In Sewing/ Things I've Learned/ Tutorials

How To Hem Knits Without A Coverstitch Machine

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Recently I had a few readers ask how I prefer to hem my knits since I don’t own a coverstitch machine and don’t plan on buying one anytime soon, or probably ever. Though many people have one and swear by it, there are several other options for a perfectly nice finish on your stretchy garments that don’t require any fancy equipment. I have several different coverstitch alternatives to discuss and maybe one of them (or a combo of a few!) will become your go-to favorite.

Let me start by saying I do have a basic serger that I sew the majority of my knit projects on. I only ever use one setting and I love how quickly I can whip through garments with it. If you’re getting serious about sewing with knits and don’t have a basic serger yet, I definitely recommend trying one! I bet you’ll fall in love with knits even more because of it. I seriously did! If you’re curious, I have the Brother 1034D model that I bought on Amazon. I’ve had it for a few years now and I personally have zero complaints about it.

p.s. if you’re not sure what a coverstitch machine is, here’s a great article by Melissa Fehr for Seamwork Magazine on the subject.

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So what’s one of the simplest hems you can do without a coverstitch machine? A serged hem! It’s perfect if you need to conserve length on your hem and it also looks pretty cool as a decorative accent if you use a contrasting thread. But don’t worry, if you’re looking for something a little more polished than a plain serged hem, or if you don’t have a serger, then keep reading and I have more suggestions πŸ™‚

The first method I’d like to mention, and at the same time sort of dismiss, is the twin needle. Let me start by saying this is totally my personal preference, you guys! Tons of people love theirs and won’t sew knits without it. However, I bought a twin needle and I tried it on several projects. I’m just not that impressed with it.

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Here’s why: I like sewing with knits because it’s quick for me. When I don’t have a lot of time, but I really feel like sewing something, I reach for a jersey knit and probably the Lark pattern. I don’t want to waste any time fussing with extra machine set-up, threading a second bobbin, changing my needle to the twin, and then fussing and fussing with the tension before I can finish my project. I know, I know, it’s not that difficult of a task and it’s really not that time consuming but the bottom line is it’s not worth the fuss for me, even when that fuss is pretty small.

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Another reason why I’m not impressed with the twin needle is the fact that even when I DO take the extra time to set it up and fuss with tension and get everything set to where I “think” it’s just right, I’ll wash my garment once or wear it once and the threads break! I realize I could do some tweaking and probably correct that but as I originally stated – I simply don’t want to take that extra time. I don’t care that much about a double topstitch treatment on my clothes.

If you’re dead-set on having that twin needle look but you’re also not happy with a twin needle, then maybe the coverstitch machine is for you after all!

But for me? Here’s what I’ve come to prefer in my journey sewing with knits: The lowly zig-zag stitch.

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Shown above on the left is my machine’s default zig-zag stitch, in the middle there’s a skinny zig-zag that I’ve custom set (shown in action on a project further down), and the stretch tricot stitch on the right.

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Here’s an example of the default zig-zag stitch on my machine shown on a neckline. Some people shy away from this one because it looks “too homemade” …welllllll, I don’t subscribe to that. I’m proud of my homemade garments and you should be too! Wear that zig-zag stitch with pride! I doubt most people will even notice or care so don’t let that defeat you if that’s your only option for sewing stretchy fabrics. Undergarments and swimsuits are constructed with obvious zig-zag stitches so why not dresses and t-shirts?

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If the wide zig-zag stitch isn’t for you then try a skinnier one. In the above photo I’ve done exactly that. In fact, the stitch is so narrow that it looks like a straight stitch unless you look very, very closely. This is the finishing stitch I use most often now. It doesn’t eat up a lot of thread, I don’t have to fuss with the tension of my machine, I get enough give and stretch so that my threads don’t break with wear, and it looks very tidy in my opinion.

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For very slinky knits that have a tendency of rippling or getting eaten by your machine, try the stretch tricot stitch if your machine has that option. You may also see this setting called the “lightning stitch” because it resembles little bolts of lightning. I’ve seen other online sources call any stitch with a dashed zig-zag effect “a tricot stitch” so I’m not convinced there’s any one right answer there as far as proper name. Basically any multi-step zig-zag, whether it’s called the tricot stitch or lightning stitch or elastic/triple zig-zag/stretch stitch etc, will give you more stretch and recovery on a hem if you need it.

The one thing I don’t like about the multi-step zig-zag stitches is how much more thread they can eat up. It’s not a speedy stitch either. With this particular tricot setting on my machine it feels like it’s taking one stitch forward and two stitches back. It’s much, much slower going which can be a little frustrating if you’re trying to finish a project as quickly as possible.

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I’ve used the tricot stitch on the two hems above but it’s hard to really see what’s going on. For a better example of what this stitch looks like, scroll up to that yellow fabric photo with the purple thread for a second look.

When I first started sewing with knits I really wasn’t that confident with ANY kind of topstitching at all so I used bands of fabric (just like you do with a neckline) to hem EVERYTHING, then I pressed them flat and left them as is. I still do that sometimes if I want the absolute maximum amount of stretch that my serger can give me. I used this method on the neckline of my Hemlock Tee (shown below) because I liked the option of wearing it off the shoulder and didn’t want to risk my topstitching getting snapped or distorted if I wore it like that.

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All in all I’m still a huge fan of a plain old zig-zag stitch! I really am. That’s what I use most often for hemming – nothing too fancy for me. So for those who asked how I hem my knits, I hope this helped! If you have other tips or suggestions that you use and love please leave a comment and share them! πŸ™‚

If you have more general questions, check out my first post where I share some beginner tips that I picked up while learning to sew with knits.

xo
Rochelle

  • I too prefer the look of zigzag to the twin needle or coverstitch. I find the ready-to-wear look very commonplace. It may be appropriate at times, but special details are what make the garment. Nicely done!

  • nancynancy2001

    Here’s a contrary opinion. I think it’s well worth the time and effort to practice and perfect your twin needle techniques. Generic twin needles are inexpensive and they produce a nice little hem on knits that is very similar to the ones on ready-to-wear.

    The tricks are: 1, use a twin needle that has a smaller space between the needles (2.5 or 3.0) so as to reduce the appearance of tunneling; 2, test the tension and foot pressure on a similar swatch before you start; 3, increase the stitch length; and 4, sew at a slow and steady speed — it’s not a race. It is also important to use iron on Steam-a-Seam to secure your hem beforehand and to give the knit fabric a bit of body. You do not need wooly nylon or any special threads — regular thread is fine.

    Now that I have a coverstitch machine (Janome Coverpro 1000CPX, which I highly recommend), I always use my coverstitch machine for hems but often use a 2.5 or 3.0 twin needle when I’m topstitching neckbands.

  • Piper

    Thanks. Your tips are always the most practical and helpful. My favorite is hiding the neckband seam at the shoulder. I do that every time now and love how it looks.

  • DIY Wardrobe

    So glad it’s not just me that struggles with the twin needle option! Like Becky Jo, I’ve also tried messing with the bobbin tension, the presser foot pressure and even applying knit interfacing before stitching hems. (I haven’t yet tried woolly nylon, but only because I can’t find it very easily near me.) I can get the stitches down OK, but I still always get a tunnelling effect where the fabric is raised up between the two lines of stitching. So I think I’ve reached the coverstitch v zigzag decision point now. Earlier in the year I just turned and zigzagged the boat neckline of a t-shirt, without even using a neckband. And that’s the one I wear the most often…

  • I’ve been sewing knits for quite some time, including having kids (read: really put clothes to the test), and I’ve done knit pattern testing, and I agree with every word of this! i do the same, even after futzing with bobbin tension, wooly nylon thread, all that jazz. I use the “knit zig-zag” on mine, so looks more like a lightning bolt, and on lingerie or swimwear sometimes use the three-stitch zig-zag, but same diff.

  • lainey

    If you have the 1034D Overlocker why don’t you use that for hemming? If you watch the dvd that comes with the machine or go to Brothers YouTube channel it will show you how to hem knits very easily and it will look like its been done with a coverstitch machine. People really don’t use their machines to their full potential…. then I again I don’t use my mobile phone to its full potential according to my kids lol

  • Anya

    My favorite pattern for stretch dresses is Simplicity 2054, and it’s perfect for using a serger when adjusting the seam allowances accordingly. The neckline piece is cut much shorter than the actual neckline, and everything pulls itself in the correct direction, even without an extra topstitch. For the hems on dress and sleeves, I apply a 1-inch strip of iron-on stretch interfacing, fold it up, and then it’s a matter of preference which stitch to sew. For soft, thin jerseys, this gives the hem a bit of ‘crisp’, and it’s a lot less slippery. Sew with some seam allowance, and clip the seam allowance later close to the stitches. Seems like a lot of work, but it’s really worth the effort!

  • jmdiettrich

    What settings to you have for your preferred narrow zig zag?

  • I confess that I did buy a coverstitch machine this year πŸ™‚ I treated myself to a babylock and have to say every time I use it I say a hallelujah πŸ™‚ It’s amazingly easy and fun to use and turns out perfect every time.

    • nancynancy2001

      Coverstitch machines are a joy to use, and they produce perfect hems.

  • This is a GREAT post! It makes me want to leave work and go home to find that tricot stitch haha πŸ™‚

  • Red

    When I make my tee shirts (I use LaFred’s Thia Tee almost exclusively), I use the 3-step zig zag. I’ve never had much luck with the twin needle. I probably would if I practiced more with different stitch lengths & tension, but haven’t yet. I so enjoy reading your blog. Thanks!

  • I have used the twin needle but it required too much prep for me and if anything goes wrong it takes ages to unpic. I use zig zag although on my new machine i can do ‘fancy stitches’ too so I just finihsed a toast sweater and used a herringbone style stitch to finish….- like stells comment -. I am beginning to way prefer the ‘home made’ finish on some of my clothes ie sashiko darning on jeans, crochet trim on upcycled sweaters as it denotes care and attention and if its less than perfect – all the better as is the perfect antidote to fast fashion and cheap clothes for me……

  • stella selbmann

    I’m also the one,Who uses zig-zag. The most say it’s very homemade and not perfect. ..but for me it’s the same. I like to sew and not trying to be perfect all the time. I like the time spending on my machine working with my notions and in my lovly tiny room. I love my shirts, even when there are Not perfect. I made it.with my own hands.
    Like your thoughts very, very much ! Thank you.
    Greetings
    Stella