Hemp-Cotton Denim Torture Test (& New Worksheet!)

Denim Fabric Twill

This is a piece of Hemp-Cotton blend denim sent to me by Cake Retailer Stromming Designs. Susanna runs Stromming and also participates in Sewalongs.  After my first denim Hummingbird, Susanna sent me this sturdy piece of fabric to play with (she may carry it if we find it handles well!).  Thank you, Susanna.

Denim Fabric 2

I like hemp fabric because industrial hemp plant rejuvenate exhausted farmland, require little water and no pesticides to grow and also because I know it wears and washes well.  It’s like linen, but tougher and with more body.  Hemp fabric can be very stiff at first, but wears in soft and basically indestructable- perfect for a casual staple skirt.  This particular fabric is also rather heavy.  It weighs in at 475 g/m² or 14 oz/yd².

click for source- fabric still in stock

click for source- fabric still in stock

Fabrics are often sold online by weight.  Sometimes the listing will just say “7 oz.” instead of “7 oz/yd²,” but it means the same thing.  This is the organic cotton twill I used to make a Hummingbird Skirt, the one you’ve seen all over my internets:

Hummingbird Orange in organic cotton twill

The 7 oz twill is fine for this skirt, though definitely toward the lighter-weight end of the fabric suitability spectrum.  The Hemp-Cotton Denim is about twice as heavy as this fabric, toward the heavier end of that spectrum.  I’m making it from the same pattern, I’ll be interested to check out the differences between the two finished skirts.

Picture 21For more on calculating fabric weight (and handy worksheet in imperial and metric), visit sewingcake.com.

Torture Testing

Often, before I work with a “new” fabric, I’ll see what it takes to destroy it.  I wash swatches to check for shrinkage (Susanna pre-shrank this fabric for me!), I crush it (this fabric doesn’t crush), and sometimes take sandpaper to it.  This fabric withstood a medium grit sandpaper pretty well.  These tests are rather fun, but they also help me understand what I can expect of the finished garment.

My favorite test is the burn test.  This is handy when the fabric is an “unknown,” or if your fingertips disagree with a fabric label.   The fabric ignited reluctantly, probably due both to the hemp-cotton fibers and the tight weave.  I like to check for tell-tale “beads” in the ash, which is an indication of synthetic fibers.*  This checks out as hemp-cotton with the scent of burning leaves/hay and the soft gray ash.

Threads and Sample Stitching

Denim Threads

For a convincingly “jeansy” denim skirt, special attention should be paid to the top-stitching.  Denim topstitching thread is readily available (here) from a variety of makers.  I grabbed a Gutermann (darker) and a Mettler top-stitch thread for my sample stitching.  I think I like the darker one better.  The blue shows a regular thread weight for comparison.  I’ll use a darker thread for my own construction, but it doesn’t photograph well.

Picture 22

Denim needles help create smooth and tidy lines of top-stitching.  They’re heavier than average needles, with a sharper point to help power through tough denim fabric.   In my own sewing, I find the overall stitch quality is improved when I use a denim needle for denim fabric.  Just be sure to use a brand that works with your machine! (Schmetz works well with most modern machines, or use the needles from your machine brand.)

DSCN0908

After I cut the skirt, I saved a small swatch of fabric for sample stitching!  If I stitch a few different thread weights and stitch lengths on a scrap of fabric before I start sewing, then I know what works best.  It prevents potentially nasty surprises later on in the process and I think it’s a great way to improve the sewing.

Topstitching Alignment Tiplet for Beginners

A Top-Stitching Tip-let

While we’re on the topic, I thought I’d mention how I create even lines of topstitching- either an equal small distance from an edge/seamline or as a double line of top stitching.  See the first line of stitching?  The scalpel is pointing to a little “crack” in my foot, and as I sew the second line of stitching I keep my eye on that crack.  I watch my first line of topstitching and feed it into that crack.

DSCN0916

It’s a simple way to align the stitches, but effective.

Can you see the difference in the stitch lengths here?  I like to use a longer than usual stitch length for top stitching (left) because to my eye it looks more like “clothes.”

DSCN0887

Tomorrow: The big reveal, and also sewing with hammers!  I love sewing with hammers- rivets, snaps, jeans buttons, grommets, all of it.

Oh- and I thought I’d show you how my newly drafted lower skirt and back yoke look before sewing:

Side Dart

It really shows how the yoke seam functions as a dart, doesn’t it?  The wider seam allowances and my waist to hip ratio exaggerate the dart effect.

What do you think?

I know there’s newer sewists out there reading this, and also some who are extremely knowledgeable in the field of denim wrangling.  What are your favorite denim sewing resources?  How do you line up your topstitching?  Has anyone found a decent source of denim?  (I’m working on it…)

*I do work with synthetics sometimes, they’re alright but I generally stay away from them. 


37 comments

  1. My denim experience is mainly staring at denim in a fabric store, wishing up so many ideas…

    Then walking away from it when thinking of all the ways I can mess it up!

    • Oh! Well.. If you start simple and be sure to test/sample sew/play with the fabric ahead of time, you’re much more likely not to make a mess. And it’s only fabric. That’s what I tell myself, often that crisis of confidence is the biggest sewing impediment.

    • I’ve had that problem too. I think it’s a tension issue. However, even after adjusting my machine, there are some types of thread that it just doesn’t like. I found that Gutermann Mara works better for me than others, but it may be hard to find.

      • 1- Don’t touch your machine’s tension. This is a big cause of machine problems- people playing with the tension. Modern machines don’t need tension adjustment for the vast majority of seam types. Reset the tension to automatic or whatever the default is and leave it. If it seems like the tension isn’t working on a vintage machine, get it looked at by someone who knows what they’re doing. Then don’t touch the tension. It only really needs to be played with for some advanced techniques/stitches.

        2- Are you using regular construction thread in the bobbin, or top-stitching thread? Top-stitching thread is too thick to use in the bobbin, use a construction thread that matches the fabric in the bobbin.

        3- Make sure to begin and end the seam a few mm from the raw edge. Don’t start right on the edge of the fabric or it will get messy. The few mms not sewn in the seam will be caught in another seam/hem.

        4- Start to sew with the threads under the foot, toward the back of the machine. If the machine sews back over them it can make a thread nest and also upset the machine.

        That’s just off the top of my head, hope that helps.

        • That all makes sense. I meant adjusting the bobbin tension (should have been clearer about that). I tried different threads in the bobbin too, but in the end I concluded that my machine just didn’t like that particular thread. Tried different needles too. Odd, it’s the only time I’ve ever had a problem with my Bernina.

  2. that worksheet is great as fabric weights are something i really struggle with (esp when buying online). i think i’m going to start weighing fabrics and keeping a record of swatches and weights!

    • Oh good! I’m glad it’s useful, I’ve been wanting to put it together for a little while now. Stephen my husband looked it over a few times, he kept showing me ways to simplify it. I guess he actually wrote it, really! ;) Mr. Cake…

  3. Thanks for the info on fabric weights! I always wondered what size of fabric they weight refered to, and had just decided to keep the shipping sticker on a small swatch to refer back to when looking at other fabric on line. Thanks for putting that in context!
    As for denim, I line my topstitching up the same way. This may be unique to my old machine, but sometimes the foot has a hard time crossing seams. I discovered I could put a piece of folded cardboard/tag board under the foot behind the needle to make the foot level. I think it helps the feed dogs find purchase, and my stitching stays nice and even.

    • Not unique to an old machine at all, Joelle! The new Janomes have a special H shaped device that you use to do exactly that. It helps the foot to cope with the rather sudden change in thickness better.

    • No problem, Joelle.. I always wondered, too, then I got addicted to weighing my fabrics and putting them into spreadsheets… I like it, it helps me quantify an element of sewing that can be difficult to nail down… I save those kinds of swatches, too!

      Lots of machines have that issue… I sometimes use the little gadget Mrs C refers to, and sometimes I can get good stitches but simply taking it slow over the seaming. Great tip!

  4. The basic Wrangler jean, 13mwz, cowboy cut, foundation of a clothing empire (although Wrangler is now owned by the VF Corp, which also owns the Lee brand) is made of 16-oz denim. Hope this gives your readers some idea of the weight you can expect from that designation on a fabric bolt.
    Cone Denim weaves the broken-twill, stable denim that Wrangler uses for the majority of its products. A twill weave, by its nature, twists and stretches on the bias, and can easily distort a garment either in the sewing or the washing. You might have noticed that some jeans leg seams twist to the front or the back as you wear them. This is why. Thus endeth the lecture and the sales talk, lol.

  5. Thank you for posting this. It is silly, but I have completely forgotten about burn testing fabric somehow. I shop at a discount fabric store which has great products, but rarely lists the fiber content! Now I will go burn things…

  6. This will not sound fair, but just yesterday I snagged a remnant piece of Japanese denim (NYC garment district). Prior to spotting it, I was perusing the regular denim choices without much enthusiasm. I sympathize with the problem–I’ve never bought denim online because I’m certain I would be disappointed.

    Anyway, I remember reading some earlier comments about problems with denim bleeding and dye rub-off. I’ve taken to using dye fixatives on new fabrics that have saturated colors (and especially black) to prevent bleeding and fading. I wash new fabrics with Retayne, which I ordered from Dharma Trading Co. (a really nice company), but I’m sure its available elsewhere. I also sometimes wash new fabrics with Synthaprol to remove all the crap in there & the excess dye.

    I’m interest to see how the hemp blend denim works out. I used a hemp-cotton blend to make some floor pillows & it’s nicely soft but also durable.

    ~Jen

    • P.S. I’m really looking forward to the hammer-sewing episode! I just bought some rivets for the first time.

    • Ooooh, I bet it’s nice! Does it have an extra pretty wash or something? I love modern Japanese textiles, they’re just delicious.

      Thanks for the note on dye fixatives! I use a dye catcher sheet sometimes, but mostly I just wash like colors together and that pretty much works…

      So far I’m loving the hemp-denim. It’s really stiff, which is to be expected, but I think it will wear really well.

      • I do love the selvages on the denim – one is orange and white and the other side is gold-yellow and white. Otherwise, fairly straight forward and crisp. It is a narrower woven fabric, like other Japanese textiles often are.

  7. Between the burn test and the topstitching, this post reeeeally spoke to me… :) And I’m a bit inappropriately excited about the sewing with hammers content coming tomorrow. Metal touches get me giddy. I lost a fingernail about 18 months ago due to a snap installing snafu, but it didn’t hinder my enthusiasm for these details. Well, maybe for one day it did. ;)

    • Ahhh! You know, I work worked worked on the sewing with hammer bit today and just lost it after I hit my thumb waaaay too hard. I went back through my photos and every one of them is kinda shaky, so I’ll have to re-shoot that tomorrow. Boooooo. And my thumb hurts! At least I didn’t lose a nail, yuck yuck that must have hurt so much!

  8. Ooooh, you got to burn stuff, so cool!!! I have topstiched a jacket before, and used the topstitching thread. I found it to be so heavy, too heavy for the jacket as it was a softer fabric. So, for denim, it would have worked out well, and given a nice raised line to the topstitching. But, not recommended for softer and more drapey fabrics. It just looked odd.

    • Oh yes, I like testing the fabric that way, it’s interesting.

      Yes, I think you’re right about making sure the thread and stitching goes with the fabric. I’ve done something similar and found the same thing. :)

  9. I’ve gotten some hilariously good denim at Walmart of all places. The denim Kelly skirt (a Megan Nielsen pattern) that you see all over my MMM flickr is made from Walmart denim. Also, I find that a blind hem foot does excellent double duty as an edgestitching foot, which is very useful for topstitching.

    • That’s really interesting, I guess it makes sense that Walmart would carry decent denim. I didn’t know they still sold fabric! :)

      Yes, I like to use the blind hem foot when I have uneven surfaces, and it’s sooo good. :)

      • It might be a southern thing. We seem to have massive Walmarts here compared to the rest of the country, and while not all of the six or seven within reasonable driving distance (seriously, that many) still have fabric, there are two that have still have it. It’s mostly quilting cotton, but there are a number of diamonds in the rough in the small apparel section. I think that’s because they seem to mostly get overstock and end of bolts from all sorts of random places.

  10. I’ve never done a burn test before. Thanks for the link to that nifty chart! I also appreciate the tip about keeping topstitching lines even. Do you have to use a special needle for topstitching with topstitching thread? Will a denim needle work for topstitching? I ordered the denim for my Hummingbird skirt from fabric.com. It’s a 10 oz. Kaufman denim in blue:
    http://www.fabric.com/ProductDetail.aspx?ProductID=a67d11dc-4d15-4c66-a6df-89722837191
    I haven’t used it before, but it washed well. So far so good. :)

    Like sewlittletime, I look forward to using your fabric weight worksheet to keep a record of swatches and weights. Thanks!

    • The burn tests are great I once discovered that some pretty brocade I’d kept over the years was not a poly like I thought but pure silk! (Doesn’t bead, smells like burning hair)

      A denim needle is fine for top stitching.

      Glad you like the sheet!

      • Wet silk is said to smell like fish. It stinks, alright, but I’m not sure that “fish” is how I’d describe the smell.

  11. Rathdowne St Fabrics in Melbourne has a small range of denim, but usually ex-designer (think Bettina Lliano). I like to try and get denim with a lycra mix to get a nice fit and feel.

  12. Oh I do enjoy fabric testing. Setting the fabric aloight is one of my favourite things to do (no, I’m not a pyro). As you can probably imagine, the students enjoy it too. We only let the seniors set fire to fabric though – something which they enjoy too as they struggle to get their head around the idea that different fibres and fabrics burn differently when we have our initial discussions. This is on teh agenda for next term :)

    • You know I do too! :D That’s pretty cool that you can do it in your classes, and that it helps kids understand fibers. Neat.

  13. I finished up a hemp/denim skirt today in a lighter weight fabric than this. I love denim skirts too! I have not made that much out of denim and when I do I usualy upcycle old jeans to make new for the kiddos.

    I love the tests you put the fabric through. I used my piece of the fabric for a new seat for an old stroller. It was so great to work with this fabric.

    I do like you do to get even rows of top-stitching. Or I use my cover machine… :)

    As for fabric I like a bit of lycra in my knits, not too much. I just made my daughter a t-shirt and tights in a 1×1 organic cotton ribbing with only 4% lycra. It was just a dream to work with! Although I do like a good thick 100% cotton interlock too!

  14. Another splendid post. I find fabric weights so confusing so this worksheet is super useful – especially for replicating jeans. And I’m grateful for the comments about fixatives. I love my jeans really dark…and want them to stay that way!


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