You’ll need some choice tips for sewing lightweight fabrics should you be interested in stitching a woven T-shirt (Cass or otherwise).
Lightweight fabrics are notorious for jamming up your sewing machine and being tough to control.
But, a breezy, lightweight woven tee is a delight to wear and hella chic — and definitely worth the occasional challenges offered by sewing thin fabric.
And, if you use these six tips for sewing lightweight fabrics, those challenges will seem a whole lot less, uh, challenging.
I compiled this advice while stitching the pictured woven V-neck Cass T-shirt in drapey rayon. (Check out the post about this garment’s “fabric donor” — a maxi dress from Target: From Skirt to Shirt: Woven V-Neck Cass T-Shirt Hack.)
Use these tips next time you are stitching with a lightweight woven fabric, including rayon challis, cotton voile, handkerchief linen, and silk crepe de chine.
Basically, if it’s a woven fabric that makes you say, “Dang, this feels really thin and hard to control,” the following one-through-six chestnuts will help you avoid pulling your hair out.
(P.S. A lot of this intel also applies to sewing lightweight knit fabrics, too. As always, test and see.)
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1.) Use a straight stitch presser foot.
A straight stitch presser foot is a presser foot with one small hole in it. The hole doesn’t allow the needle to move side to side; if you try a side-to-side stitch using a straight stitch presser foot, you’ll break a needle.
In other words, a straight stitch presser foot does not allow lateral movement.
Why does a straight stitch presser foot rule?
Because the straight stitch presser foot, with its tiny hole, doesn’t give your sewing machine, needle, fabric, thread, and bobbin thread the room to get all jammed together (into a bird’s nest). There’s only room for the needle to go up and down.
The straight stitch presser foot also has greater surface area on its posterior, thanks to the tiny hole for the needle to pass through. More surface area means that the foot has more contact with the fabric as it passes under the foot and the fabric is held flatter and with more tension, making it less likely to bunch up and contribute to a bird’s nest.
Now, confession time. I didn’t use a straight stitch foot on my Cass woven T-shirt… because I don’t have one!
Instead I used a quarter-inch quilt piecing foot. In case you didn’t know, quilts usually are sewn with quarter-inch seams and straight stitches. The quilt piecing foot has a tiny hole for the needle for straight stitches and a guide that’s a quarter-inch from the needle hole.
Short story long, use a presser foot with a tiny hole for the needle.
2.) Use spray starch.
Lightweight fabrics such as rayon are tricky buggers. They easily can shift away from you as you sew or twist out of shape.
One way to make these shifty textiles easier to handle is to hit them with a bit of spray starch as you press them.
I apply a VERY fine mist to the fabric surface I’m pressing, wait a few seconds for it to sink in and not be wet to the touch, and press with my iron. As always, use the appropriate temperature and steam settings for your fabric.
A little spritz of starch goes a long way toward giving lightweight fabrics more “grip” and body. And, it washes right out.
3.) Pull up the bobbin thread.
Make sure the presser foot is up. Before you sew a stitch, pull up the bobbin thread by dropping the needle and raising it again. Unwind 3-4 inches of upper and bobbin thread, and pull them off to the left under the presser foot (about 10 o’clock).
Place your fabric under the presser foot, and lower the foot. Hold both the upper and bobbin threads with your left hand, tugging with the barest of tension to remove slack.
Now, drop the needle and stitch forward (1-2) and backward (1-2) to lock the line of stitching. Drop the threads.
By holding the bobbin thread, you’re preventing the opportunity for it to get caught in a bird’s nest under the throat plate.
Pulling up the bobbin thread also is good for preventing bird’s nests when you have any combo that includes thick fabric or heavier-weight thread (e.g., topstitching thread).
Basically, if you’re getting jammed up at the beginning of a line of stitching, pull up the bobbin thread and hold it out of the way.
4.) Use the correct sewing machine needle for lightweight fabric.
When you’re sewing with a lightweight fabric, go for a 70/10 or 80/12 needle. Larger needles have a greater chance of jamming fabric and thread into a bird’s nest.
Yes, my mission in life is to avoid bird’s nests. Even one bird’s nest is too many.
5). Stay stitch curved edges.
Stay stitching is straight, long (4-5 mm) stitching inside the seam allowance of the curved edges of fabric pattern pieces. Stay stitching keeps curved edges from stretching out of shape.
Aaaannnndddd why do curved edges stretch? Because anytime you see a curve on a pattern piece, some part of that curve is on the bias, which is the stretchiest direction for a piece of fabric.
Picture this: You’ve got the grain (line) — up and down, parallel to the selvage, north and south, 12 and 6 o’clock. Then you’ve got the cross grain — right and left, perpendicular to the selvage, west and east, 9 and 3 o’clock.
ANY direction that’s not on grain or on cross grain is on the bias. True bias is 45 degrees from that grain-slash-cross-grain intersection.
When sewists talk about bias, they’re almost always talking about TRUE (45 degrees) bias. But, there’s more to bias than 45 degrees, which is why it’s important to stay stitch curved edges (e.g., neck opening, armhole, etc.) — especially curved edges of shifty, lightweight woven fabrics.
6.) Feel the hidden edge as you hem.
For this dress-turned-woven-V-neck-Cass tee, I did a veeeeery narrow sleeve and bottom hem, and I relied on my sense of touch to make sure all my stitches hit in the right place.
I think this is an elegant and tidy way to hem lightweight woven fabrics. It gives the edges a little bit more heft.
First I turned the raw edges to the inside with about a one-third to one-quarter inches allowance, gently setting this fold with a press from my iron.
Next I pinned the fold in place, wrong side up.
Then I sewed the fold in place, wrong side up.
Next I turned up the fold again, this time at the depth of the now stitched-down raw edge. The first fold is a perfect tactile marker for where to fold up the hem.
Then I pinned the fold in place, right side up.
Next I topstitched from the right side as close to the edge of the first fold as possible. This was where I REALLY used my fingers. I could feel the ridge of the first fold from the right side, and I kept the ridge in the middle of my left index finger.
Using my index finger as a visual guide, I moved my needle a little bit to the right so that it would stitch near the edge of the first fold.
Last, after I finished stitching the double-folded hem, I gave it final press to make it nice and sharp.
Stitching down another layer of fabric “blind” (where there’s a good chance of missing the lower layer), used to freak me out. Like, I wouldn’t do it, period. I’d baste the lower fabric in place and then topstitch (still a fine technique, but it’s time consuming).
But, with practice I built confidence, and I’ve come to trust my fingers when it comes to feeling the lower fabric and stitching it in place.
I do have a couple of additional hot tips when it comes to method, though:
1.) Make sure the first fold is the same depth across the entire allowance.
That way, when you fold up the second fold using the first fold as a guide, the second (more outward) fold has an even allowance that’s easy to sew “blind.” Because no one has fun sewing a wavy, uneven hem.
2.) Sew slowly.
You’re sewing something in place that you cannot see. Don’t rush, and take time to realign as necessary.
3.) Check your progress often.
To ensure you’re not missing the lower fabric, flip to the wrong side every few inches. More than likely you’ll feel it when you stitch off the lower fabric (because stitching through multiple layers feels different from stitching through a single layer).
OK, over to you, gentle reader: What is your No. 1 tip for sewing lightweight fabric? Please sound off in the comments. Thanks for reading.
P.S. Should you be interested in stitching a Cass tee for yourself, here’s what you need to know: Meet the Cass T-Shirt Pattern and Book of Hacks.
The short version is that Cass is a knit T-shirt pattern that can be hacked many, many, many ways. When you buy the pattern, you get instructions for FIVE hacks in an e-book. And, one of the hacks is converting this knit tee into a woven tee, ta-da!
There are a bunch of articles on this site that will help you make your best Cass:
Love all your sewing info – always find something to try out or remember for sewing.
Just another tip, besides a straight stitch presser foot I use a single hole throat plate. usually this is something you would have to order especially for your machine. Or you can cover the wide slot in the throat plate with painters tape. If you only use a straight stitch the tape will prevent the fabric from going down the throat plate hole. 😉 Ask me how I know!
OOOOOHHHH, Marcia, this is a REALLY good tip! Thanks for sharing, and thanks for reading.