Sewing with knits
I am all set to sew up some new t-shirts and hoodies for the kids this spring. Stripes are the theme for the year. Well, stripes are the theme for every year, really. I really like stripes :) Which helps since all of my fabric is recycled knits from a thrift store, and most of the unloved garments hanging forlornly, since nobody really needs another striped shirt in the closet. Well, except me and my kids, of course.
Getting set to sew, I remembered some recent comments from readers about being unable to sew knits. There seems to be an idea that knits are difficult to sew. Let me tell you, knits are not hard. Knits are easy! Knits are fun and forgiving and fast!
Okay, but sewing knits is not the same as sewing something woven. First up, a ball point needle in the smallest size you can get away with is essential. Sharp tip needles are great for woven (non-stretch) fabric but they will just rip holes in your knits. Very bad to have your garment rip along the seams after the first wash.
Second, the usual problem with knits is the stretched out seams, easily taken care of by using a slightly longer stitch and steaming your seam. To steam, hover your iron over top the seam, with the steam going full blast, and the seam will shrink back into place (with knits, always press straight down with the iron, do not rub it side to side). It also helps to use quality thread and to not overly stretch your seam while sewing.
That being said, a gentle stretch while stitching is helpful to prevent bunching up of the knit. The two layers go through the sewing machine, past the feed dogs, at different rates of speed. Usually the feed dogs will carry the bottom layer through just fine, so a slight pull will keep the top inline.
Using a serger is in no way necessary for knits. Actually, I hardly ever use my serger with knits, because there is no need to finish the edges - knits do not fray - and the sewing machine usually creates more stable seams. I do know that many people like to use the serger for knits and the main reason for that is the differential feed, turned up just a bit, prevents seam stretching as well as feed the fabrics through evenly. For difficult spots like setting in sleeves, a serger can be a god-send. But the difference between the regular machine vs. a serger for knits is like the difference between driving an automatic vs. a standard transmission on an icy road. The level of control the driver has makes helps prevent slipping, but generally both types will make it through just fine if they go slow.
One last point about cutting knits: a rotary cutter is your best friend. Use your rotary if you have one. Many problems with knit garments start with wonky cuts. Just digging those scissors underneath and lifting the fabric up to cut causes misalignment. Still, if you do use scissors, keep them sharp.
If you are going to try knits for the first time or try again after a bad experience, I suggest heading down to your local thrift store or raiding your closet for some sturdy, slightly thick, t-shirts. It helps to learn with the firmer stuff and not the slinky, slippery Lycras (which are headaches, no matter how competent you are at sewing knits). Start with a raglan style t-shirt pattern, a ball point needle, and some extra time. Or, if you like, try out this tutorial for using your old tee shirts.
Hope this encourages somebody to give knits a go. Sewing is all about confidence. Natural talent is great, but better than that is the willingness to try new and scary things. In the end, the more mistakes you make the better; redoing the bungle ups is when true skill and knowledge is earned.