September is National Sewing Month and one of my favorite materials to sew with is upcycled denim. Everyone (or, almost everyone) has a pile of old jeans in the closet. Working with old jeans has its challenges so I reached out to several of my favorite sewing bloggers and I’ve put together 11 tips for how to upcycle jeans! And, because nothing helps you put tips into action like projects, I’ve also included 22 free projects you can make with old jeans.
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How To Upcycle Jeans for Sewing Projects: 11 Tips
Using old jeans is a great way to save money on fabric while keeping old clothing out of the landfill. Here are 11 tips for upcycling jeans for sewing projects.
1) Collect Your Jeans
When working with denim for scrappy projects, you’ll want to have a variety of colors that you can use like different fabrics. If you can’t find the colors, fiber content, or sizes you need in your own pile of old jeans, Stephanie from Swoodson Says reminds you that “people always have old jeans laying around. Ask friends & family to save some for you!”
2) Check Your Labels
When sorting out jeans to use for your project, Heather from Heather Handmade says, “The more spandex there is in the denim the weaker it is. You’ll have better luck with non-stretch denim!”
3) Prep Your Denim
Before you start cutting up those old jeans, I recommend machine washing in hot water and drying on a high heat setting. This will get your jeans as shrunk down as possible and will also make the fabric a little tighter for cutting.
4) Let ‘em Rest
Old jeans fray more than most other fabrics when you cut them due to the fiber content and wear. For best results, once you wash your jeans, keep them folded and set aside until you’re ready to cut.
5) Cut Carefully
Because denim is thicker than many other fabrics and seams can be very difficult to cut through, I recommend using a rotary cutter. It will make it easier to cut through seams while minimizing hand strain and reducing fabric “crumbs.”
If you decide to cut with scissors, use a good pair of fabric shears and take frequent breaks to stretch your hands.
Unless otherwise instructed by the project, start by cutting the hem at the bottom of the leg first and then cut the seams at the side of the legs. See Tip #6 for cutting tips if your project uses pockets. Otherwise, continue by removing any damaged pieces such as frayed fabric or holes from the leg before cutting into squares or strips for your project.
6) Plan for Pockets
Many upcycled denim projects make use of pockets. If you are going to use back pockets, carefully trim around the pocket seams, leaving as much space around the seams as you can.
If you’re using front pockets, remember that the pocket inserts aren’t visible from the front of the jeans. You may want to cut the front pockets from the wrong side of the fabric to be sure you include as much extra room around the pocket as you need for your project.
If you don’t plan to use the pockets, you can trim close to the seams and get more useable fabric from the legs.
7) Don’t Overwork Your Fabric
Upcycled denim has more stretch than new fabrics. This is especially true if it includes spandex or other fibers blended in the fabric. Minimize handling the fabric because so it doesn’t stretch and become misshapen. Instead of ironing, finger press pieces as you sew. Lay cut pieces flat when not in use.
8) Prep Your Machine
Upcycled denim is thick and durable, which is great. However, sewing with denim (and especially sewing over seams) can put stress on your sewing machine. In general, work at a slower speed and be cautious when working near pocket seams to avoid damage to your needle and/or sewing machine.
Also, get to know your machine! My Baby Lock Jubilant has a leveling foot (the J presser foot on most Baby Lock machines) that helps you sew over thick seams. You can find out how to use it in this video tutorial by Melly Sews. Your machine may have something similar.
9) Change Your Needle
Mary Beth from Tailor Made Cosplay says, “When sewing with denim, make sure you have a needle size that accommodates the thickness of the fabric. You don’t necessarily need a needle marketed as a ‘jeans’ needle, but a 14 – 16 is optimal, especially a new needle with a nice, sharp, point.
10) Adjust Your Machine
Vicky from Vicky Myers Creations says “If your sewing machine is struggling to use a denim needle, try a long stitch with a walking foot and stitch slowly.” (Vicky has more tips for sewing with denim in this video.)
11) Be Flexible and Have Fun!
Upcycled denim isn’t as predictable as store-bought fabric. Everything from the size, wear, style, fabric content, and brand can influence how much useable fabric you can get from an old pair of jeans.
Don’t expect perfection. Upcycled denim isn’t as uniform as new fabric. It’s got lots of character, it’s affordable, it’s durable, and it can bring back great memories! It’s also a great material for making an eco-friendly project.
Watch a video version of this post on AllFreeSewing’s Facebook page below (or click here).
22 (Mostly) Sewing Project Ideas for Upcycled Jeans
Now that you have all the tips you’ll need to get started sewing with old jeans, I’ve pulled together 22 projects you can use to put your upcycled denim to use!
Left column, from top to bottom:
- Denim Rag Quilt by Vicky Myers Creations: If you have a lot of jeans on hand, this may be just the project for you!
- Denim Messenger Bag by Vicky Myers Creations: This unisex messenger bag tutorial includes instructions for adding zippers and pockets.
- Upcycled Denim Lavender Sachets by Underground Crafter: These easy peasy denim sachets make great housewarming or host(ess) gifts and can be customized with iron-on, heat transfer vinyl, embroidery, or fabric paint.
- Denim Doormat by Vicky Myers Creations: This “crazy-quilt” style doormat makes an inviting welcome into your home.
- Upcycled Jeans Pocket Ornament by Swoodson Says: This fun project is a great way for using up the jeans pockets that don’t work in other upcycled denim projects.
Second column, from top to bottom:
- Upcycle Jeans Into Shorts by Sewing Novice: This tutorial includes 3 variations for the hem.
- Modern Denim Quilt by It’s Always Autumn: This variation on a denim quilt uses strip-piecing so you can sew it up faster.
- Upcycled Baby Shoes by Heather Handmade: This tutorial shows you how to use the hems from pants to make adorable baby shoes.
- Upcycled Star Bean Bags by Swoodson Says: This tutorial includes some game ideas for the bean bags.
- DIY Denim Log Cabin Pocket Pillows by Underground Crafter: This tutorial includes 3 variations for pocket pillows using traditional, log cabin quilt blocks made with upcycled jeans.
- Recycled Jeans Mason Jar and Napkin Rings by The Country Chic Cottage: If you don’t want to pull out the sewing machine, this no-sew upcycled denim project is made with a glue gun.
Third column, from top to bottom:
- DIY Fabric Planter by Swoodson Says: These denim planters make a decorative addition to a potted plant gift.
- Upcycled Jeans Tote via AllFreeSewing: This tutorial makes a sturdy tote bag with leather straps.
- Heart Knee Patches by Sewing Novice: If you’re not yet ready to take that pair of jeans to the scrap pile, try this tutorial for making heart patches to cover worn areas.
- Upcycled Denim Shorts by Heather Handmade: This tutorial shows you how to convert a pair of adult-sized jeans into a pair of child-sized denim shorts!
- Child’s Jean Skirt by Sewing Novice: This tutorial shows you how to transform an old pair of jeans into a custom-fit child’s skirt.
Right column, top to bottom:
- Jeans Pocket Pillows by Always Expect Moore: This tutorial includes pillow variations using the front and back pockets of old jeans.
- Slippers from Jeans via AllFreeSewing: This tutorial shares how to make a pair of adult-sized slippers from upcycled denim.
- Upcycled Denim Hexagons Rug via AllFreeSewing: If you enjoy patchwork and quilting, try this hexagon rug made from several pairs of old jeans.
- Upcycled Denim Coasters by Tailor Made Cosplay for AllFreeSewing: This beginner-friendly sewing project includes video and photo tutorials.
- Adjustable Water Bottle Bag via AllFreeSewing: Never forget your water bottle at home again with this fun tote made from upcycled denim.
- Baby Shorts Pattern by Heather Handmade: This pattern is available in 3 months, 6 months, and 12 months sizes.