If you’ve ever struggled with sewing stretchy fabric on a sewing machine, this article is for you.
Sewing stretchy fabric does not have to be a dramatic — or traumatic — experience.
You ABSOLUTELY can make fab knit garments with your sewing machine, once you’ve practiced a few stretch stitches and techniques and rounded up the right notions.
I swear, you don’t need a serger to stitch knits.
If you stick around till the end of this article, I promise you’ll have enough information to successfully sew stretch fabric.
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TABLE OF CONTENTS
3 Reasons to Sew Stretchy Fabric
IMO, the No. 1 reason you should sew stretchy fabric is because it’s F-U-N to wear stretchy fabric. Fabric with stretch (chiefly knit fabric) moves with your body and molds to it without (much) tailoring or fitting.
Knits allow for easy expansion and compression that woven fabrics do not allow.
What’s more, you can find sewing beginner friendly versions of following easy-wearing knit garments:
- T-shirts (and tops of all kinds)
I don’t know about you, but on any given day, there’s about a 90 percent chance that I’m wearing at least one visible knit garment. (I mean, every day I’m wearing knit undies, so I guess I’m always wearing knit fabric.)
Other fun reasons to sew knits include:
2.) Less/No Seam Finishing
Many (most?) knits don’t ravel or fray, which means you don’t *have* to finish their raw edges. (Psst… this means that your hems won’t fray, either! Viva raw hems!)
3.) Easier to Fit
Because they S-T-R-E-T-CH, stretchy knit fabrics accommodate body volume with greater ease than woven fabrics. To get non-stretchy fabrics to hug curves, you need darts. No darts are necessary for most (many) knits.
Can I Sew Knits with a Sewing Machine?
Heck yes, you can sew stretchy fabric with a sewing machine! You need to know a few techniques that are different from sewing woven fabric, but, as it is with learning any new skill, practice makes progress.
Once you get over the knit-sewing learning curve, you’ll wonder why you even were nervous about sewing knits with a sewing machine.
One of the things that makes people insist that you get a serger (overlocker) for sewing knits is that sergers are very, very good at creating stretchy seams, especially strong stretchy seams. That’s because of two factors:
- Serger stitches go back and forth, where most stretch happens in a garment. Knit clothes usually expand AROUND your body more vs. expanding UP AND DOWN your body.
- Serger stitches — specifically overlock stitches, the kind you see inside RTW knit clothes — are created with 3-4 threads. Seams created with 3-4 threads will be stronger than seams created with two threads.
Today’s home sewing machines also can make back-and-forth stitches.
But, unlike a serger, sewing machines’ back-and-forth stitches — zig-zag, “lightning,” 3-step zig-zag, etc. (anything that moves the needle laterally) — are made with two threads.
Lateral stitches have more give vs. straight stitches when a fabric is being stretched side to side.
More give = No/fewer popped stitches = seams that stay together = garments that don’t fall apart.
The other major reason people believe sergers are better for stretchy fabric vs. sewing machines is that sergers have a differential feed.
Differential feed lets sewists adjust how fast a serger’s bottom feed dogs move.
Sometimes it’s good to use a fast differential feed when sewing SUPER stretchy fabric. Fast bottom feed dogs quickly push stretchy fabric under the presser foot, minimizing its opportunity to stretch out.
You also can slow down the differential feed to intentionally stretch a fabric. This is how you make a wavy “lettuce” edge finish.
Differential feed is (really) nice, but I don’t think it’s necessary to sew knit clothes. Patience with your sewing machine also will get the job done.
RELATED: 33 Knit Fabric Examples for (Almost) Every Sewing Project
Types of Stretch Fabrics
I’m not going to get too in the weeds here about types of stretch fabrics, because there’s an entire article on how to choose a knit fabric.
At a high level, there are knit fabrics, whose yarns are looped together, and there are woven fabrics with spandex, a synthetic fiber with elastic properties.
To make things even more confusing (LOL), spandex is sometimes mixed with knit fabric, too, making it even stretchier and giving it better recovery.
In my experience, when people (sewists and non-sewists) talk about “stretch fabric,” they’re talking about knits. So, this article will take that interpretation.
All About Knit Fabrics (Condensed Version)
Knit fabric can be made out of pretty much any fiber, synthetic or natural:
And many, many, many more!
Knits can come in any fabric weight, too, from a lightweight rayon jersey to a heavyweight Ponte di Roma.
Knits can be knitted on the grain (warp — parallel to selvage) or on the cross grain (weft — perpendicular to selvage). Weft knits are stretchier than warp knits.
And, as long as we’re chatting broadly about knit fabric, the most-common knit you’ll see for garments is single-knit jersey, aka, jersey or [fiber name, e.g., cotton, rayon] jersey. This is T-shirt fabric. It has little V’s on the right side (knit stitches) and little arches (purl stitches) on the wrong side.
As you become a more accomplished sewist, you’ll come to have your favorite (and least-favorite) types of knit fabrics and fibers.
If you choose the recommended knit fabric for your pattern, you’re going to be fine. Don’t start breaking the rules until you’ve learned them!
RELATED: 28 Jersey Fabric Patterns You Can Sew in an Afternoon
Which Knits are Good for Beginners?
I enthusiastically recommend that knit-sewing newbies start with double knits, specifically Ponte di Roma.
Double knits are two layers of fabric knitted together. Both sides are the “right” side with knit stitches.
Double knits are more stable than their single-knit counterparts, and the edges of double knits don’t roll to the right side… because there is no right side! (Blows my mind a little, TBH.)
Ponte di Roma, sometimes called ponte, is a stable bottomweight knit. It’s the knit that sews like a woven, making it perfect for beginners.
Ponte is often used for woven-look knit pants, skirts, and lighter jackets. I hope this helps you get a picture in your head of ponte.
Other double knits that could be friendly for beginners include scuba, interlock, and matte jersey.
Should you be in the mood, check out this article about the easiest sewing patterns for easy fabrics to sew.
Knit Fabric Stretch Percentage and Direction
Another critical knit fabric characteristic is stretch percentage and stretch direction.
Stretch direction is talked about as two-way or four-way (also called all-ways). Two-way stretch is almost always stretch from side to side. Four-way stretch is stretch in all ways — up and down and side to side.
Stretch percentage is how much a fabric expands in one direction (usually side to side). Stretch percentage starts by stretching a fabric to its most comfortable maximum.
Then you divide the difference between the original length and stretched length by the original length.
It looks like this:
(Stretched Length – Original Length) ÷ Original Length = Stretch Percentage
For example, a 3-inch piece of fabric that can stretch to 4 inches has 33 percent stretch.
Knit sewing patterns will tell you how much stretch (and in which directions) a fabric must have to work for the project. There’s usually a smart little ruler for you to stretch your fabric against.
Sewing Notions for Sewing Stretchy Fabric
As you might have guessed, you need *slightly* different sewing notions for sewing knits. Here’s what you need in your sewing supplies before you start stitching stretchy stuff with your sewing machine.
One notion is a must-have; two notions are nice-to-have’s.
1.) MUST: Ball Point or Stretch Needles
You’re going to go to Joann or shop online and find that there are ballpoint needles and stretch needles. And you’re going to say, “What gives? Which one should I use?”
Regular needles pierce fabric, creating a puncture in the textile. Ballpoint and stretch needles glide past the yarns of a knit fabric, keeping them intact.
In my experience, there’s very little difference between ballpoint/jersey and stretch needles. They both have ballpoint tips.
The Schmetz needle guide says that stretch needles are for “elastic materials and highly elastic knitwear.” Jersey needles are for “knits and some stretch fabrics; made especially for sewing on knits.”
This image from Wikipedia shows that stretch needles are slightly pointier than jersey needles.
As for sizes, this is what I do:
- Size 70/10 or 75/11: Lightweight knits — rayon jersey, ITY (think slinky)
- Size 80/12: Medium-weight knits — cotton T-shirt jersey
- Size 90/14: Heavyweight knits — Ponte di Roma, scuba
You can go smaller or larger, too, but for 95 percent of what you’d sew at your home, these needle sizes will work great.
Always experiment with needle-stretch stitch combos on scrap fabric — two layers to mimic a seam! — before working on your garment for real. Test and see!
What happens if you don’t use ballpoint or stretch needles when sewing knits? I can almost guarantee that if you use a regular needle you’ll have skipped stitches and general sewing headaches.
2.) OPTIONAL: Woolly Nylon Thread
Woolly nylon thread is fuzzy, fluffy, and stretchy. I like to use it in my bobbin to give my stitches a little more, um, give.
To preserve its stretchy properties, you have to wind it on a bobbin by hand. The button-winder function on your sewing machine will wind it too tight.
Wind it firmly — it shouldn’t slip off — but don’t overstretch it.
3.) OPTIONAL: Walking Presser Foot
A walking presser foot, also called a dual feed or even feed foot, has its own set of feed dogs. With a walking foot, fabric is fed evenly under the needle between two sets of feed dogs vs. just one set of (lower) feed dogs.
Walking feet are primarily used by quilters to keep layers and layers of fabric aligned. (Perfect intersections, hello!)
A walking foot kinda acts like differential feed for your sewing machine. Because the fabric layers move at the same speed, they’re less likely to get stretched out.
But, there are a few things I don’t like about walking presser feet:
- They’re expensive. They’re not likely to come with a domestic sewing machine. I think my Baby Lock foot was about $50.
- They’re a pain to install. You have to remove the presser foot holder from the presser foot bar, screw the walking foot to the presser foot bar, and place the walking foot lever on the needle clamp screw. As you can imagine, there’s a learning curve to installation.
- They’re made for slow sewing. For best results, you have to hold back on the speed when sewing with a walking foot. Sewing too fast prevents the foot from working smoothly. Oh yeah — you’re not supposed to backstitch with this foot, either.
In conclusion, a walking foot works great for sewing stretchy fabric, but it’s not without its drawbacks.
RELATED: All About Getting a New Serger: Beginner Serger Supplies and More
Sewing Stretchy Fabric Step-by-Step
We’re starting from the point that you have brought knit fabric into your home and want to get cracking on a project immediately.
1.) Wash and Press.
Launder the fabric the way you intend to launder the future garment — with one exception.
If your fabric has spandex/lycra/elastane, skip the dryer (or do a cool-ish drying cycle). Heat breaks down spandex.
If the fabric yardage is particularly wrinkly, give it enough of a press so that it’s easy to cut. (Don’t do yourself dirty by cutting wrinkly fabric!)
Again, if the fabric has spandex, back off on the heat when you’re ironing.
Finally, lay your fabric on a table, making sure no parts of it hang off or are stretched, and walk away.
Your fabric needs to rest a bit to get back into shape. Even if you were super gentle with laundering and pressing, knit fabrics, because of their looped structure, stretch out.
I think a few hours rest probably would be fine. I usually leave knit yardage to be cut sit overnight.
The first thing you have to do when cutting fabric is find its grain.
To find the grain of a knit fabric, fold it in half the long way, selvages touching.
Shift the selvages, back and forth, until there are no wrinkles pointing to the fold. You can kind of feel when you’ve worked out the twist.
PLEASE take time to find the correct grain line, otherwise you’ll end up with a garment that twists as you wear it; no bueno.
For example, I have a pair of RTW sweatpants that were cut off grain, and the inseam always migrates to the front of my leg. Kinda drives me crazy.
Hold your paper pattern pieces in place with lots of pattern weights. Take care that you’re not stretching or shifting the fabric as you “lock” it in place for cutting.
I suggest using a rotary cutter for slicing knit fabric. You’ll get smoother edges vs. using fabric shears.
BTW the edges of some knits will curl, especially when you cut the fabric. This happens with jersey when the wrong side curls to the right side.
Curling can be annoying… but you *also* could look at it as a fast way to identify right and wrong sides of a single knit.
3.) Set Presser Foot Pressure.
For thin knits, you might want to reduce presser foot pressure (if your machine allows). Too much force coming down on a lightweight knit could stretch it out.
On the flipside, if you’re using a heavyweight knit, you might want to increase presser foot pressure to better control greater mass.
FYI: More times than not I lower my presser foot pressure when sewing knits. At this point I kinda do it by feel.
4.) Choose Stretch Stitch Settings.
This is where the rubber meets the road when sewing knits on a sewing machine: choosing stitches that stretch.
If, when you make a stitch, the needle moves left to right in addition to moving forward, it *probably* can be used to sew stretch fabric. As aforementioned, lateral stitches have more give vs. straight stitches.
In my experience, it’s better to have stitches that are too long vs. too short. Stitches that are too short, while strong, can be rough on fabric and a PITA to unpick.
IMO these are the best stretch stitch settings to start with, particularly for seams. Width and length settings depend on your fabric. Too wide and too long are better starting points vs. too narrow and too short.
As always, test and see.
1.) Zig-zag stitch
✅ 3.5 mm width / 3.0 mm length
This makes a very equilateral-triangle-looking zig-zag. The stitches are not too far apart, but definitely not right on top of each other.
2.) Stretch “lightning” stitch
✅ 3.0 mm width / 3.0 mm length
The lightning stitch is a little stronger than the zig-zag stitch, because the lightning stitch kinda goes the tiniest bit backward on its more lateral component.
3.) 2- and 3-step zig-zag stitch
✅ 2-step: 3.5 mm width / 1.6 mm length
✅ 3-step: 3.5 mm width / 1.0 mm length
Two- and three-step stitches are stronger than the lightning stitch, because the stitch has two/three points of connection with the bobbin thread in each back or forth.
P.S. The stitch length is the length of the two/three stitches that make up one back or forth pass.
P.P.S. Your machine may make a triple stretch stitch. This is a straight stitch goes forward three stitches and then backward one stitch. It’s strong (thanks to the backstitching), but it’s not particularly flexible/stretchy, which is why I didn’t include it in my recommendations. (It’s also unpleasant to unpick from knit fabric.)
Can You Sew Stretchy Fabric with a Straight Stitch?
It is possible to sew stretch fabric with a straight stitch, but you have to be smart about it. A garment’s negative ease will shape whether straight stitches will work OK.
Negative ease is when the garment is SMALLER than your body measurements. You need negative ease in extremely fitted garments, such as leggings and swimsuits.
Negative ease works because of a fabric’s stretch percentage (remember that from a few paragraphs back?). Usually garments with negative ease call for fabrics with a high stretch percentage.
What does this have to do with sewing stretchy fabric with a straight stitch? WELL, if you’re leaning hard into stretch percentage and demanding that a garment stretch A LOT from its “resting” size, the garment’s stitches need to stretch A LOT, too.
Now, if you have a garment that doesn’t need to stretch much (if at all — for example, the relaxed-fit Cass T-shirt), you probably can get away with straight stitches at the seams and hems that don’t really stretch.
Use this two-point checklist to determine whether you can use a straight stitch on a stretchy fabric:
1.) Does this part of the garment need to stretch when I put it on or take it off?
2.) Does this part of the garment need to stretch as I wear the garment?
Spots where you can answer “no” to those questions are good candidates for a straight stitch.
As always, test and see.
Here’s how to sew stretchy fabric without puckering, bird’s nests, or getting fabric jammed into the throat plate.
⭐ Don’t Start at the Edge
Most knit fabrics — specifically jersey knits — don’t have a lot of body. When you insert a needle at the very edge of a knit, the needle pushes the fabric down into the throat plate, where you end up with a ball of chewed-up fabric and knotted thread.
Instead start your line of stitching slightly away from the edge and inside the seam allowance.
⭐ Hold Thread Tails
If you only use one tip for sewing stretchy fabric, let it be this one!
Pull up the bobbin thread before you start sewing. Take the two thread tails — top thread and bobbin thread — and make sure they pass under the presser foot and off to the left at about 10 o’clock.
Hold the tails with gentle tension as you sew the first 2-3 stitches. Then drop the tails and continue sewing.
This trick keeps threads from getting tangled in the throat plate at the beginning of a line of stitching.
(BTW, you can use this tip on any fabric you have a hard time starting stitching; particularly useful for thick fabrics and topstitching.)
⭐ Avoid Backstitching
Yes, you read that right. If you can, skip backstitching.
I say this because stretch/lateral stitches frequently are TERRIBLE when it comes to going in reverse.
If another line of stitching crosses the START of a line of stitching, let the intersecting stitching “lock” the start in place.
If there’s not intersecting stitching, lock the start by pulling the top thread to the wrong side and knotting it to the bobbin thread.
⭐ Sew Slowly and Offer Support
Don’t rush the needle into making a stitch. The loopy structure of knits makes them bouncy, springy.
The needle needs a beat to glide past the fabric yarns. If you stitch too fast, the needle can “bounce” off and/or make ugly stitches.
What’s more, stretch fabric needs your hands to keep it from stretching out as it’s sewn. Avoid letting your work drag in front of or behind your sewing machine.
Prevent gravity from working against your sewing project by holding your fabric layers flat — parallel to the floor — as they pass under the needle. This means holding the back part with your left hand and the front part with your right hand.
Let the sewing machine and feed dogs do most of the work — don’t push or pull. Be there for support.
⭐ Use Stabilizer
For fabric that’s difficult to handle, try putting a piece of thin paper — tissue, tracing, wrapping — between the feed dogs and the fabric as you sew.
Paper gives the feed dogs more to grip, and your fabric should move more pleasantly under the needle.
When you’re done, you pick the bits of paper off the stitching (this is why you use thin paper that mostly will dissolve in the wash).
Using paper as a stabilizer is a *little* controversial, because it’s always risky putting non-sewing stuff in/near your sewing machine. Until recently I would never have tried this for fear of damaging my machine.
I leave it to you to research the risks of this technique and make a decision for your own sewing practice. A lot of sewists use this trick; it’s worth investigating if you’re struggling.
⭐ Starch It
I love spray starch, you guys. Sometimes it gives *just* enough body to save an otherwise practically unsewable fabric.
The key to using spray starch is to apply it with a light hand. Do. Not. Soak. Your. Fabric. Move the spray can/bottle as you blast lil’ misty spritzes.
Then you’ve got to let it soak in for a click or two (15 seconds to 2 minutes, maybe? try it for yourself). The fabric should not feel wet — maybe slightly damp.
Hit it with an iron set for the fabric. When using the iron, press the fabric (up and down motion); don’t iron it (sliding motion). Sliding the iron could stretch the fabric and/or make the grain go wonky.
You can starch yardage BEFORE you cut it, or you can starch where you need to sew seams, hems, etc.
Speaking of, I’ve also used two other starch/stabilizer products: old-school cornstarch (like what you’d find in a kitchen) and PerfectSew.
I learned how to use these products from sewing educator Pamela Leggett (of Pamela’s Patterns), who I met at Camp Workroom Social.
For these two liquid stabilizers, you make a solution, dunk your fabric yardage in it, and let the fabric dry. The dry fabric will be stiff and much easier to sew.
Spray starch, cornstarch, and PerfectSew will wash out of your garment. Best practice is to test a scrap of fabric before applying a stabilizer to all your yardage.
Knits don’t have the body of woven fabrics; their seams and hems and folds will never be crisp. So, please don’t try to iron them into submission.
Stretchy fabrics will not keep their shape if they’re abused by a hot, heavy iron.
Refer to your fabric’s fiber content for the best iron setting. And then maybe back it off a touch. It’s better to be too cool than too hot, and it’s better to use a press cloth than to *wish* you’d used a press cloth.
A press cloth is especially important when working with fabric that’s blended with spandex/lycra/elastane. An iron will scorch spandex, creating a shiny spot on your garment.
Some sewists skip pressing knit garments, maybe because knit clothes often are “casual,” maybe because knit clothes often lack body (and pressing floppy fabric is kinda weird).
For a professional-looking garment, I think it’s important to press all seams and hems, etc. But, I also know that pressing knits can be treacherous and annoying.
Here’s what I do:
1.) Press on the wrong side.
2.) Use up-and-down motions only.
3.) Use a press cloth.
4.) Keep the temperature and steam moderate; use nothing hotter than the wool-silk neighborhood, even if it’s cotton or linen. (Go hotter only if you’ve tested the fabric first!)
5.) Do not linger with the iron in any one spot for too long. In fact, press for less time than you would press a woven fabric. Hit it and quit it.
6.) Set the press with your palm (don’t burn your hand) or hardwood clapper.
RELATED: Best Serger Hems for Thin Knit Fabrics
One of the coolest things about stretchy knit fabrics is that they (generally) don’t fray.
So, should you feel inclined, you could leave the hems raw. Depends on your taste, depends on the garment.
There’s a pretty epic article on how to hem lightweight knits on a sewing machine. You can apply a lot of the tips to hemming knits of any fabric weight.
Here are the hemming high points:
🪡 Try Fusible Web
Fusible web gives hems more body, making them easier to sew and creating nicer-looking stitches.
Fusible web is kinda like double-sided interfacing. To use it you press up the hem, slide a strip of fusible web in the fold, press with an iron to melt the adhesive, and stitch the hem in place.
For stretch fabric I like Heat n Bond Lite Soft Stretch fusible web adhesive.
🪡 Try Starch
You can hit the hem with starch to add body. Press up the hem and stitch in place. Wash out the starch and voila! A lovely hem.
🪡 Try Basting
When pins feel like they’re doing more harm than good, you always can hand baste with a needle and thread. Sometimes that’s the best way to control the fabric.
I’ve also used washable glue stick (specifically for swimwear fabric); it holds layers well and adds a little body.
🪡 Think Through the Stitch
Let the fabric (weight) help you decide stitch width and length.
If the hem doesn’t need to stretch, you might be able to get away with a straight stitch.
If the hem DOES need to stretch, you must choose a stitch with lateral (back-and-forth) movement. Suggested stitches include:
🧵 Zig-zag stitch: Basic; good for casual clothes.
🧵 2- or 3-step zig-zag stitch: A narrow width and long stitch length will look similar to a straight stitch.
🧵 Serpentine stitch: Soft, long wave that could be decorative.
🧵 Faggoting stitch: Definitely a decorative stitch.
🧵 Shell tuck stitch: Kind of a sportier rolled hem vibe; lateral stitches go over hem fold to create a scalloped edge.
🧵 Stretch blind hem: Good for dressier knits — Ponte di Roma that looks like a woven fabric.
🧵 Straight stitch with a twin needle: How to fake a coverstitch; read about how I tamed twin needle sewing.
🧵 And finally, there’s a woven bias tape hem finish, wherein bias tape made of a lightweight fabric is sewn to the raw edge of a knit hem, turned to the wrong side, and topstitched in place. Could be nice for curved hems that need body.
RELATED: Easy French Binding for Knit Necklines (How To)
Final Thoughts on How to Sew Stretchy Fabric without a Serger
You can make beautiful, long-lasting, and functional knit garments on a domestic sewing machine. It takes a bit of practice and some special techniques, but it’s nothing a clever, committed sewist (like YOU!) can’t figure out.
In my sewing journey, I’ve learned a lot about sewing knits the hard way. Anything I can do to make your experience smoother than mine makes my soul happy.
My obsessive research about sewing knits and experiments with stretch stitches is your gain! To that end, please share this article with other sewists. Pin it, email it, post it to Facebook and Twitter, etc. If it helped you, it probably will help someone else, too.
Should you want to apply your new stretchy-fabric sewing knowledge, consider stitching Sie Macht’s T-shirt pattern, Cass.
Cass is a relaxed-fit T-shirt in misses and plus sized (fitting hips up to 70 inches (177.8 cm) and busts up to 66 inches (167.6 cm)). It’s only three pattern pieces and has grown-on sleeves, which means it sews up F-A-S-T.
Plus, when you buy this PDF pattern, you get step-by-step instructions for how to hack it five different ways. It’s basically six patterns for the price of one. Super bonus. 🤑
Check out these articles related to sewing Cass (or any other knit T-shirt):