Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Guest Post: Sewing Knits Without a Serger

 I love these pieces from Alyson's current collection. Plus: puppeh!

Alyson Clair of Clair Vintage Inspired is taking it away again with a super hot topic on knits. Enjoy! - Gertie

Hello again lovely readers! I hope you are working on all kinds of fun projects. This post is to address a burning question: how to sew knits on a home sewing machine without a serger.

Can it be done? Yes. Do I recommend it? No, but I do understand that sergers are not cheap and it is a major investment to buy one.

I wish I had a magical unicorn answer about how to sew knits on a home machine and achieve the same results as using a serger. To me, the point of sewing with knits is to get stretch and comfort in a garment. One of the reasons I got so personally interested in sewing these fabrics was my own body. I know throughout the month I fluctuate in body weight and size, no matter what my current weight is. I feel like knits are my friend - if I'm a little bit more robust around the middle they can grow with me.

Which is all to say: when you sew on knits, you want the stitching to stretch as much as the fabric. This is key, or your garment will literally fall apart at the seams! Hearing the noise of stitches popping is almost like nails on a chalkboard, knowing that I'll have to mend the damage. So to avoid this, I'll give you the best tips I have and hopefully the below photos will help you with what I'm talking about.

(Warning: I'm also a stickler for finished edges, raw edges make my eye twitch and can be the demise of a regularly worn garment.)

First let's start off with the fabric. If you are just starting in on knits, my advice would be to stay away from fabrics that are powermeshes, 4-way stretch, and high lycra contents. They all have the tendency to be slippery and really stretchy. Try something of a t-shirt weight, or that doesn't stretch in more than one direction. (Tip: if you are looking for a good quality knit, try a smaller store in town. Sometimes the large mega stores don't have the best quality goods. In buying fabric, I like to shop around.)

Some of you had mentioned the fabric was rolling when trying to sew with knits. A lot of lighter weight knits (and the kinds mentioned above have a tendency to do so). Before you buy, tug on the end of the fabric and see what it does. If it rolls at the raw edge, put it down and slowly walk away, no matter how pretty. My next post will be what to look for when fabric shopping.

I know there are methods of setting your machine's tension to have a straight stitch with some stretch. I personally still wouldn't ever trust a straight stitch to sew and last in a knit garment. (Then again, I beat up my clothes a bit, so I try to make the pieces in my line stand up to my own wear and tear.) For anything with stretch, your zig zag function is going to be your best friend. This stitch is designed to stretch. In your own closet look for it on decorative lingerie elastics around bust cups or leg openings, contrast topstitchings, bra straps if they have a stretch lace on the elastic strap, and one reader has even seen this stitch on hems. This stitch is also relied on for garments used in the medical and sports wear industry: two places where garments really have to stand up to wear and tear.

I wanted to demonstrate what happens to stitches when fabrics stretch: Straight Stitch vs. Zig Zag. So I sewed some examples up to better show what I am talking about.

For this example I picked a heavier weight knit (without any lycra) that does not roll when stretched. I cut out 2 rectangles and sewed them together with a straight stitch at regular tension settings. Finished, the seam is about 5" long. I also bartacked at both ends. I did this because I knew when I stretched the fabric the thread would come loose from an end.

I then took the fabric and stretched it. I only got about 1 1/2" stretch before the thread broke.

Just think: this seam could be representative of a shoulder seam. If you have a garment with no zippers or buttons, you have to rely open the knit fabrics stretch to get it on your body.

Next, I did the same example with a zig zag stitch.

Then I stretched it as far as I could make the fabric go, which was 8".

Now that we've established the zigzag stitch as the winner in this round, let's move on to machine settings. I don't have one exact setting that does the trick, since everyone's machines are different. My advice would be to use the widest stitch that your machine does. I would estimate this is 1/4" due to the opening on your presserfoot for the needle to sew. On patterns with knits the seam allowance should be 1/4"-3/8" wide, since this is what the majority of sergers sew at. With the zig zag stitch you are essentially trying to mock a serger, so you don't need to worry about pressing any seams open. The zig zag stitch should cover most of your seam allowance. If your patterns seam allowance is larger, go ahead and trim it down.

As always, test your fabrics first on your machine to make sure the machine settings, thread, needles, feed dogs, and fabric are all happy together. One of the hardest things for me to get the hang of was the feed dog settings. I would try sewing things and the top fabric would end up longer than the bottom that was against the feed dogs. You may want to pin your fabrics to make sure this doesn't happen to you. I know I had a lot of quality time with my seam ripper the first few months I was learning!

Another thing I wanted to address that a few readers commented on was stay tape. Personally, I have never used this product. I was actually at the fabric store today and I looked at it to gather some more info on what exactly it is. It looks pretty interesting and I may play with it in the future. If you are going to use it on knits, make sure you get the kind made specifically for knits, that stretches.

The only seam stabilizer that I use with knit garments is clear elastic.

I like this product because it has great stretch and return. (Don't worry, you don't have a to buy a whole spool! Most stores will cut you what you need.) You may commonly see it in shoulders, waists, and under bust areas in commercially made knit garments. My only complaint is that it can be a bit tricky to get the hang of using since it can be grippy on feed dogs and presser feet. I love it though, because I can pull as hard as I can and not break it, and it always goes back to shape. (I like to try to "break" things to see how my clothes will hold up). If you have a serger with a lot of attachments, there is a foot that feeds this into your garment much like a binding foot. (I don't have one, since apparently I like to torture myself when I put it into garments).

A good way to get familiar with handling clear elastic would be to install it in a shoulder seam. For easier handling, I don't cut the elastic down to the size of the seam I am sewing. I just cut it after I am finished sewing it in. You may sew it in at the same time you are sewing the seam. I would recommend putting it on top of your top piece of fabric that goes against the presser foot. If you have a variety of feet with your machine see if you have one with a special coating that allows the elastic to glide against it better (sometimes called a Teflon foot or non-stick foot). If not (I don't have one of those either), try tissue paper. I know it sounds odd, but it works. Then you can just tear it off when you are done with the seam.

Let me know if you have more questions about sewing knits with a regular machine. My background is more in industrial manufacturing, so please share tips or things that work for you guys at home. I love playing with new things on my machines.

Back to sampling sundresses!


  1. I've been using a narrow zigzag stitch, but after reading think post I think I'll try a wide one next. Thanks!

  2. I've really been enjoying this Sewing with Knits series! I never have (sewn with knits, that is) but I'm slowly gathering courage.



  3. Another great post. I love sewing knits, however I tend to have issues with wonky necklines although I use clear elastic. Could it be I am stretching the elastic too much when sewing? Thanks.

  4. Good tips! I especially am intrigued by the clear elastic; I haven't really used that yet in the few knit garments I've made. I bought a serger earlier this year, but previously did use a regular machine (on zig zag settings) to sew a handful of rather successful (and long wearing!) knit garments. Although, admittedly, nothing can beat the serger. ;)

    ♥ Casey
    blog |

  5. I'm loving these posts even thought I don't sew knits. I have a 1901 Singer and she only goes forward in a straight stich. Not stretchy friendly. Anyone got any idea how I can sew stretch stuff neatly by hand or on my machine?

  6. Great post, this is just the kind of guidance I was looking for! One question though, when handling knits on a sewing machine, is a jersery needle a necessity?

  7. My mom took the Stretch and Sew course back in the '70s, so that's how I learned to sew knits. (I have two crates of S&S patterns!) The gist is that you stretch the fabric while sewing a straight stitch, and use zigzag to put on waistband elastic. It's always worked well for me, but I'm going to try the zigzag stitch method ... I don't have a serger and would like better-finished inside seams.

  8. Fantastic posts ~ I am so interested in learning more about sewing with knits. Particularly without a serger as I do not even have a normal machine yet, it will be a long time before I get the serger!

    b. of Depict This!

  9. A roller foot can also help reduce the amount of "grippiness" experienced with clear elastic, although I do prefer the teflon foot.

    Depending on how sophisticated the sewing machine, many models also have a wide variety of stretch stiches, some designed to mimic an overlock-style seam. I have a mid-level Janome machine, and there are several I like - readers should check their machine manuals to see what they have.

    I have also found that some "decorative" stitches based on a zig-zag have a lot of stretch. These can be useful if a person does not like the appearance of a standard zig-zag when top stitching, hemming, etc.

    It's really useful to buy some stretch fabric and do a variety of samples such as the one used to demonstrate straight vs. zig-zag stretch and recovery.

  10. This post was very helpful. Thank you.


  11. Affi'enia--try what Jan mentioned (stretching the fabric while sewing). I've had good luck with this, even though my machine has lots of stretch stitches.

    I love this series--it's giving me so many ideas.

  12. ahh tissue paper! Never fails to help things slide through! I've sometimes used kitchen towel to! A bit of talc powder can work too, you just have to remember to give your machine a clean after!

  13. In answer to Lady J, I always use a ball point needle for sewing knits, yes.

    Affi'enia, my go-to handstitch for knits is backstitch: stretches, is good and secure and has the look of machine stitching on the top, at least. I made a dress with silk jersey recently that I simply could *not* get nice looking stretch top-stitching on using my machine, so I backstitched by hand and it worked beautifully. Took forever, but worth it in the end.

  14. I love wearing knits and started sewing with them pretty early into my sewing journey. I know a lot of people get all wigged out working with knits, but I realized that if I was going to sew the stuff that I love to wear, I needed to get over that right quick. And so far, so good.

    I have found that the "lightening" stitch on my machine is a godsend and gives me a good poor woman's version of a serger finish. ;) I also love clear elastic - like you said, it's what is often found in RTW garments and just works well.

    Great series you've done here!

  15. Gertie - Love your blog and love your name (it was my Grandma's)! I'm your newest follower. Hope you'll stop by and see me. I'm having a giveaway this week...Retro Vogue Patterns! :o)

  16. great post! thanks for this i needed it and realized while working on a knit dress that i do need a serger in the near cousin and i are going to buy one together, maybe that might work for anyone else???..split the cost...also we are looking at used ones which are half the the way LOVE your ruler!!! what a happy little thing to look at while working away.


  17. I am LOVING this series on knits!! I've done a few projects with it but haven't gone "full force" yet. This is totally giving me courage to work with knits more often.

  18. I love that ruler! Did it come that way, or did you paint it yourself Claire?

  19. Thanks so much for these tips. I, too, have seen advice to sew knits with a "narrow zigzag," but using the width of the seam allowance looks like a better idea. I recently acquired some "practice jersey" that I won't mind messing up, so I'm going to cut some large swatches and try out all the zigzag and mock-overlock stitches on my machine.

  20. Glad you all are liking the post. If your machine has mock-serger settings by all means use them.

    I have never tried the stretch and sew method myself. Also, knit fabric technology was way different in the 1970's. (I do LOVE heavy vintage knits for bottoms).

    The ruler came like that. I'm a pillager so most everything I own comes from thrift stores and estate sales. It's a yard stick and it set me back a quarter!

    I can do more on clear elastic applications, necklines can be very interesting subjects.

  21. Thank you, Alyson--extremely helpful!

  22. first of all, thanks for this great series!
    I have a serger but am still helpless about hemming my knits. Whatever I do (with the regular machine) makes the hem look stretched and a bit wavy. I would appreciate advice on hems. thanks!

  23. Very useful. I bet that as this series goes on (and I sure hope it does!) that I'll venture into knit sewing with brilliant results! Really great tips on choosing knit fabrics, especially for beginners!

  24. Hi! Thank you! I sew knits on my sewing machine, even tho I have a serger. I use a slight zigzag, but I'm going to try your wide zigzag suggestion and see how it looks!

    I have broad shoulders and find that clear elastic pulls up too much, leaving me with unsightly wrinkles on the garment. I looked in some of my Banana Republic RTW t'shirts and found that they stabilize with a 3/8" strip of self-fabric (i.e., same knit fabric as the garment) cut with the grain (i.e, the more stable direction). I've adopted this method, applying the strip in the same way that you describe using the clear elastic, and like the less aggressive effect.

  25. Hi! Thanks for your posts on sewing with knits! I'm on my first knit project and so far it's working out better than I feared, even with my regular sewing machine. I've been wondering... is it ok to use a straight stitch for side seams? I did that on a pair of shorts and an undershirt which are both cut to fit but aren't extremely tight. The seam stretches a bit, because the fabric is stretched a little when I sew it, and I don't think those seams will be under a lot of tension... Anyway, I'm looking forward to the rest of your posts!

  26. Chrrristine, have you tried sewing your knit hems with stabiliser? I swear by soluble stabiliser (and a walking foot) for knits that go wavy if you look at them too hard, let along run them through a sewing machine.

  27. Your experience is in industrial manufacturing? Does that mean you know stuff about marketing a clothing line? Can you point me in the right direction? I would really like to market my line of Barbie clothing on a bigger scale than Etsy, and I have NO IDEA where to start. Is there a book or a website that can get me started? I love your blog. If you have any info that might help me, will you please drop me a line at If not, I will still follow your blog. :)

  28. Great tips. I like the idea of clear elastic and I always wondered where to use it. Thanks!

  29. Great post!

    You are absolutely right there is no magical unicorn answer to knits (not even handling them on a serger either). I like sewing on a machine for lots of reasons and am in no hurry to buy a serger - but YMMV in so many ways when you're using a home machine. Incidentally I do not share the disdain for raw edges etc etc and in fact love the way they look as a design element (see below).

    I posted a tutorial with some additional tips and pictures if anyone is interested! Very close-up pics and I hope they help.

  30. I use a locking overcast stitch for seams on knits, a narrow zigzag for sleeve hems, and what Viking calls an overlock stitch for the bottom hem. I use woven selvedge strips to stabilize the shoulder seams (back only) but nothing anywhere else. I bought some clear elastic last year but haven't known what to do with it.

    PS A friend bought me a used serger for $25 at a flea market but I couldn't figure it out in my 5-minute attention span, so it is stored with other non-working sewing machines.

    I am also oddly neurotic about finishing my raw edges. I am recovering, however. Now I can leave edges raw where they are going to be completely enclosed. But I have to take several deep breaths first. And lining doesn't count as completely enclosed.

  31. Knits that roll on the edge can be used to make layered tops or fancy edges or details its not all bad.

  32. Very well written post, Gertie!
    And for knits that only stretch in one direction (horizontally) then there is no doubt: straight stitch for vertical seams (since the fabric wouldn't stretch vertically anyway) and zig zag stitch for seams in any other direction.

    But what happens when you have a knit that stretches in several directions? How do you sew your side seams then? I have never seen vertical seams sewn with a zigzag stitch. I can't imagine what they will look like if you zigzag stitch two pieces of fabric right sides together, and then you turn them inside out. The seam probably won't be crisp. Or it may be. This would be a perfect second part for this article.

    By the way, since I couldn't figure out this question, I bought a serger and I'm delighted with it, but I'm sure that there is a way around this problem without having to invest in a serger.

    Thank you for your fantastic blog!

  33. For hems on knits using a standard sewing machine try the following to reduce stretching:

    1) Use tissue paper between the fabric and presser foot, and perhaps between the fabric a feed dogs. This will keep the knit from stretching out so much as it is pulled through. Assuming you are using some type of stretch stitch, there should be enough "give" in the hem to allow you to pull the garment on and off. Spray starch or fabric stabilizer products can be used for a similer purpose as the tissue paper, I just don't tend to have them around.

    2) Used in conjunction with the tissue paper trick, I like the appearance and durability of a 3-step zigzag better than a simple zigzag stitch. Check your machine or machine manual to see if you have this feature. Most machines made since the mid-seventies should have this stitch pattern.

    3) If you have a one-step zigzag only, or if you prefer that look, try a medium stitch width (perhaps 3mm) with a medium stitch lengh (perhaps 2mm to 3mm). Sometimes there is just too much thread in the seam and it causes the fabric to stretch out.

    4) You can just go with the stretched out look by using a lettuce edge on the hem. This is done by using a medium stitch width and a dense stich length (like the density used when making a buttonhole). Stretch the fabric as you feed it under the presser foot and you will have a lettuce edge.

    5) The best thing you can do is run some samples of seams and hem/edge finishes from scraps of fabric before you start on your project. Every knit fabric has it's own personality and learning how to work with the quirks before starting on your garment will make a big difference.

  34. I second the suggestion to look for older 'Stretch and Sew' tutorial books. The 70's had both double-knits and slinky Quiana jersey (Remember those Halston style dresses and dance skirts in Sat. Night Fever?), and many are still in good shape today.

    Here's a long-winded list of suggestions, may you learn from my mistakes!

    On-grain seamlines: Use a straight stitch with smaller stitches. That will release more thread along the sewing line, and provide more 'give'.
    Seam line stabilizing: Add a 1/2" wide strip of iron-on tricot interfacing to stabilize a seam line before sewing and it will look perfect. This method can be used for skirt or blouse with seam line slits at hem. Fusible interfacing strips will also make a zipper go in more easily. (I have seen this used in Leon Max knits)
    stay tape: go with a 1/2" wide strip of the knit cut on grain, for when fusible tricot isn't enough. Sew right down the middle of the stay tape when you sew the seam. (look at your T shirt shoulders for examples of this)
    necklines: pre-sew a 'stay stitch' line ON the seam line before you sew a neckline that won't need to stretch, like a 'V' neckline. That way it won't ripple. You can actually pull the 'stay stitch' thread if a ripple shows up to flatten that line.
    facing: use fusible tricot interfacing
    needles: always use ball point needles to avoid skipping stitches
    hems: use a double needle to get a faux 'cover stitch' effect that stretches
    machines: pre-zig zag machines are iffy, as they were not developed to control knits--the later machines had wider feet and adjustments for knits.

  35. Have you tried the knit interfacing? You can buy rolls of it that are precut into different width strips for hems/shoulder seams/etc. (brandname: SewKeys??), or you can buy it by the yard. It reduces the rolling on hems, and is easier to use than clear elastic. You should easily be able to find it at any good store that sells knits. HTH!

  36. This is an amazing post and I love reading the commentary. I've been using a zigzag but want to try out the overlocks. Anyone know a quick summation of the difference between the two in appearance or general function?

  37. I do not have an over-locker but both my old machine (18 years old) and my new machine have stitches suitable for stretchy knit fabrics. They range from a kind of reinforced straight stitch which is very tough and not quite straight so enabling give, to a stitch that is more definitely zig-zag based but again reinforced and also stitches that both sew the seam and over edge it at the same time. I have never wanted an over locker as it has seemed unnecessary to me. My seam finishes are excellent - again I have a range of choices. A little more work perhaps but that doesn't worry me. I would not use a normal zig zag for knits (that was indeed what used to be recommended in magazines etc some years ago) as although you get the stretch it is not a strong stitch, extending it to the edges would I feel create a vulnerable seam. If used shorter you still need to neaten the edges. I would use only if you have no other option. If buying a new machine, do look for at least one stretch stitch as there are a lot of fabrics that you will want to use. Many machines have them.

  38. I find zigzag works fine for seams but it looks pretty crappy where you need top stitching (eg. hems). I've heard using a twin needle can leave a much better result - do you have any experience of this?

  39. Gertie, Love your blog. I'm assuming you have a serger and would love to know what kind you have/recomend. I have been sewing with knits for years and love it. I just want to finish my edges and hems with a more "professional" look and the sig-zag just doesn't cut it for me. Any suggestions??

  40. Lorri,
    You could try doing a hem (especially on t-shirts) with a twin needle. (Zig zag capability should be able to use twin needles, depending on width). Be sure to get twin needles made for jersey. Also, it helps to use a stabilizer and stretch the fabric a little when you sew.

  41. I learned to sew knitted fabrics about 25 years ago, when hardly anyone owned an overlocker/serger. All I had was a basic Singer. I wore all my knits with success for years (until they went way too far out of fashion). The technique I was taught at class was to stretch the fabric as you sew. It was so easy! Nowadays, I have a Pfaff sewing machine with stretch stitches, I use the straight stitch and then overcast with the fake serger stitch- no problems!

  42. I really like this post and I am so happy that I came across it.
    Very well done with the whole thing.

  43. I'm so confused about sewing knits. Some people say they use a straight stitch and stretch the fabric as they sew - doesn't that result in stretched out seams? Every time I've tried sewing with knits, the seams are very stretched out and rippled. I'm not sure if I'm supposed to use stay tape or what.


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

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