Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Sewing With Burlap

Burlap has taken the world of interior decorating by storm.  It's everywhere, and it's just so . . . cute!  I can almost hear my grandparents puzzling over why the fabric used for potato sacks and other such industrial purposes in their generation now adorns our homes!

Burlap has amazing texture and a great natural, down-to-earth kind of feel like linen, but much, much more affordable.  It's made of jute, which is a strong and durable natural fibre derived from plants and is very environmentally friendly; however, it has some catches.  It is not the easiest fabric to work with.  It's heavy, rough, hairy, loosely woven, and it has a kind of musty, root-cellar like smell to it.  Perhaps the biggest catch with burlap when it comes to home decor, is that it's not easy to wash.

For the last week I have been experimenting with burlap in home decor.  Here's some tips I have to pass on to those about to jump aboard the burlap-bandwagon:

1) If you're going to wash it, do it by hand.  
Burlap is strong and durable, but it will disintegrate in the wash.  Hand wash smaller pieces, squeeze out excess water and roll in a towel.  For larger pieces, use the hand-wash/wool setting on your washer with a slow-medium spin.  Prepare to clean out your washer once it's done, it will leave a mess behind! Lay flat to air-dry.  You can use regular detergents and softeners if that's your thing, or vinegar if you're into a more natural clean. It will buckle and wrinkle like crazy, but irons well.

My thoughts on pre-washing:
Honesty - I would skip it.  I've read some things that said that pre-washing can reduce the smell and make it softer - but I didn't find that much of a difference.  Pre-washing left the fabric super-wrinkly, and kind of thin.  I also read some things suggesting that burlap will shrink significantly when washed.  I didn't find the shrinkage too bad, and because of the loose weave, it can be ironed and stretched back into shape after washing.  However, my bottom line is that I just wouldn't suggest using burlap on items that need to be washed frequently.

2) When cutting, give your pieces an extra inch of seam allowance. 
Because of it's loose weave and fibrous texture, cut edges on burlap will fray and unfurl very easily.  You can find yourself quickly loosing ground, so give yourself some extra room.

3) Finish all edges and seams with a zig-zag stitch.
Don't skip this step, it really is necessary. Again, because of burlap's loose weave and fibrous texture, your seams will come apart on you if you don't secure them with a zig-zag stitch.

4) Have a vacuum on hand.
Because of it's hairy texture, burlap tends to shed.  When you're cutting and sewing with it, prepare to have burlap fibres flying everywhere and getting on everything.  Some people can be quite allergic to burlap.  If you're a person who struggles with seasonal allergies, or asthma, burlap will not be your friend. Expect a mess!  You'll want to suck up all of the junk left behind in your sewing room and from the interior of your sewing machine.

5) Have some extra needles on hand.
Burlap is tough and woody!  Don't be surprised if you break a needle or two when sewing thick folded sections (I broke 4!)

6) Use a hot iron.
In my experience burlap has no issues with high heat.  It did not burn or wither with a hot iron, and held a crease nicely when ironed.  I read somewhere that jute is flame retardant, but I didn't personally test that. Cotton/linen setting worked for me!

6) Other care tips:

I've read that burlap will disintegrate in direct sunlight.  I haven't tested this, but I can see the fibres becoming dry and brittle if baked in the sun.  To extend the longevity of your item, I would probably avoid too much sun.

Burlap will disintegrate when wet.  It's probably not the best fabric to use in areas of high humidity like the bathroom.  Moisture also really seems to bring out that musty smell!  When/if you need to wash it, don't let it stay wet long.

The smell:  I read some things saying that pre-washing helped lessen the smell, but I didn't find it helped all that much even when using scented detergents and softeners.  I've heard other suggestions like sprinkling it with baking soda (which just seems really messy to me), or storing it with dryer sheets, but honestly, what worked best for me, was to just let it air out.  After a couple of days, the smell seemed to lessen significantly.

I would love to hear your tips and thoughts!  What have you discovered when working with burlap?

Wanna see what I made?  Check out the new burlap products in my ETSY SHOP!


  1. I found your blog and truly enjoy the content. I have been working with burlap for many years and have found both sides of every complaint to be true, i think you just have to know how it will work with what you are planning based on experience and advise of which you give a great deal!!!!
    One thing I would stress even more is that it is really messy when you are cutting lots of small pieces!REALLY MESSY
    I have also discovered since burlap has become so popular there are now "High End" burlaps???? Haven't tried any yet but could work for something that will get sun,constant use,washed,etc... Sounds like a contradiction doesn't it?
    Regards peg

  2. Thanks for this tip. I keep breaking needles and only have one left and it is in my machine!

    Amanda Rose

  3. Really enjoyed this. Picked up some burlap @ Michaels, preprinted with an old style print. Need it be ashed? Think not, but have to ask.
    Thinking of making kitchen curtains with it and maybe a few accessories. Also have 30 yds of burlap on rolls, so that is going to be amusing!
    Will follow!

  4. Have you tried fabric glue to keep the burlap from fraying? I have an expensive sewing machine and hesitate to sew the burlap. I love seeing the items made from it, and would like to try making something. Thank You for the tips.

  5. I want to make faux french tufted burlap seat cushions for a bench. Many have told me no don't use burlap, use linen. But I love the true look and rugged feel of burlap.
    I know it can be done because there are tons on Pinterest and the Internet. I've already purchased the foam, the batting, the muslin, and thick cotton piping. Do you think, on top of muslin lining, I should use a clear fusible seam........oh, the name escapes me. Hope you ow what I mean.
    We will be sitting on mudbench. Do you think t
    Using burlap us a bad idea? Will it fall apart too easy?
    Where can I find a tight weave burlap? Or even better. What kind of linen jute can replicate a organic jute burlap?
    Thank you in advance. Sorry about any typos. Thus darn auto correct drives me crazy

    1. You could try something like this: https://www.onlinefabricstore.net/product-group-burlap/type-fabric/36-inch-sagless-burlap-fabric-.htm

  6. I am not a sewing beginner, but I'm also by no means an expert. I've only sewed a fair amount of pillow covers. I am wanting to make a half ruffled burlap curtain. The top half would be a patterned burlap and then the bottom half would be ruffles made of standard cotton fabric. Since I'm not super experienced with sewing, will burlap be a difficult thing to work with?

  7. Hi Renee,
    Since I last posted on here I have sewn two burlap Mudbench cushions, a planter cover, a ottoman alipcover, and many pillows. I learned a lot along the way in how to deal better with the complexities of sewing with burlap.
    My first mudbench cushions came out great but I was a mess, my sewing room was a mess, and my breathing was impacted from breathing in the jute particles.
    I used a standard sewing machine.
    Now when I sew with burlap I use my server whenever possible. If it's a big job, I wear a mask and have my air purifier on. When done I change my clothes no shower.
    Working with just burlap is difficult, not impossible. Make sure you have. Good seam allowance so you can fold twice. Do a straight stitch and then go over with a zigzag. Use the iron to get your crisp folds.
    Sewing with a muslin backing works great. It I know they might not be great for curtains.
    Burlap is. Bit of a pain to sew with but not as hard as I read all over the net. Just protect your lungs. There is an actual lung disease from berthing in natural jute/burlap particles and there are certainly a lot of them she doing DIY sewing. Good luck.

  8. Thank you for your tips on sewing burlap. I use burlap in my bags and totes and I usually iron on fusible webbing when I add it to a bag to keep it from unraveling or wearing out. It never occurred to me to zigzag after sewing seams ; that. A great idea. Some times I sew seam binding for added strength.

  9. I really like the fresh perspective you did on the issue. I will be back soon to check up on new posts! Thank you!
    burlap bags