Last winter, I promised myself I would tackle knits. This winter, it was really easy to keep that promise because of the ten tons of snow dropped on us mixed with subzero temperatures. I have been sewing quite a bit, even though I haven’t kept up with my blog posts lately. I can assure you, I’ve been creating. There’s not much else to do except watch it snow….
I have no fear when it comes to sewing, and I have tried to expand my skills into something resembling a repertoire. So I like new and interesting fabrics to sew with, and for my first two years of sewing, I’ve tried mostly wovens: batiste, voile, linen, and velvet. But there is a whole other fabric species to discover: knits! It consists not just of the very comfy, familiar cotton t-shirt type of knit we all know and love. No, indeed, there are more exotic knits out there- single knits, fleece, sweater knits, active knits and jerseys.
Today’s post is all about my first foray into the jersey knits. Not that long ago, I didn’t really understand what jersey knits were. I remember watching a movie about Coco Chanel and there’s a scene where young Chanel is in a store, and she asks the clerk for a bolt of jersey. He smiles and says, “I thought I would never sell that!” and then she smiles, and says, “Then you won’t mind giving it to me half off.” You pity the clerk somewhat as his smile slips. Then, later in the movie, a woman and her husband are visiting Chanel’s establishment and she’s trying on a suit made from the jersey. “It’s so soft!” she coos, and her husband, indignant, says “It’s obscene! Take it off! We’re leaving!”
I was puzzled. What was the big deal? Well, I did some research, and found that jersey was used exclusively for underthings in the early twentieth century. So…she more or less was wearing a suit that looked to her husband like lingerie. In that time, it was considered a man’s job to keep his wife’s morals intact, and he clearly felt his wife should not be parading around in her underthings in public…even if it was a suit and she was covered to her neck. She, clearly no suffragette, reluctantly obeyed him. By the twenties, of course, you started to see more active fashions for more active ladies, and jersey came out from hiding, so to speak.
Jersey is a very soft knit, very fluid, which means it’s slippery and drapes well with no stiffness. This is a characteristic that would be great for lingerie, so I can see why you’d use it that way- in fact I have a new lingerie pattern that uses jersey. This quality also makes it nice for dresses, elegant draped tops, and cardigans, depending on how heavy the fabric in question would be.
Sewing with jersey was another matter entirely. My inexperience with knits was my first obstacle. I’d made four cotton knit shirts, and had tried a mesh shirt in a cute stripe, with mixed results. The general advice for sewing with knits is that you would use a ballpoint needle on your machine, because a sharp would tear holes in the knit. I can attest to this- I made a single knit dress and had to pull out a seam, and yes, the holes were there, all right. Thank goodness they were small, I decided to keep the dress and hope nobody noticed those holes.
The other thing you’re told to do with knits is use a walking foot, so they don’t stretch all to heck while you’re working on them. The walking foot sews slower and holds the fabric down more than a conventional presser foot. Which should help with the stretchiness inherent in knits.
That worked find with the cottons. It did not work well with the jersey. In fact, I got my test fabric eaten by the machine. My stitches skipped. The walking foot snagged my fabric on the feed dogs and they left unsightly pulled threads and fuzzies. Then, the stitches themselves were all wrong and my fabric looked tortured.
What the heck??
After trial and error, I concluded:
Jersey doesn’t like my walking foot.
Jersey doesn’t like my generic, all purpose ball needle.
Jersey doesn’t like the thread tension, either.
Jersey doesn’t like diddly squat.
So, I changed my walking foot out for the regular presser foot. I went shopping and brought home a special jersey needle pack. I lowered my thread tension.
Success! The fabric was happy.
Ok, now we could get the show on the road. I whipped out an older pattern I bought when I was first sewing but didn’t have the guts to make. Simplicity New Look #6751 has a cute baby doll type dress with gathering in the front of the skirt, and elasticized gathered sleeves. It has similar lines to the much-loved and worn purple dress of my mid 1990s high school days. It was a sad day when I realized that dress didn’t fit me anymore. But now, I could have a new one in rose jersey. Sweet! You can’t always get back your lost wardrobe loves because styles change and you change, too. Sometimes what looked good in your teens doesn’t always look good in your thirties….but it helps if you can sew your own and make adjustments as you go. It has kind of a 1960s vibe I found appealing, given my fashion history geekiness.
Now I began to work on the pattern. I stitched the gathers in the skirt, and stitched skirt front to skirt back, then I worked on the bodice. Now, the best part about knits is that they stretch. This stretching in the fabric means that you don’t need to do the same things you’d do with a woven- namely, things like darts. Darts are a way to take a stiff, woven fabric and make it bend so it conforms to your body. The bodice on the dress I made had darts, because it was pretty much created with wovens in mind. That’s not really a hard-and-fast rule, though, you can sometimes turn a pattern for a woven into a knit-friendly version, too. Well, my inexperience was showing, because I went and put darts in my first try at the bodice.
The darts didn’t look right to me, and I couldn’t take them out, that would make the bodice too big. I cut a new bodice front, but edited out the knits this time. This is why I try to buy a little extra fabric with each project- I still make some goofs and sometimes I need to cut a piece again. It’s fairly easy, you can pin the darts closed on the pattern before you trace. Then just trace your pattern piece onto freezer paper. That takes out the extra inches you don’t need for the darts. That’s how I do it, anyway. There’s a more official way, no doubt, but this works for me.
The new bodice worked out, so I joined front to back, and went to the trim around the neckline, visible in illustration D.
I pinned the band on, and…didn’t like it. I took it off. I didn’t know what else to do with it, though, so I ignored that part and attached the top to the skirt, and made the sleeves.Then I tried it on.
As you can see from the color photo, it’s a bit loose on me. There’s not much definition in the waist, unlike the illustration. There’s this weird place down on the hip that pulls. If I ran it in (made new stitches, closer to my body) that would fix the problems. I wasn’t impressed with the neckline, either. It was little bit boring, and a lot plain. I’m not really a plain kind of girl.
Ricky strolled by at this point to offer his opinion. I have two feline assistants, who help with everything from waking me up each day, to food prep, to sewing decisions. He suggested I try for something a little more sexy. So, back upstairs to the studio we went.
Changes were made, and I played around some more with the neckline. It wasn’t working for me as this big, plain neckline. I tried lace, trims, and finally I just decided to change the general shape of it. So I pinched, pinned, and played until it took on a shape I liked, and I stitched it in place. Not bad, but it still needed something…and inspiration. Remember at the beginning of the post how I mentioned jersey became used for more than just undergarments during the 1920s? And how on my previous post, I talked about historical tv shows inspiring me? I realized I could steal a fashion idea from Lady Edith on season 4 of Downton Abbey. I created a tie in the front of the bodice. That’s more like it!
So, while the dress was inspired by a cute dress I owned about twenty years ago, it came out completely different than I intended. Inspiration is a funny thing- you never know where it will lead you. This dress will be great with dark tights and some cute flats. Now I just need it to stop snowing so I can wear it.