Sewing Spandex is easy with the right tools and tips. Have you been spending a fortune on leotards for your kid's dance, gymnastics, and cheer leotards and costumes? Did you know that sewing spandex and Lycra on your regular sewing machine is easy with a little practice and a few simple tips and will save you so much money in the long run? Sounds good, doesn't it?
Sewing Spandex Tutorial
What is Spandex?
Spandex is a type of fiber with a high stretch factor. It is usually blended with nylon, polyester, or cotton to give a high-stretch fabric with high recovery. Leotards, dance costumes, gym wear, and swimwear are all made with Spandex blends.
What is the difference between 4-way stretch, Spandex, Elastane and Lycra?
In dance and swimwear fabrics, the terms Lycra, Elastane, 4 way stretch and Spandex are often used interchangeably depending on where you live in the world. They all refer to synthetic stretch fabrics suitable for dance, athletic, activewear and swimwear.
Lycra is simply the brand name for synthetic spandex stretch fibers produced by the company DuPont. DuPont Lycra is considered to be of high quality and has great stretch recovery. This means when you repeatedly stretch the fabric it will always return to its original position.
How to Sew Spandex and Lycra
Step 1 - Buying Spandex
When buying Spandex there are 5 main things you need to check for -
- Reputable Shops
- Stretch Factor
- Playing safe
Here is a list of fabric shops that sell swimwear and dance fabric that was compiled with the help of some of my customers that sew leotards regularly. If you have any more shops to add please leave a note in the comments below.
- Fabric Fairy
- Spoonflower – here you can design your own fabric and choose to have it made in a swim fabric
- Peekaboo Fabric Shop on Etsy
- Fabric Depot
- Spandex World
- Glitter and Dance
- Shine Trimmings Fabrics
- The Fabric Fox
- The Remnant Warehouse
- Trimmings and Remnants
- Opening Night Supplies
- Fusion Fabrics for Dancers
When buying your leotard or swim fabrics give it a good stretch and see if it goes back to its original position. If it wrinkles when released or takes a while to go back to its original state, walk away, even if it is a cheap fabric. You want the fabric to go right back to normal when released. No one wants a saggy swimsuit or leotard!
Check Stretch Factor
Test your fabrics stretch factor. This is the percentage that the fabric will stretch. See my blog article on stretch factor where I have a printable chart that you can take with you to the fabric shop.
For example, if 4 inches stretches to 7 inches, it has 75% stretch. This is a common stretch factor necessary for tight-fitting garments such as swimsuits and leotards.
If you will be sewing Spandex for leotards or swimwear, hold the fabric up to the light and give it a stretch. Many fabrics can become transparent once they stretch around the body and will need to be lined.
When shopping, is not always practical to see if your swim fabrics will become transparent when wet, but keep this in mind and buy some lining just in case. When you get home, test a corner under the tap and hold it up to the light. If in doubt, you are best to line the front of the garment at least.
If it is your first time sewing Spandex, play it safe and purchase a semi-matt rather than a sparkly, metallic fabric.
Some of the really fancy Spandex fabric is much harder to sew, and considering they are usually expensive, you would be best waiting until you have done a few tests in some easy-to-sew Spandex.
Step 2 - Cutting Spandex
Use these tips to get the best results when cutting Lycra or Spandex fabrics.
- Let it rest - Before you start cutting, lay the fabric flat for a few hours so it will relax and any creases will fall out.
- Keep it on the table - Make sure that the fabric stays flat and is not stretched when cutting. Be especially mindful that some of the fabric doesn't fall off the table edge as it will stretch out.
- Sharp scissors - Always use an extra sharp pair of scissors on your fabrics to ensure the edges are neat and your fabric is not stretched out of shape as you cut. Blunt scissors will bur the edges and make it hard to match up pattern pieces. Rotary cutters and a cutting mat can be used.
- Careful of pins - Test to see if pins leave marks in your fabric. If they do, use pattern weights or cans from your pantry to weigh down the pattern before cutting. Alternatively, keep all pins within the seam allowances so any marks will be hidden once your garment is sewn. You can purchase specialty stretch pins that are less likely to snag your fabric.
- Cut one piece at a time - You often will get the minimum fabric wastage by cutting the pieces one at a time and refolding the fabric.
- Check the stretch direction - this is IMPORTANT! The greatest direction of stretch should go around the body. In some circumstances, the greatest direction of stretch may down the fabric and not across as is usual. If this is the case you may need to rotate the pattern pieces.
Step 3 - Sewing Spandex and Stitching
The main thing you need to know when sewing spandex and Lycra is that your seams need to have the same stretch qualities as your fabric. If it doesn’t then stitches may break in your finished leotard when you or your kids start bending and stretching in their routines.
Regardless of whether you use a regular machine or serger, always test a scrap first.
Sewing Spandex and Lycra can be done with either -
- A serger (also called an overlocker in some countries)
- A regular sewing machine
Sewing Spandex with a Serger
If you have a serger you can just serge the seam edges without having to do any additional stitches to hold the seam. Serging means the seams will have built-in elasticity and is certainly the easiest method of sewing Spandex.
As you sew seams, gently stretch the fabric slightly to maintain maximum stretchiness.
Even if you are lucky enough to have a serger to sew seams, you will still need a regular sewing machine to sew elastic in the legs and neck. Here is a tutorial on my blog on how to sew elastic in leotards and swimwear.
Sewing Spandex with a Sewing Machine
There are a few tools and sewing tips that will make your life a little (actually a lot) easier when sewing Spandex.
Best Needles for Sewing Spandex
Use a stretch machine needle. If you use a regular universal sewing needle in your machine it may cause skipped stitches. You will need to use a stretch needle with a ballpoint so it does not cut the fibers and cause holes.
A twin needle can be used for sewing hems. Stretch needles are designed to sew the stretchiest fabrics, but you may be able to substitute jersey needles as well.
Make sure you have the correct sized needle to suit the thickness of the Spandex. I mostly use sizes 80/12 or 90/14.
Best Thread to Sew Spandex
100% polyester thread usually works better than cotton thread for spandex fabrics as it is less likely to break or rot with sweat or chlorine. (Read: Types of Sewing Threads)
I use the Rasant brand, but Coats also makes a good, strengthened thread. Stay clear of cheap threads, as they always break and skip stitches. Sewing Spandex will test your thread much more than regular sewing of woven fabric.
Best Presser Foot to Sew Spandex
A Teflon presser foot makes sewing Spandex that is sticky or slippery a breeze. Changing the foot can make all the difference as the Teflon sewing foot glides over the fabric and prevents skipped or loopy stitches.
A walking foot can also be used, but I find them a little bulkier.
Best Stitches for Sewing Spandex with a Sewing Machine
My preferred stretch stitches for sewing Spandex seams is the basic zig-zag stitch. Don't use a straight stitch, as it will probably break the first time you wear the leotard or swimwear.
Just set it to a narrow-width zig-zag stitch. Try on a scrap of fabric (folded double), with a stitch width of 0.5 – 1.0, and a length of 3.0.
Other options to sew Spandex with include the lightning stitch, 3-step zig-zag, and the triple straight stitch. Test these on a scrap and see if you like them better than the zig-zag.
Extra Tips for Spandex Sewing
- Hold tight! When you start sewing, make sure you hold the ends of the threads tight, so your fabric does not get caught in the dog feed of your machine.
- Keep the fabric slightly stretched as you sew but be careful not to pull too hard, as you may break a needle.
- When you have tested the zig-zag on a scrap, give it a gentle tug to make sure the stitches don't pop. If they break, try increasing the width just slightly and test again.
Finishing Spandex Seams
Lycra does not generally fray, but in areas of high stress, such as the side seams, an extra row of wide zig-zag on the edge can add strength and durability to your garment. Of course, you won't need this if you used a serger.
It can also give a nice professional look to your seams. Try a zig-zag stitch with width of 3.0-4.0 and a length of 3.0.
More Sewing Spandex Skills
How to Gather Spandex
The best way to gather when sewing Spandex is to use the elastic gathering technique. I have a full article on how to gather with elastic you can read.
Another technique that you may be interested in is how to gather tulle. If you are going to be sewing dance costumes, at some point, you are going to want to add a tulle skirt!
Shop for Leotard and Swim Patterns
If you have been looking at some of my great leotard patterns, swimsuit patterns or unitard patterns then now is a great time to start sewing.
The first thing you need to start sewing spandex and lycra is some amazing dance or swimwear fabric with at least 75% stretch factor.
This is just a selection of my leotard patterns. I have more to choose from in my sewing patterns shop. All leotard patterns can be used for dance, gymnastics, swimming, costumes and just for fun! VIEW ALL LEOTARD SEWING PATTERNS
More on How to Sew Spandex
Now you have the basics of sewing Spandex, here are some more tutorials that will help you go to the next step
Hi Holly, When my machine does that, it is normally because I am not using a stretch needle. The other common reason is the foot is sticking to the fabric. Try a teflon foot. I have a generic brand one that does wonders. Good luck.
My sewing machine WILL NOT sew on swim suit fabric. The stitches will not connect, it’s like one long stitch, one giant missed stitch! WHY?!
I just use my regular settings on the serger. Tension disks are set to 3-4. I use polyester thread cones. I don't change any settings from my normal serving but you will need to test you machine to see if it does need some alteration. Choose a Lycra that is not too shiny and sticky when you are first starting as it is easier to sew.
To get maximum stretch in the seams of the leotard (and to prevent threads breaking when pulling the leotard on) what thread do you use and what settings do you use on the serger?
I just leave mine on my regular tension which is 3-4. I always use a teflon foot, stretch needles and a strong thread - usually Rasant brand.
What is the recommended tension your sewing machine be set to when sewing leotards?
Carson Maitland - Smith
Hi Tiffany, You don't need anything fancy to sew Lycra. All you need is one that does a zig-zag stitch. I prefer ones where you can control the stitch width and length instead of having preset stitches. Make sure you purchase a Teflon foot (these are cheap) and stretch needles and you will be set to go!
Is there a sewing machine you could recommend for a beginner?