Knits: The Undiscovered Country

When I first got my sewing machine, I went right out to the nearest JoAnn’s and bought patterns. I had no idea what I was doing, but those of you who know me in real life understand that for me, that’s not necessarily an obstacle. I am a very determined woman.
Among those first three patterns was this cute pattern for separates a dress, wrap, tank, and skirt. When I got it home, I read it and found it was sized for knits. Uh oh. What’s a double stretch knit? What’s the Pick-a-Knit rule? Scary, unfamiliar terms intimidated me. This was more involved than I thought.

I had a vague idea what knits were; I knew that knits were different from wovens, and that knits were used to make t-shirts, bikinis, and awesome dresses, and they were stretchy. I also knew that I didn’t know anything else…so I sighed forlornly and set it aside. I concentrated instead on learning to sew with beginner-friendly cotton wovens- my early projects were made from quilter’s cottons, batiste, linen, voile and lawn. But that knit pattern was still in my box, waiting. One day I found a copy of Built By Wendy: Sew U Home Stretch at Half Price Books. Hmm, I thought. This is cool- it’s all about knits, and it  has easy patterns included. When the snow began to fall this year, I decided it was time to sew my first knit project. With some help from Wendy’s Home Stretch.

Cute knit fabric for my t-shirt!

Cute knit fabric for my t-shirt!

One of These Things is Not Like the Others

Once I really studied the book, I learned that knits are not like wovens in a number of ways. Knit fibers are looped together…like knitting a sweater. While you can cut them with scissors, you can also stretch them out when you cut them with scissors. Wovens don’t really stretch, so scissors are ok. You need knit pattern pieces to be cut as precisely as possible, preferably not stretched out, so the recommended way is to use a rotary cutter (think pizza cutter but for fabric) and a self-healing cutting mat. The way you lay the fabric out for cutting is different, too. You turn your fabric wrong side up, as usual, but instead of folding it lengthwise in two, selvage to selvage, as with a typical woven cutting layout, you fold the raw edges toward the center.  When folded like this, it looks like a set of double doors.

For those not familiar with the sewing jargon, the selvage is the part where the fabric ends. Often it has a tape-like edge, and it’s a finished edge, not raw and frayed like it is where it was cut. This is the width the fabric was woven to be,  45″ or 60″ is pretty common.

You lay one piece on one folded edge, the other piece on the other folded edge, and cut the sleeves from the center. This follows the stretch, because your knit fabric can stretch in one direction, two, or four, depending what type of knit it is. If your fabric has one way stretch, you need to cut it so your stretch runs horizontally across your body. It has to stretch that way so you can get into it, because if you imagine putting on your t-shirt, you feel it stretch across your arms and shoulders as pull it over your chest and head. If it doesn’t stretch that way, you’ve got a t-shirt that’s decorative rather than functional.

This is so different from a woven layout, where your parts are laid out to follow grainlines (the weave of the fabric) or the bias (diagonal across the weave to make it cling better to you). Some things are still the same, though- I traced my pieces  with tailor’s chalk and marked the notches so things would line up, then cut them out.

What I really like about knits is the way they don’t fray. You cut it, and it’s a nice, neat cut edge. Well, it should be. I’m still getting a handle on the rotary cutter. My cuts aren’t perfect yet and need to be smoothed out with some snipping.

Setting Up

The weirdness doesn’t end with the cutting lay out. My sewing machine came with a thing called a Walking Foot. The sewing machine is portable, yes, but the Walking Foot has nothing to do with taking it for a stroll. It’s for sewing knits. What it does do is it holds your stretchy knits fabric while it runs stitches into it, keeping it from stretching all to heck while you work on it, which would mess up your finished t-shirt. Imagine your front and back not lining up after you stitched them together…ooooh, bad. The Walking Foot helps stop that from happening. I did use pins on my project to help me keep things together while stitching,  but not as much as when I work with wovens. A lot of the time, I just held it carefully and went slow and that helped.

Some people have a serger, and that’s a machine that runs multiple spools of thread and gets that nifty chain of x shaped stitches along your t-shirt’s collar and cuffs. They’re a good investment for professionals, but many people sew their own knits without a serger and just use their own standard sewing machine. Chances are you’re going to embellish what you’re making in some way, anyway, which can cover a multitude of sins, as I will demonstrate later….

The Walking Foot was easy to put on, I got out the little screwdriver and removed the regular Presser Foot and after some trial and error, I got the Walking Foot ready for its first use. I had to change the needle to a ballpoint needle, too, because the sharp needles you use on wovens can tear your knits and you don’t want that!

Putting it Together

Once I had it all set up and had my parts, I started by trying to finish the edges of my sleeves. It turns out, this is not a good idea. The knit fabric doesn’t fray, so you don’t need to zigzag stitch along the edges to keep it together. When I tried it, I got this weird wavy edge on my sleeve and furthermore, it was really difficult because the needle kept jamming the fabric edge into my machine. So I went back to the book and found the part where it said not to do that. Oops.

You also need to sew somewhat slowly on a knit. This is never a bad idea with any fabric you’re unfamiliar with, or anything tricky you’re doing, because it’s way easier to catch your goofs when going slow than when you’re zooming along. With knits, it’s just better since they do stretch somewhat when you work on them and this slow pace helps keep the stitches even and nice.

To attach the parts to each other, the book had me sew the left shoulder seam together using a zigzag stitch. This is a standard stitch, and it looks…like a zigzag, of course.

A zigzag stitch

Shoulder seam

Shoulder seam

Then I attached the right shoulder seam, and- whoops! I was supposed to do the collar first.  Ok,no big deal,  I backtracked, and did the collar out of order. Fine. Oh, no wait, it’s not fine.
I got going too fast and my needle caught a bit of fabric in the wrong spot and I had a wrinkle on the outside of the collar.


Ok, I know how to deal with this. I got my seam ripper, and carefully picked the stitches out…and created a hole. Not careful enough!!


I took a deep breath and realized surgery was my only option. The hole was kinda big. Slowly and carefully, I cut the top inch off, taking the hole with it and enlarging my neckline. Well, I wanted to make a wider neckline anyway.

I stitched the new neckline in place using a straight stitch, because I just didn’t like the zigzag showing. It wasn’t as nice as I’d hoped. I gave up temporarily on that and moved on to sleeves. When working with wovens, usually your order of work goes like this: do your shoulder seams, side seams and then you attach sleeves and do your neckline towards the end. With knits, it works really well to do your sleeves before the side seams. I laid the shirt out flat, with single thickness, stitched on the sleeves at each shoulder and then hemmed them. It was great! So easy! That’s probably the only part of my project that actually went without a hitch!

The book then instructed to sew the the left side seam first. Then you fold up your bottom hem and stitch it in place. It was a little uneven, but not enough you’d notice, and the stitches were good and so I left it. Sometimes when you sew, you’ve gotta be able to live with little imperfections.   Then I turned the garment inside out and stitched the right seam, and trimmed the excess off the seams, as close to the zigzags as I could without clipping off the tops of the stitches, to reduce bulk inside the shirt. In sewing, you want everything to lay as flat as possible, especially seams. Bulky isn’t pretty.

Now for the problem of the neckline. I tried a decorative stitch, but it just didn’t look as nice as I wanted, and because the thread was black and the fabric was mostly black, you missed out on the details anyway. So I rooted around in my stash, and came across some vintage baby ric rac. What’s ric rac, you ask? It’s a flat trim with a zigzag shape. It’s very common on informal garments from the 40’s and 50’s and modern kids’ clothes, and things like tea towels. Mine, in fact, came from Grandma, (thanks Grandma!) who kindly shared some of her stash with me when I started sewing more often this year. So, I decided the ric rac offered a hint of vintage charm and more importantly, covered my botched attempt at prettifying the neckline.

Vintage ric rac still on the card

Vintage ric rac still on the card

Applying trim to knits is a somewhat tricky job, I found, since they stretch and the trim I used doesn’t. I don’t have a lot of experience with trims yet, so like the novice I am, I tried to apply it by machine. The trim slipped, and went way off course to a spot a good 1/4″ below the stitches I was trying to cover, leaving them really visible and me really annoyed.

Aargh again.

I took a deep breath and slowly and delicately pulled out the stitches and managed to prevent a hole this time. Then I used a needle and thread and tacked the trim on and then I used the machine on it, slowly, so as not to mess it up yet again.

Thankfully, that time it worked.

Vintage ric rac on my shirt

Vintage ric rac on my shirt

Trying the shirt on was a happy experience. The sleeves ruffle slightly, and I’m still not sure what I did that caused that, but it’s feminine and I like it. The neckline is wide enough to show off a necklace and the fit snug enough you can see hints of my girlish figure and loose enough to be laid back. It’s not bad for a first attempt. Perhaps more importantly, after all the beginner mistakes, it’s still something I look forward to wearing. Success! I’m no longer afraid of knits.

Ah! Finished!

Ah! Finished!