How to Easily Sew Stretch Fabric (Without A Serger!)

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Sewing with stretch fabric is one of my favorite things to do. Knit fabrics make some of the comfiest garments, and many of the speediest clothing patterns involve knits—hello, kids’ clothes!

However, sewing with knit fabric can be tricky for beginners. Stretch fabrics can pucker, feed unevenly, and even get stuck in your machine’s needle plate. 

Check out these sewing tips to learn how to successfully sew stretchy fabric without a serger–only a sewing machine!

Do You Need a Serger to Sew Knits?

juki mo-3000qvp overlocker

If you have a serger, sewing knits (especially lightweight curly knits like jersey) is easier. However, sewing stretch fabric without a serger (also called an overlocker) can be done with special sewing machine settings and considerations. 

If you plan to sew knits frequently, though, consider investing in a quality serger. (Learn more in: Do you need a serger?) I started with the Brother 1034D and Brother 1034DX sergers and love how beginner-friendly and inexpensive they are.

how to sew stretch fabric with a sewing machine

How to Sew Knits with a Regular Sewing Machine

Let’s get into the step-by-step process of rocking your next knit fabric project. I’ll start with preparing stretch fabric and then move on to how to stitch it with your sewing machine!

1. Prepare by Prewashing

Some knits shrink significantly in the first wash, so wash and dry any knit fabric intended for items you plan to wash in the future. Only wash like colors to avoid dye bleeds onto lighter fabrics. 

Then, iron away any wrinkles at a low-medium temperature using a pressing cloth. Fabrics composed of synthetic fibers like polyester or rayon don’t respond well to hot, direct heat, so test settings before ironing your entire fabric yardage.

2. Cut and Mark Pattern Pieces Carefully

With knit fabrics, the direction of greatest stretch will go around the body, so all pattern pieces need to be laid out with this in mind. Also, the edges of knit fabrics can curl and roll, and fabric can move and stretch during cutting, leading to misalignment. 

Here’s how to cut knit fabric successfully:

  1. Lay fabric flat on a large cutting surface. Don’t let the edges fall off the sides of the table, as the added weight will distort the fabric still on the table.
  2. Use sharp scissors or a sharp rotary cutter to slice through the fabric. Make long, smooth cuts since ragged cuts and jagged edges make sewing pieces together later more difficult. 

Knits are best cut in a single layer, but you can cut on the fold pattern pieces accurately if you pin them to prevent layers from shifting during cutting. 

To decrease damage, only pin in the seam allowance when possible. I like using glass-head pins that can be ironed over, and I prefer extra-fine ballpoint pins meant specifically for delicate knit fabrics, as holes in knit garments are less forgiving than holes in woven fabrics.

marking tools in sewing (1)

Also, be careful when marking fabric, as direct contact of a marker tip could pull delicate knit fibers out of place. Marking tools worth testing out on your project include:

  • Water-soluble, air-soluble, or heat-soluble pen
  • Tailor’s chalk or chalk wheel
  • Tracing wheel with tracing paper

3. Use The Right Tools

A. Needles for Knits

BALL POINT NEEDLE

Since knits are stretchy and knitted, sew them using a ballpoint needle. Ballpoint needles have curved tips and prevent fabric rips caused by sharp needle penetrations. 

Two main types of ballpoint needles work with knits.

  1. A regular jersey/ballpoint needle is a good starting point.
  2. With very elastic knits (think high spandex content), switch to a stretch needle if you notice issues like skipped stitches. Stretch needle eyes have a deeper scarf and are slightly shorter and narrower than ballpoint needles.

You can use a universal needle with a slightly less rounded tip for more stable knit fabrics (with minimal stretch like double knits). 

Select a needle size that corresponds with the weight of your fabric. A thicker fabric needs a thicker needle, but a 90/14 or 80/12 needle is a good starting size for most fabrics. (For more information, read sewing needle types and sizes.)

B. Thread

all purpose polyester thread

While several types of threads work with knits, I prefer all-purpose polyester thread. It is stronger than cotton thread and will not break as easily when the fabric stretches in high-stress areas.

C. Presser Foot

If you aren’t looking to invest in new sewing feet, your regular all-purpose foot that came with your sewing machine will work for most knit fabrics. Just reduce the presser foot pressure to decrease drag.

use a walking foot when sewing knit fabric
My brother walking foot sewing Ponte knit

However, knits can still stick to your general presser foot when sewing–this drag stretches the fabric, causing ripples, waves, and puckers at seams. Multiple knit layers can also slip apart while feeding through the machine.

If you want to make your job easier, use a walking for that feeds the top and bottom layers at the same rate or Teflon non-stick foot. 

D. Interfacing

If your pattern calls for interfacing, use interfacing that stretches when the fabric stretches. Thus, instead of the more popular woven interfacing, choose knit interfacing, such as lightweight tricot cut along the same grain as its corresponding pattern piece. 

You can choose between sew-in or fusible interfacing. (Be careful of fusible on high-stretch knits, as they can peel off over time as the fabric stretches.)

E. Seam and Neckline Stabilizers

Throughout wear, shoulder seams, waist seams, and other areas of knit garments can stretch out. When a pattern calls for a construction area to be stabilized, consider these options:

  1. Clear elastic
  2. Stay tape (knit type) or Steam-a-Seam that’s ironed on, although there’s also no-stretch stay tape that’s sewn in
  3. Stay stitching around curves like necklines
  4. Twill tape for heavyweight knits (sweaters, for example)

4. Sew With a Stretch Stitch

Because knits are stretchy, you must choose a stitch that also stretches to match the elasticity of your fabric.

For example, if you’ve ever tried stretching a piece of fabric with a simple straight stitch, the stitch snaps rather than expands when the fabric is stretched.

stretch stitches on my brother sewing machine
My Brother CS7000x’s stretch stitches

Examples of suitable stretch stitches for seam construction and hemming include:

  • Triple stretch stitch: a triple-reinforced straight stitch used at seams to reduce thread bulk or to hem when you don’t want to use a zigzag (Stitch 02 above)
  • Stem stitch, aka lightning stitch (Stitch 03)
  • Zigzag stitch (Stitch 04): Use a narrow zigzag stitch, trying a width of 1.0 and a length of 2.5 -3mm and adjusting with fabric characteristics.
  • Triple zigzag stitch or 3-step elastic zigzag stitch (Stitch 05)
  • Overcast stitch: mimics the look of a serger’s overlock stitch and can create a seam or neaten fabric edges. It has more thread bulk than a zigzag, so it isn’t ideal for doll clothes or small areas. (Stitches 06-09)
  • Stretch blind hem stitch (Stitch 10)

One of my favorite things to do for all my sewing machines is make stitch samplers. I use different lengths, widths, and stitch types and asses their stretch. 

Also, there are specific buttonhole stitches that are created for stretch fabrics, like stitch 31 above.

5. Test Settings First, and Start Sewing!

Use a small sample of the fabric you plan to sew to test things out. Grab the threads with your left hand and hold them behind the needle. Keep the fabric taut, but DO NOT stretch unless your pattern requests that. Start sewing!

If all works well after your first seam, good job! However, if you have problems, here’s some troubleshooting:

  • If the fabric is being pressed down below the needle plate–aka your sewing machine is eating the fabric:
    • Start sewing at least 1/4″ from the edge of the fabric to prevent the edge from going into the needle hole. Manually insert the needle into the fabric yourself for the first stitch. 
    • Switch to a straight stitch needle plate instead of the standard zigzag one with the larger hole.
    • Stabilize underneath the fabric with tissue paper, tear-away stabilizer, or stabilizing paper tape while sewing. 
    • Skip reverse or reinforcement stitches when not required for construction, as these can cause your machine to also eat fabric. 
  • Watch out for stretching while sewing! Feed fabric evenly at a steady speed through the machine, making sure it is not pulled in any one direction. 
  • Reduce tension for lightweight knits and increase tension on heavy knit fabrics.
  • A good pressing on the highest heat your fabric will handle can decrease the wavy looks of many seams. 

6. Hem Knit Fabrics With Extra Care

Knit fabrics can be tricky to hem, thanks to rolling and stretching. 

My favorite way to hem knits is to use spray starch or a thin layer of knit interfacing to stiffen the fabric, then press and fold, using Steam-a-Seam (or whatever fusible web I have) to hold the hem in place.

Then, I decrease the presser foot pressure and stitch the hem with my twin needle. I usually don’t finish the edge before turning, but you can add a stretch stitch to the edge first or create a double-fold hem to encase the edge. 

However, there areother hemming finishing options, such as:

  • Leaving the edges unfinished (awesome since most knits don’t fray!) with no folding at all. 
  • Creating a blind hem
  • Using binding (adding folded fabric to the hem.)

janome coverpro

Another option is to use a coverstitch machine (I have a Janome CP3000, which is nice for this task, but I’m often too lazy to get it out.

 

And that’s all my tips for sewing stretch fabric. Let me know if I forgot anything or if you have any questions!

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