Friday, February 17, 2017

how to make a rug from repurposed jeans

A few folks have been asking about how I made my recycled jeans rug. Blog posts here and here show more peeks at the project. I'm not sure I can offer a full tutorial, but I can give you the basics and some helpful tips.

If you need to learn some basic sewing skills before trying this project, there are all sorts of great resources...books at your local library, videos available online or you may have friends and/or neighbors who might help. An aunt, mom or dad or grandmother may be delighted to pass along a sewing tradition. There may be local adult ed classes you could take advantage of.  Many fabric and craft stores offer sewing lessons, too.

The size of the rug will depend on how many pieces of denim you can "harvest" from your old jeans and the space you are hoping to cover. If this is too "by the seat of your pants" I get it. Humor me. This is how some of my most favorite projects roll. Exhale and give it a try.

I made this rug over the span of several days, in both long chunks of time and in little snippets of found minutes here and there.

For this project you will need:

  • a stack of old jeans
  • a pair of sharp scissors
  • a rotary cutter and appropriate ruler and cutting mat
  • a sewing machine in good working order. 
  • both "jeans" and "quilting" sewing machine needles
  • a walking foot attachment for your sewing machine and a presser foot that will enable you to sew a 1/4" seam.
  • straight pins
  • an iron
  • a spool of denim blue thread and a bobbin wound with it as well
  • colored thread for quilting (I wanted a slight contrast, so chose a medium grey), again both a spool and a bobbin 
  • enough fabric for the back of the rug (slightly bigger than the rug top you will piece together)
  • enough low loft quilt batting, just a bit bigger than your rug top  (I used polyester because it was cheap and on sale at the same time! Also, easy to throw in the washing machine)
  • a contrasting fabric for the binding, with coordinating thread
  • binding clips (if you are binding by hand)
  • a needle for hand sewing the binding (unless you are an ace at machine binding!) 
Start with a stack of old jeans. Using a sharp pair of scissors, cut the legs off as high up as you can. Save the "seat" of your jeans for other projects (the back pockets are especially useful).

You will notice that the inseams on your jeans have fairly flat seams, and that the outer seams are bulkier and stronger. These bulkier seams are called  "flat felled seams".  When you slit the legs of your jeans lengthwise, you have a choice to make. If you have a sturdy sewing machine that can manage a bunch of layers of fabric at once, I invite you to cut the length of your jeans along the inseam. I think incorporating the worn and sturdy outer seam into your rug gives it more texture. If you are concerned about having too much bulk under your needle, I encourage you to cut along the outer seams (and that is perfectly OK. No one likes to deal with broken needles or "thread throw-up" in your bobbin case!)
In the picture above, you can see that I've cut the legs off the jeans, and slit the legs. Since I cut the length of the leg along the inseam, the flat felled seams are now part of the fabric I'll work with. 

The goal is to get as many good sized, flat, rectangular pieces of denim from the jeans as possible. 

Pull out your cutting mat, ruler and rotary cutter. Tidy up the lower edge of each pant leg by aligning the lines on the ruler with the flat felled seam and slice off the hem, with your rotary cutter snugged up against your ruler for accuracy.

You'll end up with a pile of scraps that looks like this... 
Using the straight cut you just made across the hem as reference, use your ruler to make a horizontal cut just below the knee of each leg. The hem cut and the cut below the knee should be equidistant from one another, that is, parallel to one another. (Knees are usually worn and baggy... not so great for rug making.) 

In the photo below, the knee portion of the leg is very faded. The back of the thigh fabric is being cut, using the ruler to create an accurate rectangle. 
Continue to cut rectangles until you run out of legs. You'll end up with:
  • a bunch of larger rectangles made from the fabric cut from the knee to the hem section (these pieces will include the inseam or outer seam, depending how you chose to cut the leg)
  • a stack of rectangles cut from the backs of the thighs
  • smaller pieces, cut from anything else that looks worthwhile
To make your rug, take a few minutes to lay your pieces out on the floor in a pleasing way. To create more visual interest, I like to alternate the direction of the seams. Including different sized pieces of fabric also creates some interest. If needed, trim pieces, so that they will fit together. Once you have an arrangement you're happy with, you are ready to start sewing. 
TIP: If any of the jeans you are using have any stretch fabric in them, you may want to use your walking foot to do the piecing. I found that the walking foot helped control the gradual sliding that happened as I worked on longer seams.

Using a "jeans" needle in your sewing machine, and the denim colored thread, stitch two pieces together using a 1/4" seam. Using a hot iron, press the seam open and then sew on the next piece. This improvisational style of piecing does not use a pattern or a just add as you go, relying on the way you laid the pieces out on the floor as your guide. Continue to piece and press until you have a good sized section put together. You may want to use straight pins to hold together the pieces you are sewing, so they will not slip or slide as you work. 

I worked on creating my rug in three sections. I did not want to have to wrangle the piece as it got bigger and bigger.

You may need to trim pieces as you go, ensuring that your sections remain as squared up as possible. The photo below shows two dissimilarly sized pieces sewn together. By using the ruler, rotary cutter (and mat!), the edge that sticks out can be trimmed up to create a nice straight edge.
In the photos below, you can see some of the piecing I did. (I took the the photos after I finished the rug, so some of the quilting stitches are visible). The first one shows some simple piecing. The second one shows how I incorporated smaller pieces.

OK, so you have pieced the first section of your rug. Stand up, shake your shoulders, exhale and take a look at what you've just accomplished!

Ready for more? Excellent! Make the next section of your rug. Continue on until you've got all of your sections sewn.

Be sure you have plenty of room to work as you sew the main sections together. I found that the piece got pretty heavy and more challenging to manipulate as I sewed the three main sections together. I ended up slinging the pinned pieces over my shoulder to support the fabric and fed it under the feed dogs gradually. 

Once you've got your entire rug top sewn together, and ironed one last time, you're ready to baste the rug, batting and backing together. This is not my favorite part. I crank up the tunes and make sure to stretch often. Sometimes wine is involved.

On a large, flat surface, spread out your backing fabric, printed side down. (I used mattress ticking. It was on sale, and I like the esthetic of ticking with denim). You may want to keep the backing in place by sticking some masking tape around the edges, adhering it to the surface. Next, spread the batting out on top of the backing. Smooth everything out as flat as possible. The pieced rug goes on top of "the sandwich". Take a few extra minutes to make sure that all three layers are as flat as you can possibly get them. They are minutes worth taking for a quality end result. 

There are several methods for basting a quilt. If you are not familiar with them, I encourage you to explore them on the internet. For this project, I decided to use basting pins. I ended up using lots of them, going back and adding more after I took this photo.

Once you've got your rug basted, you can start quilting. Give yourself some time to think about how you want to quilt your rug. Do you want to echo the lines of the piecing by using straight lines? Do you want to create a checkerboard design? Do you want to soften the rug by quilting in curves or waves or random stippling?

I wanted to create a watery feeling with my quilting, as a contrast to the blocky, angular piecing. I let my needle meander back and forth along the length of the rug. I used a grey thread that did not stand out or blend just created texture and added interest to the denim.

You may want to mark the quilting lines on your rug, so that you can follow them as you sew, or you may just want to improvise your stitches. 

If you did not use a walking foot when you were piecing your rug, now is the time to put it on your machine. Change your needle to a "quilting" needle, and thread your machine with whatever color you are using for the quilting. Adjust the stitch length on your sewing machine, you'll want it on the longer side. Be sure to sew a sample first, so that you can adjust it to suit your taste.

Once you've quilted the entire rug, square up the corners and trim the sides. If you don't know how to sew a binding on a quilt, now is the time to do some research. You can bind by machine (there's a neat tutorial here) or you can bind by hand (another tutorial here).  I bind my projects by hand because it is one of the nicest ways to do meditative stitching. It takes longer, but it's very satisfying. 

When you are finished stitching the binding, shake out the rug and spread it gently onto the floor where you will use it. Appreciate the way it floats and settles on the floor. Admire the way all the muted blues sit next to one another and create a new whole. Exhale. Nicely done, you.

The very last step (and I have not done this yet) is to sew a label to the back of your rug. Some folks have their labels printed professionally, some folks print their own. I like to hand letter mine with a marker. I include my name, the season and year the project is completed, and where it was sewn (geographically). If it's a gift, I usually write some sort of dedication on the label too.

Please let me know if you have any questions. I'll do my best to answer them here in the comments. If you make a rug, please send me pictures! I would love to see your results. 



  1. Excellent tutorial. Now I must start gathering denim jeans. Thank you Karen. Pictures are great!

    1. Thank you so much, Linda! Let me know if you make a rug, and how it goes.

  2. What a beautiful and practical thing - it's lovely.

  3. Hi Karen! I need to figure out how to get your blog to feed itself into my email, because i've missed months and months of your musings! About the beautiful denim do you keep it from slipping on the floor and being a safety hazard?