Making shorts from jeans

I make my own custom denim shorts from full-length jeans.

Shorts that are sold for men don't tend to come as short as I want them (generally the shortest ones end just above the knee), and shorts that are made as short as I want them are generally sold for women and may not fit me/be comfortable for anatomical reasons, in addition to potentially having insufficient or fake pockets. So I start with jeans that fit me and have sufficient pockets, and I mod them into the shorts I want.

What my short shorts look like.

I've done a couple of different lengths. For casual wearing at home, I have mid-thigh shorts (4.5-inch inseam). For wearing outside in warm weather, I have short shorts (2-inch inseam).

(My goal was always short shorts, but it took me awhile to figure out that I needed skinny jeans for that, and I didn't already own any.)

For short shorts, use skinny jeans so they don't bell-bottom out. I use Levi's Denizen 288 skinny jeans; Levi's Red Tag 512 slim taper jeans also work. Denizen 216 slim jeans work but are looser-fitting. For mid-thigh shorts, regular-fit jeans are fine; I've used Denizen 232 slim straight and 208 regular taper jeans.

Beware of manufactured damage such as holes or tears in the jeans. I bought some that had a hole in the watch pocket, rendering it useless. (Worse, that hole wasn't visible in the photo because the model's hand in the main pocket covered it.) The other holes would have been cut off, so I hadn't cared about them, but that hole in particular meant I had to return those jeans.

Preparation and cutting

First, turn the jeans inside out, and lay them front side up:

The jeans lain out flat, inside out.

Iron the jeans according to the label instructions. (Especially look at temperature. Mine are made of stretch denim, so they actually need to be ironed on the “cotton” setting, rather than the full heat of the “jeans” setting.) Iron underneath the pockets, and especially make sure the upper halves of the legs are good and flat.

Measure the inseam (from the edge of the crotch seam) and outseam (from the lower edge of the waistband):

Short3.5 inches11.5 inches
Mid-thigh6 inches15.5 inches

Annotated photo of the upper portion of the jeans showing the 3.5-inch and 11.5-inch measurements.

When measuring the inseam, splay out the crotch so that the inseams connect in a straight line:

Photo showing me holding one leg's inseam open with my hand while measuring the other leg's inseam with my ruler.

Mark the ends of the measurements (I make cuts with my shears through the inseam and outseam at those points) and then cut straight across with a rotary cutter and ruler.

If you mark the measurements with your shears, be sure to cut perpendicular to the seams, and make the smallest cut you can: for the inseam, that's a cut all the way through the seam and no farther, and for the outseam, that's a cut all the way through the serging and through the straight stitch.

Photo of the jeans with the legs cut off.

After doing the big cuts, inspect your work and trim further as needed. If the inseam or outseam isn't cut perpendicular, cut it with shears. If the edge from one to the other (especially in front) isn't straight, straighten it with your rotary cutter.

You may also want to trim the outseams with shears or a small rotary cutter so they tuck more neatly into the rolled hems later on.

Trimming about a quarter of an inch an outseam diagonally with a pair of shears.

Shortening the pockets (if needed)

For mid-thigh shorts, you can skip this step entirely—there's no reason to sacrifice pocket depth if you don't need to.

For short shorts, you may need to cut some depth off of the front pockets and do a rolled hem at the new bottom of them, so the pockets won't stick out from the bottom hems. Whether you need to do this will depend on the jeans you're starting from.

Levi's Denizen 288 skinny jeans will require trimming the pocket by one inch. Levi's Red Tag 512 slim taper jeans do not. For other jeans, measure the pocket at the front edge (where it comes down to a point) from the bottom edge of the waistband; if it's 11 inches (or the outseam measurement minus half an inch) or longer, you'll need to shorten it.

NeedleSize 90 “universal”
Stitch selectionStraight or zigzag
Stitch width0 mm
Stitch length2 mm
Needle positionCenter
Seam allowanceEdge of foot

Photo of measuring one inch from the original bottom of the front pocket.
Measure one inch from the bottom of the front pocket, then cut that off with your rotary cutter or shears.
Cut as straight as possible.

The first stage of folding over the bottom of the pocket into a rolled hem.
Fold the pocket toward the jeans body to a depth of one-quarter inch, and clip or pin it down.

Second stage of the rolled hem on the pocket, ready to be sewn.
Next, fold it over again, still toward the jeans body, and clip or pin it down.

The rolled hem under the sewing machine foot, with the new bottom of the pocket at the edge of the foot, and the needle sunk into the opposite edge of the rolled hem.
Each front pocket is attached to the leg along the outseam, with the opposite (front) edge hanging freely from the waistband.
Sew down the rolled hem at an edge-of-foot seam allowance, from the free end to the outseam end.

Close-up of the needle sunk into the pocket near the outseam end, showing the stitch extending almost all the way to the camera/outseam.
When you get to the outseam end, keep going past the edge of the rolled hem, then backtack back onto it.
This encases the outseam edge of the rolled hem within the seam.

Photo of the finished rolled hem on the shortened pocket.

The legs' rolled hems

Because jeans denim is heavier than the pocket fabric, these will be a 3/4-inch rolled hem.

I do mine toward the inside (so the rolled hem is not visible), though rolling toward the outside is also an option. It's a purely aesthetic choice; rolling toward the outside means your shorts will appear to be capped off with a rim of denim with the inside facing out. If you do go for that, you may want to use “denim”-colored thread, at least on the outside, so the seam isn't visible from the outside.

NeedleSize 100 denim
Stitch selectionStraight or zigzag
Stitch width0 mm
Stitch length4 or 5 mm
Needle positionLeft
Seam allowance3/8 inch

You'll want to use a size-100 denim needle for this. I use white thread at a 4-mm stitch length for this stitch.

I have used a denim twin needle, which gives me two parallel stitches, but it's more difficult and requires sewing with the shorts outside-out rather than inside-out, which means you can't see the edge of the rolled hem while you're sewing.

Start from the back-pocket side, near the inseam/crotch seam. This is the least conspicuous place to have the quadruple-stitch that will result when you sew all the way around past your starting backtack and complete with your ending backtack.

Photo of completed shorts, inside out, rear side up, with a pair of arrows pointing to the aforementioned point on the hems, both originating from the text “start here”.

In position under the foot, ready to start sewing the rolled hem on one of the legs. Photo of the two overlapping backtacks of the completed seam, near the inseam on the back side.

Sewing over the inseam and outseam can be tricky and involve skipped stitches, insufficient traction, and swearing. You may find something like a Jean-a-ma-jig to be helpful.

Close-up photo of a sewing machine foot on a Jean-a-ma-jig on the far side of an inseam on the way onto it…
… and another close-up of the same foot having sewn past that inseam and onto the same Jean-a-ma-jig, now turned around and on the near side.
Photos of the Jean-a-ma-jig in use sewing up to an inseam and then sewing off of it.

You'll want to back up before and after sewing over each of these thick seams:

  1. Sew up onto the seam.
  2. Back up to a few stitches before the seam.
  3. Sew over and past the seam.
  4. Back up again until you're back on top of the seam.
  5. Resume sewing forward and continue on.

This double-stitching will help reinforce the seam at these points where the denim is thickest and the seam will be under the most strain.

Once you've completed both rolled hems, verify that you've trimmed all your threads (on both pockets and both rolled hems), then turn your finished pair of shorts back outside-out.

Four finished pairs of shorts.

I would also like to highlight something that is implicit in this sort of project: A product you buy off the shelf does not need to be a finished product, with all work leading up to its completion being in the past, and either fit for your purposes or not. You can modify the things you buy.