Friday, February 18, 2011

Sewing with knits

When I posted about my 'Roses are Green' tunic, I was asked about any tips I could share on sewing with knits. I was going to include this with my next knit project post (coming soon!), but I realized I've got more to say on the subject than I initially thought, so this will be a separate post. :)

First of all, it's a good idea to familiarize yourself with different types of knit fabrics. Oliver + S had a good blog post about this, "some knit fabric basics." I would recommend visiting your local fabric store and checking out some knits in person. Look at the fiber content; examine the stretchiness, drapiness, and feel of the different fabrics. Take a look at some of the knit garments in your own closet and see what kind of fibers they are made from, examine the seam finishes, etc.

To be honest, I have never made a knit garment from a commercial pattern. The first time I ever sewed with a knit, I took apart an old knit shirt and used it as a pattern. I think this is a good way to start out because you already know that it will fit you well -- just choose a fabric that is similar in weight and stretch to the shirt you are using as a pattern. If you have a "master pattern" like this that fits you well, you can really leap off from there and design anything you want!

As far as the actual sewing goes, I've learned by trial and error. Be sure to sew with a ball point needle in your machine. Some machines have a "stretch" stitch and I have heard recommendations that you sew all seams with a zig-zag stitch -- personally, I have sewn most of my projects with a straight stitch and I haven't found the stretch of the knit to be compromised. Experiment on some scraps if you are unsure what kind of stitch to use. I do have a serger so I finish my seams with that. If you don't have one, you can zig-zag the seams together and then trim close to the stitching, or even just leave them unfinished if you are feeling lazy. :) Knits don't unravel the way woven fabrics do.

Sometimes it can be tricky to feed the knit fabric through the sewing machine without stretching it. I think some machines have the option of lessening the pressure of the presser foot, which may help, but my machine doesn't (or at least I haven't figured out how to change it!). If I find that the fabric is becoming distorted as I feed it through, I will stop with the needle lowered and raise the presser foot to release the fabric. You may have to do this often.

A trick I learned relatively recently is to reinforce shoulder seams (and any other seams that are likely to receive a great deal of tension) with clear elastic. You can read more about that here.

Another feature you'll often see on store-bought knit garments is a double row of topstitching. I used to think I had to just sew around a hem twice to get this look, but I learned that it actually comes from using a twin needle. This has the added benefit of creating a nice finish on the wrong side of the fabric. You can just trim away any excess fabric near the line of stitching.

(I began to type out instructions on how I typically bind the necklines of my knit garments, but then I realized that without pictures, you're likely to just feel very muddled. :-P So if you are interested, let me know and I can do a photo tutorial.)

Whew! That's all I can think of for now. If you have any additional tips of your own, please share with us in the comments. And if I didn't address a question you have, feel free to ask! I have had my share of flops, so I know it can be discouraging when things don't turn out the way you envision. But honestly, knits are forgiving! I encourage you to give them a try! :)


  1. My machine has the stretch stitch--it looks like a lightning bolt. ;) I prefer to use a narrow zigzag, though. I haven't had good results with the lightning bolt. Or maybe it's just that I didn't know what I was doing!

    I'd love to see how you bind your necklines. I'm a bit intimidated by the finishing of knit garments.

  2. Ooh, thank you for answering some questions! I'm looking forward to the next installment! :-)

    That's interesting that you use a straight stitch - my experiences with knits have all centred around leotards for ballet shows and I was told by the lady who did everyone else's costumes that she used her overlocker (serger?) to sew the seams together, which finished the edges at the same time! Hmm, I'm now inspired to go and study the construction of my favourite knit dress!...


  3. Serena, my machine has that stitch too. I ought to try it out -- I guess I just haven't been motivated since the regular straight stitch has worked for me. I will try to get a tutorial on the neckline binding up sometime soon!

    Jafion, you're welcome! I hope this is useful to you! I'm speaking from my experience which pertains only to sewing knit tops -- I can definitely see how, if you were sewing something very stretchy like a leotard or swimsuit, you would want to use a stretchier zig-zag stitch. And yes, you can definitely sew and finish the seams all-in-one with a serger! Long story short, the one I'm using is on loan from a friend and it's a little wonky, so I don't quite trust it to sew the seams for me. :) That's why I use both my sewing machine and a serger.

  4. I would love to have q tutorial of the binding method you use. This post h been helpful to me :)

    Jobeth from the S&S forums