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Types Of Stretch Stitches On A Sewing Machine And When To Use Them

Working only with woven fabrics limits the number and types of patterns and projects you can create. However, by learning how to sew stretch stitches on a home sewing machine, you improve your skills and your sewing world comes alive with new possibilities. Keep reading to learn all about stretch stitches: when you need them, how to do them, and more.

If there’s one thing I really enjoy making, it’s items with knit fabrics: children’s and other stretchy garments. It wasn’t always that way, however! Like most beginner sewists, I learned the basics on woven fabrics, but there came a time when I wanted to be able to do more.

That meant learning how to sew with stretchy fabrics – and stretch stitches.

sewing stretch fabric
I made this outfit from sweater knits

You may wonder why I need to learn this; a short story may explain this better. When I was very, very, very young (in my 20s) I bought my first stretch fabric, a very nice velvet, dark pink; I remember it vividly to this day. I had no idea what “stretch” is, never having seen one material like that until then. I was so happy! Straight home I went to make a dress. Of course, I didn’t have a serger, I do not believe they were on the market yet even.

Well, many days later, and many wasted hours of work later, I found out the hard way that stretch fabric can not be sewn with normal straight stitches. The dress was perfect, I was using a pattern that I liked and used before, the material was gorgeous, nevertheless, the dress did not drape properly. No matter what I did, all stitches were puckered, the material was bunching, the dress looked even worse than one made by a schoolgirl while learning to sew.

There is a silver lining here: I acquired A LOT of experience using the seam ripper, I could even write about it: How to use a seam ripper.

Stretch fabrics are increasingly comprising a major role in people’s wardrobes since they are easy to wear, require minimal care, and are ultra comfortable to wear. However, sewing stretchy fabrics can be challenging, to say the least – especially as a new(er) sewist. 

In fact, many people find themselves intimidated to sew stretchy fabrics on a home sewing machine. I have a detailed (actually, very detailed) tutorial on how to sew knit fabric, so check it out.

Whether you are a novice or an accomplished sewist, learning how to sew stretchy fabrics will make a huge impact on upping your sewing game and save you a lot of headaches too. And, you just might find that it’s really not as hard as you think!

What’s more is once you do it for a bit and build your confidence with sewing knits, I think you’ll find that it’s a lot of fun, increases the number of projects you can do, and involves minimal ironing. 

That alone is reason enough to learn how to sew stretchy fabrics without a serger!

Do Stitches Stretch?

In case you’re playing catch up, knit fabrics stretch, so you need to use special stitches when sewing them because you need a stitch that will also stretch with the fabric

What Happens If I Just Use A Regular Straight Stitch For Sewing Knits?

If you use a simple straight stitch with knit fabrics, the fabric will stretch but the stitches won’t, and you’ll be dealing with a lot of popped stitches (or broken fabric).

straight stitch on knits

What Are Types Of Stretch Fabrics?

When I’m talking about stretch fabrics, I am referring first of all to knit fabrics that can extend and recover more than other fabrics can. Jersey knits are one of the most common examples, but I’m also talking about spandex, lycra and more. Knits offer various degrees of elasticity, which makes them perfect for garments that require movement and flexibility. For a deeper understanding, you can explore my guide All About Modern Types Of Knit Fabric, where you’ll find detailed information about different knit fabrics and their specific characteristics.

There are also woven stretch fabrics (not knits) – they stretch because some of the threads are elastic.  Stretch woven fabrics have the structure of a woven fabric with the addition of elastic fibers (usually spandex). 

Some stretch fabrics have a 4-way stretch (they stretch both lengthwise and crosswise) and others (usually heavier stretch fabrics) may only have a 2-way stretch.

Why Use Stretchy Fabrics For Your Sewing Projects

If stretchy fabrics are difficult to sew, why use them at all? Well, knit fabrics have become very popular for many reasons:

  • They are perfect for many occasions: garments sewn in stretch fabrics are close-fitting, more comfortable to move in, and very practical to wear
  • These fabrics are ideal for children’s patterns.
  • They work well in all seasons and look stylish.

So, with these factors in mind, being able to sew them improves your overall sewing skills and increases both your confidence in your work as well as the number of projects you can create. 

There’s a whole new world of fun ideas and patterns just waiting for you to make once you learn how to work with stretchy fabric! However, in order to work with stretchy fabric, you need to learn how to make stretch stitches that match the stretchiness of your fabric.

Now you’re probably asking “what kind of stitches are stretch stitches?” or “do you need a special machine to make stretch stitches?” Let’s find out.

What Is A Stretch Stitch?

As I mentioned earlier, stretch stitches expand and contract with your stretchy fabrics to prevent popped threads and broken fabrics. You wouldn’t want to use a straight stitch on stretchy fabric  because it simply can’t stretch enough to accommodate the expansion of the fabric.

Real stretch stitches are made by sergers. Serger seams have the right amount of elasticity that’s perfect for knit seams. But, what if you don’t have a serger – how do you sew a stretch stitch then? 

✅ Related tutorial: What Is A Serger & What Can I Do With It?

There are some stretch stitches that you can make on a regular sewing machine.

What Are Some Types Of Stretch Stitches On A Sewing Machine?

Most modern sewing machines will have the ability to create many different stitches, including a number of stretch stitches.

But, do they really work for stretch fabrics or knits? Yes, they do! The important thing to remember is to always test your stitch out on a scrap piece of your fabric before you start working on your project.

What does a stretch stitch look like on a sewing machine? Not all machines have the ability, so check your manual to know for sure. 

For the ones that do have them, you can often find graphics on your machine for each stitch that you can choose. The stretch stitch symbols match the way that particular stitch looks when sewn. 

Here are a few great stitches on a sewing machine you can use for stretchy fabric:

What is a Lightning Stitch or Stem Stitch?

A lightning stitch is often called “Lightning Bolt” Stretch Stitch or Stem Stitch.

this is lightning stitch or stem stitch on a home sewing machine

This is the main stretch stitch on a home sewing machine to use on all types of stretch fabrics. It can be used on all fabrics – from lightweight rayon to heavy weight denim. 

Stretch stitch symbol for this type of stretch stitches is in the image below. 

what is a lightning stitch

This stitch looks like a lightning bolt thanks to the shape of the stitch. It’s a very narrow zigzag that looks similar to a straight stitch but with overlap of the previous stitch. 

The straighter shape of this stitch helps to reduce the puckering that a zigzag stitch can sometimes produce yet, but it also has the give and stretch that a regular zigzag has.

It’s better to use for sewing stretch fabrics because it’s very similar to a straight stitch and permits the seam to be pressed completely open flat. 

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. In the image below you can see this lightning stitch, I made it with different stitch lengths and widths on knit rayon fabric.

stretch lightning stem stitch

Triple Straight Stitch (aka Stretch Stitch)

triple stretch stitch on my sewing machne

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 for a total of three short stitches side by side.

triple stretch stitch

It is a stitch that’s used for stretch fabrics because it’s strong enough not to snap 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 mostly for medium and heavyweight stretch fabrics. The needle goes into the same place 3 times and makes quite a big hole. This stitch will stretch the lightweight fabric in the seam, and it will look wavy. 

triple stretch stitch on lightweight fabric

Zigzag Stitch

If your sewing machine doesn’t have a special stretch stitches you can use a zigzag stitch.

✅Related tutorial: Mastering the Zigzag Stitch on a Sewing Machine

The zigzag stitch is not a special stretch stitch but it’s the most common stitch used for stretch fabrics on a home sewing machine. It’s available on almost every sewing machine and provides good stretch to prevent popped seams. 

It looks like a never-ending “W”, or a zigzag, which explains the name and is a great stitch for use on knit hems and necklines. It can be used to sew elastic to knit garments .

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 the narrow zigzag. Maybe also make the length a little bigger. 

3-Step Zigzag Stitch ( or Tricot stitch)

3-step elastic zigzag on my sewing machine

A normal zigzag stitch is created with a single stitch from point to point. Unfortunately, sometimes, with lighter weight knit fabrics, it can produce a tunneling effect or bunch up. 

If you want to prevent this, try using a 3-step zigzag stitch which is a series of 3 small straight stitches from point to point, running diagonally from each other. You still get that overall “W” pattern but with a flatter stitch.

This stitch works well for stretch knits when you need a wider stitch, and it’s great for ultra stretchy fabrics like lycra and “slippery” fabrics such as nylon tricot, lingerie, and swimwear hems.

This stitch is good to use for hems, necklines, and for inserting elastic. This stitch is used for finishing raw fabric edges on stretch fabrics (for overcasting). But it’s not good for regular seams because it’s quite a wide stitch.

3-step zigzag

2-step Zigzag Stitch

2-step elastic zigzag

This stitch is similar to the previous one but not many sewing machines have it: it has only two steps instead of 3.

Knit Stitch

This stretch stitch is used for sewing and overcasting knit seams and provides quite a big amount of elasticity. But after sewing, you need to trim seam allowances close to stitches. 

knit stitch

Stretch Buttonhole Stitch

There are special stretch buttonhole stitches! Use this stitch to make buttonholes in stretch and knit  fabric garments. For example, my sewing machine Janome 6600 P has 2 different stretch buttonhole stitches. 

stretch buttonhole stitch

Blind Hem Stretch Stitch

blind hem stretch stitch

There is a special stretch stitch for making blind hem on stretch fabrics. It looks like this. 

stretch blind hem stitch

I have a detailed tutorial on sewing blind hem by sewing machine, check it out. 

Straight Stitch

How do you sew straight stitch on stretch fabric?

Normally a straight stitch would not work for stretch fabrics because it would snap when stretched.

However, a regular straight stitch can be used for sewing stretch fabrics if you use stretchy ELOFLEX thread.

You can read my review of this thread How to use Eloflex – an innovative stretchable sewing thread from Coats

eloflex thread

There are also many decorative stretch stitches that are used for stretch fabrics. They are good mostly for topstitching, not for making seams. Let me show you some of them. 

✅ Related tutorial: How To Topstitch | 17 Topstitching Tips Every Beginner Should Know

They are used for topstitching stretch fabrics, allowing the stitches to stretch as the fabric stretches and for elastic insertion.

Honeycomb Or Smoking Stitch

smoking stitch

Feather Stretch Stitches

feather stretch stitches

There is also some very interesting stitch for lightweight knits sometimes called Shell Tuck in sewing machine’s manuals but I also see that it can be called Picot Hem.  

Picot Hems 

This is a great finish for lightweight knit fabrics. It provides a small scalloped edge on the fabric. On my Janome 6600 it’s called “shell tuck”. This stitch has to be sewn on the edge of the fold. It’s perfect for hems and armholes on knit garments. This is the stitch symbol in the image below.

Fold the seam allowances under, then stitch along the fold so that the “straight” part of the stitch sews within the hem, and the “point” sews almost off the edge of the fold. You can adjust the stitch length and the stitch width. 

picot hems
picot hems

What Can I Use If My Machine Doesn’t Have Any Special Stretch Stitches?

Some sewing machines (especially older models or some inexpensive models) don’t have any special stretch stitches. If that’s the case with your machine, you can use a narrow zigzag stitch and use special settings on it, depending on your fabric. 

Is It Enough To Use The Special Stretch Stitch For Knits Or Do I Need Special Needles And Threads? 

Using stretch stitches is very important, but that will only get you so far. To really sew knit fabrics well, you need the right equipment to assist your efforts.

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. 

Best Needles For Sewing Stretchy Fabric

A regular needle will cause headaches when sewing knit fabrics because it will leave you with holes in your fabric and skipped stitches. Instead, for knit fabrics, use ball-point needles and for super elastic or stretchy fabrics (such as lycra), use stretch needles or a stretch twin needle. 

I especially like the Schmetz brand!

Stretch needles look a little different than regular needles with their slightly less rounded tips, shorter eyes, flat shank, and deep scarf.

Related Post: Ultimate Guide to Stretch Needles

Best Type Of Thread For Sewing Stretch Fabric

Cotton thread does not work with stretch fabrics as it tends to break. Strengthened polyester threads work better as they have a little give. 

However, if you need thread that is really amazing, try using ELOFLEX thread.

The Eloflex thread can be used in a regular sewing machine with just regular straight stitch function. Special stretch stitches or a serger are not required to sew knits or stretchy woven fabric. Just wind the bobbin with Eloflex thread and use the thread both in the needle and the bobbin to sew stretchy fabric.

Eloflex thread is quite strong and it expands with the fabric so seams on those fabrics I used don’t pop out when stretched. I haven’t had any breakage, despite giving it a sharp tug a few times, just to test it.

Stretch stitches of your sewing machine can be used with Eloflex also, by the way. It actually makes the seams even stronger and improves the recovery of the fabric after it was stretched.

But the Eloflex thread has some drawbacks,unfortunately. Read my review of this thread How to use Eloflex – an innovative stretchable sewing thread from Coats.

The straight stitch can be used for sewing stretch fabrics with other types of stretchy threads like wooly nylon thread which used mostly in sergers. But you can use this thread ONLY in bobbins. And in the needle, you should use just a regular all purpose sewing thread. 

If you would like to know more about stretch thread for sewing check out my tutorial at this link https://www.ageberry.com/stretch-thread-for-sewing/

Related Post: Stretch Thread for Sewing

Final Thoughts About Stretch Stitches on sewing machine

If you’ve never tried sewing stretchy fabrics, I hope that this tutorial on stretch stitches has given you the courage – and the knowledge – to grab some fabric scraps and play around with it. You could even use an old t-shirt. 

Mastering stretch stitches will open up a whole new world of possibilities when it comes to your sewing projects (and it’s really much easier than you may think)!

✅ Related tutorial: How to sew knit fabric | 23 expert tips for beginners

Did you find this tutorial helpful? If so, save this pin (see below) on your sewing board so you can come to this tutorial later when you are ready to use stretch stitches on your sewing machine, and follow me on Pinterest for more tips, tutorials, and inspiration!

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Tuesday 2nd of April 2024

Thank you for this info I am new to sewing and I had so many questions about the different stitches and their use I have saved this post for future reference Thank you

Olga Balasa

Wednesday 3rd of April 2024

Thank you; do not hesitate to contact me if you have questions!

Jojo Sewist

Saturday 5th of December 2020

Thank you for this informative/useful post. I have been going nuts trying to figure out which stretch stitch is which on my Singer Heavy Duty Scholastic machine. The manual has a tiny pic of the stitches, but doesn't give a name or decription of each stitch. Your explanation, descriotion, and pictures is great. How did you know I truly needed this, "yesterday"? A question Why are several of the overcasting stitches backwards--with the overcasting part ???stitching before the seamline? Are these actually used for some other purpose? Thank you for all your work helping me sew better. Jojo

Olga Balasa

Saturday 5th of December 2020

Thank you for your feedback! Great question. If you are referring to the overcasting stitch I describe in this tutorial (it's called "knit stitch") then I don't think it's going backward. That straight line on the left is not used for overcasting, it's used for stitching and making stretchy seams on knits, and the overcasting part of this stitch is not "closed" because it's not really necessary, knit fabrics don't fray easily (or at least most of them).

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