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. Raw edges don’t fray. 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
  • cardigans
  • underwear
  • 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 – a regular sewing machine will work great.

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. A regular needle or sharp needle that you would 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. In a pinch, you could use a universal sewing machine needle. Universal needles are not as pointy as sharp needles, but still don’t have the round tip like ballpoint needles. They are marketed as an all-purpose needle, but since I generally put in a new needle for each new sewing project, I like to use a ball point needle for stretch fabrics instead of an all-purpose needle.

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. Save them for your quilts.

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)

Zigzag stitches stretch a bit. A zig zag stitch will work great for all your knit fabric sewing, even hems.

If you don’t believe me, do this test: Cut 4 pieces of knit fabric, each 3” x 10”. Put two pieces together and sew a 10” seam using a straight stitch. Then put the other two pieces of fabric together and sew a 10” seam using a narrow zigzag stitch. Now give each seam a little stretch. Did the straight stitches pop? Were you able to stretch the zig zag seam a little? This is a great test to do before sewing knit fabrics. Since they all have varying amounts of stretch, you can determine the best stitch length and zig zag width for your particular project.

You might also want to see if your sewing machine has a specialty ‘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. A regular straight stitch has very little stretch, so it’s not your best choice for sewing stretch fabrics like jersey fabrics, double knits, and especially 4-way stretch fabric like lycra.

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.

Guess what? A close cousin to the zigzag stitch is what you get when you use a double needle. Just take a look at the underside of a hem sewn with a double needle and you will see zigzag stitches! And if you are wondering if your sewing machine can use a double needle – the answer us most likely yes. Any sewing machine that can sew zig zag can use a double needle. Here’s how to get started sewing with a double needle.

For a professional looking ‘fake overstitch’ hem, try using a double needle. A twin needle hem is really stretchy, I’ve never had one pop.

Try a Walking Foot

If you try all of these techniques and you still think your knit fabric seams could be better, put a walking foot on your sewing machine (here’s how). A walking foot helps move the top and bottom layers of fabric together with the feed dogs. This can prevent shifting and stretching. Some sewists that I know always use a walking foot when sewing with knit fabrics.

These stretch fabrics are from The Fabric Fairy!

Tips for when you are shopping for stretch fabrics:

  • 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.
  • Lightweight jersey fabrics are perfect for tee shirts, flouncy dresses, easy underwear, and summer cardigans. Lycra fabrics have 4-way stretch so they perfect for swimsuits, leggings, and sportswear. Thicker double knits make beautiful pants, skirts, and cardigans.
  • 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.
  • Buy a 1/4 yard or more extra fabric, more than your pattern calls for. This is especially important if you are shopping at a big-box fabric and craft store. If the fabric is not cut straight, or is not quite as wide as the pattern calls for, you’ll need extra.

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

  • Knit fabric seams can look stretched out after sewing. Press gently and apply steam from your iron to shrink the seam back to normal.
  • Most solid color knit fabrics look the same (or very similar) on both sides. If they look exactly the same, don’t worry about which is the wrong side or the right side. If the sides of your solid fabric look different, you can usually pick the side you like best to be the right side. Isn’t that fun?
  • Pay attention to the seam allowance suggested in your pattern. Sometimes patterns for stretch fabrics have a 1/4” seam allowance instead of the usual 5/8” seam allowance for garment sewing.
  • If your sewing machine allows it, it may be helpful to reduce your presser foot pressure. You’ll know that you need to do this if sewing with ‘no hands’ makes the fabric looked stretched out.
  • Refer to your sewing machine manual to see if it has any special features for knit fabrics.

Last of all, relax! All you need to remember is: use the right needle, the right thread, and the right stitch (narrow zigzag). Then 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!


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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. 🙂