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Friday, 11 September 2020

Quilting denim – it's not as hard as you think

I've been making quilts from denim for a while now and I thought it was high time I shared some of my tips for quilting it. Denim has some quirks that are good to think about before you embark on quilting, especially as one of those quirks is that it can be a real pain to unpick if the quilting goes along the grain of the fabric.

First though, let's talk backing. Denim quilts are heavy, so think about the quilt's end use beforehand. If it's going to be a bed quilt, you might want to go with a really lightweight backing like a double gauze, a shot, lawn, or some other lightweight cotton. I've mostly backed mine with a fine Indian block-printed cotton. 

blue giant quilt back
The Blue Giant wall hanging backed with mud resist, block printed, indigo dyed cotton
Or, you might want to go with a single layer and back the quilt with a blanket, thereby removing the need for batting. This makes a great option if the denim quilt is going to become a picnic rug.

Now to quilting... I really love the effect of hand quilting on denim, but honestly, you have to be slightly nuts to do it. It's really hard on your hands, but I do believe the result is usually worth it. When I'm hand quilting denim, I use sashiko thread with a sashiko needle, a hard thimble on the middle finger of my right hand above the quilt (to push the needle through) and an adhesive thimble pad on the middle finger of my left hand, below the quilt so I can feel when to direct the needle back up. 

Close up of hand quilting on a denim quilt
The original Blue Giant quilt, all hand quilted.
I don't use a hoop as the fabric is too bulky, but instead lie it flat on my dining table and work from there.

Now let's look at quilting on a domestic machine. The sample below, from left to right, shows thread in weights 50, 40, 28 and 12. The lines here are sewn running parallel, or along, the grain of the denim. The needles used were a 70 for the first two thread weights an 80 for the 28 weight and a 90 for the 12 weight. The thread in the bobbin was the same 40wt across all the samples. As you can see, the thread really disappears into the grain of the fabric when using the lighter weights. 

Different thread weights quilted on denim along the grain
The next sample shows exactly the same threads with exactly the same needles on the same denim, with the same stitch length, but this time the lines are sewn ACROSS the grain of the fabric. It's a big difference isn't it?

Different weight threads quilted on denim against the grain

Let's look a couple of other considerations...

This first pic shows what happens when you're quilting along the grain and then you swap to a quilting fabric and back to the denim. It also shows what happens when your seams are pressed towards the fabric. See that ridge running across the centre of the fabric section? That's the dip between the two half-inch seams – and yes you still get it on quarter inch seams (I sew the Blue Giant with half inch seams due to the piece sizes).

Different weight threads quilted on denim and fabric

This next picture shows what happens when you sew from denim to fabric to denim when you're sewing across the grain of the denim. In this picture there is very little difference between the appearance of the thread on the two materials. This time, the seams are pressed open and there is no ridge across the middle of the fabric.

Different thread weights quilted across fabric and denim agains the grain
So, what if your denim pattern pieces go all different directions? My preference is to use a heavier weight thread and pick a quilting pattern to suit. The wall hanging version of the Blue Giant quilt is a good example.  These quilting lines are sometimes parallel, sometimes perpendicular and sometimes diagonal to the grain (all seams half an inch and pressed open).

Blue Giant wall hanging

The lines were all quilted in the 12wt hot pink in the samples. The two, more horizontal lines shown below disappear into the quilt a bit (they're the ones going along the grain), but it's not so much that I'm concerned about it.

Blue Giant wallhanging with pink quilting
I only ever quilt with my walking foot, but thankfully I know some talented people who've quilted my patterns in other ways. First up we have Beth (@bessielouwells), who has quilted her Blue Giant on a long arm with an edge-to-edge pattern. Beth told me she was surprised it was so easy, given it was her first time loading denim up on the machine.  
Close up of long arm quilting on a denim quilt

It's a variegated thread used here – a whole 2000 yards of it! – but that, and the pattern she's chosen, work really well with that tendency for denim to have the threads pop out or disappear depending on which direction you're sewing. Beth used a cotton wadding and a flannel on the back, but I'll let you head over to her feed to keep an eye out for a full reveal... Don't want to spoil that one!

Close up of long arm quilting on a denim quilt

So, now to the Laid Back quilt. Here, I used that same pink 12wt thread going along the grain of the fabric. If I'd kept stitching from the denim over into the normal quilting fabric, the stitching would have looked very different on the two types of fabric. To avoid that, I had two choices. The first would have been to quilt a horizontal pattern on this quilt or the second, and the option I chose, was to quilt the fabric sections differently. The reasons I didn't horizontally quilt this are first, that the seams are pressed towards the fabric in this quilt (it's to do with avoiding bulk at those two cross-quilt seams) and the second is that I just liked the idea of echoing the vertical lines of the piecing. 

Laid Back quilting detail

Luckily for you (and me), my pattern tester Katy (@whatkatydid_handmade) took a completely different approach to quilting this one, and one that I would never attempt – free-motion on the long arm. Katy told me she would have preferred to use something heavier than 40wt to quilt her Laid Back quilt, but with lockdown, travel restrictions and a tester deadline, beggars can't be choosers! As you can see Katy anchored her panels with a 1/4" seam and then she did a range of free-form patterns, that were different on each denim panel.

Katy Laid Back quilting detail
My favourite part? Where she quilted the name of the pattern into the quilt!  I could not love that bit more :-) As you can see, Katy left her fabric strips unquilted as they're quite narrow. Again, I think I'll let Katy do the full reveal first over on her feed, so make sure you pop over to check it out.
I hope that's given you a few things to think about when you go to quilt your next denim project, and also shown you that it's really not that hard to quilt denim. A bit bulkier maybe, but nothing that a good thread and a sharp needle can't handle. Be sure to let me know below though if you have any other questions.

Happy quilting!


  1. This was such an informative post. Your test samples really illustrated your points! I’ve only made one quilt using denim and I quilted it with a free motion design, so I never really thought about the grain of the denim’s impact on the stitches. You’re brilliant!

    1. Thanks Marla! Given I don't deviate much from the straight line thing, I've had lots of time to ponder these differences as I stitch up and down the rows ;-)
      My latest one also has bias tape on it though, so even though the top is a long way from finished, I'm already puzzling over how I'm going to quilt that one...

  2. Wow. You spent a lot of time writing this blog post! You filled it with really good information for anyone thinking to quilt on denim. I love this idea, but this post makes me remember the more than 30 pairs of jeans I had saved (never knew exactly what to do with them) before we made our big cross-country move. Downsizing as we did, I ended up giving away all of the jeans except for the legs of two pair. Still, I know it's do-able to buy jeans from a thrift store and make a good start on a quilt. It's interesting to see how the grain affects the quilting stitches. Love that you used pink on blue. It's a great project that you executed extremely well. (clapping hands here)

    1. Thanks for taking the time to comment Linda – I appreciate it. You know, I started by putting the call out to friends and family for worn out jeans and now I'm rarely without a stash to work with.
      And yes, that grain really makes a difference to how visible the quilting is for sure!

  3. Do you have your Blue Giant quilt in yardage requirements?

    1. Hi Jean, no it doesn't as it allows for making the quilt in lots of different sizes and it also depends on how many fabrics you want to use. I can tell you that if you want to make a queen quilt with eight different fabrics, you'll need 1 1/4 yards of each.