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Sewing with Knits!

It's no secret... I LOVE sewing with knits.
They're stretchy and soft, and seeing that finished product that looks store-bought is just so satisfying.  I love wearing knits!  There's no need to iron, and they are comfortable and move with your body.  There are tons of great patterns out there for sewing with knits, and the possibilities are endless.  Most of my favorite wardrobe items are made from knits- hoodies and sweatshirts, yoga pants and pj's, tanks and tees, they're all made from knits!

A sentiment I hear very often from my customers is "but I've never sewn with knits, I don't know what to do".  Honestly when I first heard someone say this I was truly puzzled, because being a self-taught seamstress, I felt the opposite.  I started sewing with knits.  My first few projects as I was learning were mostly made from recycled t-shirts.  I also made my first circle skirt from a stretchy white knit fabric.  My reasoning was that I would certainly want to start with something stretchy, so that the garment would fit, even if I was drastically off in my sewing or cutting.  Knits are incredibly forgiving, because they will stretch to fit if the item is too small, and drape to look cozy if it's too big.  I was intimidated by working with the stiff, set-in-stone sizing of a woven garment.  Woven garments also require a zipper or button in order to get on your body!   Of course I don't want to scare you off from working with wovens, because you can totally do that too, but this is all just how I was thinking when I started sewing.

This shows you it's all in your perspective.  We all have preconceived notions on what we think is going to be hard or problematic, and most of the time, if we choose to see past those thoughts, we will find we can do anything!

I've done a lot with with woven fabrics over the years too, but I always reach for my stretchy garments and my woven ones get pushed to the back of the closet.  And if I can find a gorgeous print on a knit, I am totally buying it because I know I can whip it up into so many different things that I will actually wear.

So now that you know why knits are so great, and that you CAN indeed sew with them with great success, let's talk about those few tips that will make your life easier.

One thing I did not know when starting was this very basic piece of information: when sewing with a stretchy fabric, you need to select a stretchy stitch on your machine.  I was sewing my upcycled t-shirt dresses, and as soon as I would try them on, the stitches would pop!  I learned way later that the issue was the regular straight stitch I was using. 

The most commonly-found stretch stitch that almost every modern machine has is the simple zig zag stitch.  That's right, a zig zag stitch allows for stretch, so that's all you need to do to avoid your stitches popping out like mine did.  Set your stitch to the zig zag, and then set the stitch width to decide how wide you want the zig zag.  (Tip: On some machines, you may find that the stitch width is automatically set to zero, so the "zig zag" will be so narrow that it is actually just a straight stitch, until you change that stitch width.)

You may also have a stitch that looks like a lightning bolt.  This is also a zig zag, just a little more compressed, so it looks more like a straight stitch.  I find I feel more confident on my seam allowance, since the zig zag is not wide, and therefore not taking up part of my seam allowance.  To me, it is more clear where the stitch will fall, since it looks more like a straight stitch. 

Those first two stitches are great for the construction of the garment, like when you still have the piece inside out and you are attaching sleeves to body, for example.  But what if you don't want a zig zag showing on the outside of the garment, like when you are sewing down the hem?  If you want something that is still stretchy, but appears like a straight stitch, you can use the reinforced straight stitch.  This one is indicated on the machine as three rows of three lines.  This is not how it actually looks when the machine stitches it though.  It comes out as a straight stitch, but the needle will jump forward and backward along that straight stitch, giving it room to stretch.

Another great option for hems is the twin needle.  You can equip your machine with a twin needle and use two spools of thread through the machine.  The two threads then split at the needle and are threaded into the two separate eyes.  The bobbin thread will create a zig zag on the back side of the fabric, allowing the stitch to stretch. 


These four are the ones I will go to more often when sewing with a stretch knit on a regular sewing machine.  If you want to get a little more complicated, you may choose to invest in a serger.  A serger, aka overlocker, will sew a stretchy seam using up to four threads, all while cutting off the excess seam allowance and wrapping that edge to secure and finish it.

Another machine you may choose to use for a very professional hem is a coverstitch machine.  This is what the twin needle mentioned above is attempting to emulate.  When you purchase T-shirts that are commercially made and the hems are finished with a double line, this is the machine that was used.  It's called a coverstitch because when you turn it over to the inside of the hem, the raw edge is covered by thread.  Usually the coverstitch machine is a separate machine, but you can also find serger / coverstitch combo machines, such as the Juki MO 735, which is what I use.

I don't want to get too into these machines since this is a beginner's guide, but I can't neglect to mention one of the greatest features that sergers and coverstitch machines have.  One of the reasons they are so great for knits is something called the differential feed.  If you sew your knits on a regular machine, you may notice the seam does not lay completely flat; it is a bit wavy.  This isn't a huge deal, and not terribly noticeable most of the time.  I'm mostly mentioning it because I don't want you to think you are doing something wrong if you notice this wavy seam.  The best way to correct it is by using a serger with a differential feed.  What this means is that the machine has two sets of feed dogs that can move at different speeds, and can feed the fabric through at a rate that corrects the wavy seam.


Now that we have covered some stretch stitches you can use, we also need to mention needles.  When sewing with a knit fabric, you'll want to use a ballpoint needle instead of your normal universal needle.  The ballpoint needle is round at the tip, on a microscopic level, which allows it to separate the fibers of the knit fabric more easily.  Just switch out your regular needle for a ballpoint, and you're ready to go.  Schmetz needles are what I usually use, and they have a color coded band around the top of the needle that indicates what it is, so you don't have to worry about forgetting what kind of needle you put in your machine.

Every once in a while, I'll experience stitches skipping when sewing with a synthetic knit.  I rarely work with such fabrics, but sometimes if I am working on athletic wear or a bathing suit, these synthetic fabrics are used.  I have found that usually I can remedy this issue by using a stretch needle.  You can check them all out here.


A few other options for increasing your ease of sewing knits....

Some people find it helpful to use a walking foot, aka even feed foot, when sewing knits on a regular machine.  This is a big presser foot that you can put on your machine that also has feed dogs that rest on top of the fabric.  Some thinner, stretchier knits can tend to bunch up while you're trying to sew them.  You may find yourself repeatedly lifting the presser foot to counteract this.  The more stable knits don't really have this problem, but if you're experiencing it, you can try a walking foot.

I've also seen some wash-away stabilizers that you iron onto your fabric, usually at the hem.  This is like a little piece of see-through paper that will cause your fabric to act like a woven fabric while you're sewing it, but then it dissolves with water after you're done.  I found this helpful once when I was making a cardigan from a very thin knit, and I just couldn't get the hem on the sleeves.  It was just waving and looking like lettuce.  It was horrible and frustrating until I discovered the wash-away stabilizer.  I've never experienced this issue on any other project except when I used this tissuey, ultra- stretchy synthetic knit.  You might not ever run into this issue, but if you do, just know these products do exist.


As for my favorite in knit fabric selection, I will always, always go for Art Gallery knits if I have the option.  They are buttery soft and sew up like a dream.  They have the perfect amount of thickness and opacity for my purposes.  They are also 95% cotton, which is important to me, because I am not a fan of synthetic fabrics at all.  Art Gallery also has some of the best designers around, and they are always coming up with new collections.

Here are the new Art Gallery knits that just came in this week!

Here are some of the things we've made with knits-

Kiki and Catie are some of my sewing students.  They each made a dress using our Girl on the Go pattern and some of our Dear Stella knits.

Here is me wearing my Linden top made from our rayon blend striped knit.

This is a Greenwood Tank I made from our Cloud 9 organic Citron Triangles knit.

So what will you make?  The possibilities are endless!  I hope you are inspired and feel ready to tackle your next project with knits.

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