How to sew stretch fabrics without a special machine

Do you have a drawer full of old or ill-fitting tee-shirts, asks Julie Anne Eason of How about stretch-denim jeans that are now hopelessly out of style? Don’t worry. Your closet is actually a gold mine of fabric just waiting to become something new and exciting. She shows us how – without having to invest in a specialist sewing machine.
Janome overlockerKnit fabric has come a long way in the past few decades. Remember the days of polyester double knit and icky leisure suits? Those days are gone. Now we have cotton jersey and microfiber and all sorts of lovely soft stretchable knits.
But if you don’t have a serger, an overlocking sewing machine – such as the Janome shown on the right¬† – sewing any stretchy fabric can be a bit intimidating.

I can recall working hard on cute ‘onesies’ for my babies only to have the thread break and the seams fail. It seemed I was destined to sew only woven non-stretch fabric forever. But I really wanted to sew swimsuits, dance costumes and active wear. There had to be a way to do it without buying a pricey serger.
It took a while, but I finally learned the secrets. And you can learn to do it, too. It’s easy, I promise. You just have to have the right tools.

The right pattern

Here's a photo of a jacket I made from old stretch blue jeans that didn't fit anymore
Some patterns are drafted for knits and some for woven fabrics. You can substitute one for the other, but only if you adjust accordingly. Patterns designed for knits tend to run smaller, because they take into account the stretchiness of the finished garment. Patterns designed for woven fabrics run larger, because the fabrics don’t stretch.
It’s also good to be aware that not all knits stretch the same. Some stretch in two directions (side to side or up and down) and some stretch in four directions. Some stretch a little, and some stretch a lot. To get the best fitting garments, be aware of your pattern’s requirements and choose a fabric to match.

The right needle

Ball-point needles are specially designed for sewing knit fabric. The point slides between the threads instead of piercing the fabric. Even if you normally use a universal needle, which is supposed to sew knits or wovens, switch to a ball point. You’ll get a much higher quality stitch. If you’re experiencing skipped stitches or holes in your fabric, it’s most likely your needle. Switch to a fresh ball point and see if that doesn’t make life better.

The right stitches

You also need the right stitch on your sewing machine. The reason seams fail is because the fabric wants to stretch and the straight stitch you used has no stretchability. So at some point the thread breaks and you wind up with a huge hole. The trick is to use a stitch that stretches with the fabric. So which one do you use? You have several options…
zig zag and decorative stitches
If you don’t have a sewing machine with a lot of fancy stitches, a basic zig-zag – pictures left – works fine. Just set it to a narrow width and go. You won’t get a ton of stretch, so it’s not ideal for swimsuits. But it’ll do fine for jersey t-shirts and the like.
The stitch I use all the time is called a tricot stitch. It’s represented as a broken zig-zag on stitch charts. This one give a lot of stretch and I use it on everything from elastic on a swimsuit to lycra cutouts on belly dance costumes. It’s strong and stretchy.
Most sewing machines these days have a whole range of stretch stitches available to you. They’re usually illustrated in gold or red or with dotted lines on your stitch chart, but just check your manual to be sure.
Test them out on scrap fabric. Check their strength when you stretch the fabric. And then use whichever one you like best.
Two rows of identical straight stitching. For the bottom row, the fabric was stretched
You can also use your regular straight stitch, but gently stretch the fabric as you sew. When you let go and the fabric relaxes, the stitches will have “built-in” stretch.
Your machine may also have a “stretch straight” stitch where the machine goes forward one stitch and back a half-stitch each cycle. That also gives a nice straight-stitch seam.

The right accessories

An even feed walking foot helps feed the fabric through the machine evenly. Many stretch fabrics are very slippery and you can end up with puckered or uneven seams. If this accessory doesn’t come with your machine, you can pick one up on Amazon fairly cheaply. The alternative to using an even feed foot is to simply baste your seams together by hand before you sew.
If you’ve never sewn stretch fabrics before, what are you waiting for? Those old tee-shirts, worn out swimsuits and out-of-style stretch jeans are ready to become something new and fabulous. And you won’t have to spend a dime on fabric!
SeriousSewingAbout the author: Julie Anne Eason pf spends lots of time cutting up and remodeling tee-shirts and blue jeans. She also does reviews of sewing machines sewing and cutting tables adjustable dress forms

There are 2 Comments

  • dizzygirl

    i took the sleeves out of a t shirt that had long sleeves. it was also striped. i matched up the stripes, sewed them together to create a strip of material, then added this to the length of the t shirt. this way i can wear either a lightweight tshirt in addition underneath contrasting with arms, or as a tshirt for warmer weather. either way its a win win!

  • dish of the day

    This has inspired me to have a good at an old track suit. Lovely colour and material but i just hate the shape.