Sewing Circle: How to Sew on Knits

Welcome to Sewing Circle!  This time, it's a question I'm sure some of you know more about than I do, so please share your thoughts!

Here's the question, from Jess at Smart Style Tips:

Q:  I have a question for you!  I recently bought this pattern


And was wondering if you had any tips for sewing on knits vs wovens? I've only made items out of cotton woven fabrics before and I don't want this to turn out a disaster!


A: Great question, Jess!  It's always good to plan ahead for your fabric and work with it--you can't force it to act how you want, and with a knit fabric, you'll have to do what it allows.  In general, if the fabric stretches, the seams have to stretch, too, or they'll break.

You've got the right idea with the pattern and thinking about your fabric.  The basic elements for sewing knits:
  • A pattern designed for knits
  • Knit fabric (and the right kind... more on that later)
  • A ballpoint needle for knits
  • The right stitch

There are several different ways of having seams that move and flex.  Swimwear and dancewear are made with stretchy thread.  But you don't need special thread for your basic knit project, just the right stitches.  And the right pattern--mostly because knits are meant to stretch a little, and a pattern for a knit dress will allow for more give than a pattern for a woven.

The Vogue pattern you have says it's meant for double knits only--you can read about the difference between knits here.  Double knits don't curl at the edges, look the same on both sides, and are generally a little thicker than a single knit.  They shouldn't ravel, so you don't need to serge your seam allowances and can press them open if you like.

Ballpoint needles are designed for knits because they pass between the threads of the fabric, rather than penetrating them, so the fabric can still stretch as it's intended to.  Buy some before you begin sewing!

As for construction, I think everyone has a preferred method of stitch.  You can simply use a long straight stitch, but stretch as you feed through the machine so that when the tension is released, the stitches are a little longer than the total length of the seam.  Think about a writing in Sharpie on a balloon--if you stretch it as you write, when it blows up, the letters will look more normal.  Thread is not as flexible as Sharpie letters on latex, though, and it won't stretch unless you stretch the fabric while you put the seam in.

Other options for seams are the actual stretch stitch, if you have one on your machine:
Or the zigzag (use a narrow zig zag and you'll still have a straight seam that will look normal on the front):
Or a tricot stitch, which has a lot of stretch--great for swimwear.
I highly recommend playing around with some of your fabric before you start assembling the dress!  Get comfortable with which stitch you prefer, how much you need to stretch the fabric if at all, how wide your zigzag should be...

Does that help?  Readers, what advice would you give Jess?

You can read more tips for sewing on knits at this Sewing Circle for swimwear, and this great Threads article on sewing with knits, and this article.

Thanks for reading Sewing Circle!  Feel free to send me your questions!

14 comments

  1. I think you've given some very good guidelines, but I'd just mention that if the knit has any lycra in it, a stretch needle should be used rather than a ballpoint.

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  2. I have a knit stitch on my machine that looks like a little lightning bolt and it's perfect for knits. I would suggest anyone with a new machine check for that setting to make it easier.

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  3. Thank you for this! Despite being an okay seamstress I have always had problems sewing knit fabric. This will be very helpful indeed. Thanks! x

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  4. I usually try sewing on a the knit first using a straight stitch with a regular foot. I then inspect to see if it stretched the fabric out or if when I pull on the fabric the stitched break. If the fabric comes out stretched I use my walking food, if the stitched break I use a zigzag.

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  5. I love knits, and sew with them as often or more than wovens. I think the biggest thing is, don't let the fabric intimidate you. When you get down to it, its just another fabric (and a really forgiving one at that!) and you treat it basically the same way. The only other advice I could offer, is from one of my favorite pattern lines for my daughter Lil Blue Boo - which is almost exclusively knit wear. Here's what it says at the front of each pattern:
    "Knit fabric can be hard to sew using a regular sewing machine. Thinner knits tend to curl at the edges when cut and sewing machines can “eat them up” if you aren’t careful. To help stabilize the fabric before sewing, I like to coat each dress piece with spray starch and iron. I repeat twice for each piece. It is an easy trick to keep you from pulling your hair out trying to manage unruly knits!
    After starching and ironing your pieces you should check your pattern again. This step will sometimes cause the knits to stretch slightly. Trim all your edges so that they match the pattern pieces.
    Tip: If you have trouble sewing your knits because they don’t move easily under the sewing foot as you begin the machine, start from the middle of the line you want to sew and move outward. Then go back to the middle and sew in the other direction to complete your line. "

    Good luck - and PS, I LOVE the pattern!

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  6. Thanks sooooooo much! I'm going to tackle this next weekend, ill be sure to send photos of the finished project!

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  7. You must have read my mind!! I wanted to know the answer to this question too. I recently sewed a dress and the top portion was knit. It came out horrible!! I will take your advice and try it your way!

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  8. I used to use ballpoint needles all the time for knits. But... I switched over to Microtex sharps and I like them much better. They have very sharp points, which has made me wonder, you know- because it is pretty much the opposite of ballpoint. So I would recommend keeping both on hand and make sample stitches to see which you like better.

    I love Courtney's idea about using starch.

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  9. I second the walking foot suggestion - it can make a big difference! I also tend to use specially designed stretch needles and they work really well, especially if you aren't sure of your fabric composition.

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  10. As much as I hate sewing it, all my projects seem to end up being made of knits. What can I say, I love the feel of the material. I'd always just used the zigzag stitch, mainly because I never even knew about these other stitches. Thanks, maybe now my knit sewing won't be as aggrevating.

    Meg
    http://megshandmadelife.blogspot.com

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  11. A quick question, what makes a good lining for knits? I recently made a cute knit shirt out of a casual jersey using Simplicity 2219 which calls for lining in the front/side pieces. I used a polyester (non-stretchable) lining and it seemed to turn out well but the first time I wore it the lining started to pull out of the seams. Any ideas?

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  12. So many great comments, thanks, readers!

    @Adrieanna, good question. Depending on the garment and where you need the lining, you may want to use a very lightweight stretch jersey or other knit lining. But for that dress, if it doesn't hinder the fit, you could use a lightweight woven lining, also. I usually line my dresses with 100% cotton, like white quilter's cotton, just because I prefer the cotton next to my skin over poly! Poly linings are good for sleeves or places where they need to not provide friction. But on that dress, yeah, any thin cotton you have left over would work!

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  13. Hi, did you do a review on the different types of knit fabrics and what projects they are best for? I am thinking of buying fabric from nickoftime.net but can't tell the difference between the types. Double knit, french terry knit, interlock knit, jersey knit, quilted knit, sheer knit... the list goes on. I want to make tops, fold over waistband pants/skirts, and dresses. Which fabric should i get?

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    1. Hi there, good question! I'm sure there's a knit dictionary online somewhere, haha, but for a dress or skirt (you want a heavy enough weight), I recommend a double knit or interlock knit. Both of those are made like a sweater or scarf knit/purl alternating stitches, like ribbing, so they won't curl under at the edges. A jersey knit (often these are cute prints and patterns at JoAnn, with stretch) would work for a top or dress also if it's thick enough you don't worry about panty lines showing through. But the pattern would help. Good luck!

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