28 February 2014

Sewing Knit Fabric on a Regular Sewing Machine


Update: You can now take our online video workshop from home!

Want to sew with knit fabrics but don’t own an overlocker or serger? No problem! While overlockers or sergers are great for handling stretch fabrics and creating a professional-looking finish (I love mine), you don’t necessarily need one to sew with knits. If you’ve got zigzag stitch on your regular sewing machine, you can use that instead. In fact, the instructions in the Coco sewing pattern and Agnes sewing pattern assume you are using a regular machine (but if you are lucky enough to have an overlocker or serger, go ahead and use it if you prefer!).

Sewing with knit fabrics doesn’t have to be more difficult than sewing with woven material. It’s just different, because knits behave a little differently to wovens. Here are my tips for sewing knits on a regular sewing machine:


1) Change your needle
Use a ballpoint or stretch needle in your sewing machine. Personally I find ballpoint needles work well for me - they have a slightly rounded tip which passes through the looped structure of the material without laddering it. Other people swear by stretch needles, so see which works for you and the fabric you're using. If you can find ballpoint pins (I can’t!), you may want to use them too – otherwise just take care that your pins don’t leave holes in your lovely fabric.

This is totally optional, but if you want to, you could get a twin ballpoint needle for topstitching areas such as the hem, neckline or pocket. Twin needles form two rows of stitching parallel to each other a few mm apart on the right side of the fabric, and a small zigzag stitch on the wrong side. Sweet! You’ll need a second spool pin for this – your machine might already have two, or you can attach an extra one to your bobbin winder spindle.


2) Make friends with zigzag stitch
Set your sewing machine to the zigzag stitch – rather than the straight stitch – to sew horizontal seams, such as the neckline, armholes and hem. This is important firstly because the finished garment needs enough stretch so you can pull it over your body; and secondly because the horizontal grain of knit fabric can stretch out when you’re sewing it and you may find that straight stitch kinda “sets” this stretched-out-ness. Zigzag stitch isn’t so vital for vertical seams such as side seams and pockets, on which you can try using straight stitch.

Before you begin, make sure the presser foot you’re using has a wide enough slot so the needle doesn’t hit it when making the zigzags. Your sewing machine manual will tell you how to change the stitch to zigzag. Your sewing machine may have a variety of zigzag-style and stretch stitches, and feel free to try them out, but I find the standard zigzag stitch works just fine. Test your zigzag stitching on a double scrap (ie. two layers) of your fabric before you begin. The width of the zigzag will determine how much the stitch stretches – have a play around with the length and width settings to see what works on your fabric, plus what you think looks nice. I like to use 1.5 width x 2.2 length zigzag for joining seams, 2.5 x 2.5 for a neat topstitch.

Sew with the needle starting on the seam line, just as you would when using straight stitch, back tacking (reverse stitching) over either end to secure the stitching. I find that sometimes back tacking with zigzag stitch works fine, other times it looks a total mess in which case I'll back tack with straight stitch.


3) Try a different presser foot
A walking foot or dual feed foot attachment for your sewing machine are useful for helping to prevent one layer of fabric from stretching out while sewing. They grip the fabric and feed both layers of fabric through the machine at the same speed. Which one you need and how you use it will depend on your model of sewing machine (I bought a walking foot for my Janome J3-18, and when I got my Janome 6600P it came with a dual feed foot) so check your manual.

Also take a look in your manual to see if there’s a dial for changing the pressure of the presser foot. Reducing the presser foot pressure (now that’s a tongue twister!) can help stop the fabric stretching too much while it goes through the machine.


4) Take care not to stretch the fabric when sewing
Try not to stretch the fabric as it goes through the sewing machine. Keep the fabric in front of the machine laying flat – if your machine comes with an extension table, that can be helpful, or simply hold the fabric up slightly so it doesn’t hang off your sewing table.

Take your time when sewing knits, taking pauses with the needle down so you can readjust the alignment of the raw edges of the fabric.


5) Forget finishing!
Knits don’t usually fray, so you don’t have to finish the seams – hooray! Of course if you want to, you can tidy up the raw edges using zigzag stitch (or an overlocker or serger if you have one). As with woven fabric, pressing the seams after you’ve sewn them will help make them look much neater.

And there you have it – not so difficult after all! As with so many things in life – and especially with creative endeavours – there isn’t one “right” way of doing this, so much of this is down to personal preference. So if you don’t get on with any of these tricks, don’t fret – test things out and find what works for you. If you have your own tips for sewing with knits, please do share in the comments!

Want to know more? Want to see knit fabric sewing in action? Sign up for our online workshop - Learn to Sew Jersey Tops on a Regular Sewing Machine.

34 comments:

  1. This is great Tilly, thanks!

    I love making dresses from knit materials - particularly wrap dresses. I put together a page of pattern reviews and also tips on how to finish the necklines on knits, if anyone's interested!

    http://cashmerette.blogspot.com/p/wrap-dress-central.html

    ReplyDelete
  2. I haven't sewn knits since college. They kind of scare me. Definitely filing this post away for a reference later.

    ReplyDelete
  3. The walking foot is the best! I use it as my regular sewing foot and it's made my life sooo much easier. It was the only way I was able to sew knits before I got my serger. Best sewing-related $20 I've ever spent.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Got home yesterday after a few days away and was greeted by Coco! Had it opened before I'd even got the door shut! Headed out today on a fabric hunt and got some bargain red minimal stretch jersey so hopefully it will do the job for a first go at it. Can't wait to get started!
    All the effort you put in to your work really shines through; from the quality of the patterns and your tips/writing right through to the way you lay out your blog so neatly and how well-thought out it is aesthetically. Keep up all the good inspiring work Tilly!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Aw thank you - I really appreciate that.

      Delete
  5. My pattern arrived last week, and I'm excited to make my own Coco. I think I'm going to go for a teal and grey colour block dress first. I've just got to get a few other sewing projects finished first so, sadly, it'll have to wait for another couple of weeks.

    By the way, have you changed to a new lens on your camera? It looks like you're photographing with a wider angle lens. I've been noticing some distortion in your Coco photographs, and I was wondering if you're doing something different.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It's the same lens. Where are you seeing distortion?

      Delete
  6. Brilliant round up Tilly! Just been working on a t-shirt sew along for my readers and good to see we've said the same things. Great minds must think alike, eh?

    Love that Coco pattern by the way. The paper pattern looks particularly delicious :)

    x Elena

    ReplyDelete
  7. This is a great post Tilly! Sewing knits is not all it's cracked up to be. It's a lot easier than most sewers think!

    ReplyDelete
  8. Hello Lovely Tilly, as always you give us so much to think about, you are a star Tilly, I regularly visit your blog to pick up tips now that I have started to sew more regularly. Have a wonderful weekend, big hugs Tilly
    Dorothy
    :-)xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

    ReplyDelete
  9. Thank you very much for this, definitely going to get myself a walking foot, can't wait I start my coco xx

    ReplyDelete
  10. Thanks Tilly for posting this - for all of us out there without sergers/overlockers. I've made a few knit tops using zigzag stitch throughout and a twin ballpoint needles for hems (which can sometimes be more fiddly but not difficult). I've also got an overcast stitch on my machine (a dated Huskystar 224) which works okay finishing seams too but uses up more thread than zigzag. Anyhow both types of finishes on my tops seem to stand up satisfactorily to machine washing (cold water and a lower spin speed) and general wear and tear (and sometimes / often better than ready-to-wear items!). I think your Coco pattern will do really well. Best wishes.

    ReplyDelete
  11. I made my first knit last year: www.peppermintandpaisley.com/2014/02/24/knit-and-sequins-a-dress/
    I used my regular machine and the serger but let's say I did not follow some of your tips the first time and ended up reconstructing some parts. :) Great learning experience

    ReplyDelete
  12. Really useful post that has given me the confidence to attempt the knit top I've been planning to make my little girl for a while. Maybe I should try a Coco for me after that...

    You mentioned ballpoint pins. I was just wondering if these might be the chappies you were after: http://www.johnlewis.com/prym-ball-point-pins-25g-tub/p301475

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes! Thanks so much for the link!

      Delete
    2. No worries - yet to find a problem John Lewis can't fix :)

      Delete
  13. When using a twin needle, I pop the second spool of thread into a coffee mug behind my machine and thread as usual. ( my teenage 1970's sewing machine had two spool holders as standard, but my more modern Husqvarna doesn't, this trick works well for me.)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Wow, what a great tip!

      Delete
    2. Ooh Jeanette, what a brilliant tip! The lack of a second spool holder has stumped me up to now, but this is genius! I have only tried to sew once before with knit fabric, a gorgeous but very slippery viscose, and it did not go well. Thanks for all this great advice Tilly - I am now inspired to have another go!

      Delete
  14. Hi Tilly, another great post, such good advice! So many people get nervous about sewing with knits but you really help to take the fear of the unknown away. Thank you!
    If you haven't found them yet we've got ballpoint pins here at Stone Fabrics, if you contact me I will post you a pack to try out.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks Bess! What's your email?

      Delete
    2. Bess@stonefabrics.co.uk

      Delete
  15. Thank you so much for teaching...please tell me, what make is your sewing machine?

    ReplyDelete
  16. Any tips for avoiding skipped stitches on knit fabrics? I use a ballpoint needle and have tried various lengths/widths of zigzag, but still get skips :-(
    Also any help on using the overlocker for seams would be great - they scare me!
    Thanks for a fabulous blog x

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I've read that a stretch needle may work if you are getting skipped stitches with a ballpoint. Test on a scrap first of course :-)

      Delete
  17. I bought ballpoint pins from John Lewis, they are made by Prym. They do make pinning a lot easier even thought they are the standard steel with tiny heads. http://www.johnlewis.com/prym-ball-point-pins-25g-tub/p301475

    ReplyDelete
  18. Hi, please help, i don't know what to do? my machine (singer) skip stitches on stretch fabric like jersey. used ball point needle and its even worst. don't know what to do anymore. with twin needle one is skipping stitches other is perfect. HELP HELP HELP

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hey, I had the exact same problem, just got a ball point needle and it s worst, on the zig zig I ve got basically all straights stiches and every now and then a zig zig. I swap back to my normal needle and it seems better, even if it s still skipping . I ve got a singer as well :-(

      Delete
  19. Hi, I have a Janome 6600P and although I have a walking foot, I am not told what stitch length or width to use on knit fabrics, such as jersey. I also inserted a regular zipper in the back and it buckles, what type of zipper should I have used? A hidden zipper maybe? Please help. Thanks

    ReplyDelete
  20. Hi
    I have the same machine as you and every time I sew fleece with a twin needle it breaks. Any advice would be grateful. X helen

    ReplyDelete
  21. I rarely sew clothes but have a store bought maxi skirt in knit that I love. Today I found a pattern and fabric and started googling tips on working with knit. This is awesome. Thanks!

    ReplyDelete
  22. I have taken sleeves off a t-shirt and want to finish the edges with a zig zag stitch, but the edges seem to stretch and I want to keep the arm hole fairly tight. I have a Janome 6600 and I have a variety of needles. Any suggestions? Thanks.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Trial and error - you could use the fabric you have cut off to test a variety of stitches and needles. Make a hem at the cut edge, see if you like it, trim it off and make another hem on the new edge, repeat till you find one you like.... Good luck, Rusty

      Delete

Feel free to chip in! Please don't comment anonymously though - you can leave your email if you don't have an OpenID. Comments on older posts are moderated for spam so won't show up immediately.