Sewing Stretchy Fabrics – 3 Simple Steps for Success!

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I LOVE sewing with stretchy fabrics (or knits). They are the soft, comfy fabrics we love to wear. Lots of every day clothing and athletic garments are made out of knit fabric such as leggings and t-shirts (which are actually very easy to sew).

But a lot of sewists simply don’t know how sew with stretchy fabric. That’s why this post has been on my mind for a long, long time. Every time I hear one of my sewing friends say,

‘Oh, I couldn’t make that. I can’t sew with stretch fabrics’

I just want to pull my hair out! Stretch fabrics are not inherently difficult to sew with. There are some difficult stretch fabrics, just like there are some difficult woven fabrics (such as expensive silk or cheap satin). The trick is learning how to sew on all fabrics!

Why You Should Learn to Sew Stretch Fabric

All your favorite clothes are probably made with stretchy knit fabrics – especially the ones that you change into after work!

Once you learn how to sew with stretchy fabric, you can make:

  • t-shirts
  • leggings
  • cozy scarves
  • soft comfy dresses
  • snugly night gowns
  • the best pajamas
  • and more… both mens and womens clothing

If you take 3 simple steps (choosing needle, thread, and stitch type) when you start sewing a stretch fabric project, you can proceed confidently every time. I promise. And you don’t need a serger.

Simple Step #1: Choose a Ballpoint Needle

Stretch fabrics require a ballpoint needle, plain and simple. Other names for this type of needle are stretch needle or jersey needle. The sharp needles that we use for woven fabrics will tear holes in the knit fibers. I’ve had it happen. So start with a ball-point needle if at all possible.

If you are sewing with especially delicate stretch fabric, you may want to invest in  ballpoint pins as well.

Simple Step #2: the Best Thread for Sewing Stretch Fabric

You are probably already using polyester all-purpose thread, and if so, keep on! It is the most widely available. If you are using cotton thread (like many quilters love) switch it out for polyester when you are sewing stretch fabric. The polyester thread actually has a tiny bit of stretch so it will be more resilient when you stretch that t-shirt hem. Cotton threads have no stretch at all.

Make sure you put polyester thread in your bobbin too!

Simple Step #3: the Best Stitches for Sewing Stretch Fabric on your Home Sewing Machine

Of the three, this is probably the most important thing to know. Knit fabrics stretch, and that’s why we love them. But even using polyester thread, a straight stitch seam will not stretch enough to accommodate the stretch of the fabric.

A serged seam will stretch. But if you don’t have a serger (sometimes called overlocker), that’s okay. Your regular home sewing machine will work just fine.

Simply set your sewing machine to a narrow zigzag stitch. For me that’s a width of about .5-1 and a longer stitch length of 3. (see photo)

A zig zag stitch will work great for all your knit fabric sewing, even hems.

You might also want to see if your sewing machine has a ‘stretch stitch’ or ‘lightening bolt’ stitch. It looks like it sounds, and will usually work for sewing stretchy fabrics without any adjustments. Some sewing machines also have a triple stitch, which makes a very secure seam on knit fabrics.

In any case, practice on a couple layers of fabric scraps until your stitch looks good and the fabric lays flat. Then you are ready to sew!

For a professional looking ‘fake overstitch’ hem, try using a double needle (yes, with your sewing machine). A twin needle hem is really stretchy, I’ve never had one pop.

That’s enough to get you started but if you want more, here are some extra tips:

  • When shopping for stretchy fabrics, it has many names. Look for spandex, lycra, jersey, single knit, double knit, and scuba knit.  Spend some time at the fabric store getting to know all of these beautiful fabrics.
  • You may want to look for a fabric that doesn’t curl at the edges for your first knit project. Nice flat ‘stable’ knits are easier to work with. If you really have to get that curling fabric, buy a few extra inches so you can cut out your pattern without using the curling edges. This will save you time and headache. Using spray starch and a warm iron on the edges may help flatten them if need be.

  • Some fabrics have 2-way stretch and some have 4-way stretch. Pay close attention to ‘direction of stretch’ and always lay your pattern pieces accordingly (they should be marked). This concept is similar to and even more important than following the ‘grainline’ instructions when working with woven fabrics. The direction of stretch (usually the width of the fabric) goes around the body.

  • Some people swear by using a sewing machine walking foot when sewing with knit fabrics. I believe it depends on your machine. If you have a walking foot, go ahead and give it a try.

  • Knit fabric seams can look stretched out after sewing. Press gently and apply steam from your iron to shrink the seam back to normal.

Last of all, relax! Have fun, and let yourself mess up a little. Just like anything else, your skills sewing stretchy fabrics will get better with practice.

And guess what, my free leggings pattern for girls is perfect for beginners. Check it out!


P.S. You might also like my knit fabric binding tutorial. It’s great on tee shirts and dresses made with knit fabrics.

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Disclosure: some of my posts contain affiliate links. If you purchase something through one of those links I may receive a small commission, so thank you for supporting SewCanShe when you shop! All of the opinions are my own and I only suggest products that I actually use. 🙂

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  1. Angelina Romero says:

    Thanks for the tips Caroline!

  2. Claire Martin says:

    Hello, do you have any tips on cutting knits please? Thanks

  3. Thank you all your help and free patterns, you are a blessing to me, as I am getting the courage to start sewing my own clothes, I keep growing in size do to having to take so many steroids to stay alive, nd we cant afford me to go and buy some every time I swell up, and it would seem that I am on my way home to the Lord according to my lung Doctor, but I will leave that one with GOD, as only ABBA can say when are time is up. Thank you again and GOD bless

  4. What kind of sewing machine do you have?

  5. Helen Taylor says:

    When hemming I have the BEST results using a double needle. You have to stitch on the front side , which requires some prep work… but you get a professional look. Like the hem on T – shirts , and it stretches beautifully.

  6. Thank for all your tips, I have been sewing for years and can always use new tips.

  7. Jane Stickley-Woods says:

    thankyou…I’m a complete newbie…I’ve bought the machine, I’ve bought fabric (most of it knit fabric…yikes) I’ve some fripperies (e.g. seam ripper as I guess I might need that!) and now seemingly apprehensive about actually taking the machine out of the box : -0

  8. Julie Deterding says:

    Don’t forget to check the setting on your iron – too hot & you can melt knit fabrics (most are manufactured of at least part synthetic fibers). Start with a lower heat, you can always increase it.

  9. The walking foot doesn’t stretch out the knits as you sew them.

  10. Stacie Brewer says:

    This is such great advice. I’ve only tried working with knit fabric once before and it wasn’t a fun experience. I went ahead and ordered a walking foot just to be safe. I can’t wait til it gets here and I can get started.

  11. Anna Pacheco says:

    I just discovered when sewing with the double needles be sure to loosen the bobbin thread to get the stretch needed in the hem for both the top hem as well as the sleeve hem.

  12. Thanks for the great tips! I found you by Googling info about how to sew knits because I’m going to make my first T-shirt quilt. Some people say to use fusible interfacing, but higher quality T-shirt quilt makers say that’s a hallmark of a poorly made quilt. What’s your opinion? Am I crazy not to use interfacing when working with knits?

  13. You say a "double needle hem is really stretchy, I’ve never had one pop." Even if it’s just a straight stitch?

  14. Hi Caroline,
    Thank you so much for sharing these great knit fabric tips. Thank you also for the free leggings patterns for girls. It is so well written and they are so easy to sew. Sewing happily! Lorraine

  15. Doreen Sherk says:

    Great tips for sewing stretch, I have some pants to hem and was putting it off, now I will give it a try. Also I liked the bias binding video, you made that look so easy.
    Thank you
    I enjoy your videos

  16. Am I looking for a cotton knit fabric……?

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