Ask Dana – No fear. How to sew with KNIT fabrics

by Dana on May 16, 2012

How many T-shirts do you own?  How bout your kids?
I’m pretty sure 75% of my wardrobe consists of knit tops and comfy shirts (no surprise if you remember this post).  We all LOVE knits!  They’re not fussy, they stretch, they’re so comfortable and unpretentious!(Warhol Dress ensemble)

But when it comes to sewing with knits….why are so many of us afraid of them?

In the words of Ferris,
A: You can never go too far.
B: If I’m gonna get busted, it is *not* gonna be by a guy like *that*.

Okay that doesn’t work.
How about: sewing should never be scary.  It’s an adventure.  And what’s the worse that can happen?  You ruin a $4 piece of fabric?  Totally worth it since next time around you’ll be more armed and more skilled to create what you originally had in mind.

Now I will say it’s hard to justify sewing a knit shirt for myself when there are so many cute ones at my retail fingertips, for under $10.  But I really love using thrifted mens/womens T-shirts to create new clothing for my kids.  It’s cheap, easy, and fast (like the little green dress).

So….let’s talk about knits.(little yellow swimsuit).

A while back Made by Rae did a series called The KNITerviews, where various sewers shared their thought and tips on sewing with knits.   If you haven’t checked them out, it’s really insightful to read through all of them to see where sewers agree and where they differ.  I was lucky to join in the banter as well.  And since I often receive emails asking about knit fabrics, sergers, etc….I thought I’d share the Q&A here.
So, here we go….
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QUESTION: Did you ever fear knits?

ANSWER: You know, not really.  I remember sewing with some stable knits (non-stretchy) back when I was a teenager to make simple tops.  So I think I’ve always just lumped knits in with all the other fabrics. It wasn’t until I started blogging/sharing projects that I often heard readers say, “I’m so scared to sew with knits!!  Do you have any pointers??!”  And I was kind of surprised….maybe because my approach to sewing is to just jump in and try something.  When a fabric catches my eye (especially if it’s a fiber I’ve never used before), I can’t wait to try it out and see what it does.  What’s the worse than can happen?  Your machine munches it up into a bazillion ruffles and you have to toss it in the can?  Yea, that kind of sucks.  But really it’s just fabric.    So go for it!  If you’re never sewn with knits, put aside any preconceived notions you’ve heard and try it!  Play naive.  Pretend no one’s told you “knits are scary” (cause they’re not).  Toss it under your machine and start sewing.

Okay, sorry for the pep talk.   I just think no one should be afraid of sewing.  Think of it more as an adventure.

QUESTION: What types of projects do you usually sew with knit fabric?
(ShortieSprinkle ShirtsHobo Sack90 min shirtRuched LeggingsErnie and Bert Shirts)

ANSWER: I love to use knits for kids’ shirts, lounging pants, blankets, small bags, bedding, leggings, dresses, blah, blah, blah.  And I always keep the scraps on-hand to use for T-shirt appliques.  You never know when you’ll need a smidgen of red for Ernie’s nose.

QUESTION: Do you prefer sewing with knits or sewing with wovens?

ANSWER: I love them both equally.  But since I prefer simple patterns on fabric, I’m often drawn to the stripes, dots, and solids that knits typically come in.  And sometimes I like to mix knits and wovens together.  If I had to break it into percentages though, I probably sew with knits 1/3 of the time and wovens 2/3 of the time.(knee pad pants)

QUESTION: Do you have a preference for sewing with a particular type of knit? (Jersey, Interlock, Fleece, Rib knit, etc)
ANSWER:
I really love all types of knits.  And….there’s an entire section in my new book—Fabrics A to Z—dedicated to knit fabrics, their properties, and tips for sewing with them:But here’s the cliff notes version:
Jersey (the standard t-shirt fabric) is used for my kid’s shirts and pants
Jersey with spandex has fantastic stretch and can be a bit slinky.  I used some for my beach cover-up last summer.(jersey beach dress)
Interlock is a bit thicker than Jersey and has less stretch but is great for blankets and lightweight jackets/cardigans
Fleece can be used for so many things…blankets, vests, jackets, pillows, scarves, hats, embellishments.  I love fleece.(fleece vestfleece jackets)
Ribbing is used for the cuffs and collars on my kids shirts.  I always love to have a variety of colors on-hand so whenever it’s on sale at the store I buy a 1/2 yard of my favorite shades
Lycra/Spandex is wonderful for swimsuits. And though you might think it sounds scary…just go for it!  The first time I made a swimsuit I sort of made it up as I went.  And it was really fun!(otter pop dots suit)
QUESTION: Where do you buy knits?
ANSWER: I buy knits in a variety of places:
Thrift Shops and Clearance sections: T-shirts from the thrift shop are a fantastic place to find cool prints for kid’s projects.  Also check the clearance rack at retail shops like Target, Old Navy, etc.  Often size XXL T-shirts are left-over and give you plenty of fabric to work with.
Large fabric retail sotres: Joanns, Hobby Lobby, etc often have a decent selection of solid interlocks and some jerseys (little by little they’re getting more)
Online stores: Harts fabric, fabric.com and other large shops carry some knits
LA fabric district: This is where I’ve found the most inexpensive place and interesting looking knits.  The Michael Levine store and the FIDM scholarship shop have a good selection and I love being able to touch/see the fabrics before buying/  Check out my detailed post about fabric shopping and the LA fabric district here.
Swimsuit Fabric: Spandex World is an online shop with tons of options.(Goodnight Moon jammies and story)
QUESTION:What brand/model machine do you use primarily when you sew with knits?  Do you recommend it?
ANSWER: I use a Bernina sewing machine and serger.  My machine is nothing fancy, in fact it’s not even digital!  But it’s sturdy, all-metal, and a good workhorse.  In my opinion all you really need when it comes to sewing (unless you’re into quilting and embroidery) is a standard stitch, zigzag stitch, and button hole options. Having a nice, sturdy machine also helps when sewing with knits and other fabrics which is why is why I love my heavy, all-metal Bernina.

QUESTION: Do you use a serger?  Do you use it more/less/same as your machine when it comes to sewing knits?
ANSWER: Yes, but mostly to finish off the edges of my projects. I actually sew my knit projects with a standard machine.  People often ask why I don’t sew exclusively with the serger and skip the machine step all together.  The reasoning is this….
When you sew with a serger, the results are pretty final.  There’s a small knife in the machine that cuts and trims the edge of the fabric as you go.  So if you make a mistake, A) it’s much harder to pick out an overlock stitch (which uses 3-4 threads) and B) once the fabric edge is cut, there’s no going back or letting out the fabric.  So I like to sew with my standard machine first–even for knits!–and when I have the project where I’d like it, I serge off the edges for a nice, polished look.
You see, you don’t even need a serger to get started with knits…especially since the edges of the fabric won’t fray or look messy.  However….

For good recommendation on sergers, check out this and this.

(baby boy gift set)

QUESTION: Do you have a “default setting” that you use when you’re sewing with knits?

ANSWER:  Not really.  Again, I’m a fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants sewer.  I’m supposed to tell you fancy things like use a ball needle or a walking foot but I don’t do either.  I just sew with a normal needle, normal sewing machine, standard foot, and get going.  And it works!  MY BEST ADVICE though for sewing with knits is NOT to tug on the fabric as you go.  Let the fabric feed itself through the machine.  If you tug it, the fabric will stretch and pucker (unless that’s the look you’re going for).  When using knits as applique (such as the ernie shirt or leaf pillows or knee pads), sew slowly and stop every so often to lift the presser foot and allow the fabric underneath to relax and bounce back in place.  If you try to sew a circle of knit in one big swoop you’ll end up with a wonky looking project.(little entrepreneur tank)

QUESTION: Do you use a walking foot?
ANSWER: Don’t have one, never used one.  I hear good things about them.  But I’m just simple….get a solid machine with the basics and start sewing.

QUESTION: Do you use a double needle?
ANSWER: I have one; I’ve never used it (because I hate taking extra steps to do stuff).  But I do LOVE the look of a double needle stitch–it looks professional, like retail clothing.  So, I just fake it.  When finishing off hems on pants and shirts, I sew my first line of the hem then I line the presser foot up about 1/4/ inch over from the first line and sew a second line.  It’s fast; it works.(Kid pants with lining)
Most of all.   Just have fun.(Big sweater to little sweater)
Now go tackle some knits!
Check out other ASK DANA questions HERE.
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{ 37 comments… read them below or add one }

1 pam May 16, 2012 at 2:35 pm

Dana, I love your comment about not using a double needle because you hate taking extra steps. I’m so like that–except for certain things. And a double needle is one of them. I love how a double needle sews up hems on knits!! You should try it someday……

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2 Ruby May 16, 2012 at 2:39 pm

Great advice as always!

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3 Jenny May 16, 2012 at 2:54 pm

Dana, I never thought to make drawstring bags with knit, but it’s so cute, and such a great idea. I’ve been reading you forever — why did I never catch the knit hobo sack pic??

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4 Tessa May 16, 2012 at 3:08 pm

I love knits, especially for kid clothes! My son is 5, and this summer is going to be all about knit shorts and shirts for all the outside play he’s going to be doing. (As long as this summer isn’t as hot as the last, says this Austinite) My big tackle this year will be PJs like your Goodnight Moon Jammies. My son loves PJs like those, but for some reason I haven’t made him any yet.

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5 Rosa May 16, 2012 at 3:57 pm

Hi Dana! Love your blog, have been following for a while now, but never commented before.. I just have to say that picking out an overlock stitch is not hard at all, you just have to pull out the right thread and it all unfolds nicely ;) I actually tend to find it easier than picking out normal stitches! :)

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6 Pippa @ Beads and Barnacles May 16, 2012 at 4:32 pm

Love it, just got a serger as a hand me down from my mum, but have been sewing knits from the beginning on my standard machine.
I do have to say I use my double needle almost as much as I do a standard one, but when dealing with dance wear I need the extra stretch that it supplies.
x

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7 allison May 16, 2012 at 5:44 pm

Perfect! Thank you for posting this. I’ve have knits on my mind for a while and have slightly stayed away from them ever since I went wild and tried to sew something and it turned out disastrous. I’m excited to start again since I’ve got big plans for the future.

I also am shocked to see you don’t have a ball needle or a walking foot. In my research everyone said to have those. But I’m much prefer to just go for it. much more my style.

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8 Jessica May 16, 2012 at 6:35 pm

I read this when the first time around, when she did the KNITerviews, and this: “When a fabric catches my eye (especially if it’s a fiber I’ve never used before), I can’t wait to try it out and see what it does. What’s the worse than can happen?” struck my profound bone, for lack of a better phrase. I felt liberated from perfectionism. I mean, this *is* supposed to be fun – right? :)

Quick question: I want to try to make my son (20 mos.) a rash guard. Have you ever made a rash guard style shirt for your kiddos? I was going to poke around in your posts on swimsuits to see if you have insight for working with those sorts of materials.

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9 Katie May 16, 2012 at 7:12 pm

I love my boys, but your pictures always make me wish I had a little girl to sew for.

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10 Shannon May 16, 2012 at 7:19 pm

I was just thinking how I was a bit tentative about sewing with knits but I have a little bit of the “fly by the seat of my pants” in me too (so freeing right?) and just jumped in the other day with a cute snoopy shirt that didn’t fit. Now I have a snoopy dress for the littlest girl! (gonna blog about it soon). Thanks for the inspiration! I love your site!

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11 Laura May 16, 2012 at 7:34 pm

Do you use a special foot to sew your bias tape on? i tried to make a shirt for my son using old tees and it looked so sloppy. Do you think an overedge foot is good enough if you don’t have a serger? This post was really helpful. I myself am a fly by the seat of my pants sewer, I like to jump right in and experiment with things. But I have held off with knits because of the stretch factor. Thanks for the advise!

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12 Janelle May 16, 2012 at 8:38 pm

I had never heard of Harts.com so I thought I’d check it out. It’s not a fabric shop! Nor are hart.com, heart.com, or hearts.com. What site is it that I don’t know yet?!?! :P
Just this afternoon I made myself a second maxi skirt of knit. I made one a few weeks ago and LOVE it. The first one didnt’ even need to be hemmed. This second one the fabric rolls at the edges so I hemmed it. I did get a double needle to use. I’ve always done my own false double needle thing like you mentioned. I LOVED the double needle though because it allows some stretch in the fabric without popping seams! That’s the one reason I haven’t done a lot of knit work before — I hate to hear the seam pop when the fabric gets stretched. Problem solved just by using the double needle! I do have a serger, but I’m a shortcuts kind of girl ;) and we’ve been fighting lately so I didn’t want to deal with it. Yay for raw edges!

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13 Dana May 16, 2012 at 11:16 pm

Sorry about that link! (I just fixed it in the post).
Here’s the harts fabric shop:
http://www.hartsfabric.com/

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14 Leigh Anne May 16, 2012 at 10:06 pm

Great info! Love all the encouragement :)
I have an “Ask Dana” question: When you see a fabric you love, but don’t know exactly what you are going to do with it (just want it for your stash), how much do you usually buy??
Thanks for all the great tips!

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15 Amanda May 16, 2012 at 10:13 pm

Switching to a walking foot made me finally enjoy sewing. I dreaded it, especially with knits, until I discovered those. I’m going to go out on a limb here and assume that you are either that advanced of a sewist, or have a machine that handles knits really well, or both, because I don’t think there are many people that could have stitched a knit top through my old Singer without a ton of frustration. I have a wonderful Pfaff now, so my problems are solved, but I’d seriously recommend a good quality walking foot anyone that sews frequently.

Also, walking feet are great for working with laminated fabrics and vinyls. I know you have shared some tips on here, but you don’t have to do anything special with a walking foot and those fabrics in my experience.

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16 Dana May 16, 2012 at 11:16 pm

great tips and review! Thanks for sharing Amanda and I agree….a good quality machine does make a difference. I know my Bernina is doing most of the work for me :)

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17 Angela May 17, 2012 at 8:45 am

Amanda-
I just bought a Pfaff and have not been thrilled with the IDT for sewing knits. (I had a walking foot for my old Singer). Can you get a walking foot for a Pfaff?

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18 Linda November 20, 2013 at 7:44 pm

I got a walking foot for my Pfaff. It is an older machine (about 18 years) but I just searched the model type and found one online for about $20. So, yes, you can get a walking foot for a Pfaff.

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19 EMILY May 17, 2012 at 3:45 am

Hi! I’ve been meaning to ask this for awhile.. everytime you do an ASK DANA post I think of it. Not sure if this is where I should be asking… but…
What do you use to make your patterns? (the pants pattern) How did you get it printed not just hand drawn? All my patterns are just hand drawn and even when I try to get the lines perfect… they just aren’t. Is it a computer program? Thanks!

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20 Holly May 17, 2012 at 9:21 am

Dana, your posts are always so timely for the projects I’m working on. I am getting ready to start making a Moby and I’m using a stretch knit. I’ve been a little nervous for some reason, and you totally reassured me. Thanks for fabulous hints and a dose of courage, as always!

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21 Cindy May 17, 2012 at 1:14 pm

1. aWESOME for quoting Ferris. Grade A on that!
2. I have still yet to find out if my machine can hold a dble needle! I want to get on sewing knits, especially your legging patterns.

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22 partycraftsecrets May 18, 2012 at 12:41 am

time to invest i think… the old clunker’s got to go… nostalgia not wisthstaning it’s never gonna get me to where I’m dreaming! beautiful blog!

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23 Crystal May 22, 2012 at 5:00 pm

Hi dana. I’ve been reading your blog for about two months now. Thank you for posting this. I’ve been wanting to get into knits for a while now – but, like many others – I was afraid!! I am looking into getting a serger as well and appricate the links you provided. I picked up some knit clothing at a yard sale and can’t wait to get started. (soon as I get my bernina back from the shop from her yearly check up). I can’t wait to get your book! I’ve been trying to find a book like it for so long! I’ve got it in my amazon cart right now – soon as I figure out which serger to get, I’ll buy the book! I really appreciate all you do. I have a son – 5 and a girl – 1. I think – if Dana can find the time to do all that she does – I can make time for myself to sew! And I do!!!

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24 Paula Laird June 24, 2012 at 1:46 pm

I so love this! You’re blog always makes me feel better about stuff! I’m nervous with knits and thought I needed special stuff – I even bought a “universal” walking foot that just does. not. fit. on my machine! And I always sew by the seat of my pants. You are awesome! Thanks bunches. :)

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25 EmmyA November 12, 2012 at 4:21 pm

I sew with knit (aka old t-shirts) a lot. I didn’t realize people were scared until I started looking for tutorials. Knits aren’t scary, just stretchy! :) There is one part that I am not sure about, though. Hemming. I have the most basic of basic machines and no kind of stretch stitch. Do you hem your shirts, sleeves, etc. with just a regular straight stitch? What about hemming your leggings? I don’t want to be tied down to using an existing hem because I’m nervous about a hem with no “give.” Help!

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26 laurie November 13, 2012 at 11:12 am

Gorgeous eye candy

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27 sharyn hood February 5, 2013 at 10:25 pm

Thank you SO much for plain ole’ practical advice (which I will use!).

God Bless,
sharyn hood

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28 Tiffiny Felix February 10, 2013 at 12:47 am

I’ve tried sewing on knit and it was a disaster, all weird and puckered in places. Do you stretch your fabric as you sew?

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29 Nicole February 11, 2013 at 4:30 pm

Thanks for the awesome advice. I’m always inspired by your beautiful, yet simple creations. I finally attempted sewing w/ knits. Just a re-purpose, but still, a great experience. Thanks for the courage!
http://www.handmaderules.com/2013/02/10/boys-and-ballet/

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30 Van February 19, 2013 at 5:55 pm

Thank you for this very thorough post! I learned so much, and personally love to work with knits.

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31 Missy April 13, 2013 at 4:40 pm

I have just started sewing with jersey knits….love your info!

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32 Ouisa April 28, 2013 at 8:56 am

I haven’t even read your blog yet, but you had me sold at the Ferris Bueller quote. I am confident now, because of your excellent taste in movies, that your blog will prove to be most helpful.
No I’m not being sarcastic. I’m totally coming back here. <3
Love and Best Wishes,
Ouisa

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33 Margaret E Laverdure February 12, 2014 at 7:34 pm

Hi Dana
Just looking for enfo on adding a 2nd colar to a sweet shirt please help
Margaret

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34 Jill Koch April 4, 2014 at 3:41 am

Brilliant advice!

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35 Carolyn Langley April 18, 2014 at 11:42 am

I need to cut a rib knit waistband and serge it. However, how do I avoid the “ruffle” effect? I want it to be smooth. Thanks for your advice!

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36 Ramona Crabtree May 9, 2014 at 5:32 pm

Hi Dana,

My granddaughter wants me to make her daughter a maxi skirt, using cotton fabric, and attach it to a knit tank top. How can I keep the knit tank from stretching? How is the easiest way to do this?
Thanks,
Ramona

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37 Ramona Crabtree May 10, 2014 at 9:16 am

Please help! I read some comments, but still don’t understand, if the tank top will stretch or if the skirt from cotton will make it harder to get on??

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