Sewing Knits with A Sewing Machine

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This is part of a series about sewing knits. Check out the other posts:
Getting Started With Knits
Topstitching Knits With A Sewing Machine

My First Experiences with Knit

Back in my teens, I started sewing my own swimsuits. I didn’t (fully) realize that sergers existed, so I didn’t even think to ask if you could sew knits with a sewing machine. I just followed the instructions and used my family’s basic Singer Scholastic. It had stitches that they classed as “Stretch Stitches,” so I figured I was supposed to use those.

I’ve learned a ton in the years since and I’m here to say that Yes! you can sew knits without a serger using just your home sewing machine.

Note: I’m going to be using photos of one of my first swimsuits for reference as well as a little dress I made just a few weeks ago — My sewing has improved since the swimsuit! However, the construction techniques have ‘stood the test of time.’

One of my earlier swimsuit making adventures — a swim dress! It has coordinating swim shorts.

Make The Cut: A Note on Cutting Knits

Knit fabric stretches when pulled. That may be obvious, but what may not be so obvious is that this is an important fact to remember when cutting out your project.

When you are cutting your project out, make sure the fabric is well supported on your cutting surface. If it hangs off the edge of the table, you can use a chair to support it. If you let it hang, it will stretch the fabric while you are cutting it and cause distortion to your pieces.

What’s the Point? The Importance of Needle Choice

I realized after I went to take photos that I need to go needle shopping! I’m out of all my stretch needles!

When sewing knits there are a few needles to choose from.

All of these needles have a more rounded tip. Ball point and stretch needles are my first choice for sewing knits. The blunt tip of these needles is important because it allows the needle to slide between the fibers of the fabric instead of cutting through them. On knit fabrics, using a sharp needle can cause small holes every place the needle has gone through.

If your machine is skipping stitches, try switching needles. Some fabrics work best with stretch needles and some with ballpoint needles.

A note: Needle quality can also affect your sewing. Schmetz needles were highly recommended to me on many occasions and they’re the only needles I use.

Best (Sewing) Foot Forward

When it comes to sewing knits, there are a few things you can do with your sewing machine foot to make the process easier.

Decrease Foot Pressure

Some machines allow you to decrease the pressure of the foot. The foot pressure on my 1960’s Morse Fotomatic is super easy to adjust, while my new Singer Confidence 7640 doesn’t have the option at all.

This sweet little baby dress was sewn with just a small zigzag stitch on my Morse Fotomatic.

Decreasing the foot pressure causes less drag on the fabric, helping prevent it from stretching out and creating wavy seams.

Use a Walking or Knit Foot

A walking foot (also known as an even feed foot) has little grippers much like the feed dogs in the sewing machine which help feed the fabric through evenly without stretching it.

I use my walking foot almost every time I sew knit fabric on my Singer sewing machine. It does its job very well. I have this one for low shank machines. I’ve gotten away without it on my Morse Fotomatic because I can adjust the presser foot pressure.

Singer Walking Foot for Low Shank Machines

An alternative to the walking foot is the knit foot. This is similar to the walking foot, but simplified. It also takes a little bit less prep to put on the sewing machine — it goes on the same as any other foot for your sewing machine. In the case of my Singer Confidence, it just snaps on.

I don’t have a lot of personal experience with the knit foot. I had one and loved that it just snapped on to my low shank machine easily and quickly. Unfortunately, the knit foot I have didn’t make it through one project. It had a little rubber piece on the bottom to help move the fabric along, but somehow that got stuck while I was sewing and my machine sewed right through it. I still don’t know how that happened!

I know several sewists who love their knit foot! This one is for low shank machines.

Stitches for Stretch

When sewing knits, you want to use a stitch that has stretch to it. A straight stitch, for example, has no stretch and will break when the fabric stretches.

While I would choose to handle construction a little differently now, this simple zigzag stitch held together on this swim dress for years with no problem!

I’ve used many stretch stitches in the past. These days, I tend to use just a basic zigzag stitch. I prefer a small zigzag stitch — it’s what I’ve had the most success with. The size of the zigzag depends on my project as well.

A small zigzag for the seams of this baby dress.

Technically, each of the stitches circled below can be used for knit fabrics — as they each should (theoretically) stretch.

Stitches from my Singer Confidence 7640

I’ve had the best success with a simple zigzag. This might depend on your machine as some machines handle certain stitches better than others. That’s why what I’m about to say next is so important…

Try It Out! The Importance of Testing

Different types of knit fabrics can behave in different ways. That may be an obvious statement, but it means that you may need to use different techniques, stitch settings, etc. depending on your fabric.

Before you start sewing your project, take some scraps left over from cutting it out and test your stitch settings to see if they work. Sew a line of stitches and then stretch your fabric to see how well the stitching works with it. You don’t need to stretch it to the absolute max capability of the fabric, just enough to see how the stitches behave.

A test swatch — the three left rows are zigzag stitches with varying settings. Fourth from the left is a lightning stitch. The last two are honeycomb stitch. This just goes to show that fabrics behave differently — the honeycomb stitch here looks nothing like on the swim shorts above.

Use your scrap fabric to sew a seam and then look at how the seam looks from the outside. It can be normal to see some stitches, so don’t worry too much if they peek out.

The exterior of a seam on the swim dress.

The more you test things out with different fabrics, the more comfortable you’ll get sewing knits!

Seams All Right: Basic Seams & Finishes

When sewing your seams, use whichever stitch you’ve tested and decide works best. Just remember that your seam guide on your machine is accurate only when the needle is in the center and you are using a straight stitch. You’ll need to adjust for how far left your needle goes so that your seam allowance stays correct.

While I didn’t do the neatest job at the time, you can see that this seam is trimmed quite close. Swim fabric is quite a tight knit, I wouldn’t suggest trimming this close on a looser knit fabric.

Once you’ve sewn your seams, you have a couple options. You can leave them as-is, or you can trim them down to 1/4″ away from your stitching. Some people like sewing a zigzag stitch over the edge, but I find that adds unnecessary stiffness to the seams. Knit fabric doesn’t fray, so there really is no need to do anything special to finish the seams.

Straight Stitch in Stretch Thread

I recently discovered Eloflex, a stretch thread! With this thread, you can sew knit fabric with a straight stitch. Use it just like you would use normal thread in both the bobbin and on the spool.

I used it for the Cinnabar Sky Top I made from spun poly knit fabric. It worked beautifully!

Double Trouble: Tips for Tricky Fabrics

Preventing Fabric From Being “Eaten”

Sometimes a sewing machine just does not like a certain fabric. Sometimes it will ‘eat’ it at the beginning of the seam or at any point in the middle. Trouble fabrics can be lightweight knits such as rayon spandex, stretch mesh, or lace.

If your machine is eating your fabric at the beginning of a seam, put a little bit of tissue paper under it before beginning. I don’t know about you, but I tend to save tissue paper from gift bags, which means I always have a good supply.

Using tissue to start a seam with a very lightweight mesh.

If I’m worried about my machine eating the fabric anywhere in the seam (stretch mesh is one fabric I do this with!), I’ll cut long strips of tissue paper and place it under my seam to prevent that. It works like a dream and then the paper just tears off. Any bits that don’t tear off easily will come out in the wash.

Run-away Fabrics & Curling Edges

Some fabrics like to move around a lot and ‘run-away’ from you or have edges that like to curl up like crazy. They can be so frustrating to work with!

For either of these, a good dose of spray starch can be super helpful! I’ve been using Niagra starch – both heavy and original – and I’m very generous with it. I even use this for really flowy woven fabrics, like rayon challis – it really helps make the fabric easier to work with. If the problem is curly edges, just focus the starch in the trouble spots — it will keep the fabric edges flat for you. Once you’ve finished sewing your project, give it a trip through the laundry to wash it out.

Enjoy the Journey

One thing I’ve learned in my sewing adventures is to enjoy the journey. Each project will be different and you’ll learn new things with every item you sew up!

Do you have any tips for sewing knits with a sewing machine? Or do you have questions? Leave a comment below! 🙂

Loving & Sewing Knits Series

Getting Started With Knits
Sewing Knits with a Sewing Machine (You’re Here!)
Constructing Knit Garments with a Serger (Coming Soon)
Topstitching Knits on a Sewing Machine

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