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Sewing with Stretch Fabrics - 9 Tips

Sewing with Stretch Fabrics - 9 Tips

Sewing with stretch fabrics can be somewhat of a challenge. For a beginner it can even be a little scary and a lot of clothes are made of stretch fabrics. In this article, we’ll give you some insight and some tips & tricks to work with these fabrics.

Stretch Fabrics are often quick to sew. Knit fabrics, especially jerseys, don’t generally unravel, so you can sew without finishing the seams in many cases. If you have a serger or an over-lock machine, you can even stitch and finish your seams at once.

Prewash your fabric to avoid shrinkage when the project is finished. Knit fabrics sometimes shrink even more than woven fabrics.

When copying your pattern, choose the direction of your fabric wisely. The direction of the greatest stretch has to go across your body, rather than up and down. This will give you the best fit from stretch fabrics.

Don’t focus too much on lining up the selvedges when laying out your fabric. Use the pattern, stripe or weave to ensure the fold is straight and your fabric is laying nice and smooth.

1. Use soap slivers as a marking tool

I prefer soap slivers if I want to mark on very stretchy fabrics. It doesn’t bunch up if you have to draw long lines.

2. Cut the fabric with a rotary cutter

I get better results cutting stretch fabrics with my rotary cutter instead of using fabric shears. The fabric often bunches and moves while I’m cutting, creating jagged edges and cuts that aren’t precise.

Not everyone agrees, but if you’ve never tried it, I would certainly give it a go! I get cleaner and more accurate cut lines. Just use some pattern weights, your cutting mat, and if you have straight lines use your ruler and cut. Keep the fabric relaxed as you cut, don’t stretch it out.

3. Stabilize the fabric

Sewing with stretch fabrics is easier when you stabilize the fabric at certain places, like around the hemline or the neckline, or to prevent curling at the edges. Depending on what you need, you can use fusible interfacing with a 1-way, 2-way or 4-way stretch; knit stay tape; iron-on bias tape with reinforcement; or starch spray. Use stabilizer to stabilize the shoulder seam when making a knit top or a dress, give a seam or hem a bit of support and rebound, or to create a nice sharp edge on a knit.

A good article on using fusible interfacing for knit fabrics is this one from The Last Stitch:

If your fabric gets stuck in the needle plate when you start sewing, you can also put some paper underneath your fabric– sew the paper along with your seam and tear it away afterwards.

4. Basting or clips, just don’t use pins

Basting your hem or fitting two pieces together with a very loose hand stitch can be a good idea to hold knit fabrics in place and keep them from twisting out of shape.

Either way, try to avoid using pins because they can damage your fabric. Sewing clips are a great alternative to pins for sewing with stretch fabrics.

5. Don’t stretch out the fabric while sewing

Keep the fabric relaxed as you sew, don’t pull the fabric toward or away from you.

Support the weight of your project while you sew. If your project falls on the ground while passing through your machine, your fabric will stretch out.

Hover your iron over the fabric and apply steam on a stretched seam to help it shrink again into its intended size and shape.

6. Choose the right needle

(needle chart: courtesy of Wikipedia)

Use a ball point needle (also called jersey needle) for loosely woven knits or sweater type fabrics. They have a rounded point that gently pushes through the fabric without catching or cutting through the fibres, and thus avoiding runs and tears.

For super stretchy fabric & tightly knitted jersey fabrics with a significant amount of spandex or lycra, like active or dance wear, use a stretch needle. The eye of this needle is a little higher– meaning a larger loop is created when the machine makes a stitch. This means the stitches can really stretch with the fabric.

7. Set your machine to a stretch stitch

Use a stretch stitch or long and narrow zig zag stitch instead of a straight stitch so that your seams can stretch with the fabric. If you don’t have a stretch stitch on your machine, set your stitch length to the narrowest zigzag setting (0.5) and your stitch length to a medium setting. The slight zigzag will give you the stretch you need.

Most sewing machines also offer overlock stitches, intended to mimic the look of a serged edge.

8. Use an appropriate presser foot

First of all, let the feed dogs do their job. Never push or pull your fabric while you are sewing.

If you feel like your presser foot is giving too much pressure, dive into your sewing machine manual to see how you can adjust the pressure. If the pressure is set too high, it will stretch out your fabric.. It will look rippled. To avoid this, adjust your presser foot pressure. Typically a setting of 1 or lower is appropriate for knit fabrics.

A walking foot can be helpful to gently and uniformly feed your fabric. The upper feed dogs help to pull your fabric through your machine at a more even rate.

A knit foot doesn’t have these upper feed dogs, but as it jumps on the fabric and applies less pressure the fabric feeds more evenly as well.

And remember: Always reserve a few scraps to test your needle and machine settings.

9. Hem with a double needle

Don’t use a double fold hem on knits. This creates unnecessary bulk and can cause the hem to roll toward the right side.

If you want to imitate the look of a cover-stitch that is used in ready-to-wear clothing, a twin needle is your best bet. Use a double needle to sew a perfectly spaced double row of stitches on the right side of the fabric, with a zigzag on the bottom. This stitch has more stretch than a regular stitch and is great for a nice flat hem. The double stitching will help the hem from rolling toward the right side when wearing.

You may have to adjust your needle & bobbin tension, so always test on a scrap when you change to a double needle. Knit stay tape can also help to stabilize the hem and avoid tunneling.

Understanding stretch fabrics

The terms jersey, knit, and stretchy fabrics are often used to refer to similar fabrics. Most stretch fabrics are knits and jersey makes up a large percentage of this group. These fabrics can be made from cotton, viscose, polyester, wool, bamboo or a combination of other materials.  

Jersey is just one type of many kinds of knits available. Single knit fabrics are stretchy and they have a right and wrong side–the front being smooth and the reverse will have very fine bumpy stitches. Double knits have less stretch. Except for the tricot knit, all following knits are weft knits. Warp knits are less common and more complex.

Has flat vertical lines on the front and horizontal ribs on the back of the fabric

A cotton jersey is more stable and holds more shape than a viscose or modal one and is a good fabric for beginners. You can use it for loose t-shirts and kid’s clothes.

If you want more fitted t-shirts and garments designed to have more movement, use a viscose jersey. A viscose jersey is more floppy and drapes better.

Has columns of whales on both the front and the back of the fabric.

Ribbing is very stretchy. It is used for cuffs, neck bands, hem bands, waistbands.

Is a variation of a rib knit, but the front and the back are the same.

Interlock knits do not ravel or curl at the edges and are heavier and thicker.

It is knitted in a way that creates loops on the reverse of the fabric

French terry is a thicker fabric, developed for sportswear with the aim of wicking sweat from your body into the garment and trap warm air to provide an insulating layer. The more sturdy versions are easy to use and good for beginners. Used for sweaters. Also a good choice for beginners.

Is knitted on the right side and purled on the wrong side but the wrong side is brushed, forming a fuzzy look, making the fabric softer and warmer.

Used for sweaters and jackets. Relatively easy to sew with.

Is a warp knit. The stitches run vertically down the fabric. In tricot the right side has clearly defined fine vertical ribs and the back crosswise ribs.

Tricot is usually soft and drapey. The cut edges tend to curl up. It has almost no crosswise stretch.

Tricot is used for lining and lingerie, it can be used for blouses and dresses.

The ability to expand and bounce increases when there is elastane, lycra, or spandex in the fabric.

The stretch percentage is the amount that the fabric physically stretches, not the amount of lycra or elastane in it.

To check the amount of stretch in your fabric, see the free printable from Megan Nielsen:

Fabrics can stretch in two ways.

    • 2 way stretch —> stretches between the selvedges (t’shirts, sweaters,...)
    • 4 way stretch —> stretches lengthwise and between the selvedges (sportswear, swimwear)

Looking for a good quality rotary cutter, cutting mat, a ruler, a walking foot, or a knit foot? Don’t hesitate to check them out in our store!

With a little know-how and some good tools, you will love to sew knits!

An
MadamSew’s inhouse sewing blogger
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11 comments

  • Thank you so much for the information on sewing on knits. I have been wanting to start sewing more knits. I now feel that I have help. Thank you again!!!!

    JoAnne Putzer
  • Beginning sewer, thanks for the valuable info

    BarbaraJean Smith
  • Thank you An for all your fabulous hints and tips. I am nowhere near ready for stretch fabrics yet but will be sure to refer back to your tips if I ever get there.

    Jackie
  • Brilliant information on the type of needles I should use for differant fabrics, I havnt got a sewing machine at the moment but I will save this valuable information, thank you very much! Chrisx

    Chris Hockney
  • A lot of my online fabric sources sell ITY knits. Not sure how that fits in the listed knit types. Also missing is double knit and even though it’s out of favor there is still some around.

    Penny Hammack

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11 comments

  • Thank you so much for the information on sewing on knits. I have been wanting to start sewing more knits. I now feel that I have help. Thank you again!!!!

    JoAnne Putzer
  • Beginning sewer, thanks for the valuable info

    BarbaraJean Smith
  • Thank you An for all your fabulous hints and tips. I am nowhere near ready for stretch fabrics yet but will be sure to refer back to your tips if I ever get there.

    Jackie
  • Brilliant information on the type of needles I should use for differant fabrics, I havnt got a sewing machine at the moment but I will save this valuable information, thank you very much! Chrisx

    Chris Hockney
  • A lot of my online fabric sources sell ITY knits. Not sure how that fits in the listed knit types. Also missing is double knit and even though it’s out of favor there is still some around.

    Penny Hammack

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