Stretchy fabric is a little different to work with than woven fabric. The fact that it is elastic means that we need to pay special attention to the types of stitches we can use.
What is the best stitch for stretchy fabric?
The best stitch for stretchy fabric is a zigzag stitch. We need a flexible stitch that can get stretched with the fabric. There are different zigzag stitches according to the choice of fabric and it’s use cases.
Let’s look at what the best stitches we have available (on most sewing machines), and when to use which type.
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Check also our guide to avoiding problems when sewing cotton-jersey.
The basic zigzag stitch
When we are working with knit fabric the stitch will have to be flexible. If we choose a standard straight stitch that cannot get stretched, we will pop the thread apart when the fabric is stretched.
In order to avoid that we use the zigzag stitch.
The beauty of the zigzag stitch is exactly that: The seam can stretch and get pulled and dragged without popping the thread. That is why the zigzag stitches are recommended for fabric that can stretch.
All sewing machines have a standard zigzag stitch. So that’s your fallback if we cannot find something smarter that works with your specific sewing machine. But newer models have a lot of stitches to choose from.
Be sure to read your manual, and know what options you have. You might have some special stitches that are unique to your model, that we are not covering in this blog post.
Before we dive into the details about the zigzag stitch there are two important things to remember:
- Make sure you use the right presser foot! You need to change it before you do any zig-zagging. If you use the wrong one you will break the needle as it will hammer into the metal of the foot. The correct foot will have an oval hole to let the needle move left and right.
- When you are about to finish a seam, you can use the dial to move the needle slowly, in order to do a nice finish.
The default zigzag stitch is typical 3,5 mm (0,14”) wide and 1,4 mm (0,055”) long. It’s a short stitch with a medium width.
This stitch will typically not recover perfectly after being stretched a lot, and it will be very stretchable. So make sure you don’t pull and drag the garment too much, even though it’s easy to do.
The basic short zigzag stitch is a good choice in most cases because of the flexibility.
The smaller zigzag stitches will be stretchier. The longer stitches will be the less stretchy.
So use only the long zigzag stitches for areas you don’t need to stretch much. Don’t use it for a neck, and don’t use it for kids clothes, as they tend to tear and pull a lot. That might have the clothes look worn out too early.
Let’s take a look at some of the other common stitches for use with stretching fabric.
A twin needle stitch
As the name indicate this stitch makes use of two needles.
A Twin needle has a standard shank at the top and branches out into two parallel needles. It’s a special needle you need to buy in the right size. Here’s an example of what it looks like:
TIP: Make sure to use a ballpoint twin needle (the one pictured above is not a ballpoint needle because we didn’t have one laying around to use for the photo). A ballpoint needle is also known as Jersey needles. It’s a needle that is rounded on the tip and not sharp like a regular needle. This feature enables the needle to pass through the fabric by separating the threads in the fabric instead of penetrating it.
The bobbin thread will do a zigzag stitch on the backside and the two needles will produce two straight stitches on the front.
It’s a very stretchy stitch (like a small zigzag stitch), and it’s a pretty one as well. Looks great on the front with the two straight stitches.
You will have to mount a second spool with thread for the second needle. You then lead the thread through the same route as your normal upper thread on the machine.
This type of stitch is great for making a hem on the stretched material. It looks much better than the zigzag stitch (which will only be visible on the back of the fabric with this stitch).
The triple zigzag stitch for extra strength
There is also another popular zigzag stitch, which is designed to provide extra strength. This is especially handy for products like outdoor gear, kites, tents and other projects that will be used in rather extreme weather and storms.
Another category of clothes is underwear.
Underwear is often pulled up and down. The combination of elastane/stretch and the fact that it just gets worn out faster than other clothes makes it necessary to choose a solid and very strong stitch.
Read more here about the strong triple zigzag stitch.
This stitch is also great for kids clothes, as you might need that extra strength for play.
Good tips for sewing stretchy/knit fabric
Let’s start by addressing the misconception that you need a serger to work with knit fabrics.
This is also a good idea to avoid problems when sewing flannels.
You don’t need a serger to work with knit fabrics. It’s great to have it, and I would always choose the serger for sewing edges on stretchy fabric, but you don’t have to.
If you don’t know what a serger is, here’s an example.
We have a server to the left and a normal sewing machine to the right:
It’s an expensive machine for most people, and you can absolutely use your sewing machine to sew projects with stretchy fabric. It just takes a little more time, and if you feel the need over time you can always make the investment later.
Let’s look at some of the tips and tricks that can help you get a good result when you use your standard sewing machine to do projects with knit fabric.
- Do not stretch the fabric while sewing. The fabric needs to be “loose” and not tightened while you sew.
- Wash the fabric before you start sewing. This is always a good idea, to make sure the fabric will not shrink too much. Especially when working with elastic fabric.
- Have enough space for cutting and measuring. Make sure the fabric does not hand over the edge of the table, to avoid it from stretching. Otherwise, it will be harder to make precise measuring and cutting.
- Use a ballpoint needle (explained earlier in this blog post)
- Know your stitches. Modern sewing machines often have a ton of stitches. This basic model from Brother, for instance, has over 100 different stitches to choose from! So there are several stitches here designed for stretched fabric.
- Make sure the foot is not pressing too hard on stretch fabric. It might result in the fabric being stretched while sewing which is not good. You will normally have to loosen the foot a bit compared to sewing woven fabric.
- If you go with the twin needle stitch, be sure to double the amount of access thread. That type of stitch will need that to keep everything in perfect order.
Let’s finish off with a look at the different types of knit/stretchy fabric.
Different types of stretchy fabric
There are quite a lot of different stretchy fabrics.
Some are only stretchable across horizontally (called 2-way stretching) and other types will also be a stretchable vertically (called 4-way stretching). So depending on what you like and which type of garment you have in mind, there are different fabrics for that. Knit fabric will typically stretch both ways.
Let’s take a look at what we’ve got.
Jersey is thin and lightweight material, even though the name might have you thinking of cows. You probably know jersey from your t-shirts that are stretchy. It is also often used for dresses and other upper-body clothes, and will typically be able to stretch around 30%.
Lycra and spandex (cotton)
Great for t-shirts as well. A bit thicker and very smooth on the surface. These types of fabric will typically stretch 30-50%, and be a little less comfortable to wear.
Medium weight and great for leggings. It doesn’t roll as much and is easier to work with. Great material to choose for your first project with stretchy fabric.
Caution: There are a lot of different qualities out there for every type of stretchy fabric, so make sure to feel the fabric before you buy it. Otherwise, make sure you can return it if the quality or stretch is not as advertised.
Most times you will be fine using the standard zigzag stitch you will find on any sewing machine. It will do the job, and leave you with a good and very stretchy result that will work well with the fabric.
If you want a little extra strength durability you can go for the triple stitch zigzag. It’s just stronger and a great match for kids clothes and other projects where you need a little extra strength.
For making hems you can use a serger (if you have one) or you can use a twin needle to make a pretty finish on the front and a great zigzag on the back of the fabric.
Happy sewing, we hope you like the article and learned a thing or two!