This installment of my Sewing 101 series is all about troubleshooting sewing with knit fabrics using your regular home sewing machine.
Sewing with knits gets a pretty bad rap in the home sewing world, but I don’t think it’s totally deserved. I’m not going to lie, learning to sew with knit fabric is challenging. It’s not that they are that hard to work with, it’s that they behave very differently than the woven cotton most home sewists are used to. With the right tools, learning the best settings for your particular machine, and how to troubleshoot any issues you having, sewing knit fabrics is actually pretty easy.
I think the biggest challenge, and therefore barrier, for a lot of people who try sewing with knit fabrics the first time is that there is a lot of variation in knit fabrics. When you go to the fabric store and buy quilting cotton off the shelf, you know exactly how it will behave when you go to cut and sew it. With a knit fabric, however, there are many different kinds and they all behave differently when handled. Just think about how different 100% cotton jersey knit t-shirt feels vs. a 5% spandex stretch rayon vs. an acrylic sweater knit vs. a cotton sweater knit. All of the fabrics are knit and have stretch to them, but all of them feel and behave very differently. That is where sewing with knits becomes challenging. With the right tools and some trial and error, however, it can be done and isn’t hard once you get the hang of it.
There is a lot of great information out there on sewing with knits, but I have found it to be a bit lacking in troubleshooting issues you face when you start sewing with knit fabrics. In my experience, being able to troubleshoot working with a knit fabric is key to being able to actually sew with it.
When you are sewing with knit fabrics on your sewing machine, there are 4 main factors to consider to be successful: Needle type/size, stitch type, presser foot and tension.
I will address these factors briefly and then discuss what I think is the most important factor in sewing with knits: troubleshooting.
Needle Type and Size
When sewing with quilting cotton, for example, you are likely using a Universal regular point needle. When sewing with knits, however, you will need to use a stretch or ballpoint needle. The difference in these 2 needles is in the head. A stretch or ballpoint needle has a rounded head that will not catch on the fibers of a knit fabric (compared to a regular point needle that is a bit sharper). Using a ballpoint needle results in the fabric running smoothly through your machine, keeping it from snagging or puckering as you sew.
Using the correct needle size is also important. Finding the best size for you project may take a little trial and error, so my recommendation is to start with mid-range size and move up or down from there. Remember for a finer fabric you will want to use a smaller size needle and a heftier fabric will require a larger needle size.
Another needle that can be used is a double or twin needle. When I first tried using one of these I was little confounded and I had my doubts about how easy it would be to use. It turns out, a twin needle is SUPER easy to use. Debi at So Sew Easy has a great video on how to use one. She also goes over knit stay tape, which I will touch on at the end of this post.
As you are probably aware, knit fabrics stretch and woven fabrics (unless cut on the bias) don’t. What this means when you are sewing is that you need to use different stitches than you would normally use, because you need a stitch that will stretch with your fabric.
The most common stitch you will use is a zigzag stitch. Every machine has this stitch and it really is the best one to use for seams when sewing with knit fabrics.
Another common stitch is a straight stitch with a double needle, and is mostly used for finishing hems. Using a straight stitch with a double needle creates 2 lines of stitching that are visible from the outside and a zigzag stitch on the inside of your garment. For an example, look at the hems on your store bought t-shirts.
When sewing with knit fabrics on your home machine, the 2 presser feet you will use the most are an all-purpose foot and a walking foot. Which one will work better for your project will take a bit of trial and error, and really depends on the fabric you are working with.
The last factor to consider is tension. In general, your machine will have an “auto” factory setting that is great for most woven fabrics and doesn’t need adjustment. When you are sewing with knit fabrics, however, you will generally need to loosen the tension on your machine. How much totally depends your machine and the fabric you are working with.
Bonus Tip: Interfacing
Lastly, interfacing can be helpful for stabilizing hems. Using a knit stay tape or by-the-yard interfacing like Pellon Easy Knit fusible interfacing can be very helpful in giving your hem some stability so that it shifts less as you sew and gives your fabric a little more body so that the upper and bobbin threads are able to catch.
The last issue, and I feel the most important in this post, that I want to address is troubleshooting. The tips in this post are common knowledge and information that you can find lots of places on the internet. However, information on putting these steps together and using them to sew knits is, in my experience, very limited and was personally very frustrating for me as I have been feeling my way around working with different knit fabrics.
The first picture below is a thick, smooth 100% cotton jersey knit that has a small amount of stretch to it. I was able to sew this on my auto tension setting, with a regular, Universal size 14 needle and all-purpose foot. I did not adjust anything on my machine. As you can see, it sewed just fine.
Next is a cotton/polyester blend that is again very smooth, but much lighter in weight. It has a good amount of stretch to it.
I was able to sew these stitches with an all-purpose foot and size 11 ball point needle and zigzag stitch, making no other adjustments to my machine settings. I skipped a few stitches, but for the most part it turned out okay. If I were to sew a garment with this I would need to adjust the tension and/or add a light stabilizer to the fabric.
Lastly, this is a ribbed 100% cotton jersey knit with quite a bit of stretch. As you can see from the picture, this jersey knit was not easy to sew without a good bit of adjustment and troubleshooting.
From top to bottom, I used the following settings:
- Universal size 14 needle, all-purpose foot, auto-tension
- Universal size 14 needle, all-purpose foot, -2 tension
- Universal size 14 needle, walking foot, -2 tension
- Ballpoint size 11 needle, walking foot, -2 tension
- Ballpoint size 11 needle, walking foot, -3 tension
- Ballpoint size 11 needle, all-purpose foot, -3 tension
- Ballpoint size 11 needle, all-purpose foot, -2 tension
- Ballpoint size 11 needle, all-purpose foot, -1 tension
As you can see from the photo, #6 is probably the best setting I tried. To improve this further, using a stabilizer such as knit stay tape would be helpful in keeping the fabric from stretching so much and allowing the top and bobbin thread to catch.
So, in conclusion, if you are new to sewing with knit fabrics and are struggling, don’t be discouraged. All you need a little patience and the ability to troubleshoot any issues you are having.
Do you have other tips for sewing with knit fabrics? Share your tips in the comments below!