Sewing Knits With Stretch Stitches | Elise's Sewing Studio

by Elise

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You need to use stretch stitches if you are sewing fabric with stretch. Read on for my best tips to get the best results using stretch stitches on knit fabrics.

What are stretch stitches?

Stretch stitches are stitches, that, well – stretch!

A regular straight stitch does not have any give. If you sew a straight stitch on a fabric with stretch, the stitches can pop while the fabric stretches (like when you are wearing it!)

Stretch stitches stretch, so they move with the fabric. This results in better garment fit, and your seams are much less likely to snap.

Why you need to use stretch stitches on stretch fabric.

How do you know which stretch stitch to use?

The stitches you have available to you depend on your sewing machine. Some will have a number of stretch stitches to choose from, while others (especially older machines) might only have a zig-zag stitch.

Stretch stitches on sewing machines

One of the main reasons that stretch stitches have more give is that they are made up of a number of small stitches. While this creates a good sewing result, it also means that stretch stitches are a bit slow to sew, and a pain to unpick.

Look at your manual to determine the stretch stitches that are available to you. If you do not have your manual, you can try:

  • Searching for one online
  • Joining Facebook groups specific to your brand of sewing machine (there are many, especially for older machines, that have some very passionate folks in them eager to help you out!)
  • Looking up blogs and YouTube videos specific to your machine and model.

How do I know if I need to use a stretch stitch?

If your fabric is a knit, you should use a stretch stitch.

Knit fabric is fabric in which the fibers are knitted together instead of woven. Some examples would be jersey (“T-shirt fabric”), ribbing, fabric that looks like a knitted sweater or blanket, and cotton-lycra blends.

It’s always best to test your stretch stitches on scrap fabric before beginning your fabric. It can be a bit trickier to get the best stitch and tension for your fabric with stretch stitches.

I also recommend using a jersey or ballpoint needle and using these needles when doing your scrap fabric testing.

Want to learn more about fabric for garment sewing? Read the article.

Types of stretch stitches

Stretch stitches on Kenmore machine
Sewing elastic onto fabric with a sewing machine

I’m using an early-90’s Kenmore machine which boasts 22 stitches, including a few stretch stitches. Chances are you have similar stitches even if your machine is very different.

Stretch stitches for knits

Zig-zag stitch
Left: Regular zig-zag stitch Right: 3-step zig-zag in a shorter and longer stitch length

A zig-zag stitch can be used for many things – applique, and to prevent edges from fraying – but it can also be used as a stretch stitch as there is some give between the stitches.

In most cases, when using a zig-zag for a seam in knit fabric, use a narrow stitch length to avoid the seam looking puckered from the outside.

3-step zig-zag

This is my preferred stitch to use for elastic edges as it looks a bit decorative and gives a lot of stretch.

Each “zig” and “zag” is made up of 3 smaller stitches.

Straight stretch
Left: Straight Stretch Stitch Right: Rick Rack Stretch Stitch

The straight stretch is made from very small stitches and takes a long time to sew a seam. It goes forwards and backward as the machine stitches.

This isn’t my preferred stretch stitch as it is very slow to sew, and is an absolute pain to unpick.

Rick-Rack stretch

This is another option for topstitching knit fabrics and you are looking for a decorative stitch. I confess I don’t think I have ever used this one as I’m not really into decorative stitches.

Lightning stitch
lightening stretch stitch

This is a good stitch to use for seaming together knit fabric for clothing. I usually use this or a narrow zig-zag.

Stretch stitch for elastic

If you are sewing elastic to the wrong side of a garment to create a gathered effect, you can use the elastic stitch. Stretch the elastic so it lays flat while stitching.

This elastic was zig-zagged to the wrong side of the garment while the elastic was stretched out.
The right side of the fabric.

Stitches for sewing elastic edging

Three-step zig-zag is also great for sewing elastic along the edge of a project, for example with undergarments.

In this case, I lay the elastic along the edge of the fabric, the right side of the fabric facing up, and the decorative edging of the elastic facing in towards the garment.

Pin elastic with the decorative edge facing in towards the garment on the right side of the fabric.

Then I zig-zag stitch the elastic on.

Attach lingerie elastic with 3 step zig zag

Flip the elastic over so the decorative edge is on the outside, then zig-zag again.

I think that the 3-step zig zag with decorative elastic looks pretty.

Lingerie finished with 3-step zig-zag stitch and decorative lingerie elastic.

What if my machine doesn’t have stretch stitches?

If you have a regular zig-zag stitch but none of the other stretch stitches, use the regular zig-zag stitch on a narrow setting.

Using a wide zig-zag can create a rippled-looking seam.

Sewing knit fabric with a serger

Sergers are great for sewing knit fabrics, but you will still need a sewing machine for most projects.

Serged seams are able to stretch. This is a suitable stitch for projects using jersey fabric such as leggings, t-shirts, knit hats, etc. You can serge the edges together to create a seam, or use a stretch stitch such as the lightning stitch first and then serge the edges.

Seam sewn with lightening stitch and serged edge
Stretch stitches on knits project idea: Sew a custom size skirt
draft a custom size skirt online sewing class

Now that you know a bit more about sewing with knit fabrics, why don’t you try a new sewing project?

I have a system on how to draft a basic pull-on skirt pattern to your own measurements and turned this system into a workshop you can watch and learn any time.

Draft a skirt pattern to your measurements and sew it.

Interested in sewing a skirt based on your own body measurements, instead of buying a pattern for one?

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Want more details about this and other fashion and style ideas? Check out more here!
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