If you come from a traditional woven fabric background like I do, the thought of sewing stretchy things might send you running for the hills.  I’ve been stitching a lot of knits lately, since they’re just so easy to wear- comfortable and breezy in the summer heat, and thicker sweater knits keep you snuggly warm in the winter.  After digging into my mom style a bit more too, I want things that are easy to wash and wear but still have some semblance of style.  Plus, you know I like to customize my fit, and I’m just sick of shopping for the perfect *insert favorite type of garment* out there.  If you’ve been thinking about diving into the world of stretchy fabric, here’s a primer for you!

Needles and pins

With any project, the right needles are key.  For knits, you usually want to use either a stretch needle, or a jersey/ballpoint needle.  You can read more about the anatomy and different needle types on the schmetz website.  These are made with ball point tips, which allow the needle to slide between the threads of the fabric instead of puncturing the threads like a universal does.  A jersey/ballpoint is made specifically for knit fabrics, while a stretch needle has an eye (the hole) and scarf (that notch in the back of the needle) to help prevent skipped stitches when working with elastic and other elastic fabrics, like swimwear.  You can try both kinds on a swatch of your fabric for your project and see which works best.  Every machine and fabric combination will react just a bit differently, so play around and find which is best for you!

stretch needles.jpg
The different types of needles I keep on hand for various knit fabrics.

You also want to adjust your methods for cutting and working with the fabric, which might mean ditching your standard quilting pins.  Try switching out to ball point pins as well, which will funcion similarly as needles and not perforate your fabric.  For cutting, you can also use fabric weights instead, and there are a ton of options available for purchase or diy.  I tend to just use found objects, like my scissors, my emory filled pincushions, and whatever mug is on the table at the time.  (Shhhhhh don’t tell.  You really shouldn’t risk your beverage on top of your work, but for my own personal projects, I live dangerously. 😉 ) I also find a rotary cutter works well for highly elastic fabrics instead of a scissor.  For the actual sewing, you can also utilize fabric clips at the edge instead of pins; I have and like these from clover.  They also come in handy when you’re working with anything bulky, so they make a good addition to your toolkit even when you’re back to wovens.

notions for knits
Clips, needles, and heavy emory filled pincushions I use as pattern weights.

Sewing machine stitching

A regular straight stitch doesn’t stretch, and if you’ve ever tried to sew with it, you’ll probably have heard that characteristic popping when your stitches break and pull out.  If you’re going to be using your regular sewing machine, there are several stitches you can use.  Most machines (other than a vintage or industrial straight stitch only) will have a zig zag.  On my machine, I sew most often with it set to a width and length between 2-3.  Sometimes with a width of a 5, if I’m using it for an overcast.  The zig zag stitch actually stretches out into a straight line when tugged in a knit, which is what allows for a bit of stretch.  I use this a lot for seams, hems, and also topstitching things like elastic.

stitches for knits
My machine, using a wide zig zag, narrow zig zag, triple zig zag, and a triple stretch stitch.

Some machines like mine have a triple zig zag, which is a broken line.  Some people like using this in heavier weight fabrics.  I was taught to use this to topstitch elastic in a bra making master class, and its a lovely stitch for exactly that purpose.  I keep it dialed up wide when in use.

Others have a triple stretch stitch on their machine, which means the machine stitches backwards a stitch before going forwards, which allows for stretch while keeping the stitch line straight.  A lot of people recommend it for heavier weight knits, like scuba which is popular right now, and also to keep your stitching line straight instead of having to revert to the skipped stitch look of a zig zag from the outside.  I personally haven’t been a fan of this stitch, finding that it puts a ton of thread in the seam, making it bulky.  It also seems to make the seam really hard for me, which is the opposite of a soft, supple stretch that I like in knits.   But like all things sewing, if you have it, give it a go with your chosen fabric and see if you like it!

presser foot adjustment lever
The dial next to the numbers moves up and down to change the amount of pressure the foot is using to press down on fabrics as they feed through the machine.

There are also just a couple of adjustments you may need to make to your machine to help it work better.  If you have a way to adjust your presser foot tension, that is the actual amount of pressure your foot is exerting on your machine, it may help to lighten it up a bit.  Usually found on the side of the machine or on top, try to loosen or take it to a lower number and see if this helps.  When using too much pressure, your stretchy fabric may distort out of shape and stay permanently stretched out.  With just a light amount of pressure your fabric can glide effortlessly through the machine.

Top- presser foot tension has been lightened, no fabric distortion; Bottom- sewn at the typical presser foot setting, and pulling on the fabric instead of letting it feed itself

The last bit I should mention is the twin needle.  It’s used when you want to make two parallel lines of topstitching, using the bottom thread to zig zag back and forth between them for stretch and to catch both top threads.  Emulating a coverstitch, which is a special stitch and separate machine used to hem knits, a twin needle is a great option for your regular home machine with a few adjustments.  Most often, the bobbin thread is too tight and will pull up, making a bit of a tunnel between your lines of straight stitching.  If you take out the bobbin case of your machine and loosen it with a screwdriver just a bit, this should help the problem.  I’ve also had problems with the stitching itself pulling out over time and not locking with a backstitch, so I’ve started pulling all threads to the backside, tying them together in knots, clipping and dotting with Fray Check.

Serging, or overlocking

If you have a serger or overlocker, this is my favorite way to work with knits.  The stitch automatically stretches, cuts and encases the edge cleanly, much like you see in commercially made garments.  As with sewing machine presser foot tension, you may need to adjust the rate at which the machine is feeding your fabric, called the differential feed.  On most sergers you can adjust this easily to stretch or gather.  Play around with samples and see which feeds through nicely and leaves you with nice flat work, stretching and making sure your fabric snaps back and recovers the way you like before sewing your garment.

differential feed adjustments
Top- a well adjusted, balanced serge with good feed; Bottom- cutting width too narrow, and differential feed too stretched out making the fabric wavy

Sergers also have an awesome edge finish option called a rolled edge, which rolls the fabric and encases it as you sew.  You can use it to finish knits, but also a ton of other finishes in wovens- it works special magic on sheers when you don’t want to try to hem something slippery.  In knits, sometimes people utilize the differential feed to stretch the fabric out on purpose while using the rolled edge, which makes a ruffly looking “lettuce edge.” Super cute for little girls clothes, flutter sleeves, and ruffles of any kind.

rolled hem serger
Rolled hem; you can adjust the amount of thread used by using the stitch length dial and tension to get your desired effect.

Ready to dive into sewing knits?  I’m about to launch into making a ton of new things- jersey tops, maybe some playground shorts for Miss Cakes, and some stretch denim shorts.  Having the ability to customize your knits just makes them that much better and more personal than the standard T shirt bar at your favorite well known local retailer.  I’ll be doing a step by step next on sewing up a pretty standard T shirt with just a few changes- follow along and make one with me!  Hope you’re enjoying this finally warm weather– my garden is just exploding these days!  My peonies seem to be the signal that the heat is here to stay.

pink peonies.jpg

Happy summer!

Love from Wisconsin,