Erich Campbell examines various ways to embroider on that most tricky of garments, denim jeans

Fashion trend sites have been exploding with embroidery in recent months and jeans are an increasingly popular canvas in this pop-culture stitching renaissance. Throughout my career I’ve seen denim jackets come and go, however work on trousers has been rare outside of sports warm-up kit, and embroidery work on jeans even rarer still.

Embroidering jeans can be a daunting task for the uninitiated: between the difficulties of hooping over seams and rivets, limited access to decoration areas, and the desire to match with retail fashion styles, it can seem like an impossible task. Though you will face challenges when creating a stylish pair of embroidered jeans, denim is a stable cotton twill – a very embroidery-friendly material. Despite access issues, you’ll find methods for decorating jeans that suit every decorator, from those intrepid souls who have no fear of opening a seam, to those who can manage a modicum of straight construction-sewing stitches, and even those who either can’t handle or ask the price for this extra labour, or who flatly don’t want to do anything resembling alterations.

Taking examples from some experienced embroiderers from the commercial and craft worlds, I’m going to share some methods for decorating denim jeans that can could prove profitable for your shop.

The secret to embroidering on denim

On many fashionable embroidered jeans, the decoration style often involves a great deal of coverage. My first instinct as a commercial embroiderer is to scoff at the amount and size of the stitched motifs from a production perspective, but not so my favourite expert on the subject, Jane Swanzy of the award-winning Swan Threads in Houston, Texas. I interviewed Jane to get some of her hard-won secrets for embroidery on denim, something she’d been doing long before the latest wave of floral-emblazoned legs were seen strutting the catwalks.

“On jeans, I try to cover as much area as possible”, she told me, “but that really is determined by the design.” Leafing through pictures of Jane’s favourite examples, you can see that she’s not kidding – though she does indeed stitch the jean cuffs where it is possible to hoop them normally, you see multiple instances of stunningly large designs that wrap around the leg, and even all-over repeated patterns that stud the surface of the jeans.

I saw designs stitched over and through the thickest seams on the outside of the leg; though I’d stitched over many thick seams on the back panels of work jackets, I’d always thought that the seams on jeans would cause issues. I asked Jane about her method for achieving these large design areas and her ‘seam secrets’, and, as with most things, the answer was simpler (and yet more labour intensive) than expected. “I take the inside seam of the jeans apart so I can sew on a flat surface… The only thing I really worry about is not sewing a pocket closed. My embroidery machine doesn’t have any problem stitching over seams.”

Jane sometimes slows her stitch speed to 650 spm if applying many stitches over a seam

Paint splotches by Jane Swanzy

Paint splotches by Jane Swanzy

In fact, many of the embroidered pieces you’ll see in retail have been decorated before the garment is constructed, making the process much easier to manage. For the rest of us, there’s only one solid option if we want those huge wraparound designs: you’ll have to open a seam.

Jane offers some tips to those wanting to give it a try. “Depending on your machine, you may need to slow the speed a little when stitching over heavy seams. I will use a heavier needle, tearaway stabiliser, and 75/11 or 80/12 sharp needles.” I have to interject here that you should check your particular piece for stretch: some stretchy blended-fibre denims may need more stabilisation to stitch large-coverage designs; a light, but dimensionally stable polymesh cutaway stabiliser is a good start for your testing.

Reflecting on Jane’s technique, I wondered if speed was a factor, but she said that she keeps up a steadily fast pace, except for when seam-stitching gets intense. “I normally run my machine at 950 spm and rarely slow it when stitching on denim. I will sometimes slow to 650 spm if there‘s a lot of stitching going over the seams.”

TOP TIP: I asked Jane to give me one top tip for decorators looking to start offering jeans: “Be comfortable with taking the inside seam out and stitching it back. You can do a lot without taking the jeans apart, but I just find it so much easier to sew on a flat surface.”

Although you can stitch a number of designs, as Jane herself does, in easily accessible areas of the leg like the cuff or rely on specialty hoops and frames made to extend as far as possible into the narrow reaches of legs and sleeves, the answer to that all-over look will always be found at the end of a seam-ripper.

Back pocket decoration

In my quest to track down decoration options for jeans, I talked to one of my favourite stock-design purveyors to both the commercial and craft markets – the good people at Urban Threads. They provided me with the perfect, ‘less sewing’ solution to getting a design on jeans: the classic back-pocket placement. Though the tutorials they write are usually for home-machine mavens, the steps are the same for those of us in the commercial decorating world, but be warned, there’s still some construction stitching involved.

First, you’ll want to undo the seam on the pocket you want to embroider, leaving the top corner seams or rivets intact. Second, hoop the pocket, using an embroidery specific adhesive spray to attach the pocket to a piece of medium cutaway backing. The likelihood is that the pocket will not span the entirety of your hoop, so take care to hoop firmly to avoid the material shifting.

Then embroider your design, taking care to trace the design or use a printed template to help you get the perfect placement on your pocket.

Next, remove the stabiliser and head over to the sewing machine to pin your pocket back in place and stitch around the bottom edge of the pocket, following the original line of the seam. Admittedly, this still means we have to account for the labour cost of removing and stitching down the pocket, but this particular stitching is no more difficult than stitching a patch on a jacket, something many commercial shops do regularly. While the back pocket method may not have the immediate impact of all-over or wrap-around designs, it does give you a chance to customise jeans without the hassle of opening them up entirely.

Unpick the seams

Hoop up the pocket

Embroider as usual

The completed patch

The no-sew option

Lastly comes the only no-sew method – aside from some embroidery, of course. If you’ve been reading recent issues of Images magazine you’ll know that I’m an advocate of making small run, custom-shaped patches in-house. With the boom in patches as a viable fashion decoration option, a simple solution is to create custom patches and/or embroidered appliqués and use a heat-bonding adhesive and a heat press to securely attach them to the jeans.

If you have a need for a sufficient volume, you could even contract with a commercial patch provider; many of them offer custom-shaped, embroidery-only appliqué creations that would be perfect for this kind of application. Just remember that you must make sure your applied decorations are completely adhered, particularly if they are in an area that stretches or will see much abrasion when worn. Follow the instructions for your patch adhesive of choice and test your method for wash and wear before releasing your product into the world.

No matter how you decide to go about it – whether you stick to slim designs and speciality hoops, decorate the cuffs and waists where you won’t stitch shut any pockets, split the seams and flatten the legs, pull up the pocket, or stick with adhesives – there’s no reason to be afraid of stitching on jeans. The critical elements don’t differ that much from any embroidery: just stabilise well, stitch carefully, know how much labour you are putting in, and charge accordingly.

Erich Campbell is an award-winning digitiser, embroidery columnist and educator, with 18 years’ experience both in production and the management of e-commerce properties. He is the partner relationship manager for DecoNetwork in the USA.