Do you want to learn how to sew stretch fabric? Winter is just around the corner and what better time to sew something out of cozy stretch fabric! If you have been eyeing off some of my popular knit fabric sewing patterns but haven’t yet mustered up the courage to tackle stretch fabrics then keep reading.
How to Sew Stretch Fabric
A lot of people are initially intimidated by learning how to sew stretch fabric. I have to admit I was once one of them.
Sewing stretch fabrics just might bend your sewing skills in another direction. It’s time to take advantage of learning how to sew knit fabric to see just how far you can stretch your imagination.
When you get the hang of it, sewing knits without a serger is really fast, satisfying, and best of all has minimal ironing! What more could you want!
Why Sew Using Stretch Fabric?
Jersey and knit stretch fabrics cover all seasons so comfortably. If you are looking for style, casual or smart wear, then your search is over.
Stretch fabric patterns are just perfect for every occasion. These fabrics are ideal for children’s patterns and clothing for all ages. Knowing how to determine the stretch factor gives every sewer the guidelines for cutting out the perfect outfit.
The idea of having a fabric that can hang beautifully, drip dry, and be very comfortable to wear at home or ‘out and about’ is very appealing.
Knowing how to sew knit fabrics is just an added strength to your sewing skills. Once you have mastered pattern laying and cutting of these versatile fabrics you will be inspired to sew with them. It is so easy to turn these adaptable knit fabrics, using a regular machine, into fashion items for all ages. Stretch fabrics are particularly suited as clothing for children.
Why not take the opportunity to bend the rules and stretch out and buy jersey knit patterns and fabric for your next sewing project. There’s a whole new world of great fabrics, patterns, and fun-to-sew ideas just waiting for you to try.
How to Sew Stretch Fabric Tutorial
The main thing you need to know when learning how to sew stretch fabric is that your seams need to have the same stretch qualities as your fabric.
If it doesn’t then the stitches may break in your finished garment. This is preventable by using some of the stitches available on most modern sewing machines.
If you have a serger (overlocker), then you are in luck! Serged seams have an elasticity that makes them perfect for sewing knits.
Read how to use a serger, including sewing curves, corners, and starting and ending.
Before you start to learn how to sew stretch fabric with a regular machine, you will need the right equipment.
Best Needles for Stretch Fabric
If you use a regular sewing needle in your machine it may cause skipped stitches and holes in knit fabrics. This is easily preventable by switching to a ball-point or stretch needle that has a rounded tip.
Generally, ball-point needles are suitable for stable knits and stretchy knits, and stretch needles are better for elastic and super stretchy fabric such as swim and dance lycra. These are often labeled as 4-way stretch fabric or 2-way stretch fabric. Read more about the types of stretch fabrics.
Refer to the needle manufacturer's recommendations. Popular brands include Klasse and Schmetz. You will also need to match the thickness of your fabric to the size of the needles.
Best Thread for Stretch Fabric
A strengthened polyester thread usually works better than a cotton thread for stretch fabrics as it is less likely to break. When sewing leotard patterns or swimsuit patterns, polyester is less likely to rot from sweat or chlorine.
If you only have a cotton thread on hand try loosening the tension in your bobbin.
How to Sew Stretch Fabric - Best Stitches
Your sewing machine manual is probably a great place to start deciding on the best stitch for your fabric. Otherwise, if it is buried under a mound of books or otherwise hiding somewhere in your house, grab a scrap of knit fabric and try some of the below stitches. My preference is always option 1, the narrow zig-zag stitch.
5 Stitches to Use for Stretch fabric
Here are 5 stretch stitches you can use for sewing knits:
- Zig-zag stitch
- 3 Step zig-zag
- Stretch stitch
- Lightning stitch
- Straight stitch
Option 1: Zig Zag Stitch
If you don’t have a sewing machine with a lot of fancy stitches, a basic zigzag stitch will do the trick.
Just set it to a narrow stitch width. Try on a scrap of fabric a width of 0.5 – 1.0 and a stitch length of 3.0.
Option 2: Three Step Zig-Zag
Another stitch you can use is a 3 step zig-zag stitch. Each zig-zag has 3 tiny stitches.
This stitch gives a lot of stretch and is suitable for all kinds of stretch including really stretchy lycra. Because of the multiple stitches in the zig-zag, it does take longer to sew seams with this stitch.
Option 3: Stretch Stitch (triple stitch)
Your machine may also have a “stretch straight” stitch where the machine goes forward two stitches and back one stitch each cycle. It does take a little longer to stitch seams using this stitch but the results can be worth it.
Option 4: Lightning Stitch
Lightning stitch is similar to a small zig-zag except the stitches are slightly angled. From a distance, the stitches look almost straight. I find that on my machine, this stitch does stretch out the fabric slightly so do a test on a scrap first.
Option 5: Straight Stitch
As a last resort, if your machine is really basic you can use your regular straight stitch.
Gently stretch the fabric as you sew. When you let go the fabric relaxes and the stitches will retain some stretch.
You may find the stitches look a little loopy but this will prevent them from breaking when the fabric is stretched.
Tips for How to Sew Stretch Fabric
1. Fabric Choice
Choose a knit fabric that has the appropriate amount of stretch factor to match your sewing pattern.
The pattern may specify 20%, 50%, 75% stretch factor. If you are a beginner, choose a stable knit pattern and fabric with a small amount of stretch. Generally, thicker knits are easier to sew than thinner knits.
When I was learning to sew knits, I found the easiest fabrics to sew were cotton sweatshirt fabrics as they didn't curl up and weren't overly stretchy under the machine foot.
Further Reading: Types of Knit Fabric
2. Sewing Lycra and Spandex
Sewing Lycra and Spandex is essentially the same as learning how to sew stretch fabric, but I have an additional article especially on sewing leotards with extra tips and tricks.
Because most dance and swimwear fabric have a stretch factor of at least 75% the stretch needles and a Teflon foot are even more important than for regular knits.
3. Best Stretch Fabric Patterns
Did you know that Treasurie sewing patterns have some of the best stretch fabric patterns? All the patterns can be sewn with a regular sewing machine and come with simple instructions that even beginners can understand.
Stretch patterns are cut differently to woven patterns as they may have measurements that are smaller than the body to allow form stretching. This is called negative ease and enables you to get a nice fit. Before buying a pattern, always check to see if it is suitable for stretch.
Knits tend to shrink more than woven fabrics so pre-washing is especially important especially if you are using a rayon knit which can shrink up to 10%. That's a whole size difference!
When you are drying your stretch fabric, lay it out flat so it doesn't stretch out and press it gently before cutting.
5. How to Cut Stretch Fabric
Use pattern weights instead of pins to stop holes in your fabric. Alternatively, use specially designed knit fabric pins. (Read: types of pins).
Also, when cutting, keep your fabric flat and ensure it is not stretched out. A common reason knits stretch while you are cutting is when they are hanging over the edge of the table. Cutting on a larger table or on the floor (if your back can handle it) is an alternative.
Further Reading: Cutting Fabric
6. How to Stop Stretch Fabric Curling
Some knits curl at the edges making them hard to sew. If you press the pieces immediately before sewing you can temporarily stop the curling long enough to easily sew a seam. Use extra pins to hold the edges.
Sometimes the curl can be used to your advantage as you create a lettuce hem. This hem rolls slightly and then is zig-zagged across. You will often find this type of hem on tops.
Further Reading: Lettuce Hem
7. Bst Sewing Machine Foot for Stretch Fabrics
For most knits, a regular presser foot will suffice, but for slippery or sticky fabrics, a Teflon sewing foot can really help the foot glide over the fabric.
You can also use a walking foot, but personally, I find them overly bulky for most projects. A walking foot prevents the fabric from sticking to the plate of the foot.
8. Don't Push or Pull
When you sew the fabric pieces together, take care to guide the fabric gently through the sewing machine’s feed dogs. Do not push or pull the fabric.
Setting your machine on a slow speed will make this easier to do.
Some machines may recommend you loosen the pressure so consult your manual to see if this is possible.
9. How to Finish Seams on Stretch Fabric
Guess what? You don't need to finish seams in stretch fabric! This is just one of the reasons why knit fabric patterns take about half the time to sew. Unlike woven fabric, knits don't fray on the edges. If you really want to finish the seams, then try a wider zig-zag of width 3.0 and length 3.0.
10. How to Sew a Hem on Stretchy Fabric
For professional-looking hems, consider learning how to use a twin needle. A twin needle creates a stretch stitch that looks like 2 rows of straight stitches on the right side of the fabric and a small zig-zag on the back.
Twin needles come in different gaps between the needles so you can choose the look you like.
Also, read my article on sewing knit hems which will show you how to sew a hem with a zig-zag stitch.
Hemming tape can help with hems that look stretched out and wrinkled. Another useful machine if you are going to be hemming knits regularly is a coverstitch machine. This machine produces double-stitched seams on stretch fabric.
Read sewing machine vs serger vs coverstitch to see the differences in these machines.
11. Fancy Hems
If you are looking for a fancy hem finish, then try a lettuce hem. This curly hem is created by zig-zagging over a folded edge while gently stretching out.
Sometimes a stretch seam can look a little stretched out, particularly in areas such as neckbands. A gentle press with steam can help your item back into shape.
Further Reading: Pressing for Sewing.
How to Sew Stretch Fabric FAQs
Can you sew stretch fabric on a normal sewing machine?
Yes, you can certainly sew stretch fabric with a normal sewing machine. The best stitch to use is a narrow zig zag which will give some elasticity to the seam and prevent breaking and puckering.
Can you use straight stitch on stretch fabric?
While you can use a straight stitch on stretch fabric, it is not the best choice. Stretch fabric is best sewn with a narrow zig zag stitch in order to create durable elastic seams.
Do you need a special needle to sew stretch fabric?
Yes, you do need a special needle to sew stretch fabric. It is best sewn with either a ballpoint or stretch needle. This prevents skipped stitches and holes in the fabric.
How to Sew Stretch Fabric - In Conclusion
I've tried to make this article comprehensive but if you feel overwhelmed, remember all you really need to start is some stretch needles, a strong thread, and a simple zig-zag stitch.
Find some stretch scraps to practice or even cut up an old t-shirt to give yourself some confidence to start. Once you realize how easy it is to learn how to sew stretch fabric, it will open up a whole new world of sewing patterns and projects you can try.
If you are looking for a couple of free projects to try your new skills then look at:
Thank you for the information on sewing stretch fabric without a Serger. It was very thorough, with nary a wasted word, a fact I deeply appreciate. There are times when it is such a relief not to have to wade through a person's family history or a painfully detailed account of the their morning with the kids just to ascertain the recommended stitch length for sewing on stretch polyester—so thank you! Incredible article.
That's good to know that fabrics are graded on how well they stretch. my wife is working on a project and she asked me to pick her up some more fabric, but I'm not sure about what to look for. She wants something stretchy, so it would probably be a good idea to look for a stretch factor when I'm looking.