Working with stretch fabrics

It occurred to me earlier that I’m sharing all these posts about baby clothes and how easy they are to put together but what is needed is a reference to on how to handle stretch fabrics.

Rule one – stretch stitch

Generally when stitching most garments together, you use a regular straight stitch. Most electronic sewing machines will automatically start on a straight stitch for this reason. But with stretchy fabrics, if you use a straight stitch, the stitches are liable to crack rendering it a useless stitch.

For jerseys, you’ll most likely need a zig zag or stretch stitch. If your sewing machine has stretch stitches, it’s worthwhile having a little play with the various functions to see what stitches work well for you and how they stand up to a crack test (see below). Personally I like a slight zig zag stitch. What I mean by this is a stitch at a regular length (on my machine the length is 2.5 to 3, this allows me to get an unpicker easily under the stitch but you can’t pull it apart) and the width is only a few millimetres across (on my machine it’s stitch width 1). At this width, you can still effectively press seams open and it will look like a regular stitch on the outside of your garments but when I do a crack test, it will survive.

Rule two – crack test

Always do a crack test on a little sample. What I mean by this is stitch a line, then yank the fabric and see if the stitches can cope with it. If they can’t, you’ll hear the stitches crack. With fabrics like stretch wovens such as stretch denim, a straight stitch is probably fine. But jersey’s will need a different stitch, allowing the fabric to stretch without breaking and then spring back to its original shape. Why is a crack test so important? You wouldn’t want all your stitches to snap from the act of stretching a garment to allow you to get dressed.

So thats my rules, only a couple, but here is some general advice.

Overlocking seams

The great thing about jersey is that you can sew seams with an overlocker. This is particularly good for sewing together t shirts, swimwear, activewear and kids clothing. It has the added benefit of finishing the seam allowance as you sew. However, you have to be confident in your overlocking abilities. You need to be able to overlock your seams without cutting off your seam allowance and keeping the fabric from distorting. And be prepared to unpick REALLY annoying seams if you do make a mistake. One way to get around this, is to sew your seams together using a tack or stretch stitch first and then overlock your seams.

Finishing hems

With most hems on woven fabrics you can turn the edges once or twice and stitch. However on jersey garments, this can actually distort the hem and make it flute. Sometimes you can press/steam it back into shape but there is are different techniques which I think are more effective.

On most garments on the high street, the hems are finished using a cover stitch machine. It’s similar to an overlocker with multiple threads used but it doesn’t have a blade to cut the edge.

Its designed to machine into the fabric so it doesn’t wrap the edge of the fabric like an overlocker. To use it, you fold your hem allowance over and stitch your line. Increasingly I’m noticing baby clothing manufacturers are using it to machine together the garments as well, it creates a flatter line than a regular seam.

But if you don’t have money for another machine, you can create a very similar effect with a twin needle. It isn’t as complex as people think. You prepare your hem edge by pressing up with hem allowance and do a regular straight stitch from the top, the bobbin thread is then pulled between the two needles creating a zig zag stitch on the back which enables the stitching to stretch. You can trim off any excess fabric if needed.

Cuffs and ribbing

Cuffs are a great way to finish the edges of stretch garments, these are created by folding strips of fabric in half lengthways and stitching to the unfinished edge to your garment. The seam allowance is then pressed into the garment and the pressed edge of the cuff is the hem. Nice and tidy.


Bindings can be used on necklines and cuffs. It is really good on bottom edges of baby vests too. Bindings can be a little fiddly to do but there is a little cheat where you don’t have to tuck under the raw edge like they do on the high street.

At home, cut strips with the stretch grain. Then line up your strips with the edge of the garment and stitch right sides together. Fold over edge of fabric and top stitch or stitch in ditch along the edge. Any excess can be trimmed off for a neat finish.

You can even use a twin needle and straddle the binding seam which creates a pleasing top stitch, my finish of choice when using a binding.

Things to avoid

I recently made this dress, which called for a zip. The zip itself was fine to insert as I tacked it in as per my concealed zip instructions post. But to be honest, as the fabric is so delicate (silk jersey) the zip catches the fabric and damages it. I can easily get the dress on without the zip so I’ll probably never use it. I think zips generally in stretch fabrics aren’t needed unless it is impossible to dress without one.

If you do go for a zip, tack it in first and try the garment on, you don’t want to spend all that time putting in a fantastic zip and it’s bumpy on the body. That said, zips can actually be used to draw fabric up. So if you have too much fullness a zip can be beneficial in easing the fabric. If you can get help, it’s worth getting someone to pin the zip roughly to the garment when your wearing it or even use a mannequin to ensure a nicely sitting zip.

If you need to do buttonholes, make sure you stabilise the back of the fabric with a woven interfacing. If you just stitch a buttonhole directly onto stretch fabrics of any kind, its liable to stretch. Then you get an ugly bumpy line where the fabric has distorted. The same goes for poppers. Its worth using interfacing under poppers or have several layers of fabric. If a popper is inserted into a single layer of jersey, it is liable to rip through if the fabric isn’t thick enough.

Did I miss anything?

If you think I’ve missed anything or want more info, leave a comment or send me an email and I’ll write a post on it.

Thanks for reading.

Rosie xx

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