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As the days get shorter and Autumn draws in, its time to put away the thin summer dresses and bring out the long sleeves and tights. I am really excited for this time of year right now though, as it means I can start sewing up some jersey garments on my sewing machine. I also have some gorgeous jersey fabrics to make Elizabeth some winter dresses. A lot of people are daunted by the thought of stretch fabrics, but they needn’t be stressful to sew at all. Here are my top tips for sewing with stretch fabrics.
What do I mean by ‘Stretch Fabrics”?
Any fabric that is knitted rather than woven. This includes fabrics such as
- light weight stretch fabrics : rayon spandex, viscose jerseys, stretch lace
- medium weight stretch fabrics: single cotton jersey, double jersey
- heavy weight stretch fabrics: ponte roma, scuba and french terry.
These fabrics are so easy to wear, and garments made from them are easy to sew as there are no zips, buttonholes or fastenings. The stretch factor means they fit better. So stretch garments are just the ultimate everyday wear.
So why aren’t you making jersey garments? Here are some tips to get you started.
Top Tips for Sewing With Stretch Fabrics
1. You don’t need a Serger or Overlocker
A normal sewing machine can do the job of sewing knit fabrics. You are just better off using a stretch needle rather than a standard needle. Stretch needles are blunter than a standard needle so as not to put holes and ladders in the knitted fabric.
You do need to use a different stitch on your machine. A simple short length narrow zig zag is fine, though your machine may also have a 3-step zigzag stitch, which is great for hems. Your sewing machine may also have a stretch stitch or lightening stitch setting. These are all good for sewing your seams.
An overlocker is useful for neatening off and trimming seam allowances. But this is not always necessary, as most knit fabrics don’t fray very much anyway.
2. Start with the Easier to use Stretch Fabrics
Single Jersey, Ponte Roma, Scuba and French Terry are probably the best fabrics to look out for.
Its great to shop online once you are a bit more experienced but it may be worth going to a local fabric shop to buy your first stretch fabric. Then you can ask the opinion of the shop assistant (who is more than likely a really experienced sewer herself – they are usually really helpful in my experience). It is much better to see the stretch of your fabric in person.
The stretch of the fabric is really important. And also the way the fabric returns back to it’s original size.
Does it stretch only horizontally or in both directions? Test the stretch percentage by placing 2 pins in the selvage of the fabric 10 cm or 4 inches apart. Line these up with a ruler and stretch the fabric to its widest comfortable length. The stretch percentage is then the extra length it stretches to x 10. For instance, if it stretches to 16cm, the stretch percentage is 6cm (the extra stretch above the 10 initial cm) x 10 = 60%. This is a pretty good stretch.
And by using one of the four easiest stretch fabrics first, you’ll gain confidence with the great results that you are bound to get.
3. Always buy 10-15% more than you need
As with all fabrics, wash it before you cut your garment pattern out. All fabrics shrink when washed, and some stretch fabrics can shrink by 15%. So buy more than you need every time.
Also, I tend to always wash at 40 degrees. And dry the washed fabric on a gentle tumble cycle. A lot of people may tut at me for doing this and insist that you dry the fabric on a flat air dryer. But my philosophy is that the garment is going to be washed at 40 degrees in the future, as that is my quick wash cycle. And just in case my other half mistakenly puts it in the dryer (on the rare occasions when he does the washing!) at least it shouldn’t shrink much more!
4. Consider using a rotary cutter and cutting mat
Knitted fabrics can distort more as you cut them with scissors and the blade lifts the fabric. This can lead to an inaccurate pattern pieces and a poor fit. Consider using a rotary cutter and cutting mat, and placing weights on your pattern or tracing the pattern onto the cloth before cutting. This can give a much more accurate cutout. It does take practice though.
Also, are you tired of all those rolled edges? Why not try some fabric starch when pressing and preparing your fabric. It really helps to tame those unruly end rolls (and means you can even be a bit more frugal with less wastage!)
5. Do keep a scrap of fabric as a test piece to check how it sews up before you sew the real garment.
There is nothing worse than starting to sew to find that you’ve got missed stitches or tangles underneath your work because the tension is all wrong. By using a scrap of the fabric you will be working on you can iron out any tension issues before you get going.
6. Don’t stretch the fabric as you sew. (Except when adding cuffs and neckbands)
Unlike woven fabrics, stretch fabrics can move a lot as you sew them. You may find it easier to use more pins at first. Some people swear by fabric clips. But if you do stretch the fabric as you sew it can lead to way seams and hems. Guide it gently and don’t pull from the back of your work. Let the machine guide the fabric through at a consistent speed. You may find that you need to use less pressure with your sewing machine foot, or use a walking foot. (But I will say I have never had that issue)
However, when you are adding cuffs and neckbands to your garments, you have to stretch the neckband piece as you sew it to the main part of the garment to ensure it fits.
7. Don’t give up and keep on trying
As with most things with sewing, we all get better with practice. I look at the inside of my first makes and I am appalled at the finish. However, having made lots more I have become quicker and my makes are far more professional looking!
So I hope that I have encouraged you to give it a try with my top tips for sewing with stretch fabrics. I was so pleased with my first attempt, which was a unicorn dress for my daughter. Now I have no qualms about making myself some brilliant dresses for the autumn and winter months this year.
I would love to see your makes! Do share them with me on social media. Or comment below
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