, so today I’ll just be talking about my stretch jeans, all of which are based on the infamous Jalie 2908 pattern. You can find all the Jalie jeans posts here, or all the jeans posts ever here.
I picked this pattern because it was highly recommended on PatternReview.com for something approaching the kind of jeans I like to wear, which are low-rise, tight-fitting stretch denim. The Jalie pattern is mid-rise, close fitting, stretch flares. From my reading, I was pretty sure that I would be making several stylistic modifications, and probably a couple of fit ones as well. For style, I would be lowering the rise and reducing the leg-flare to a straight-below-the-knee style (something I’d found in a single RTW pair back in 2004 or so and been looking for ever since that one beloved pair went to the great closet in the sky), and probably going down a size as, based on the models in the photo, I thought the jeans as pictured were a little loose for stretch denim (your mileage may vary.) For fit, I expected to dart the yoke and add, oh, 5″ of length to the leg or so.
At the time I was a bit perplexed by why the Jalie jeans were drafted with such a flat butt. It seemed like pretty much everyone needed to modify the yoke, and the lady behind Jalie even has a tutorial out there on how to do the fix, both during construction and on the pattern for your next pair. Then I watched (well, over the phone) my mom try to make flat-seat adjustments on some pants she made back in the winter.
WAY harder than just taking a little dart out of the yoke. So. Yoke-dart for the win.
Jeans are actually not terribly difficult to make. Denim, even stretch denim, is a lovely fabric to work with, sturdy and well behaved. Where you run into trouble is:
The clapper. This is one of those unfinished blocks of smooth wood, often topped with a point presser. You iron your seam, get it good and steams up, and then press and hold this on top until it cools down. It’s amazing how much more this flattens out fabric than ironing alone—I know I was always pressing the iron on longer than I should and then scorching my fingers trying to push things down after taking the iron off. Trust me, the clapper is better.
- A hammer. Yes, you heard me. Technically this is best done with a rubber mallet, as a metal hammer has a tendency to break some of the fibres around the edges. A sharp-edged rock-hammer even more. Although probably most of you don’t have rock-hammers lying around, so you won’t run into this problem. Anyway, hammering a bulky seam also flattens it, even more dramatically than the clapepr, just be careful you don’t put holes in your fabric. Especially if it’s a thin denim. [Rock-hammer pic]
- Handwheel. Most of the thick spots in jeans are going over seams, and don’t last very long. A lot of places where the machine motor jams up and just won’t go through all the layers, you can carefully handwheel a stitch or two to get it started, or even get you past the trouple spot completely.
- Two threads through the needle. If you can rig your machine to hold two spools, then hold the threads together and thread the machine as usual. This gives the top side of the stitch more oomph, plus you can use any regular thread, which gives you an extra-wide colour range to choose from.
- Triple stitch. Sometimes called (at least by me) a “stretch straight stitch”, this is where your machine takes two stitches forward, then one stitch back all the way along. The symbol on my Janome looks like this: ||| Basically, it ends up stitching each stitch twice, looking (ideally) just like #1. The down-side is that sometimes the forward and back stitches don’t line up perfectly, and if you don’t turn corners (say, on the pockets) just after the 1st forward stitch, it will take a stitch back after and make your corner look messy. The up-sides are: like #1 you have every colour imaginable to choose from; the top and the bottom look the same; and for stretch denim, this stitch has a bit of stretch to it.
- Heavy duty thread (including Coats & Clark Heavy Duty, buttonhole thread, and Guterman Jeans or upholstery thread). This heavier thread has a more striking appearance than regular-stitched regular thread, and looks more like “regular” jeans topstitching. You will probably need to turn up the tension a bit (do some tests) but my Janome handles this kind of thread quite well.
- Topstitching thread.
By this I’m referring to the Guterman Tops-titching thread, which is the thickest of the threads I’ve found. It’s also a bit “fluffier” than, the heavy-duty threads above. But it comes in a wide range of colours and looks really striking. My Janome has major problems with this thread, which basically come down to the tension. The highest tension setting on my machine is too low. Possibly I could adjust the bobbin tension to compensate, but when stitching jeans on a single machine you’re re-threading just about every other seam. I wouldn’t want to add constant bobbin-adjusting to that procedure. Eventually, I came up with a sneaky tension fix where I wrap the thread once around the bobbin-feeder, which has its own little tension disk, before threading as normal. This increased the tension significantly, to the point where I could actually keep the regular tension pretty close to its normal setting. The other problem I have with this thread is it often gets snarled in the bobbin in the first couple of stitches. I found it was possible to keep this from happening by holding on (firmly!) to the tail of the thread when starting the seam.
Topstitching foot. There are a lot of different sewing-machine feet that will work for topstitching, but your standard zig-zag foot is not the
best. Basically you want something with an open toe, so you can see precisely where the needle is on your fabric, and edges you can line up to get a consistent width. I don’t recommend trying to twin-needle denim, although I did hem some jeans this way early on—you’re liable to break at least one needle, at which point it gets very expensive very fast. My favourite topstitching foot is an actual edge-stitching foot with a handy keel (mine cost five or six bucks), but an ordinary straight-stitch foot like the kind that my Featherweight has also works really well. A blind-hemming foot works well in theory, but my particular foot the movable keel has a tendency to wander along its screw over long seams, which is less than useful, and it’s hard to re-set it to a precise width. My rolled-hem foot actually worked surprisingly well—just ignore the little scroll part and it’s got sides the right width and some handy grooves in the bottom. This was my favourite until I got the edge-stitch foot.
- Find the tutorial that works for you. I have good luck with Debbie Cook’s; if you’re a video person (I’m not), Sandra Betzina’s video on the Threads website also comes highly recommended.
- Keep a RTW pair on hand for reference. This makes it much easier to keep track of which side to topstitch and stuff like that.
- Interface the fly, either with something fusible or with fabric from a front pocket extension. It will be a much happier fly later on if it’s a little more substantial.
- TRUST THE FLY. This is one I’ve only recently come around to. After you’ve got your fly constructed and your waistband on, it’s very tempting to try and tweak your fit that last little bit by moving the button one way or the other. Don’t. The button needs to sit so its shank is just at the end of your buttonhole. If you try to mess with this, you will end up with a gaping fly.