Jeans Waistband Autopsy


At some point, I quit reading sewing books and magazines because they didn’t tell me what I wanted to know.  Despite hours spent scouring bookstores and sewing shops, I consistently turned up

  • boring articles on how to make home-made clothes (they look it, too, no thanks!)
  • picky articles aimed at couture-sewists (handpicked zippers with pearl beading!)*
  • mountains of conflicting information for beginners

What about sewing regular clothes that look like… clothes?


I started reading garments instead.  From formal gowns to tailored jackets to designer casual wear thrift store finds, I began pulling apart old garments to see what they could teach me.  I learned about sleeve stays, interfacing techniques, half a dozen ways to construct a shirt collar and puzzled out alternative methods of construction.    As I pieced together construction processes by pulling apart old clothes, I figured out quicker, neater, and more time-efficient ways to put together my everyday garments.  Now I find I’m using the techniques I developed while studying RTW when I write patterns.


I started to understand that sewing isn’t a collection of rules.  There’s no “right” way to sew a pair of jeans, for example.  Every maker has their own way, yet they’re all jeans.  I realized how silly it is for me to spend an hour in the sewing shop agonizing over whether to choose “coffee” or “copper” colored jeans thread.  Just grab it and go sew, already!  Have you seen the threads used on jeans?  I mean, really look at them.  Look at them as thread alone, as a single element of the whole and note the varying colors, textures, and stitches used.

chainstitch on the back, topstitch on the front.  It's like twin-needling on steroids.

chainstitch on the back, topstitch on the front. It’s like twin-needling on steroids.

It’s not possible for me to precisely re-create the sewing I find on RTW garments.   I do not have access to specialty industrial machines with chainstitching and detailed attachments.  Neither do you.   Instead, I tend to adapt what I can and make a clean job of the rest.  This works pretty well, people never ever say to me “Did you make that?”  (I guess they either take it as a given because they know me, or don’t question it because my clothes look like clothes…I do get asked “Where did you buy that?” from strangers.)

The Hummingbird Skirt (she’s on her way- the paper pattern is on her way!) waistband is very similar to the straight waistbands I find when I pick apart RTW.  Notably, she is not interfaced.  The first time I made a straight un-interfaced waistband, I felt deliciously rebellious and half worried that the whole thing might somehow implode.

Picture 3

It didn’t.  In fact, I found it was better.  Remember Pinkie Pants?  No interfacing.   I’m wearing them right now, they’re fine.   I haven’t used interfacing in a waistband for about 18 months.  (I do use a tiny bit behind buttonholes and buttons.  Sometimes.) All of the garments are still kicking.  I used to interface my waistbands to nearly belt-like firmness, but I found that over time they often sagged or buckled.  They also often “ridge” under a top if I leave it untucked.  I don’t have that problem with a slim, straight, un-interfaced waistband.


Take a look- I recently ripped up an old pair of Levi’s and took copious photos to show you how the waistband goes together.  They’re a classic, a staple, so I figure whatever they’re doing with their waistband must be fine.  The Visual Reference Guide is on

I’d like to encourage you to do your own autopsies and see what you find- I have yet to take apart a garment and not learn something.  And it’s fun, too.  Have you ever done it?  What did you find?  Anyone else out there leave their waistbands un-interfaced?

Next up- drafting a jean’s style yoke and belt loops for the Hummingbird Skirt (applicable to pretty much any garment)… And then we’ll go through sewing it…

Picture 4

*hand-picked zippers with pearl beading are beautiful, they really are, and they’re fun to make.  I mean they’re fun to make once on a garment that doesn’t need to be washed very often.  Once upon a time, I got sick of sewing delicate/dry clean only clothes, which is why I quit bothering with “couture” techniques.


  1. You had me at autopsy! Love it. I’ll have to brave your no interfacing technique at some point. It is an engrained habit for me these days.

    • That’s how I think about it… I guess it helps that I use a scalpel as one of my deconstruction tools. :) I get that it’s ingrained, the first time I didn’t interface I was rather afraid it wouldn’t work and would make a mess… But it turned out to work really well.. :)

  2. I feel the same about sewing books, hand stitching and I’ve never done a handpicked zipper! I’m always looking at my RTW to figure things about, a vent for example. It would be nice if you could do more posts on what you’ve found inside RTW garments. I love them!

    • Well, I do like a bit of hand-stitching for finishing some things, and it’s great for basting embellishments… But mostly I don’t bother anymore.

      Yes, I can do that… When it’s relevant. Unpicking RTW and re-interpreting what I find for my sewing machine is pretty much the foundation of the Cake Patterns instructions, though. :)

  3. I agree, I often take apart welll loved but ready for the rag bag clothes. Sometimes I think it’s going to be impossible to recreate them and other times I learn a little lesson from an element of the clothing. I do enjoy hand sewing and couture technniques though, but not everyday! Have just finished my Tira, about to hem her now – she’s amazing, It’s the first time I’ve ever had a cross over top that works on me (big bust) I’m thrilled :) Will do a post on it soon, thank you so much for an amazing pattern.I’m now thinking to do her again in a non stretch fabric with a side zipper for a summer party.

    • Yes, I usually save buttons and zippers, sometimes pockets… And fabric. I often unpick something before I refashion it, so the fabric pieces are back to being flat before I start sewing them up again.

      I enjoy couture techniques too.. But I think sometimes a little too much importance is placed on that kind of sewing…

      Oh! I’m so excited about your Tira! Hurray! :) I have not tested the pattern for woven, and honestly I can’t recommend it. But definitely give it a try if you want to and the thought of fiddling with it doesn’t bother you. It’s just that knit bias behaves differently to woven bias, so I’m not sure the cut is appropriate for a woven. That’s all.

      • Good advice, but I was gifted so much fabric in England it may be worth the risk. Perhaps if I don’t cut the skirt on the bias and make a 3/4 skirt instead. Not sure, just thinking about it right now! Thanks again for a wonderful pattern…

  4. I am just about to do my first autopsy on my first and only pair of cargo pants which I love, but no longer fit properly.I also have to take in my winter pants from last year, because at the moment they fit like and look a saggy elephants behind, but I am too cheap to buy new ones.

    • Oh good! It’s really fun, and you’ll have some great “pattern pieces” afterwards. :)

      Take in that back inseam for “elephant behind”. That should help. hehe. You’ve lost a lot of weight though, so your fit is tricky…. But worth it, to be sure.

  5. I know how you feel about sewing books! I love the couture techniques, the hand-picking and little details, but I don’t have the patience to hand-wash every thing I’ve made, and I don’t have the money for dry cleaning – I want to make garments that are pretty, but I can shove in a washing machine!

    Before I had any real idea what i was doing in sewing, I used to take apart clothes and sew them back up so I could get an idea how garments work, and frankly, I still do. I don’t think there’s any better way to learn how pieces are put together than to see how they’re “professionally” made!

    • I used to get really frustrated with sewing books… I really, really looked, too….

      Yes, I think that’s exactly it: “…garments that are pretty, but I can shove in a washing machine.” Just so.

      Definitely- pulling things apart and putting them back together works really well. There’s always a surprise!

  6. I can’t wait to give this a go! I’ve made a heap of pants over the last year and my biggest problem is the waistband. I’ve tried heavy interfacing, elastic, adjustable elastic and both stay tape and seam binding tape to stop them stretching out. I’ve found the stay tape is tricky to get right and the interfaced ones always stretch out over time. I guess with the thinner non interfaced waistband you are allowing for the stretch when you sew them so they can’t stretch out anymore over time. Very cool and I can’t wait to have a go with it!

    • Yeah, that heavy interfacing is killer.. I’ve done all kinds of things from organza to horsehair to vilene to *cough cough* peltex to boning… You name it, I’ve done it. And all that time, the simplest and lightest answer turned out the be the best… The simple straight waistbands I make also have top-stitching, which seems to help it keep its shape.

  7. I want to join the sewalong for the Hummingbird but haven’t worked out how to do so. I hae ordered the pattern.

    • Wow! I find that amazing, their clothes looked great and had a long wearing life,without any interfacing. Considering that they were machine or hand made they lasted a long time, and probably frequently had adjustments, both in size and style. I haven’t done waistbands on skirts for a while as I keep procrastinating about interfacing and whether to apply it. Will give it a try without interfacing.Thanks for tip.

      • Which company, if I may ask? Very interesting..

        I was talking to Mom about waistbands the other day and she said in the 60’s when she and her sisters and mom made all their clothes, they never interfaced anything and didn’t miss it. Very interesting… I do tend to avoid interfacing something if I can avoid it these days, over-interfacing really ages a garment before its time..

  8. It’s great to be able to use techniques from both ready to wear, and couture techniques, whatever you want for the situation, and that’s a real advantage of exploring different options for your sewing. I like to mix and match a lot, using some machine finishing and some hand techniques in the same garment to get the results I want. I have to say, ever since I read that Susan Khalje Threads article with the hand-picked zippers, that’s how I do almost every single one I make. Not with the beads of course, but for me doing it by hand gives so much better results that it’s worth it. For fly pants, I do the top stitching first and then pick the zipper in behind it, no sewing over the zipper teeth or trying to keep the top stitching even as the foot rides over the bumpy zipper. Anyway, I totally agree with you about the beauty of sewing with an open mind–you can adapt techniques from any source to work for you!

    • Yes- exactly! It’s about options rather than rigid rules and “right” or “wrong”. Absolutely. I get so *eyerolly* when someone goes on and on about how their way of sewing x is the only way.. Sure, sure..

      I have a selection of zipper feet I use for different things.. The old-fashioned adjustable zipper foot is marrrvelous, I really wouldn’t want to be without it. How do your hand-sewn zippers wash? Alright? How do they wear over time? #curious

  9. I love ripping things apart to learn from them but I guess I do not do that quite often enough! Although this weekend I ripped up a seat to a stroller to make a new one and it felt good to both be able to use the stoller (I got it second hand for almost nothing, as the seat was so torn, but the stroller itself was beautiful chrome and nothing wrong with it) and learn how these things are assembled :)

    I think I do use interfacing in my waistbands but will try it without for the hummingbird :)

  10. Interesting, I almost always make hand picked zippers, sans beads, following that article’s instructions. I did it just the other day on a pair of casual shorts. I get good results more easily by hand when it comes to zippers. I do almost everything else by machine (except hems) when I can, even stitching on buttons.

    I do have some garments that were past their prime that I bought from the thrift store particularly because they were home sewn garments with amazing attention to detail, and I wanted to study them.

    I really love to learn about sewing every which way, and I like to take ideas and tailor them to fit my needs.

    • Nice. If it works for you and you like it, then go for it. Definitely. :) Have you seen Brother’s button-application foot? I think it’s one of the cleverest machine attachments out there…

      Every which way, indeed! :)

  11. It was so fascinating to look at your jeans autopsy in detail. I was surprised by how many different kinds of thread were used. I haven’t pulled apart any RTW yet, but since I’ve been sewing for myself this year (it all started with Tiramisu!), I’ve definitely been paying more attention to the insides of RTW and trying to figure out construction that way. I’ve done three waistbands so far: Pavlova double-bound waistband (no interfacing) and two waistbands (one straight and one contour) with interfacing. The Pavlova’s been through the wash several times and has held up superbly. The other two haven’t been washed yet. I’m eager to try Hummingbird without interfacing and conduct a science experiment of my own.

    Totally unrelated, today is Memorial Day in the United States. Do they celebrate a similar holiday in Australia?

    • Yes, we celebrate ANZAC Day on 25 April, to commemorate the Australian and New Zealand forces landing at Gallipoli in 1915. It now commemerates all of the serving men and women of the Australin Defence Forces, since War World 1 up to and including peace keeping forces and more recent active service by Australian men and woman.
      We also commemorate Armistice day on November 11, with 1 minute silence at 11am to remember the fallen and the signing of the ceasation of World War One.
      I served in the Navy for 6 years, my husband served in the Navy for 21 years, one of my Brother -in- Laws serve for 6 years in the Navy, all in peace time. My eldest Brother -in -Law served in the Navy in the Vietnam war.

    • The thread thing is really interesting… I usually use two on denim -one for construction and one for top-stitching but I think I could probably get away with more. The other day on the bus I counted 5 distinct top stitching threads on a pair of jeans. There’s just so many possibilities..

      I am SO pleased that Tira got you into sewing for yourself. You have no idea! How lovely. :)

      Yes, Memorial Day… I know about that, I’m an American from a Navy family. :) Hope you had a nice long weekend! I know the Aussies have Anzac Day and there’s Remembrance Day in November but that’s pretty much all I know…

      • Yes, the Tiramisu sewalong taught me a lot about fitting, gave me so much confidence, and started a habit of sewing 30 minutes a day. I am now on a mission to create a wardrobe of clothes that actually fit me! (RTW has never ever fit me well. Once I have enough me-mades, I’m planning on getting rid of most of the clothes in my wardrobe. I love wearing clothes that fit me! And I get so many compliments when I wear something I’ve made. That’s why I keep buying Cake!)

        We had a lovely long weekend and a fun barbecue with extended family.

  12. I’m still trying to figure this out myself–my one pair of successful me-made jeans that I wear all the time doesn’t have interfacing, but it’s oddly getting saggy and a bit gappy in the front! I don’t understand, because I cut it on the straight grain and only had to add a dart in the center back to avoid my usual gapping-in-the-back problem. Thinking for the next pair, I might try drafting a more curved waistband to begin with and then use some organza to underline/interface. It’ll be interesting to experiment with the Hummingbird skirt and see how that waistband works for me.

    • Hmm interesting. There’s a lot of factors potentially at play here. I usually make pants and shorts from “bottom weight” fabrics, which are generally medium to heavy weight and densely woven.. Like twills for denim and etc. I tested these waistbands on myself and my husband, and he likes the ones without interfacing the best.. I mean, he doesn’t know about the interfacing or not, but he points the the ones without interfacing when I ask about favorites… Soo.. Hmm.. Interesting.

      If you use the organza, be sure to carefully pre-shrink both fabrics. Otherwise, they’ll shrink differently together and it makes a weird mess. Ask me how i know.. I found that one pre-shrinking usually wasn’t enough, I had to do it twice, letting them dry between.

      I’m a pretty curvacious person in the waist to hip area, and I never thought a straight waistband would work for me, but as long as it’s relatively slim and the garment below the wasitband fits well, I’ve found I don’t have a problem with straight waistbands. So… Yes, will be interesting to see how you go.

  13. Working as a technical designer for two and a half years, I was exposed to the machinery and techniques RTW manufacturers have at their disposal. Believe me, there’s a machine for everything! As a home sewer, I don’t have those capabilities but I agree with you that it doesn’t mean our me-made garments have to look homemade. The best way to make your garments look like “real” garments it to take copy the manufacturers.

    • Yes, absolutely. I’ve had a little exposure to those industrial type machines, and they’re very interesting… We can get more and more specialty attachments for domestic machines, but I doubt it’ll ever match industrial machines. Which is fine. :) I’m glad you tend to agree with me, I’ve seen people write about the difference between domestic/industrials and conclude there’s no way to avoid the home-made look… But there is!

  14. I worked for Wrangler jeans in the 1980s, the head of our international department had an office near mine. Out of idle curiosity, I asked him what exactly was it that he did all day? He answered, “I count the teeth on zippers.” He meant, of course, that he was in charge of quality control for plants all over the world (Wrangler licensees used clothing factories in their own countries, at that time, but had to meet fairly stringent quality controls.) Even deconstructing jeans from different brands can yield a world of different construction techniques! You can learn valuable hints about when and where to use different seam finishes, how to attach pockets, tricks about what to do with the tail end of zippers, etc.

    Most who know me know that I sew a great many garments. Their usual greeting to me is, “Don’t tell me you made that yourself!” So, I smile enigmatically and don’t tell them. Best second-hand compliment I ever received was when someone stopped my aunt (for whom I had made a blouse and slacks) and asked her, “When you were in Europe, where did you buy what you are wearing today?” We both cackle like guinea hens when we recall that story together.

    • Thanks for that, Lin, I was wondering if you’d come share a good Wrangler story. I get that about counting teeth.. Very interesting. Even jeans from the same brand will have variety between the seam finishes and top-stitching and whatnot. It was really quite freeing for me to realize that..

      Ahhh hahha! What a nice compliment for your aunt and your sewing! :) I think the best compliment I ever had about one of my makes was the 9 Lines sweater I made last winter. I wore her out to meet a friend of mine who *knows* I sew everything I wear, she sews too, and she’s a woman of very good taste and high sewing standards. When she saw my sweater she said “Oh wow, I really love that, where did you buy that?” :D

  15. Autopsy is such a great word to use re: clothes! I know when I’m about to do a sewing technique, I’ll sometimes go to a clothing store to check out how some RTW did something. Although I haven’t literally taken anything apart, that’s certainly something to consider – esp. when Goodwill is having a sale on clothes. ;o)

    • I do like nice descriptive words… :) Yes, I do that too! Sneaky shopping! I like to dress up and go into designer stores for that..

      Goodwill is a great source of clothes to take apart. I usually keep an eye out for “good” brands.. Solid ones… :)

  16. *raises her hand for un-interfaced waistband*
    My still favourite make so far, a wear-at-home skirt, does not have an interfaced waistband. While I’m wondering sometimes whether that was a good idea, the fact that I love the skirt to bits should have been an indicator…
    And yes, I love taking clothes apart. I’m not sure what exactly I’ve learned, though, apart from the general order things go together… Lots of the clothes I’ve taken apart were serged, and that’s something I don’t have at my hands.
    Although, come to think of it, there were some neat tricks I’ve seen. Like attaching the shoulder seam in a lining to the outher shell with a strip of fabric – more moving ease there! (It was a fairly loose garment, though – I guess that plays a role.)

    • Yes, I mean, there may be other factors at play but if it’s a fave and also un-interfaced, I think that means something… Our un-interfaced waistbands are the favorites around here, too. Is it just the waistband? Maybe not, but I’m sure it’s part of it.

      Every time I pull apart even a kinda-complex garment I find some little surprise like that… :) You’re describing a sleeve stay, I discovered them exactly the same way.

  17. Pingback: Design & Draft: Back Yokes for Denim « 3 Hours Past the Edge of the World

  18. Great post, Steph! A few years ago when I started sewing more regularly, this is all I did for awhile–took apart stuff to learn both order of construction and some techniques. I got so into it I thrifted a bunch of cheap but well-made shirts to learn. I learned fly zippers this way. It’s really fun to do it for men’s clothes. (Best way to learn bras, imo!) The other interesting things I noted were seam allowances and what was being used where. Funny thing about interfacing–I was just about to interface a waistband which the pattern omitted and I wondered, would this make a difference? On the other hand I’ve been surprised at where things are actually interfaced. (Even in cheap casual men’s vests, the entire fronts have been fused.) Anywayyys, I love autopsies!

    oh and p.s. the belt loop was done with a coverstitch machine–the stitches look like a twin needle on one side. If someone has a home coverstitch machine or coverstitch capability on a serger you can do those with a belt loop attachment (cheap). They turn out fast & pretty sweet that way.

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