Sewing Knits Without An Overlocker

Posted by: LLADYBIRD on 2:11 AM
I can't even tell you how many emails I get on a weekly basis with questions about sewing knits. From sewing on a regular sewing machine, to what types of fabrics work for which pattern, to just wanting a little pep talk before starting - seems like a lot of people are afraid of sewing knits! I've said it before, and I'll say it again - sewing knits is not hard, you guys. In fact, it's one of the easiest fabrics to manhandle because the nature of the stretch makes it very forgiving to fit.

I have written about this topic before, but today I thought I would address the one question that ends up in my inbox the most - sewing knits without an overlocker/serger, aka on a regular ol' sewing machine.

First of all, just know that it CAN be done. Yes, using a serger is awesome and quick and makes your insides look sooo pretty, but it's not omigod necessary to make wearable knit garments. As long you make sure to use the right tools and select the correct stitch, you've got this.
 If there's only one piece of knowledge that you take away from this post, make it this - be sure to use a proper needle when sewing knit fabric! Jersey ball point needles are necessary as they have a rounded point, thus enabling them to push the threads of the fabric aside when they are creating stitches. A standard needle with a sharp point means that the fabric is actually pierced, and can create lots of problems (mostly in the form of sad little holes. Wah!). Of course, you can occasionally get away with not changing your needle before sewing a knit - the thicker and more stable the fabric, the more forgiving it is when you skip over small details like needle type - but this is especially important if you are sewing a thin, drapey knit.

Also pictured above is another favorite of mine - the twin needle! Since I'm not lucky enough to have a coverstitch machine (someday...), I fake it with a double needle hem. This is a little different than just sewing two straight lines side by side - the bobbin forms a zigzag on the underside of the fabric, which allows the fabric to stretch. These needles are made in both standard sharps and ball point jersey - again, you will want to go with the ballpoints for this purpose.

There are a few stitches that are suitable for knits, each is good for different purposes.

1 is a basic straight stitch. This is the kind of stitch that must be used very sparingly - for attaching a pocket, or maybe topstitching a wide neckline. Since it doesn't stretch much, it's not a terribly good idea to use it for any part of a garment that needs that stretch.

2 is a basic zigzag. Personally, this is my favorite stitch to use with knits - it stretches nicely with the fabric, doesn't show on the outside, and it sews fairly fast since the needle just goes back and forth.

3 is a 3 step zigzag. This is the preferred stitch for adding elastic (often seen on lingerie), as it stretches and looks a bit nicer than the basic zigzag. The only thing I don't care for about the 3 step zigzag is that it takes longer to sew and uses a bit more thread, so I save it for times when I actually need the pretty (as opposed to just hiding it inside along the seams).

4 is a lightning bolt stitch. This is another stitch that people loove to use on their knits as it has a nice built-in stretch. I find this one tends to work better for very close-fitting knit garments, as the stitches are less likely to show on the outside when the fabric is pulled tight.

At the bottom of the swatch above (oops, forgot to number that one, derp) - see the overlocking in light blue? SURPRISE that's not overlocking- it's actually this fancy little mock-overlock stitch. This is one of those stitches that comes with newer machines (I use the term "newer" loosely - my back-up machine has this capability and it's now old enough to legally drink alcohol in the US ;)). It's good for finishing seams - both knit and woven - but I would not depend on it for constructing seams as it's not terribly strong.
Also, as much as it looks like an overlocked stitch, you can see here that they do differ slightly - the red edge is the one finished with an overlocker.

Here I've sewn the same 4 stitches on a lightweight jersey - the kind that's a bit more difficult to sew than the cotton knit in the first swatch.

Stretching the straight stitch basically means... well, nothing. It doesn't stretch at all beyond the length of the stitches. If you try to force it, the stitches will pop. This is why we don't sew knits on a straight stitch machine, kids.

Look at how far the fabric stretches with a zigzag stitch, though! No popped stitches, either!

Inevitably, someone always asks me if they can just construct their knits with that twin needle stitch. It makes sense - the stitch stretches, it's got a kinda sorta zigzag on the bottom, so why not?
Unfortunately, it's not very strong! See how much the stitches pull to the outside after they are stretched? It is a fine stitch for hemming purposes, but don't use it for anything that is going to get a lot of stress.

Alternately, look at the seam sewn with a zigzag stitch and then put to the stretch test. Can't see those stitches, can ya? :)

Whew, I think that's enough knit talk for today! I'll be back next week with more tips and talk!

Oops, and before I forget - we have two winners this week for the Made by You Contest! mshlewis1, who made a beautiful sleeveless Watson Jacket (and now I'm seeing pictures of an Undercover Hood with Cat Ears omggggg so cute I'm ripping that off thnx) and bysue who made a La Sylphide in pink jersey (blog is post here). Ladies, Katie will be getting in touch with you for your patterns :)

Thanks to everyone for all your contributions! It's been really fun seeing all your makes, and I'm loving all the comment suggestions :) I know a few people mentioned that they don't have access to Instagram and we are looking into it.