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One of the questions that I have been asked a lot is “How do I start to sew stretch fabrics?”. It is also a question that comes up on a lot of the sewing forums of which I am a member. 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.
*This post has been updated – it was originally published in September 2018
Top Tips for Sewing With Stretch Fabrics
When I first starting out sewing, I started with simple woven fabrics. Mainly cotton. These are really easy when learning the basics of sewing.
But as I went further along my sewing journey, I wanted to make more clothes for myself, including t-shirts and dresses. More of the everyday garments that I would wear. I also wanted to make some great dresses and t-shirts for my daughter. There are some fabulous knit fabrics for children out there.
And so I wanted to start sewing stretch.
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.
Some Brilliant Tips for Starting To Sew With Stretch Fabrics
I just decided that I wanted to have a go, found a pattern I wanted to make and just went for it, learning by trial and error really. Which is why I decided to put this guide together.
Why aren’t you making jersey garments? Here are some of my top tips to get you started.
1. You don’t need a Serger or Overlocker
A normal sewing machine is perfectly adequate when starting sewing knit fabrics. You are just better off using a stretch or ballpoint 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 also do need to use a different stitch on your machine. A simple short length (stitch size 2) narrow zig zag is fine, though your machine may also have a 3-step zigzag stitch (also called a tricot 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. But it is best to practice all these stitches on your chosen fabric and try different stitch lengths to see which seems to work the best for you before starting your project.
As usual, follow the pattern to the allocated seam allowance, but use a zig zag or lightening stitch instead of a straight running stitch.
Later on once you get more experienced, it can be good to get an overlocker or serger. 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.
My favourite stretch fabrics are cotton elastane jersey fabrics with a weight of 220 to 240 GSM. A lot of children’s fabrics come in this weight and type, and you can make some wonderful garments.
3. Always buy 10-15% more than you need
As with all fabrics, wash your fabric 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.
I will admit, I still cut out my patterns with scissors. It’s a personal choice, but it seems to work better for me.
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 scraps of the fabric you will be working on you can iron out any tension issues before you get going.
I always use a scrap of the fabric that I am making a garment on to check the tension of my stitches both with a twin needle and zig zag stitch on my regular machine, and to check that how the serger handles the fabric too.
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 wavy 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. This can be a tricky part of sewing a stretch garment, so i have devoted a second post to a detailed explanation of what to do when it comes to the necklines.
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!
As I said before, as you get more experienced, you may want to buy an overlocker or serger. This can make your knit garments look even more professional.
And also later on when hemming your garments you may want to use a twin needle. Find out here why these give the best results. Or even buy a top of the range knit fabric hemming machine, or coverlocking machine.
But the main thing is to keep on practising all the basics until you feel happy with what you are doing. I am sure that once you make a start that you will be hooked on stretch fabrics.
And 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.
Or for a top pattern, try the Tilly And The Buttons Agnes
I would love to see your makes! Do share them with me on social media. Or comment below
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