25 September 2008

Darning Jeans

I got a new sewing machine just after the Labor Day holiday, and I have spent the last week learning how to mend jeans using the buttonhole foot, and a special darning stitch. I set the machine over a hole and start sewing, and it moved the fabric evenly back and forth for me. See my previous blog post about the new machine (Janome HT2008), or read about it on the Janome site.

Note: You can click on any of the photos to get a closer look.

Not all sewing machines do it automatically the way mine does, but many Janome models do, and other brands probably do as well. If you have a sewing machine, check to see if your machine does something similar, and if it doesn't, you can do it freehand (you move the fabric back and forth by hand) using a straight stitch and an actual darning foot (mine is actually the buttonhole foot). But that takes more skill and practice than the automatic darning feature.

Darning is a bit different than just patching a hole, and shows a lot less than patching does. It actually uses thread to cover a hole - almost as if you've re-woven the missing fabric out of thread. And if you do it right, it's nearly invisible. The downside is that patching might be slightly more comfortable (though we haven't found that darning the jeans is uncomfortable).

There are a few key components to darning jeans:
  1. Matching the thread. You must get it as close as possible to the color of the jeans. If it's not the exact shade, getting a thread that is slightly lighter is better than if it's slightly darker. A small spool of thread costs about $2.50 USD.
  2. Matching the patch, if using. Bigger holes (larger than .7cm) require a small piece of fabric to support the new thread. The patch should ALSO be as close to the color of the fabric as possible, and as with the thread, going ever so slightly lighter is better than going darker. An eighth of a yard of fabric rarely costs more than a dollar or two.
  3. A washable fabric glue stick. You use it to hold the patch in place while you are darning. It costs around $3, and lasts a LONG time.
When patching jeans, you normally use double-sided fusible interfacing to glue the patch to the hole. You cut the interfacing around the hole so that the interfacing can't be felt from the back of the hole. It also prevents the edges of the patch or the edges of the hole from unraveling further. I didn't like using interfacing to hold the patches on, for a couple of reasons. It leaves the patch rather stiff. It wasn't really uncomfortable, but that spot never really conforms to your skin the way undamaged denim does. And when you darn across a patch, the darning also leaves the patch a little stiff - there's a LOT of thread being used. So when doing a darning job, I leave out the interfacing in the hopes that eventually the repair will eventually soften, something it won't do with interfacing. I figure the thread will prevent the unraveling well enough, and that's one less layer of stiffness to make the jeans uncomfortable.

Other, less important, but worth thinking about considerations:
  1. Match the thread type with the fabric. If you are darning cotton fabric such as denim, then use an all cotton thread if possible, rather than a polyester thread. That way, as the fabric continues to fade, so too will the thread, hopefully at the same rate. However, matching the thread color is more important to me, and if I can get the exact right color, but only in a polyester thread, then I use polyester thread.
  2. Match the fiber content of the patch, with the fiber content of the garment being repaired. In other words, if you are fixing cotton jeans, then use a cotton patch. This is for the same reason as #1 above. Again, matching colors is more important to me.
This sounds complicated, but it's really not.

I had 8 pairs of jeans to repair, and 3 of them were very faded blue jeans. I took the most damaged pair, and used the fabric to repair the other two. The rest, I took to Joanne Fabrics, and found matching threads and patching fabrics. I think the materials were about $15 to repair 5 pairs of jeans.

Then, follow these steps:

  1. Cut patches for the holes. I make the patches squares or rectangles only. Cut the patch so that it extends at least 1/2 an inch past any edge of the hole. Bigger is better than smaller, because if you don't make it big enough, it's easy to catch and scrunch up the edge of the patch, making a hard lump underneath the fabric. If the diameter of the hole is less than .7 cm, I skip this step entirely. That's about the same size as the width of my pinkie finger at the tip, and is the widest the darning foot will accommodate in one pass. I also do NOT trim the frayed edges if I'm skipping the step - the fraying fabric will help support the darn.
  2. Glue the patch behind the hole on the inside of the garment. I use a washable fabric glue stick. Avoid getting the glue on the center of the patch, where it covers the hole. Wait about 5 minutes for it to set.
  3. Darn the hole using the #9 stitch (shown) and the buttonhole foot. You open out the back of the foot as far as it will go, and you do NOT pull down the buttonhole size sensor for the machine. You position the needle so it's at the lower left corner of the hole, maybe 1/2 a centimeter away from the edge. Do as many passes as you need to, to completely cover the hole and edges of the hole. When done, you can turn it 90 degrees and go over it again, if desired. If the hole is small enough to not use a patch, I try and center it just so. You can also shorten the darning pass for smaller holes.
  4. Remove the jeans from the machine, and trim your threads close to the fabric surface. I then turn the jeans to the inside, and trim the edges of the patch close to where the stitching begins.
Not including the trip to the fabric store, the entire process takes no more than 10-15 minutes per hole. (Well, at least that's how long it took me after I figured out how to do it. The first few tries took longer). And as long as I've done a good job matching everything, the repairs are remarkably hard to see. Not invisible, but only noticeable if you are looking for the spots. I've also found that the process is more invisible on blue jeans, than on other colors of jeans. The reason is that blue jeans are made of two colors of thread in the weaving process - white in one direction, blue in the other, giving the jeans a slightly variegated appearance. That variegation does a better job hiding the repair work (Think about it, what kind of carpet shows all the dirt or crud on it - a matte style, or a speckled style?). Chris has pairs of jeans in black, brown, tan, and olive, and the threads used to weave those denims tend to all be one color. It's even MORE important to match your thread and patch colors when darning jeans that aren't the standard blue.

The step-by-step photos above document a mediocre thread- and patch-matching job. (It was because of that particular pair of jeans that I got MUCH more careful when choosing colors.) The repairs are clearly noticeable. But the poor choice turned out to be advantageous - the repairs do show up nicely in the photos. Below, are some examples where the thread matched nicely.

To put things into perspective - I put 6 pairs of Chris's jeans back into circulation. To have bought them new would have cost $35 x 6= $210. The cost of the sewing machine was $350. It hasn't quite paid for itself, but it has certainly helped. And there are cheaper machines available that can do the same thing. The cheapest machines wouldn't do this automatically, but you could still do it with a darning foot and freehand darning with a straight stitch (though that takes some practice to get right).


Karla said...

Cathy, my kids are grown now, so I do far less jeans mending than I used to, but over time, I learned that jeans responded very well to darning when I used a bobbin thread that matched the denim fairly well, and Sulky polyester invisible (clear) thread in the needle of the machine. Frayed edges and loose threads actually helped. I ironed fusible tricot interfacing to the wrong side, after making a nice decorative arrangement of the loose threads over as much of the hole as possible, then darned the daylights out the worn area. The kids marveled at my amazing talent. Apparently, my *only* amazing talent... Your repairs look very, very good, so I'm only suggesting the invisible thread (must be polyester, not nylon) because you can patch many different colors without rethreading the machine - and I am nothing if not lazy.

Cathy Weeks said...

Thanks Karla! I'll have to try out the polyester thread. I've got the nylon monofilament, and it's great stuff, but I think it would be awfully scratchy for something like this.

I also use the frayed edges for the same reason, except in the very worst holes - it adds to the worn-spot look, rather than the "I've been patched look".