Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Knits in a Nutshell with Alyson Clair

 Sleeve detail on one of Alyson's knit designs

Look, your friendly neighborhood knits guru is back! Alyson of Clair Vintage Inspired is taking over here today with an intro post on sewing with knit fabric. Thanks, Alyson! Alyson has treated us to a very in-depth post with lots of fabulous photos, so make sure to click on "read more" to see it in its full glory.

Hi again, all! This post is meant to be an overview on knits in general. I can go into more specifics on different seam applications, fabric, stitching, and machine troubleshooting in the future, but first, I wanted to give a broad overview about the fabric and the different machines that can be used to sew and finish it.
 
The most important thing to remember about knits is they are a whole different ball game from wovens. Look closely at the way the two fabrics are made:
 
Woven - on a loom
 
 
Knit - on a knitting machine


Wovens are typically pretty static (aside from blends with Lycra and such, which we can go into later down the road). Knits are made to move, stretch, hug and perform differently. So if you think of it that way, it makes sense why they can't always be sewn the same way. I encourage you to go to your closet, pick a knit item of clothing and turn it inside out. I bet you will be able to identify how it was all put together after reading this post.
 
I will now introduce you to my arsenal of machinery, which lives in my studio named Nashionland. 
 
 
I call this one Green Machine (even though it is more teal than green). This was my first real sewing machine I bought while I was in college. In school we had an industrial sewing machine lab but I needed something at home I could work with, and sew on heavier fabrics. One day while pillaging I spotted this gem in a thrift store for $7. A $20 tune up and she was good as new. (I totally recommend purchasing used machines, not only can it be cheaper but they sure are pretty!) The machine only has 2 functions, straight-stitch and zig-zag. They are pretty much the only 2 things I do on a single needle machine. Also, keep in mind on industrial machines, each only has one function.


 
Sergers
 
 
Sergers are your best friend when it comes to seaming knits. The poor dear on the left is a home version; it has been used more than anyone ever thought possible. The right is the industrial version, which is my most favorite toy! Sergers typically come in 4 or 5 threads. A 4 thread is perfect for sewing knits, and even some wovens. You can also sew knits with a 3 thread serger. For added stability I recommend using all 4 threads. Below is an up close look at the needles and the upper looper peaking out.
 

 
Here is an example of stitching a 4 thread.

Thread colors in order:

 
Top (what you see on the machine)
 
 
 Teal  - left needle thread
White   - right needle thread
Right  - upper looper thread
Grey - lower looper thread
 
bottom (what is against the feed dogs)
 
 Teal  - left needle thread
White   - right needle thread
Right  - upper looper thread
Grey - lower looper thread

Coverstitch Machines
 
 
I only have 2 complaints about the coverstitch: these machines aren't cheap, and are hard to find used. Other than that mine has been a gem. This home version comes in 2 and 3 needle. I went with the cheaper 2 needle, because I just needed to finish hems, and do chainstitching. The 3 needle can do flatlock and 3 thread coverstitching, which is more applicable on athletic apparel and spandex fabrics, even though you may see those stitches at decorative on ready to wear apparel.
 
Anyway, back to the fun toy! I use the machine to do hems:

Top:


Red - left needle thread
Black- right needle thread
 
Bottom:
 
White - looper thread
 
You'll see most t-shirts and a lot of dress hems finished this way. This machine also takes a bit of practice to get the hang of. Essentially you are sewing blind, since the needles are what you see. You have to learn to feel the fabric as it is going into the machine to make sure that you catch the edge between the needles on the underside and have the looper stitch "hide" the edge of the raw fabric.
The other neat thing a 2 needle coverstitch machine can do is a chainstitch:
 
Top:
 
 
Bottom:

 
By removing a needle you can have a stitch that looks like a regular straight-stitch machine on the outside. The underpart is a bit loopy. The reason? Stretch. If you have knits in your closet that have a single-needle on them, look a little closer, I bet you will see that looper on the backside.

A good example is this dress I made last year.
 
 
 
I used the chainstitch on the pleating on the front, since this fabric had 4-way stretch.
 
 I did the sleeve in a tulip shape and hemmed it with the coverstitch.


And of course all of the inside seams were sewn on a 4 thread serger.
 
Now that you have seen all my toys, let's move on to thread! Thread is so important with knits. If you have a serger you may own some cones of thread that look like this:

While they fit very nicely on the serger, the most important factor is thread weight. Thread weight is refered to as Tex. I recomend sewing knits with a Tex 24 or Tex 27 thread. In my area of the country I mainly see Tex 27 on the sewing store shelves. For knits you can also sew with Wooly Nylon/"Fluff" thread, but I can go more into that later. Tex 40 is used on wovens or heavier fabrics. You can use Tex 40 on knits, but it is not as soft agaist the skin. The higher the Tex weight, the heavier the thread. Another tip, make sure when setting up your serger all of your thread cones are the same weight thread.
 
Serger practice 
 
If you have a serger and are having trouble sewing a knit pattern because of the fabric, take a step back. Try cutting a few 2" x 10" strips. Practice sewing them together and having a good seam that isn't rippling, or puckering. If one strip is ending up shorter, try adjusting the feed dogs, or thread tensions. If you would like, I can address a future post on issues with tensions and machine settings.
 
I hope you aren't intimdated by knits. It has taken my years of practice to figure a lot of these things out! I would have to say 90% of it was from trial and error (mostly error in the early days), and learning to handle all the different weights and stretches of fabric and tensioning of machines. Every time I have sewn on a new fabric I practice to get all of the settings on the above machines correct. If you feel like you and your machine just are not BFFs and any of the above things aren't working, maybe it's time for a tune up. Skipped stitches or major tension issues are usually give aways that your machine could use a little hospital visit.

Hope you understand knits a little better now. Next post we'll chat about sewing them on home machines!

39 comments:

  1. Fantastic post! Thank you Alyson for your insight into sewing knits. I have been meaning to take a crack at making myself a tshirt this summer; I have the fabric, pattern, serger, thread--everything. ;) Just need to get started.

    Can't wait for your next post!

    ♥ Casey
    blog | elegantmusings.com

    ReplyDelete
  2. Great post! I have a Janome 3 needle coverstitch and never really figured out why I'd want to use the chainstitch until now. I sew a lot of knits so this is perfect for me.
    Do you use pins when sewing with a serger?

    ReplyDelete
  3. Awesome, I am just getting started with knits so this addition will be really helpful.

    I wondered however, if I could ask Alyson (sounds like the name of an advice columnist!) if she has any knowledge of industrials for thicker fabrics, such as Cordura nylons and leathers, such as Pfaff 1245 or a Consew or Juki...

    Thank you Alyson and Thank you Gertie!

    ReplyDelete
  4. Gertie can you read my mind? I am working on a knit blouse for my daughter, I am reading all the information I can find about sewing a knit fabric and this post is awesome, especially the information aboutthe various sewing machine and the weight of the thread. Thank you!

    ReplyDelete
  5. Gertie - thank you for having Alyson on as your guest. Alyson, many thanks for this post as I venture into the land of knit fabrics and put my fears of knit fabris behind me. I will dust of my serger and put to good use. This a great and timely post.

    ReplyDelete
  6. thanks once again gertie & alyson for a fantastic post... and quite timely for me.

    i have an elna pro dc 5 overlock, finally took it for a spin yesterday-- and i HATE IT! i almost threw it out the window. but... now i see, it has 5 threads, it can do that straight stitch... i guess it has to stay... but i just can't figure out how to get my seams under the presser foot. and that &^$#! cutter keeps cutting!

    okay. back to the manual.

    ReplyDelete
  7. This is such a fabulous post. I'm really looking forward to the series. I don't suppose we should expect anything less from Gertie and her friends. Thank you both.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Really great post!!! You answered some questions I had. Looking forward to more.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Oh where was this last week when I was making a knit onesie for my new niece!

    ReplyDelete
  10. Thank you Alyson and Gertie! This post was so informative. I recently purchased a serger and am having a heck of a time with the blind hem... the seam is loose, loopy and sometimes does not capture the fabric edge. An analysis of hemming with a serger would be much appreciated.

    ReplyDelete
  11. Thank you for the post! I purchased a refurbished serger a few years ago. I don't know if it is the machine, or the user, but I have never been able to get the stitches to look right. I end up sewing all of my knits on the conventional machine, doing one line of straight stitch and one line of zigzag next to it. If you have any tips on using a serger, that would be great! I should proabably break down and get into a class on the subject.

    ReplyDelete
  12. SO VERY HELPFUL! I got a serger for Christmas but haven't started working with it yet. I've been a little intimidated by it but excited for all I can do with it. ANY and all serger tutorials will be much appreciated.

    ReplyDelete
  13. Fantastic post! I'm so excited to learn more!

    Thank you for sharing your expertise!

    Carisa

    http://vintageredpatterns.blogspot.com

    ReplyDelete
  14. Thanks for a great post. The dress is gorgeous and love the tulip sleeves.

    I enjoy my serger, but threading it is a pain and of late I've thinking about getting the Jet-Air thread serger. I have the Janome cover stitch also and honestly have not used it in over a year due to not getting the hang of how to feel the fabric as it is going into the machine.

    Looking forward to more knitterly posts.

    ReplyDelete
  15. Thanks for the post! This was so informative.

    ReplyDelete
  16. thanks so much! I really hope to get a serger soon, and this helps me get ready!

    ReplyDelete
  17. A few quick answers:

    Nancy K - No, I do not use pins. They seem to slow me down, and after a while you can learn to handle the fabric with out them. If you feel more comfortable using them do to start, just make sure not to run them over with your serger.

    Karen - I have a little knowledge of thicker fabrics. I'd say make sure you have the appropriate weight thread and needles for the materials you are using. If you are shopping in person, ask the sales staff what they recommend using with the specific materials.

    oonaballoona - You should be able to turn the cutter foot off. I rely on mine to trim the edges perfect against the stitching. Play with your presser foot and see if it is easier to start the seam with the fabric in front of the foot and let the feeddogs grab it. Or lift the foot, place the fabric under, put down the foot and go.

    Gretchen - I'll look into it with some of my friends who use this function. I tend to do all my blind hems by hand.

    Jenny - Try a tune up on the machine and a class. I have thrown the timing off on machines by sewing over pins, or having massive thread clogs. If you are threading according to the diagram have missed stitches, it could be the timing. I had a situation once where one of my tension dials was off and making all sorts of trouble!

    Sheila - I have seen the Jet-Air threading and I'm not sure the bang is worth the buck. Mainly since the price was around the cost of an industrial machine. My friend had one and I couldn't for the life of me figure out how to use the air thing. I use my tweezers to help me thread, and when changing thread colors tie the thread off and pull it through. Just carefully guide it when going through the tension dials. Don't give up on your coverstitch! It was the hardest thing for me to learn.

    Yay knits!

    ReplyDelete
  18. Oh dear--I hope it's OK to sew knits on a conventional one-needle machine with a stretch stitch. Alyson, please include some tips as well for those of us who may be using these machines.

    ReplyDelete
  19. Don't worry Charlotte it is OK. My next post will address that topic.

    ReplyDelete
  20. Thanks Alyson! You know, I found this post more valuable than some books I have browsed through about knits! Thanks for taking the time to photograph everything you were talking about - this was especially useful

    ReplyDelete
  21. Very helpful Alyson, thank you! I have some experience with coverstitch machines (industrials) and they are Fussy! It does take a while to get the knack of how to work with the fabric and the machines tend to break down easily and often. I noticed that Eileen Fisher skirts sometimes use a zig zag stitch in place of a flatlock and/or hem stitch, so I'm planning to give that a try. I'll let you know how it goes!

    ReplyDelete
  22. This comment has been removed by the author.

    ReplyDelete
  23. [oops, hit "publish" instead of "preview"... here's what I meant:]

    Thanks, Alyson! I breathlessly await your tips for sewing knits on a regular home machine using the zigzag and/or stretch stitch. No serger or coverstitch machine in my home or my budget.

    ReplyDelete
  24. So exciting - this post came at a perfect time. I've just bought a second handserger (my very own green machine) and I havne't attempted knits on it yet.

    ReplyDelete
  25. Advanced BeginnerJuly 7, 2010 at 3:22 PM

    Excellent overview. I look forward to future posts.

    As someone else said, please address whether some knits can be sewn with just a single needle machine for the moment.

    I don't have a serger or a coverstitch, but in evening classes I have learned to thread a Merrow machine, an industrial serger, which is very challenging to thread.

    My impression is that it's best make patterns in stretch fabrics by draping. Is that correct?

    Thanks again.

    ReplyDelete
  26. Great post! I'm looking forward to this series :)

    ReplyDelete
  27. Loved seeing your toys, and I'm so excited to see your turquoise Universal Deluxe. I have one exactly like it! Great machine, though I kinda hate the push button remote. Other than that, it's a sweetie. Mine was $20 at a rummage sale, but I tuned her up myself!

    Would love to hear more about the differences between your domestic and industrial sergers.

    ReplyDelete
  28. Another vote for info on working with knits sans serger, thanks!

    ReplyDelete
  29. Wow! It's all so complicated, but I still want to try. Some of my favourite ~ no wait! All of my favourite dresses are knit fabric. It's so comfy, I really want to make some dresses out it.

    Thank you for your informative post, they really help. I shall read every one!

    xox,
    b. of Depict This!

    ReplyDelete
  30. What a great post! I sew with knits often and I still picked up lots of new info. Like NancyK, I never used the chainstitch and now I will definitely take advantage of that feature. Just wanted to add that I use a Pfaff sewing machine for knits - the IDT feed makes it so easy. It helps feed the fabric evenly without sucking it down into the feed dogs. And I have used a few different brands of sergers. Sometimes, it IS the machine's fault. If you are never getting good consistent stitches no matter what you do, it might be time to try a different brand. I found Juki was good. Currently I have jet air threading (Babylock) and I LOVE IT. Threading is fast & easy.

    ReplyDelete
  31. thanks for the great details in your intro to knits.
    I have used a single needle with knits, especially silky knits. I am ok if I use a ball point needle and 'stretch' the seam slightly.
    also: A friend showed me how to sew a mock coverstitch hem using a double needle in a regular machine (a very exciting discovery!).

    ReplyDelete
  32. Great post. Look forward to reading more on knits.

    I love your blog, Gertie! So much interesting and useful information.

    Tory

    ReplyDelete
  33. Awesome post!! Thank you for sharing your knowledge about knit fabrics. I've been sewing a lot on knits lately and have been having to recalibrate my sewing methods to work with the different characteristics of knit fabric.

    I linked to your article over at Craft Gossip Sewing:
    http://sewing.craftgossip.com/read-all-about-it-sewing-on-knit-fabrics/2010/07/08/

    --Anne

    ReplyDelete
  34. Thank you, Alyson, for your wonderful and thoughtfully detailed post! I have been using a serger and a coverstitch for a little while, and have read up on techniques, and you have already taught me new things.
    Thanks, Gertie!

    ReplyDelete
  35. Any tips for those of us without a serger?

    ReplyDelete
  36. Great post. Looking forward to more. I have sewn knits for ever and I actually prefer my normal sewing machine to the serger. But the coverstitch sounds good. I just twin needle my hems.

    ReplyDelete
  37. Sergers are terrifying... I've entertained myself at times by imagining a world where seamstresses have to get licenses to use them, like with cars...!

    ReplyDelete
  38. Wow.. Such a beautiful dress. It such very beautiful. I impressed by that. Every thing looking awesome. It white color in black dots are fantastic.

    ReplyDelete
  39. I'm almost 74, have had cataract surgery on both eyes and can't see to thread my machine. I used to make all my and my daughter's clothes. That was back when people wore double knit and Whipped Cream, a type of polyester or I guess nylon. I never ever had any problems sewing the knit, no matter the weave or weight. The Whipped Cream would crawl all over the machine as you stitched. I developed my own techniques over time and didn't have any more problems with it. I loved it for clothing, both for myself and for my daughter. Eventually they got permanent press and that was another wonderful fabric. You could make pleated skirts, Iron in the pleats and you could wash with out ironing from then on. I am wanting to sew so very badly. I read your blog and it makes my tongue hang out. My machine is a Elna 9700 with all the fancy stitches, but when I plug in the foot pedal the machine starts stitching and won't stop. I don't know what to do with it or who to get to fix it. I live in a small town about 45 miles NW of Austin, Tx and I live on a very limited Social Security income. I have tons of fabric that I bought in 1993 before going to Japan, I only had time to make up half of it. It is gorgeous Silk looking Poly of some kind. Now I am fatter, older, uglier, and almost infirm, but I want to sew darn it. Any suggestions?????

    ReplyDelete

Thanks for your comments; I read each and every one! xo Gertie

© Gertie's Blog For Better Sewing. Powered by Cake