Knits are incredibly comfortable fabrics to wear, they don’t wrinkle, don’t have frayed edges, they are easier to fit, and you can make a knit garment quite fast, in a matter of a few hours. However, their downside is that the exact qualities which make them feel so comfortable and forgiving can also make them beyond frustrating to sew for beginners.
Let me remind you that there are two main types of fabrics: wovens and knits. Woven fabrics consist of vertical and horizontal fibers woven together (that’s where they get their name!) Knits, on the other hand, aren’t woven. Instead, they consist of interlocking loops of fabric fibers. More about it in this tutorial – All About Modern Types Of Knit Fabric.
And those differences are what make them so soft to the touch, stretchy, and impart a lovely drape.
Unfortunately, those same qualities (especially the stretchiness) can make working with knit fabrics frustrating for beginner sewists. If the idea of sewing knits brings to mind broken stitches, twisted fabric, or misshapen garments, keep reading for some tips to help make the process successful – and less frustrating.
Just a little knowledge and a few tweaks are all that stand between you and beautiful new knit garments that you made yourself!
When I was a beginner sewist, I thought I knew everything. I was so excited to make my own clothes. So I bought a nice knit fabric, medium weight but quite stretchy, thinking that it would be easy to work with. I decided to make a simple straight skirt with an elastic waist. I thought nothing could go wrong, since there was only one seam.
I cut the fabric and made a straight stitch, pressing it as I went. But when I tried on the skirt, the seam looked terrible! All the fabric around it was stretched out and coming in small folds.
I was puzzled – why was it happening? So I ripped the seams and sewed it again (exactly the same way though) – and of course, the result was exactly the same. Everything looked nice on the table and when I ironed the seam – but as soon as I put the skirt on, the seam looked all wrinkled.
There was no Internet then, and I didn’t know anything about knits and how stretchy they are. So I just stopped using knit fabrics for my projects. It was such a disappointment, especially because I’d spent so much money on the fabric.
But as time went by I learned a lot about sewing with knits and made many projects. Now knits are my preferred fabrics to sew. Here are some of my favorite tips for working with this type of fabric.
#1. Know the knit fabric types and characteristics
There are hundreds of different types of knits manufactured in a large variety of weights, textures, and fibers and they can vary widely in their characteristics.
So you would handle cotton jersey fabric differently than polyester mesh or acrylic knit lace.
The more knowledge you have about the knit fabric you have chosen for your project the easier it will be to use this fabric.
I wrote a few tutorials on different types of knit fabric, so check them out.
Especially important to know how stretchy is the knit fabric you want to use.
Different knit fabrics stretch in different ways depending on the quality, the fiber content, and even how it’s been constructed. Knit fabrics will have either a 2-way stretch (only stretch horizontally, left and right) or a 4-way stretch (stretch in every direction, BOTH vertically up and down and horizontally left and right).
Sometimes a 2-way stretch is called a 1-way stretch, and a 4-way stretch is called a 2-way stretch. I know it’s a bit confusing but the point is clear enough: some knit fabrics stretch only horizontally and others stretch horizontally and vertically.
If the knit fabric is very stretchy and has 4-way stretch (like spandex, lightweight rayon, tricot, rib knits) you would most likely have to use a serger to sew it and choose the appropriate thread (very stretchable, like wooly nylon).
But if the knit fabric has moderate 2-way stretch (like medium weight interlock knits) then you can manage to sew it with a regular sewing machine.
You need to know how much your fabric will stretch and pay attention also to the direction of the stretch when you lay out pattern pieces in order to work with patterns.
Because knitted materials stretch at a different rate, the patterns for knits usually have on the envelope some kind of a ruler for determining if a certain material is suitable for that pattern. It is a rectangle like this:
To see if a certain knit fabric is suitable for that pattern you need to assess its stretchiness. How to do this?
Take the fabric in your left hand (one layer only) like in the image. Then use your right hand to hold the fabric 4 in. away. Then stretch the material gently in the cross-grain direction, without applying great force. If the material stretches easily to the marked limit or beyond, then it can be used for that pattern.
If the material does not stretch easily to the limit, then the material is not stretchy enough.
You can find stretch percentage charts on all pattern envelopes for knits.
I made my own chart and you can download it as a PDF file from my Resource Library if you are a subscriber. The chart looks like this:
Knits also have different recovery after they were stretched. Use the same test to see how well the fabric is recovering (returning to its original size). I advise you not to use knit fabric if it doesn’t recover well and stays stretched out. If you end up making a garment from this type of material, your item will most likely be too big for you and uncomfortable to wear over time.
Use knit fabric with good recovery properties.
#2. Use special patterns made for knit fabric
To accommodate the differences in fabric stretchiness, search for patterns labeled “For Stretch Knits Only” on the envelope. These patterns have less ease built into them or they have negative ease and should incorporate some features recommended for sewing knit fabrics like simple pattern lines, fewer darts, no buttonholes, etc.
If a pattern has negative ease added to the body measurements, it means that the garments you make from knit fabrics are smaller than your actual body measurements.
If you don’t consider this negative ease the garment made from knit fabric will not fit nicely and will be essentially too big for you.
As a rule, you can’t take a pattern made for woven fabric and sew a garment from knit fabric without accommodating the pattern. There are exceptions, of course, but not many.
If you are a professional seamstress you can certainly change the pattern but for most of us, hobbyists, the changes are too complicated. I tried once to learn how to do it but decided it would take too long for me to change the pattern and I preferred to use a different one specially made for knits.
#3. Use a serger/overlock machine to sew knits
If you want to regularly sew knit garments, I highly recommend investing in a Serger machine if you don’t already have one. The stitches of a Serger machine naturally stretch, allowing your fabric to stretch and move without popping stitches. While having a Serger isn’t required when sewing knit fabrics, it is extremely helpful!
Sergers will make your task easier and provide a more professional-looking finished product.
Sergers do three tasks at once. They:
- Stitch together two layers of fabric (but they do it differently from a sewing machine)
- Use built-in knives to cut off seam allowances as you stitch
- Make overcasting to finish raw fabric edges
As a result, with a serger, you can make a garment from knit fabric very fast.
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If you sew knit garments only from time to time (like once per year) then you don’t need a serger and can use a regular sewing machine BUT you will need to use special needles, threads, stitches, and settings (see below).
#4. Use a coverstitch machine
Are you puzzled why this equipment can be useful for sewing knits?
Sergers are great for sewing seams on knit fabric but they are not best to sew hems.
Well, you need to hem knit garments, right? Hemming is an important, albeit often tedious part of the process and that’s where your coverstitch machine comes into play. It helps get those strong neat finishes on all those stretchy hems and you will get professional-looking hems without any hassle. The coverstitch machine makes two side-by-side straight stitches on the front, and the back looks closer to a serger-style stitch.
The coverstitch machine is also great for topstitching.
If you want to know more about coverstitch machines read my article Coverstitch vs. serger.
#5. Prepare knit fabric for sewing
Most knit fabrics require pre-washing so that the material will shrink as much as possible BEFORE you work with it. Having it shrink after you sew your garment will likely ruin it. Then press out the wrinkles before cutting.
But some knits shouldn’t be pre-washed, for example, fleece or knit vinyl.
# 6. Don’t fret about the edges
Knit fabrics don’t fray! So you don’t need to overcast them.
However, some very fine knits can “run” when a cut or the broken thread will propagate down the fabric unraveling not at the edge but inside the fabric.
So be careful and don’t stretch the edges of fine knits.
This can also happen if you use the wrong needle for your fabric. See #13 below about the needles for knit fabric.
The edge can also curl, which can make cutting knit fabrics and sewing them challenging. Simply press or starch them to straighten them. Or, leave them raw if you want that look.
Check my detailed tutorial How To Cut Knit Fabric: Ultimate Guide.
#7. Don’t make your first ever sewing project from knit fabric
Start with woven fabric and get some experience.
When you’re first starting to sew, it might be tempting to use knit fabric and make a simple comfortable T-shirt. The problem with this strategy is that your first few projects will most likely have problems because you don’t have experience yet. I recommend trying woven fabric instead so that when things go wrong you can fix any errors or issues without too much difficulty.
#8. Make a muslin/test garment
If you are using a pattern for the first time, make a test garment to ensure a perfect fit especially if the pattern is not very simple. Use an inexpensive knit fabric that has the same amount of stretch similar to your main fabric. This will help determine if any adjustments need to be made before starting the project.
#9. Keep knit fabric scraps handy for testing settings and stitches
The first step to a successful project is testing your settings and needles on scrap fabric. This way, you can get an idea of how the fabric behaves before starting any major project. It will help to avoid unnecessary surprises down the line.
#10. Pin (or baste) pattern pieces correctly in preparation for sewing
Pattern pieces cut from knit fabric should be properly pinned or basted with clips or hand sewing.
Pin them on a flat surface (a table usually) not on your lap. First, insert pins at each end of a pattern piece, then somewhere in the middle, and only after that pin in between.
#11. Prevent your knit fabric from stretching as you cut and sew it
Make sure you don’t pull or tug on your fabric or let it hang to the ground as you sew. It could cause your garment to stretch and potentially make pattern pieces not match (ex: sleeves, necklines, etc.). Let the feed dogs feed the fabric through your machine.
You should set up your machine with plenty of room for the knit fabric to be supported behind and to the left of the machine so that you don’t have any stretched seams.
#12. Avoid starting sewing at the very edge if you are using a regular sewing machine for lightweight knit fabric
If you start sewing at the very edge the lightweight knit fabric might be drawn to the bobbin area by the needle and you will have a hard time retrieving it. Therefore, start a stitch somewhere on the fabric, maybe half an inch from the edge, then try to backstitch and again go forward.
The “chewing” might happen nevertheless when you backstitch. So in this case just stitch to the other edge of a pattern piece, turn the fabric, insert the needle close to the unstitched area and finish off the edge.
Special tools and notions for sewing knits
There are a couple of items that can help make knits much easier to work with.
Note: Some of the links on this page are affiliate links. This means I will receive a commission if you order a product through one of my links. I only recommend products I believe in and use myself.
#13. Use special needles made for sewing knits
When sewing knit fabrics, the correct needle choice will ensure that your project goes smoothly.
There are special needles made for sewing knits.
Stretch needles – The stretch needle is a special kind of needle that’s great for working with very stretchy knit fabrics like lycra and spandex. This needle has a shorter eye than a standard needle, a special flat shank, a deep scarf, and is specially designed to prevent skipped stitches on stretchy fabrics. It has a medium ballpoint tip that’s a little sharper than a regular ballpoint.
Super stretch needles – The super stretch needle is made for when you are working with highly elastic thick fabrics and thick threads. It has a special flat shank and a special design of the scarf area that helps prevent skipped stitches and sew with thicker threads that will not break.
Read more about stretched needles in my article The Ultimate Guide to Stretch Sewing Machine Needles.
Ballpoint needles – Ballpoint needles have a rounded tip that will slide between the fabric fibers instead of punching through them. Make sure your needles aren’t too old or dull by trying them on a piece of scrap test fabric first. If they are, replace them.
These needles can be used on regular sewing machines and many sergers. They are very effective in preventing runs on knit fabric.
But some sergers and coverstitch machines use special needles numbered like this: EL x 705. Read about serger needles in my tutorial Serger Needles: Ultimate Guide
If you are using a regular sewing machine for sewing knits then you can successfully use twin and triple needles.
Twin needles (called also double needles) – The twin needle is made of two needles that are attached to a single crossbar. It produces two rows of stitching on the topside and a zigzag stitch (well, kind of) on the back. It’s used for hemming garments made from knit fabric – the stitch looks similar to the cover stitch on a T-shirt. So, if you don’t have a coverstitch machine you can use the twin/double needles on your regular home sewing machine if you want a professionally finished hem on a knit garment. The only big problem with it is that the seam doesn’t tolerate stretching very well.
Read more about using a twin needle in my tutorial How to use a twin needle
For lightweight knit fabric, use smaller size needles (75/11, 70/10, 65/9), for medium-weight knits use 80/12 needles, for heavyweight knits, use 90/14 or even bigger.
Well, if we talk about sewing machine needles let me show you a needle book that I recently made from scrap fabric. This is my step-by-step tutorial Adorable DIY Needle Book | Easy Tutorial for Beginners.
#14. Use special pins or Wonder clips for basting
Lots of knit fabrics slip very easily, so use your favorite method for gently holding the layers in place as you sew. You can choose between:
- Pins – I recommend using ballpoint pins to prevent a sharp tip from piercing your fabric fibers. Find out more about different types of sewing pins.
- Wonder Clips – These plastic clips are a terrific alternative to avoid damaging your fabric! Check out my article Sewing Clips vs Pins | Which To Choose?
- Basting – Running hand sewing stitches helps your fabric stay in place and prevents it from slipping as you sew.
#15. Use special stitches to sew knits
Knit garments should fit like a glove and be able to stretch as you do. But if the seams don’t allow for this, then your clothing will never feel comfortable or the seams will pop.
If you are using a serger or coverstitch machine all stitches are perfectly good for knit fabric.
The most common stitches on sergers and coverstitch machines are:
4 thread 2 needles overlock stitch – This stitch is created with 2 loopers and 2 needles.
3 thread 1 needle overlock stitch – This stitch is created with 2 loppers and 1 needle (left or right).
Chain stitch – It loops one continuous thread back and forth. You’ll usually find this stretchier stitch on cover stitch machines.
Cover stitch – This stitch is used for hems. It looks like a serger stitch in the back (on the wrong side of the fabric) with two rows of straight stitches in the front and it is used to create a stretchy stitch that sews the hem and covers the raw fabric edge at the same time.
There are many other ways to hem knits. Check out my tutorial How To Hem Knit Fabric.
If you are using a regular sewing machine to sew knits you can’t use a straight stitch. Using a regular straight stitch on knit fabrics will result in your stitches popping and breaking at the tiniest bit of stretch in the knit fabric.
Here’s a quick rundown of different stretch stitches on a regular sewing machine.
Zigzag stitch – The zigzag stitch is not a special stretch stitch but it’s the most common stitch used for knit fabrics on a regular sewing machine. It’s available on almost every sewing machine and provides some stretch to prevent popped seams.
It looks like a never-ending “W”, or a zigzag, which explains the name.
But you have to use a NARROW zigzag for regular seams (I mean not hems and necklines). The narrow zigzag is essentially a cross between a straight stitch and a zigzag. It’s a strong stitch with just enough give to allow your fabric to stretch a little without popping.
How do you make the narrow zigzag? Just make the width of the stitch smaller – and you will have a narrow zigzag. Maybe make the length a little bigger too.
Triple zigzag (or Tricot stitch) -This stitch looks like three dashed vertical lines side-by-side and allows the fabric to stretch without popping stitches. You still get that overall “W” pattern that’s why it’s called zigzag. This stitch is good to use for hems, necklines, and for inserting elastic. But it’s not good for regular seams because it’s quite a wide stitch.
“Lightning bolt” stitch (or just stretch stitch, or stem stitch) – This is the best stitch to use for knits on a regular sewing machine. Shaped like a lightning bolt, this stitch has some room to stretch without breaking. It can be used on all fabrics – from lightweight rayon to heavy-weight denim. You can play with different settings for this stitch: change the length, the width for example, and of course, you will need to change tension settings for different fabrics.
Triple straight stitch – The triple straight stitch is a very strong stitch because it locks three times. In other words, the needle makes one stitch forward, one stitch backward, and another forward so, in the end, you will have three short stitches side by side in one place.
It’s strong enough not to pop when stretched, making it perfect for athletic wear, leggings, and other tighter garments when you need good reinforcement.
But it’s not good at all for lightweight fabrics. Use this stitch only for heavy-weight stretch fabrics. The needle goes into the same place 3 times and makes quite a big hole. This stitch will stretch the fabric in the seam, and it will look wavy.
If you want to learn more, check out my Stretch Stitches Guide.
#16. Use suitable thread for sewing knit fabrics
Thread naturally isn’t as stretchy as knit fabric, which can make it snap when the fabric stretches and moves. Avoid cotton threads (which have no stretch) in favor of polyester, wooly nylon, or Eloflex thread. To learn more, check out my tutorial on Stretch Thread for Sewing.
If you are using a serger/overlock or coverstitch machine use special serger threads made from spun polyester.
For very stretchy knits, use wooly nylon thread. What is wooly nylon thread? It’s an extremely stretchy thread, making it your best choice when sewing the stretchiest materials such as spandex or tricot.
If you use a serger, wooly nylon thread should be used in both loopers (you can use it in needles too of course but it’s not required).
There is also another stretchable serger thread called Maxi-Lock Stretch.
If you use a regular sewing machine, use wooly nylon thread only in bobbins and fill the bobbin with wooly nylon thread by hand only.
If you use a regular sewing machine for sewing knit fabrics, then you would want to use stretchable threads that you can put in the needle and in the bobbin too.
Until recently, there was no such thread but now we have Eloflex – stretchable thread that can be used in bobbins also to sew knits (and stretchy woven fabrics).
You can check my detailed review of this thread in this tutorial.
There are other stretchable threads that are great for knit fabrics.
It’s not recommended to use cotton threads and embroidery threads to sew knits.
#17. Use special settings of your regular sewing machine to sew knits (if you don’t have a serger/overlock)
What am I talking about?
Your machine settings will vary for different types of knits. Just learn how to regulate the tensions, the stitch width, the stitch length, etc. It’s necessary to know all of these if you want to sew different types of knits.
For example, tension settings for knits should be often different from settings for woven fabrics.
The regular most common tension for woven fabrics is usually set to 4 (or between 3 and 5). Use lower tension for knit fabric.
Reduce the foot pressure if you are using lightweight or medium-weight knits. Check your sewing machine manual if you are not sure how to do it.
If the foot pressure is too high for your fabric it can stretch as you sew and you end up with a rippled edge.
#18. Use walking foot to sew knits
A walking foot (a.k.a., an Even Feed Foot) is helpful when sewing knits because it feeds two layers of fabric through the machine at the same time. That means that the fabric won’t stretch as it’s sewn and won’t get lost in your machine or pucker the seam because the top material feeds through faster.
Walking Foot Alternatives – Janome (and some other machines) have the option of using an Acufeed (or dual feed foot) that works well with knits.
Another option is a rotary even foot which has two plastic belts that help feed the top fabric layer through at the same speed as the bottom layer.
Check out my tutorials on using a walking foot:
- Walking Foot Attachment For A Sewing Machine
- How To Use A Walking Foot
- Types of Walking Feet and how to choose the right one for you
# 19. Learn to use Differential feed on your serger
This is a very useful feature that helps control puckering or stretching. Your Serger machine usually has two sets of feed dogs for moving the fabric through the machine. The differential feed controls the movement of these two feed dogs in relation to one another. The differential feed allows these feed dogs to move at slightly different paces, so you don’t end up with uneven “pulling” when stitching knit fabrics; this helps prevent a “wavy” finish.
Adjust it to remove the rippling in knit fabrics.
#20. Use special interfacing for knits
Do you know that knit fabric often need to be interfaced?
I like to use fusible interfacing for knit fabric (not sew-in interfacing). Check out my tutorial on how to use fusible interfacing.
Fusible interfacing is a material applied to the wrong side of knit fabrics to add strength, stability, or shape. If you want to create structured elements like buttonholes, pockets, or collars in your knit garments, fusible interfacing is nearly necessary.
I recommend using lightweight knit interfacings that have a similar feel to the knit fabric you’re using. You can choose between 4-way stretch interfacing or 2-way stretch.
#21. Use special Knit Stay Tape
This tape is the ideal blend of stability and stretch. Use it to help maintain shape as well as stretch in certain areas of the knit garment. It’s recommended to use knit stay tape for:
- Sleeveless openings
- Shoulder seams
Check out these examples:
Knit Stay Tape is highly effective in shoulder seams. Shoulder seams need to be able to withstand a great deal of movement, tugging, and stretching over the course of a garment’s life. However, since knit fabrics stretch, shoulder seams in knit garments can stretch out of shape without some reinforcement. Use knit stay tape to sew shoulder seams.
#22. Use special closures for knit garments
Try to avoid sewing buttonholes or zippers on garments from knit fabric. Most of the time we don’t even need any closures as knit garments are stretchy and you can put on a t-shirt, dress, or sweater through the stretchy neck opening.
But if you really need to add some closures use KAM Snaps. They are especially useful for kids’ clothes.
No doubt about it, sewing buttonholes into stretchy knit fabric can be tricky!
This is an instance where using 2-way stretch interfacing to eliminate lengthwise stretching will prove helpful in saving time and headaches.
After interfacing the planket, all you need to do is to choose a special buttonhole stitch for knit fabric. Do you have it on your sewing machine? The buttonhole will most likely be a little stiff, but at least it won’t stretch out of shape.
For stable knits that are close to heavyweight (like fleece, knit vinyl), you can sew regular separating zippers (to make a hoodie for example).
But if you want to use a zipper for lightweight knits, then it’s best to use so-called “silk” zippers. Their fabric is very lightweight and flexible. They are used for silk garments (they are not made from natural silk).
#23. Start using knit fabric with simple patterns or even without a pattern
Time To Sew With Knits
Are you ready to get started with a project? I have a few tutorials that may help make it easier as you learn more about sewing knits:
30-Minute Dress Without A Pattern – I show you how to make a simple, flattering, stylish dress in just 30-minutes, and it’s ideal for all figure types! Make the dress in 30 minutes without a pattern. All you have to do to make this dress is cut the knit fabric – one square and one rectangle and sew only one seam. In my YouTube video tutorial, I am showing how to make dress cutting.
DIY Wrap Dress – step-by-step sewing tutorial – You’ll learn how to sew a wrap dress without buying a pattern. With just one piece of fabric and some basic sewing skills, you can make yourself a new dress in no time. I’ll go through all the steps needed so it’s an easy sewing project even for beginners. In addition, we’ll also talk about drafting a pattern for the wrap dress using your own measurements which gives ultimate flexibility when designing your project.
How to sew a beanie hat – Learn how to sew a beanie hat easily without a pattern. DIY beanie is a great beginner sewing project. You can get it done in 30 minutes. And you can even make it without a pattern from the knit fabric of your choice. The best way to sew the DIY beanie hat is from knit fabric, fleece, velvet, and lace. You can even use a boring old sweater or soft knitted dress.
Make A Slip Dress – Learn how to make an easy slip dress from knit fabric with this video sewing tutorial. It’s a quick and easy sewing project and I will show you how to make a pattern too. A slip is a piece of clothing that can be worn under a dress or blouse. Slip dresses are the most important basics of our wardrobe. A knit slip is usually tight-fitting, very plain but comfortable.
Knit Pencil Skirt Pattern & Tutorial – In this video sewing tutorial I will show you how to sew a simple pencil skirt from knit fabric and how to make a pencil skirt sewing pattern fast and easy. The skirt is very simple to sew even for a complete beginner. Learn to use your serger and sew with stretchy knit fabric.
DIY Panties Tutorial – This is a step-by-step video sewing tutorial on how to sew DIY underwear from natural silk fabric or organic cotton knits. This sewing project is quite easy even for beginners but there can be some small difficulties where you can get stuck (for example, while attaching elastic). You are going to learn some sewing techniques on how to sew with knit fabric, how to make a pattern from ready-made clothes, and how to sew elastic.
DIY Headband Sewing Tutorial – Here’s a guide on making comfortable, stretchy headbands you can wear anytime.
So there you have it, 23 expert tips for sewing knit fabric. These tips will help you start creating beautiful garments and accessories with knits that fit well and look great. Now it’s time to get stitching and if in doubt, just ask me for advice in the comments below. Be sure to practice, practice, practice, and before you know it, you’ll be a pro at working with knits!
What’s been your biggest challenge when sewing with knit fabrics? Let me know in the comments.
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