A Guide for Hand Embroidery on Denim

Embroidered Denim Pocket

Mollie Johanson

If you love the look of embroidered denim, there's no need to purchase embellished jeans or other denim items when you can embroider them yourself. This technique is easy to learn and a great way to update used clothing or customize new clothes.

You're likely to see embroidery on the runway, in clothing departments, at big-box stores, and everywhere in between. Yes, you can buy those pieces of clothing, but you'll have more options and take more pride in the clothes you stitch yourself.

Choosing a Denim Item to Embroider

Buy a fresh pair of jeans (wash and dry them first), pull out the denim jacket you haven't worn in a while, or stop by a second-hand shop to find a special piece to stitch on. Then reach into your stash of embroidery floss to get started. 

Not only is this a good way to create your own version of a popular style, but it's also a great way to fix up some clothes that need a bit of repair by embroidering over a stain, covering areas that are looking extra worn or stitching over a patched hole.

You might add something bold to make a statement on your own clothes or embroider fun characters for your kids. Whatever you choose, it's good to first know the basics of embroidering on denim.

Denim jeans texture
DigiPub / Getty Images

Transferring a Pattern to Denim

One of the first challenges for stitching on denim fabric is getting the pattern onto the material. The fabric is too thick for tracing and often it's too dark to see the markings. 

Several methods work well in this situation. One method uses white or yellow carbon transfer paper. This does work, but often the lines smudge or are difficult to see. Another is the tracing paper method, which will work but can be tricky as the paper can tear as you work.

A third method uses a water-soluble stabilizer, which soaks away when you're finished stitching. This is the method shown in the image.

With a water-soluble stabilizer, you can print the pattern onto the material and adhere it onto the denim. If you want to embroider over areas where there is a seam, pay close attention to how the pattern lays over the seam to avoid creating a gap in the stitching where the fabric has varying layers.

The simple pattern in the sample stitching is a collection of triangles that fits on the back pocket of a pair of jeans.

Marking the Pattern on Denim
Mollie Johanson

Choosing a Needle and Thread

Denim is a strong and thick fabric, so you should select a strong and thick needle. Chenille needles in sizes 18 to 22 are good because they are both sharp and strong. The specific size you use should be a good fit for the thread you are using.

Most embroidery threads will work on denim, but it's best to choose those that are both durable and washable. If you find that the thread is looking more worn than usual, use shorter lengths of thread and coat them with thread conditioner. 

Close-Up Of Work Tools On Pink Background
Eakachai Leesin / EyeEm / Getty Images

Stitching on Denim

Depending on the size of the embroidery you are doing, as well as the placement of it, you might or might not be able to use an embroidery hoop. The good news is that denim is stable enough that you can work without a hoop.

When holding the denim and stitching without a hoop, be careful about how you grip the fabric so you avoid hand cramps and repetitive strain injury. Take breaks as needed.

Embroidering on jeans, whether on a pocket or the leg of the pants, often requires working at different angles and with your hand at an open edge. Because of this, it's helpful to embroider with the sewing method, dipping the needle through the fabric, while keeping it on the front of the work.

If you are stitching near the front pockets of jeans, take care that you don't stitch through the actual pockets. Pull them out so they are out of your way while you work and check that they stay that way.

As you work, if you get to an area that is difficult to pull the needle through, try using a different size needle or working with a needle puller. 

Because most embroidered denim items will be worn and laundered, be careful not to make stitches that are large and will snag easily.

Stitching on a Pocket
Mollie Johanson

Stitch Ideas for Embroidering Denim Items

Bold and beautiful florals are a popular design on jeans and denim jackets. You can work with pre-made floral embroidery patterns, using them just as they are or clipping and grouping them to create your own design. Flowers can be as simple as a scattering of lazy daisies or something more intricate.

Geometric designs, such as the satin-stitched triangles in step 1, are modern and often easier to work in less time. They are great for adding some embroidery to a corner area or along a hem.

Tattoo motifs, emblems, cute patterns, or favorite characters look good on jackets, similar to adding an embroidered patch. To make them stand out, embroider them with fill stitching. 

For something a little simpler and more subtle, stitch borders around front pockets of jeans or along the bottom hem of a jacket.

Geometric Embroidery on Denim
Mollie Johanson

Placement Ideas

 After you choose a design to embroider, choose the best placement for your stitching. Not all patterns are ideal for every location on a piece of clothing.

Pockets and hems of jeans are good places for stitching, as well as along the side seams.

Symmetrical embroidery on the fronts of jeans is also popular, especially just under the front pockets. For this, mirror the design on each side of the jeans.

On denim jackets and shirts, the placement possibilities are nearly endless. You can add a large design to the back or tiny stitching to the collar or button placket.

Once you've started embellishing, you might just find yourself wanting to add some stitches to all of your clothes.

blue jeans cut out on white
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