In Sewing/ Things I've Learned/ Tutorials

Things I’ve Learned: Sewing with Knits

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Up until pretty recently I had a Love/Hate relationship with knits. I love wearing them, hate sewing them. Well, “hate” is a strong word, and I certainly don’t dislike sewing with knits anymore, but I used to. I didn’t even have any good reasons to dislike knits other than thinking they were too fussy to deal with compared to wovens, or took a lot of specialized equipment in order to look well-made. I had a moment last year where I realized I needed to start sewing basics if I was ever going to have a me-made wardrobe I actually wore and loved. Since then I’ve been trying to change changing my attitude (don’t try, do!), and my approach, when it comes to sewing with stretchy fabrics.

Everyone has their own method and “right way” to do any given thing, but here are some things I’ve learned so far on my personal journey sewing with knits.

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1.) Cut Knits On A Single Layer – Before I saw the light, one of my biggest pet peeves when working with knits was cutting them out. I know, it’s kind of a bratty thing to get annoyed with, but when you’re used to working with stable wovens, trying to line up grainlines with stretchy fabrics can be a pain. I would meticulously try to smooth out all the wrinkles without stretching or distorting my fold, and I would end up frustrated with how long it took me to do it. By taking a little extra time to trace my front and back pattern pieces as one open piece, it saved me so much time in the long run! I now skip the folding and lay my pattern out on a single layer of fabric. This allows me to find the grain more accurately, plus I end up conserving a lot of yardage.

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2.) Get A Clean Finish With Fabric Bands – I don’t own a twin needle or a coverstitch machine, so finishing sleeves in a way I was happy with was challenging at first. Ultimately I fell in love with the look of fabric bands/cuffs as a method to hem sleeves. They’re a really easy modification to add and they help use up extra scraps. Plus, the addition of bands can add an extra design element or visual interest to your garment. I sew my sleeve bands on with my serger so it saves me an extra step on my regular sewing machine, too.

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3.) Hide Neckband Joins At The Shoulder – Using a serger to stitch in the round (like when sewing on neckbands and sleeve cuffs) still feels a little foreign to me. It’s something I haven’t mastered yet and when I don’t get it quite right, it can be a massive eyesore for me. I used to start my seam right at the center back of the neck, but after a few epic fails, I decided to move my starting point to the shoulder seam instead. Sometimes The Force is strong with me and sometimes I think Lucille could do a better job sewing my neckbands, but when I lay my t-shirts out and see a smooth, continuous line of stitching at the back neck, it doesn’t matter what’s hiding at the shoulder!

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4.) Keep A Darning Needle Handy – When reaching the end of a seam, I used to cut my serger threads like I would on my normal sewing machine. That’s okay to do if that seam is going to get hemmed or enclosed in another seam, but since there isn’t a backstitch option on a serger, I was stumped on how to keep my threads from unraveling on seams that just end (like on square pockets). I tried tacking the threads down, or tying knots in the thread chain, but then I read that you can feed your thread tail back into your seam with a darning needle, then cut off the extra. This is one of those simple things that becomes best practice and second nature, but I was totally clueless about it for longer than I’d like to admit!

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5.) Wear That Zig-Zag Stitch With Pride – Many people equate the zig-zag stitch with unprofessional, homemade knits. I say rock what you’ve got. I don’t plan on investing in a coverstitch machine any time soon, or maybe even ever, so I’m still using that trusty zig-zag stitch as the best method for me to hem my t-shirts and not compromise any stretch where I need it. Do my store bought t-shirts have a zig-zagged hem? No. But if you’ll allow me to be very smug here for a moment, my off-the-rack tee’s don’t have matched stripes like the shirt I just made either πŸ˜‰ πŸ˜‰ #yesimadethis #yesimproudofit #teamzigzag

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6.) Straight Stitch For Stability (…and to prevent ironing) – I know I just got done amping up the ziggy stitches, but on seams where I want a smooth look and some extra stability, I like a plain ol’ straight stitch. On a wider neckline where I don’t need any stretch to get the fabric over my head, where maybe I want the fabric to do the opposite of that, i.e. not stretch out (my brother calls this “bacon neck”), I set my stitch length to slighty longer than what I would on a woven and go around once to hold the seam in place. I started doing this when the neckbands of my earlier knits would flip the wrong way after going through the wash, and since ironing my t-shirts is not something I want to spend time doing, I decided to start stitching my neckbands down.

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7.) Get A Serger, Fall In Love – I invested in a serger pretty early on in my sewing career, but I always treated it as a secondary accomplice to my regular sewing machine. It wasn’t until I started sewing with knits that I really started to appreciate my serger as a magical piece of sewing wizardry. Yes, they take longer to set up and yes, the tension tends to be fussier and yes, you kinda feel like you’re learning to sew for the first time all over again as you get used to it, but I definitely would not enjoy sewing with knits as much as I do now without one. I seriously love my serger! I made two t-shirts in one afternoon and even when I take my time, I still whip through stretchy projects in no time at all.

You don’t need a serger to sew with knits, but if you’re really in love with sewing and have been thinking about investing in one for finishing your woven projects, you’ll be so happy you have it, especially when you start that first t-shirt or pair of leggings. I have an inexpensive serger (the Brother 1034D that I bought on Amazon over 2 years ago) and it’s perfect for my purposes. I’m super in love with it! …though I will mention that after two years of constant use, my light is finally on the fritz and will probably need to be replaced soon. I’m not in the habit of sewing in the dark though so it’s not a huge deal.

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Looking back, it’s funny how much I used to avoid sewing with knits. I love them now! Though I’ve been sewing for several years, I just started getting really interested in sewing stretchy things last year. If you’re right there with me on the forefront of a whole new chapter of sewing, I hope you found some of these tips helpful. I’m sure as I continue to sew with knits more frequently, I’ll uncover more “Ah-ha!” moments to share. I love eureka moments in sewing!

Do you have any tips or tricks for sewing with knits that you’ve learned? If you do have a tip you’d like to share, I’d certainly love to read it!

xo
Rochelle

  • I love this
    post! Thank you for sharing your precious experience. Point 4 is the best! I
    didn’t know that trick – so simple!

  • DIY Wardrobe

    Such as useful post, thank you – and with some really helpful comments too. The only method I’ve tried for hems, cuffs and necklines so far is the stabiliser/twin needle combination, so I think next time I should probably have a go at bands.

  • Janey

    A few years ago I invested in a more expensive overlocker so that I would have a cover stitch feature. However, when I finally did a class on using your overlocker, the teacher told me she only ever used a twin needle on a conventional machine as it did the same job and was much easier to set up! Having said that the new overlocker is much easier to rethread so it was a good investment for my temper even if the cover stitch is never used!!

  • natalie fergie

    I agree about the differential feed, especially with jersey, even more than sweatshirting.

    It’s possible to adjust the serger to do hems but TBH it’s a pain and although I did it once, that was enough.

    I do twin needle hems on my normal sewing machine for hems though, very successfully. You can get ballpoint twin needles in different spacings. Put two reels of thread on the top of your machine and thread it pulling both of them at the same time, as though it’s one thread.
    The top of the fabric will look like a
    ——–
    ——–

    And the bottom will look like a small zigzag. Just play with top and bottom tension to get the seam smooth. As long as you aren’t expecting Lycra workout wear stretchability for the hem, it works well, and looks like RTW.

    • I have been curious about a twin needle and now I’m definitely going to try it out! πŸ™‚

  • Sarah

    Ok so I love this post just a little bit! I normally sew quilts, with their reliable non-curling/moving about cotton but have dabbled with making clothes, the odd t shirt dress (that is now a nighty) and such but I really want to make what I wear – slouchy relaxed clothing. So I need to dig out my surger (5 years old and never used!) and grab some knits and have a play!

    • Go for it! Sewing your own t-shirts and stretchy dresses is soooo rewarding πŸ™‚

  • I love this post! I have a serger, but we’re not friends anymore because of tension issues – how did you go about becoming comfortable with yours? I want to get back into using it so it’s not just lurking in the background..

    • I had tension issues on my old serger when it was on the fritz, which is when I upgraded to my current one. I spent a lot of time with the manual and various online tutorials to figure out how the tension should look and how to adjust everything. It’s all just practice and working out the kinks. I say just jump right in and get back to using it! πŸ™‚

  • jannapyj

    I have a serger…that needs to be cleaned. In the meantime I bought a double needle and hem my tees with it. It is no different than sewing with a single needle.
    JJ

    • Lots of votes for the double needle! I guess I’ll have to give it a try! πŸ™‚

  • Piper

    I like wash away stabilizers, too, and highly recommend them for hems. I would like to recommend to anyone who is starting with knits to use thicker, less stretchy knits for your first tees. They are much easier to sew with. The stretchier and thinner a knit is, the more challenging. Tissue knits are a real bear to keep from being sucked under the plate, and super stretchy knits grow as you sew.
    Rochelle, I was wondering what your favorite tee pattern is now, and if you are doing a slash and spread on the upper back. Lady turtles long to know:)

    • That’s a great point about picking projects for stable knits as you get started! I definitely did. The pattern I used here is Lark by Grainline Studio (which I’ll blog more about soon!). All I did to get a better Lady Turtle fit is take 1/2″ off the front shoulder seam and add it to the back to improve the balance. …I’ll also mention more about that in my next post πŸ™‚

  • Lisa M

    I love sewing with knits! It opens up so many options with patterns and fabric choices. I do have a question that I can’t seem to find a good solution to…..maybe you can help? I have so much trouble with my bottom hems flipping up, both while wearing and in the wash. (To note, I don’t have a serger and it’s probably not in the near future. Is there any hope for this?) Thanks for the advice!

    • One of my earlier t-shirts had that same problem and I think it was because I made the hem too narrow. On the two shirts shown above, I turned the fabric up an entire inch so it’s thicker and weightier. That seems to help keep it down, at least with these particular shirts πŸ™‚

  • Colleen Oakley

    Something I learned that has made my life much easier. Change the thread only on the top left reel to match your fabric as that’s the one that shows on the right side.

    • Great tip! I never change all my serger thread unless I really, really have to. I’d rather change just one instead of four! πŸ˜‰

  • This is a really great and helpful list!

    Here is my tip: baste the neckline band to the shirt before serging it on. I cant tell you how many neckline disasters I’ve had because my serging wasn’t the greatest or most consistent. I like basting it, checking for puckers, and then committing to the serger.

    • I probably wouldn’t have epic-ly messed up the neckline on my last shirt if I had basted it before hand! Great tip!

  • This post and the tips in the comments are so helpful! Your shirts are beautifully made and look so professional! It makes me want to give sewing my own tees a try, even thought I’m terrible with knits. I got maddeningly frustrated with the last knit dress I made because the neckline got so stretch out when I finished it, the dress was unwearable. Avoiding the stretch is my biggest challenge!

    • Thank you so much! I used to be terrible with knits but I’m glad I stuck with it. Making your own t-shirts is so rewarding! One time I thought my neckline stretched too much but then I washed the shirt and pressed the neckline again and it turned out wearable! Not all fabrics have the same stretch recovery …there are so many factors involved. I guess just keep trying until you get a result you’re happy with! πŸ™‚

      • Oh, I never thought about the washing getting out the stretch! Duh! I’ll have to give that a shot. Maybe I can even save that dress!

  • Kathy

    I’ve learned how important the needle is when sewing with knits. I used to get skipped stitches until I switched to an elastic or jersey needle. Also, if you have time or inclination, maybe sometime you could show us how you do the sleeve bands? Thanks.

    • I use jersey needles in both my serger and my regular sewing machine when using knits and it’s amazing what a difference it makes! I just spent several minutes trying to find a tutorial I could link you to that shows how I attach sleeve cuffs and I every one I’ve found is waaaay more complicated than how I do it! This one is the closest tutorial I could find: http://www.craftsy.com/blog/2013/04/ribbed-band/ Maybe I should do my own tutorial πŸ˜‰

  • Julie Culshaw

    Nice tees. Peggy Sagers of Silhouette Patterns says the join on the neck band should be on the shoulder, not at center back. It looks more like RTW that way. They sew neck bands on with one shoulder left open and that seam is sewn up after, neckband and all.

    • Thanks! I’m really curious to learn how off-the-rack tees are made! I’d like to find an online class to take so I can get better at it πŸ™‚

      • Julie Culshaw

        Check out Peggy’s videos on Youtube. She has a channel there and many many videos about her patterns and sewing methods. She used to design for a women’s apparel company so she knows all the industrial shortcuts and techniques.

  • Carolyn

    I always sew down my neckbands too, but I use a zig-zag stitch. It works well for me, no stretched out necklines! Although I suppose this relies on the neckband being smaller than the neckline, which should be the case in a t-shirt pattern anyway. Glad to hear you’re enjoying sewing with knits more – I love it!

    • Thank you! I’ve done a few necklines with zig zag stitches but since this was a scoop neck I figured I didn’t really need extra stretch πŸ™‚

  • Lori

    Have you ever used a stretch double needle to hem or top-stitch? If not, you must try it!

    • I haven’t, but so many people have suggested it that now I think I have to! πŸ™‚

  • Christine Griffin

    When I first started sewing 2.5yrs ago, my mom sent me a roll of steam a seam, which I started using a couple of months ago. Turns out it completely Stops wavy hems. Steam it down, then sew! Like magic, which I probably should have known since my mother told me to use it.
    I prefer twin needles to zig-zag, but if I zag, I use the triple stitch or lightening. I find either is better than the traditional one.

    Second important knit find (also from mom): stabilize shoulders with clear elastic. It’s amazing how much a teeny 1/4″ elastic can keep the shoulder just a little better shaped.

    So with you on cutting out in the flat. Trace an extra half for anything on the fold and call it good!!

    • Great tip about the SteamASeam! I’ll have to look into that. I know my machine has triple stitch capabilities but I’ve yet to really put it to the test. I’ve used clear elastic a few times but I get lazy and don’t always make a point to sew with it πŸ˜‰

  • This was so good to read! I am at that love/hate relationship stage with knits, but now I too have a serger and I really want to love sewing on knits. I still have fear though, and the knit fabric knows it so it taunts me still… need to learn how to not show fear when I use my serger! LOL

    • You just gotta keep doing it and keep practicing! πŸ™‚ πŸ™‚ DenverFabrics.com has some really inexpensive knits that I like to buy and essentially use for knit muslins. Messing up a $3 t-shirt is much better than messing up a $30 t-shirt lol!

  • I stabilize my hems with Solvy or Sticky Solvy wash-away stabilizer to keep them from stretching out while I sew. I also prefer to use a 3-step zig-zag rather that a regular zig-zag on my hems, since it’s stretchier and the stitches sink into the fabric so they are less noticeable. Also my sewing machine skips a lot of stitches when I try to use a regular zig-zag on knits, even with a ball point or stretch needle.

    • I haven’t explored the triple stitch settings on my machine yet but now I definitely will! I’m curious to see what a difference it will make. Stretchier and less noticeable sounds like a better option! πŸ™‚

  • Naia

    Team zigzag here! However, my vice is the three step zigzag. I use it for hems on the bottom of t-shirts and sleeves.

    • Lots of people are suggesting the three step zig zag. I’m definitely going to test that out with my next project! Thanks for the tip πŸ™‚

  • You KNOW I’m loving this post! I do lots of the same tricks/strategies that you do – though I have to say, when I tack thread chains back into the seam, I usually only go about an inch! They seem to stay put just fine. I actually met a sewist once because she notices my triple stitch hemming, so now I like to think of it as a secret signal only sewists can recognise! πŸ˜‰
    One thing you didn’t mention was differential feed – it’s my favourite aspect of a serger, and just so useful to play with!

    • You know I’ve never played with the differential feed! Ever! I suppose I’ll have to explore that option one of these days. Maybe some day I’ll be a knit master like you! You’re totally my knitspiration πŸ˜‰