Refresh a Tired Tote with a Denim Applique from Upcycled Jeans

August 7, 2023

Denim Applique Blog

Radha shares how to refresh a tired tote with a denim applique from upcycled jeans. You will be shocked at how easy it is to turn a pair of old jeans into a modern bloom. All fun, no fuss!!

Denim Floral Tote Bag

Hi, I’m Radha from Sewing through Fog, and I help quilters discover a world beyond quilting cotton. Jeans are my specialty – I spent 15 years in the fashion industry working for Levi’s and now it’s my mission to show you how to upcycle jeans into modern quilted makes. Because denim is a magical fabric – It gets better with each life it lives.

Today I’m going to be sharing my tips for a denim applique you can add to jackets, totes, throw pillows or anything else that needs a sustainable facelift. And if building your skills and helping the planet sounds good to you, check out Quilt Your Jeans, my fun and easy on-demand class that will teach you how to deconstruct your jeans into jelly rolls and fat eighths, and turn those shapes into 3 mini quilts.

Quilt Your Jeans

Denim Bloom Applique


The point of upcycling is using what you have, so I always give a couple different options when it comes to supplies. As we get to each step I’ll explain how to use each one.

  • Click here to get the Denim Bloom template 
  • 1 pair of jeans – fabric content doesn’t matter (yep, you can use those stretchy ones)
  • A sturdy tote bag, jacket, or anything that can have denim sewn onto it. Which is basically anything that’s about the same weight as the denim (more on that next)
  • 2-sided fusible interfacing (HeatnBond Lite is ideal but you can use any kind, or even try without). If you are not using a 2-sided interfacing you will need fabric glue or pins
  • Iron
  • Fabric scissors and paper scissors
  • Your favorite pencil, chalk or erasable pen
  • Optional: 8” circle (ruler, plate, whatever)
  • Thread – you can use cotton or polyester. I love a cotton 40wt or 50wt for the final step.
  • Sewing machine needle – you do not need a denim/jeans needle. Anything sharp and on the stronger side (like a 90/14, or 80/12 should be fine if it’s new)

What should you applique? You can add a denim applique to almost anything. But if it’s your first time I’d recommend starting with something easy. That means something that has a nice flat surface that’s easy to access and no stretch! You need it heavy enough to provide a sturdy foundation for all that denim and your satin stitch, but light enough that you can sew through it. A canvas tote bag is perfect. Tip: if you are concerned your foundation item is too light you can add an additional layer of 1-sided interfacing on the back side to reinforce it, but that only works if the back isn’t going to be seen. 

Step 1: Find your Lights, Mediums & Darks

No one’s old jeans are going to be exactly the same (which is what makes every project unique!). But whatever jeans you use, the goal is to find areas to cut from that have some variation in light, medium and dark. So how are you going to do that?

  1. Find the fading. Before you even bought your jeans they were probably “distressed” using wet and dry processes at the factory. The most common area to get lightened is the front thigh, so use that for your light petals. (Figure 1)
  2. Find the hidden spots. For your darkest petals you will want to find those areas that have been hidden from the light, like under the back pocket (Figure 2). You can also usually use the bottom of the leg around the ankles.
  3. My favorite tip? Use the inside as well as the outside of the jeans! So your jeans aren’t faded? No problem, you can always use the reverse of the fabric as a great option for lighter petals. (Figure 3)
  4. Cut out large rectangles(ish) in the light, medium and dark sections and put the rest of the jeans away for future projects.
Denim Colors

Step 2: Make Your Petals

In this step I will be showing you how I make this version with the darker petals around the outside and at the bottom, and the lighter petals at the inside and top. But I encourage you to experiment!

  1. Print out the Denim Bloom petal template and check that the size is accurate using the 1” square reference*. Cut out the 3 petal shapes and circle center. *Or make it any size you want, or design your own template!
  2. Iron your fusible interfacing to the back (or front) of your cut out rectangles. 
  3. Draw your petals onto the interfacing – (8) large, (4) medium, (4) small and (1) circle center (Figure 4). Tip: I like to cut all my petals along the warp grainline (up and down). This is because denim usually has a very visible grainline due to irregular texture in the yarns (slubs or neps, slightly different things, won’t bother you with the details). In short – I like the lines to go the same direction. (Figure 5)

Cut out your petals making sure you have variation from light to dark. (Figure 6)

Add Interfacing
Cutting Petals
Figure 6 Petals

Step 3: Attach your Large Petals

In this step you will prepare your tote bag or other foundation item, then iron down and attach the large petals with a loose zigzag.

  1. Prepare your foundation by pressing out any big wrinkles
  2. Use your 8” circle ruler (or 8” round anything) to loosely mark where you want your flower to sit  (Figure 7). Remember to use a marker that is removable with steam or heat or eraser!
  3. Lay out your large petals, darker towards the bottom, lighter towards the top, referencing the images below (Figure 8). Tip: if you aren’t sure about your placement, step back and take a picture to get a new view.
  4. If you are using a 2-sided fusible interfacing, remove the backing and press the petals to secure them. (Figure 9)
    1. Option: If you are using a 1-sided interfacing (or no interfacing at all) you will need to choose a different method to secure the petals before you stitch on your machine. You can use a couple dots of fabric glue, straight or safety pins, or hand baste the petals down. 

On your sewing machine, stitch down the large petals using a wide zigzag stitch as shown below, but in a matching thread color (not white!). You will only be stitching the insides of the petals at this stage. The zigzag should be wide enough to catch the edges of the petals on both sides. (Figures 10 & 11)

Mark Petals Circle
Remove Paper
Stitch Large Petals

Step 4: Attach your remaining petals and finishing stitch 

In your last step you will iron down your remaining petals and then use a tight zigzag or satin stitch to finish them.

  1. Lay down your medium petals referencing the images below with the lighter petals at the top and darker petals towards the bottom (Figure 12) and press in place (or use whatever method you used for the large petals).
  2. Repeat with your small petals and circle center. (Figure 12)
  3. Choose your threads. I like to use a different color thread for each layer of petals and the circle center. For this bloom I chose to accentuate the values by using the darkest thread for the darkest petals, lightest thread for the lightest petals etc… You can use any type of thread, but I’d recommend starting with a cotton thread in a 50 or 40 weight. (Figure 13)
  4. Choose your finishing stitch. Do you have a fancy machine that has special settings for satin stitches and other finishing stitches? If so, go wild! I don’t, so I use the tightest setting of my zigzag stitch. The goal is to use a stitch that covers the raw edge of the denim. Tip: the weight of your thread plays a big part in how much coverage you will get. Take a scrap of denim and do a couple test drives with different stitch widths and thread weights until you find something you like. (Figure 14)
  5. Using your finishing stitch, follow the guide below to stitch along the edges of the petals from outside to in. (Figure 15)
  6. Pull any loose threads to the back and tie off.
Petal Layout
Choosing thread
Add finishing stitch
Denim Flower Tote

That’s it! Congrats on trying something new and reducing your carbon footprint. If you are ready to level up, check out Quilt Your Jeans to really build your upcycling skills. And for weekly inspiration give me a follow on Instagram at @sewingthroughfog or over at


Did you enjoy this tutorial? Be sure to check out these free tutorials: 

How to Make a Quilted Pillow

How to Make a Charm Pack Tote

Tackling Zipper Fear


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