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.
A lot of people are initially intimidated by learning how to sew stretch fabric. I have to admit I was once one of them.
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!
How to Sew Stretch Fabric
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, 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.
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.
Generally, ball-point needles are suitable for stable knits and stretchy knits and stretch needles are better for elastic and super stretch knits such as swim and dance lycra.
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.
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
- 3 Step zig-zag
- Stretch stitch
- Lightning stitch
- Straight stitch
Option 1: Zig Zag
If you don’t have a sewing machine with a lot of fancy stitches, a basic zig zag stitch will do the trick.
Just set it to a narrow width stitch. Try on a scrap of fabric a width of 0.5 – 1.0 and a 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.
MORE TIps on How to Sew Stretch Fabric
Tip #1 – Fabric Choice
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 then 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
TIP #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.
TIP #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.
TIP #4 – Pre-Washing
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.
TIP #5 – Cutting
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
TIP #6 – Curling Fabrics
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
TIP #7: Sewing Machine Foot
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.
TIP #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.
TIP #9: Finishing seams
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.
TIP #10: Hemming
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.
TIP #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.
TIP #12: Pressing
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 – 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: