upcycling denim jeans

Upcycling denim jeans and a more sustainable approach to sewing

Our columnist Elisalex de Castro Peake, co-founder of By Hand London has some great tips and advice for refashioning or upcycling old jeans.  Mixing different shades of denim and being more creative with our garment alterations. We hope you are inspired to dig out an old pair of jeans and have a think about what stunning new item of clothing you can make with them – do let us know if you’ve upcycled any.

upcycled denim patchwork skirt
Project from Love Sewing issue 34 – skirt made with upcycled denim – Download pattern and instructions for free

download free sewing pattern

Upcycling Denim Jeans and Jackets

Looking back, I have fellow blogger Portia Lawrie to thank for turning me on to the concept of refashioning denim. Before she sent me an old denim shirt back in 2013 and invited to me to take part in her blog series The Refashioners (where sewing enthusiasts are challenged to repurpose a mystery second-hand garment into something inspired and wearable), I had never thought to refashion denim. Sure, I spent a good chunk of my teens customising my clothes – cutting up band T-shirts, embellishing anything and everything with oversized safety pins (what was that about?!), even crocheting over moth-eaten jumpers, but denim was never really my thing.

by hand london kim dress
Elisalex’s The Refashioners entry for 2016 – a By Hand London Kim dress.

Don’t get me wrong, I, like most people I know, have lived in jeans since being young. From my tomboy styling of the 1990s, the look has evolved as I have matured and over the years I have dabbled in bootcut, elephant flares, low waistbands, skinnies and mom jeans. I never got into denim jackets, mini skirts, cut-offs or knee-length denim skirts. The way I saw it, denim was designed to be made into functional, durable trousers and that’s it.

I have come to realise that if you take the operative words from my previous statement – ‘functional’ and ‘durable’ – you get to the core of what denim is really all about and why it is the perfect fabric to be associated with refashioning and a sustainable approach to sewing.

Before I go any further, let me provide a very brief, but satisfying history of denim in a nutshell.

karri dress upcycling denim
The Karri dress is perfect for mixing small pieces of denim. Megan Nielsen patterns, www.minervacrafts.com

The History of Denim (in a nutshell!)

Denim is a twill weave fabric originally manufactured in Nîmes, France (hence the name de Nîmes = denim) and made popular in the States in the late 1800s as durable workwear reinforced with copper rivets by a tailor in Nevada called Jacob W Davis who would buy his denim fabric from the dry goods wholesaler Levi Strauss & Co.

The benefits of sewing with denim

Having been pushed well and truly out of my comfort zone by The Refashioners, what I’ve come to love most about refashioning with denim over other readily available fabrics and items of clothing most commonly found in charity shops – men’s shirts, T-shirts, knitwear etc – is how versatile it is. The first bonus is that you’re guaranteed a good natural fibre content of either 100% cotton, or somewhere in the region of 96% cotton and 4% spandex if they have a bit of stretch. I usually gravitate towards the 100% cotton non-stretch kind as they last longer and are less likely to split, but if you’re making something that needs a little give, then that small percentage of spandex is your friend.

The second bonus for me is that denim is most widely available in the same colour: shades of indigo. This means that if I’m bulk buying second hand jeans to unpick and harvest fabric from, I can easily ensure that the garment I end up making from the harvested fabric will be fairly uniform, as opposed to if I were harvesting fabric from men’s shirts for example to make a dress, I would either have an impossibly hard time finding enough shirts in the same print, or my dress would have to be a mish-mash of many different colours or prints (which is still great, but I think we can all agree that one can only have so many print-clashing patchwork dresses at one time).

The third bonus, before I get into the many wild and wonderful ways that denim lends itself to refashioning, is what a utter joy denim is to sew with. It is stable and satisfying, with just enough give to make even tricky princess seams a breeze to ease, denim is a friendly and approachable fabric for people with even the most basic of sewing skills. Which means that anyone and everyone can, and should, get involved and have fun refashioning with denim.

mending mattersSee our interview with author Katrina Rodabaugh on page 95 of issue 63 of Love Sewing

Mending Denim Clothing

Mending is perhaps not classifiable as ‘refashioning’ if we’re being strict, but I strongly believe that in any conversation about refashioning, upcycling, recycling, repurposing and such, mending must be mentioned. Prolonging the life of our clothes, be they denim or otherwise, is so important. And contrary to the assumption that mending is messy, unsightly or scruffy, mending can be made so beautiful, that it becomes the feature that makes a garment more special than it was before. I always think of the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery with molten gold, ‘Kintsugi’, and the idea that those golden seams make the piece even more precious and meaningful. The wonderful thing about mending denim is how creative you can be, and how many resources there are out there to help and inspire. Visible or invisible mending; floral embroidery or Japanese sashiko; patching in double denim or contrast fabric… there is so much scope for creative mending that it is truly an art form in itself. I’m a big fan of visible mending through embroidery, and highly recommend the book Mending Matters by Katrina Rodabaugh.

embroider flowers onto denim jeans
Cover your mending with fun embellishments like embroidered flower motifs

Embellishing Denim Clothing

In the same camp as mending, but assuming that there is nothing to repair, denim is the ultimate blank canvas to decorate. Think sprinklings of delicate floral embroidery, 70s hippie patches, D&G style pearls and rhinestones – the embellishment of plain denim is a failsafe instant update.

assembly new your recycled denim jacket
Assembly New York – Recycled Fabric Jacket

Harvesting & Patchworking Denim Garments

This method of refashioning involves gathering pairs of second-hand garments, unpicking the seams and using the fabric to make something new as you usually would, albeit considering that you’ll have to get creative cutting pattern pieces from smaller, more awkwardly shaped cuts of fabric. This was the approach I took for The Refashioners 2016 themed #jeanius. From the two pairs of large men’s jeans I bought in my local charity shop for under a fiver, I made a fabulously figure-hugging wiggle dress using our Kim dress pattern whose princess panels lent themselves perfectly to my limited supply of fabric. But don’t think that only designs with small pattern pieces will work – you only have to look at the inspired ombré patchwork of Rosie Martin’s t-shirt dress (adapted from the Inari pattern by Named Clothing) to start getting your mind around the possibilities!

sewing up denim jeans creatively

Reworking & Creative Alterations for Denim

A truly artistic approach to refashioning, made even more challenging with a non-drapey fabric like denim and restrictive garments like jeans, reworking is when someone will transform a garment by tweaking and manipulating the existing seams and design lines. This could involve taking a denim shirt and cutting across the yoke and neck, repositioning the sleeves around the upper arms and taking in the side seams to result in a fitted off the shoulder Brigitte Bardot style top (please bear in mind that this approach is not my forté, so I’d suggest you go check out Portia’s blog www.makery.uk for some truly mind-blowing denim refashioning inspiration).

mending rips in denim jeans creatively
Turn your mending into an eye-catching feature of your garment

Although I haven’t always been a huge denim fan, I now think denim just might be the Queen of fabrics. It is strong and durable, warm and comforting yet breathable and cool. It doesn’t shed microfibres in the wash (unlike plastic-based manmade fabric like polyester, nylon, acrylic and polyamide) and has proven to be timeless in fashion. For these reasons, combined with the tenuous environmental times we live in, doing all we can to make our jeans last longer, whether that be by mending or transforming – ticks all the boxes. I’m a believer, are you?

If you’re looking to buy denim fabric head over to Minerva Crafts – Denim Fabric

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