Let’s talk tricky knits….you know, the slinky, the diablo, the jersey that curls at the edges, lightweight t-shirt jersey, viscose jerseys….. All those ones that make you either want to run away and hide and never use them; or make you swear a lot whilst you’re sewing with them!
But never fear, we are going to give you our Top 10 Tips to help you sew with these nightmare fabrics (you can do it!). And the best thing is that these are all tips for sewing on a regular sewing machine!
We know an overlocker can make sewing knits a whole lot easier but not everyone has one.
So, here we go….
Number 1 – Match your pattern to your fabric
This one might seem really simple but a lot of people don’t think about it. If you have got a fabric that is particularly difficult to work with – if it’s really slinky, drapey, and fluid; if it’s going to constantly fall away from your machine and stretch – then don’t use that fabric to sew a complex pattern. You want to be looking for a pattern that has as few seams and details as possible. Try to avoid things like darts and unnecessary construction seams. The fewer seams that you have to sew – the easier it’s going to be with that fabric.
If you’ve got a pattern that you love and you want to make it out of jersey but it’s quite complex, that’s when you might pick a more stable jersey. Pick something like cotton spandex, interlock, or a Ponte Roma. Something that’s going to make it really easy for you to get those details just right and finish to a high standard!
It may be useful to check out our Youtube series ‘Guide to Fabrics’ and we have a dedicated video on knits, check it out here.
Number 2 – Use a rotary cutter and pattern weights
Trying to cut these tricky knits with scissors is just not great. Your edges will end up looking like the dog’s been at it! Use your rotary cutter and you’ll get a much cleaner cut and greater accuracy. You’ll have that nice clean edge and, because jersey fabric doesn’t fray, you don’t even need to hem it if you don’t want to! There are lots of brands who are doing raw edge jersey top and dresses, and if they’re doing it you’re allowed to do it!! So, why not try it? Leave your hems raw and just sew as little as possible.
It’s also a good idea to make sure you have a new blade in your cutter, especially if it’s a tricky knits fabric. Rotary cutters can really struggle to cut through elastane fibers if they’re not really sharp so get a fresh blade in before you even start.
We like to use lots of pattern weights, and once we’ve gone around the pattern, peel away the extra fabric away from the outside before trying to move pattern piece. It just keeps your piece completely flat and you can make sure that if you’ve missed any bits you can go back over them.
We love our pattern weights from Foxglove & Field and use them regularly. They are handmade and you can choose a set that suits your own style.
Number 3 – Use starch for curling edges
Now, you know what we mean, don’t you? Those edges that the second you cut them, especially if you give it any kind of a stretch at all, it starts to curl up on you. You know at that moment that this one is gonna be an especially tricky knit!!
All that time spent trying to uncurl the edge of your tricky knit, just to sew a basic seam! And when you’ve got them both curling in opposite directions and you’re trying to get them flat just so that you can pin. Never mind trying to get them under the foot and get them sewn!!
So, our top tip is to use some starch. You don’t need to starch the whole piece, just starch the areas that you’re sewing. Spray a little starch, iron them, and then you should be able to treat them like a more stable knit. And the starch will just wash out – in fact, you can scrunch it and it will start to loosen up a little bit.
You can find starch in any supermarket, usually in the laundry aisle but you can also make your own. There are lots of different recipes for making your own but here is one from Bren Did.
Number 4 – Use fine pins
Once you’ve cut it and you’ve starched your edges, you’re then going to start pinning the pieces together. Now ordinary pins, even flower head quilting pins, will fall out of the really tricky knits so you need to get some finer pins. We like the Etymology Pins by Merchant & Mills but there are other ones out there. The reason we love the entomology pins is that they are made from enamel which seems to have more of a grip.
If you don’t have fine pins and you really are struggling, you can always tack it by hand. If you are working with something really tricky and you want it to be perfect, hand tacking the seam first means you don’t have to worry about it.
Number 5 – Use the right size needle
Now we know that if you are sewing with knits, you need a ballpoint or a stretch needle. Everybody knows that, right?! But, what you might not realise is that the size of the needle is relative to the weight of the fabric. Just like with hand sewing you choose your needle size based on the size of the thread, the size of the stitches you want to do and the weight of the fabric. Its the same with your machine needles – so the thinner or lighter or slinkier the fabric, the thinner the needle that you will want to use. To give you an idea, Prym jersey needles come in a pack with 70s, 80s and 90s.
- 70s are perfect for diablo, slinky and really thin viscose jerseys
- 80s are perfect for standard viscose jerseys or t-shirt jerseys that are really light weight
- 90s are great for ponte roma or scuba, things that are a little bit more stable and easy to sew
So, if you’ve got jersey ballpoint needles in your stash but they’re all 90s, then you should definitely invest in some 70s or 80s because they’re definitely better for the lighter trickier fabrics!
Number 6 – Use a walking foot or dual feed foot
The walking foot, or dual feed foot as it’s sometimes called, tends to be associated with quilters but it is also great for any kind of tricky knits fabric. It moves the fabric through with much more control and prevents the two layers moving at different speeds. This will stop if from gathering or stretching as it moves through the machine.
A branded walking foot will cost about £30-40 but it is such a good investment (and there are generic ones out there for as little as £10!).
Number 7 – Try some fusible stretch interfacing strips
Vilene have now released a product that is knit interfacing cut into thin strips on a roll, but we have always made our own. Often we’ll just buy a metre of knit interfacing and then slash it into long 1″ strips. We also like to cut them two different ways so we have some that stretch and some that don’t stretch.
The non-stretch ones are great for using as stay tape. Let’s say you want to stabilize some shoulders in a jersey top that you’re making – you don’t want that area to stretch, the whole point of stay tape is to stop it from stretching – that’s where you’d use the non-stretch pieces. But the fact that it’s still a stretch interfacing and can stretch the other way means it will still allow movement in the top as you’re wearing it.
If you’re just sewing a standard seam or you’re trying to hem a curly edge, then you can use the stretchy strips to stabilize your edges.
Another option if you don’t want the hassle of cutting strips is to use a wash-away tape, such as Wonder Tape. It’s a double-sided sticky tape that can stabilize your edges. It’s just brilliant for hems but you could also use it to stick seams together before you sew them. The best thing is it disintegrates when you wash it, perfect!
Number 8 – Hold onto your tails
This one is a simple little trick that can make a big difference! If you’ve ever had your machine eat your jersey during those first few stitches, this will stop that from happening.
What you need to do is make sure your needle is down and then grab the tails of your thread from your needle and your bobbin. Hold them out quite strongly at the back and then pull them as you start your stitching. It will usually stop the machine from eating it and once you’re out of the danger zone, you can let go of the tails and continue sewing as normal.
If that doesn’t work, tissue paper is another option. Keep a couple of little squares of tissue paper handy, just a couple of inches is fine because it’s just those first few stitches with your tricky knits that you’re trying to get the machine past before it’s in a more stable position. Pop the tissue paper under that tricky knit fabric for the first few stitches, and then tear it away once you’re done.
Number 9 – Adjust your presser foot pressure
Sometimes when you’re sewing a particularly tricky fabric it will start stretching as you sew and you end up with a ripply edge. Now that is to do with the presser foot pressure (you always have to say that slowly because its such a tongue twister!). You can alter the presser foot pressure on more machines than we realised, so check your manual and there’s probably a screw that’s towards the back or the side that you can use to adjust the presser foot pressure.
Your manual will tell you whether to turn it clockwise or anticlockwise, but if you can ease up on that pressure just a little bit it just means that the foot is not clamping quite so hard against the feed dogs. This should reduce the stretching it as it goes through the machine.
Number 10 – Adjust your tension
We don’t normally advise anyone to fiddle with their tension as it’s usually best left at the default setting. But if your stitches are coming through quite tight, or they are puckering or gathering, it might mean you need to make a small adjustment for that fabric. We would only recommend you move it down by one number at a time and then have a little test (so if your standard is 4, reduce it to 3).
The other thing that can cause that gathering sometimes on knit fabrics is the thread. Make sure it’s a polyester thread as it has got some give in it (you can even switch to a nylon thread which will have even more give in it) but trying to sew with cotton thread on a jersey will often mean your stitches are too tight and that’s when you get that gathering or snapping threads.
As a general rule with all of these tricky fabrics, you should always test on some scraps because then you can figure everything out before moving onto your project. And obviously make sure they are scraps of the same fabric as they are all slightly different.
So that’s it, that’s our Top 10 Tips for tricky knits!
We’ve tried to take you right through from getting your fabric out of the stash, picking your pattern, all the way through cutting, pinning, sewing, and solving any problems. We hope it helps make your tricky knits projects more successful!
Remember that all of our online classes are there to help you improve and enjoy your sewing skills. They are all still currently reduced in price so make sure you check them out today.
Thanks for stopping by!
Rachel & Nikki x