Lina and Vi: 10 Tips for Working with Natural Burlap

Monday, December 15, 2014

10 Tips for Working with Natural Burlap

Lina and Vi - 10 tips working with burlap

It has been another busy week filling custom orders of zipper pouches, state pillows, and wine totes!

If you've been following for a while, you'll know that the main fabric I use in creating our Grounds and Holiday collections is burlap. Now, I have never purchased burlap in a fabric store, in a nicely folded ream ready to be cut to size and sewn. (That sounds so calming to me!) I have only used what I will refer to as 'natural' burlap. I have no knowledge about whether the burlap you can find at retail fabric shops like Joann's is synthetic or natural, but I can assure you that there are a few differences as compared to the burlap coffee bags I purchased from the local coffee roaster.  I'm talking about burlap in the wild here!

Maybe you're interested in learning to sew with burlap or maybe you're just interested in getting a behind the scenes look at how we start the process of creating our items. Here are 10 tips for sewing and crafting with burlap from coffee bean sacks:

1. Keep a vacuum and lint roller nearby.

Burlap is messy. Wear clothing that you intend to change out of after working on your project as you may find that burlap sheds like crazy and will end up covering your pants, socks, shirts, and likely the entire area you are working. It still drive me nuts, but I have come to expect that it's a characteristic of working with this type of fabric.

2. Use a rotary cutter if you have one.

About six months ago, I purchased a Gingher rotary cutter, expecting to pay a bit more in order for it to last on the heavy wear and tear of cutting through thick burlap. It worked and still works. I highly recommend using a rotary cutter rather than cutting shears as burlap has a tendancy to move around on the cutting surface, and the less you have to adjust it to make room for the shears, the more accurate your cut will be. (Additionally, I use a yardstick with the rotary cutter to help guide me with straight lines.)

3. Follow the thread grain when you cut.

This is easier said than done, especially when working with a burlap bag that has wrinkles and flaws from being tossed into trucks, loaded to machinery, and sitting in warehouses. Try to line up your ruler with one thread and adjust the fabric so that you cut following that single thread. You'll end up with a more 'square' cut piece. I have learned this hard lesson when I cut what I thought was a straight rectangle and ended up with a loop-sided shape, breaking threads and unexpectedly causing the edges to fray.

4. Add an extra 1/4" inch to your seam allowance.

Again, this speaks from experience. Burlap frays, and depending on the quality and tightness of the weave, it can be better or worse for you. If it begins to fray, you'll end up trying to compensate by leaving a large seam allowance as there isn't much to sew with a frayed edge. That ends up making your final project smaller than originally designed, which isn't good. Save yourself a headache and cut and sew a larger seam allowance and then trim it down after the seam is secure to remove the bulkiness.

5. Use heavy-weight thread.

The thicker the thread, the easier it will be for your stitches to grab onto the burlap weave. The thread grains are really just twine, which  means it's not your average fabric thread. They are thick strands, so having a thicker thread helps to keep your seams in tact, especially if the burlap stretches a bit. As an added bonus, using thicker thread makes it easier for you to see your seam among the burlap fabric grains - a good idea for detailed top-stitching.

6. Line burlap with interfacing or a stabilizing fabric.

This tip is especially true for sewing burlap. Although burlap is a thick fabric, it needs structure. I typically use a fusible craft-weight interfacing to back all of the burlap used on the Grounds totes. It gives the bag structure and allows it to stand up against it's own weight in most cases. For home decor items like a pillow, I don't use fusible interfacing but rather a heavier fabric stitched on the back of the burlap to keep the fiber filling from peaking out through the burlap with a less stiff feel. Use something to keep it sturdy - doesn't need to be fusible or fancy, and you will appreciate how much easier it is sew with a stabilizer.

7.  Finish raw edges with a zig-zag stitch when sewing.

Those of you with a serger or overlocking machine may use a different stitch, but since I have a standard sewing machine, I choose to use a zig-zag stitch to secure raw edges of seams. It helps to prevent the fraying mentioned earlier, and also further secures your seam.

8. Use a sealant to prevent holes or tears from spreading.

I find that coffee burlap sacks have a lot of tears, stretched holes, or flaws from being handled. If I notice an area of the burlap that has the potential to tear open further, I will seal it with Fray Check to prevent it from spreading further. It allows me to use pieces of burlap that have character and speak of its history, without compromising my end product's quality. 

9. Iron on a high setting.

I start most of my projects with cutting open the burlap coffee sack and laying it over my ironing board to iron out the wrinkles. Burlap can be defiant, so I use the second highest setting. But even that sometimes doesn't work, so remember to have patience and keep pressing down on the area you need to flatten out. 

10. Clean the dust from under your needle plate on your sewing machine regularly.

This is a simple tip for sewers and takes only a few minutes. Use that little white brush that has a pick on the other end which came with your machine to brush out the fuzzy lint that collects under the needle plate. Start by removing your bobbin case and the bobbin and go from there. Your sewing machine will show it's appreciation when you are sweating trying to push a thick layer of burlap through it the next time your're sewing.

Remember to have patience. If you can work with burlap, you can work with anything. I hope you find these helpful when you embark on your next DIY project.

Happy Monday!

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