Last weekend I had the house all to myself for two days, and I decided it was finally time to try sewing with knit fabric on my regular sewing machine. I’d read that it can be done. I’d bought some fabric on sale over months and months. I’d bookmarked a class on CreativeBug, and had even, ages ago, printed out the pattern for the Wanderlust Tee.
To be clear, I have only ever sewn two garments in my life: a robe for my son a few years ago, and a very wee pair of baby pants. I’m no garment-sewing expert is what I’m saying.
And though I’ve had fabric and a pattern for a simple shirt for years, I eventually realized that what I wear are t-shirts. Every day I wear one! Which is why I never got around to making clothes for myself out of woven fabrics. High time to just see if I could make a t-shirt, then.
Here, I’ll skip right to the end: I made myself three shirts over the weekend. And most of a fourth!
I was not speedy. At times, it was very slow-going and very tedious. But with each successive shirt, I worked a bit faster. With each successive shirt, I became more confident that I will make more (many, many more).
Now. Usually knit fabrics are sewn with a serger, which is a fancy kind of sewing machine that finishes and trims the edges of the fabric as you sew. (Don’t think I’m not thinking of stalking Craigslist for one now that I’ve broken the shirt-making seal.)
I’d heard rumours, though, that it’s doable to sew knits on a regular sewing machine. In fact, I read quite a lot about this as I nurtured my fantasy of making my own clothes while not actually making any clothes.
And I’ll tell ya, the rumours are true! Sure, using a serger would probably make the process faster and less tedious, but it’s not a required tool. And since even entry-level sergers can set you back more than a couple hundred bucks, I hereby encourage you to give it a shot using your regular machine.
Here’s the skinny of what I learned during my weekend knits-sewing intensive:
What I Learned Sewing Knits for the First Time Using My Regular Sewing Machine
- That cutting fabric around paper pattern pieces using a rotary cutter isn’t as terrifying as it looks when you’ve never done it before. Awkward? Certainly. But also efficient and satisfying. The very first shirt I made was the Wanderlust Tee by Fancy Tiger Crafts, and I followed their Creativebug class as I went. (The class gave me courage, but it wasn’t exactly filled with help. I still had to look up some things.)
- A walking foot is essential. I learned how to use a walking foot when I made a quilt a couple of years ago, and I’d read they’re very helpful when sewing with knits, because knits have a tendency to stretch and distort when moving through a standard sewing machine. A walking foot has feed dogs that walk on top of the fabric, coordinated with the feed dogs that walk below the fabric, so the fabric is fed through the machine evenly at top and bottom. It’s well worth the $30 or so for a walking foot – I had zero trouble with my fabric stretching while I sewed, because it was fed evenly through my machine. (These contraptions are a bit more complicated than other kinds of presser feet, so I recommend looking for a tutorial specific to your sewing machine to see how to install it. It’s not hard to do, but it’s not necessarily clear how to do it without instructions.)
- How to thread a twin needle (it’s not nearly as complicated as you might think!). A twin needle is exactly what it sounds like: two needles attached at a shaft so they fit into your machine just like a single needle does. And what they do is like magic! Each needle is threaded from its own spool, and when you sew, they create parallel lines of stitches on the right side, and a decorative configuration of stitches on the wrong side. If you position the needles on either side of the edge of a hem, they’ll tack down the edge on the wrong side. Even if you use a serger to sew knit pieces together, you’ll use a twin needle to finish the edges. The first few minutes of this YouTube video got me threading my twin needles lickety-split. (I still have no idea what she’s talking about re: putting one thread to the left of something-or-other and the other thread to the right. As far as I could tell, I can’t access whatever that thing is on my Elna machine, so I ignored that instruction. No big deal.)
- How to sew with a twin needle. It’s tricky, but totally doable. I mean, the sewing itself is not tricky; it’s exactly the same as sewing with a single needle. What’s tricky is sewing a hem down with the right side of the fabric facing. Since you can’t actually see the edge of the hem, because it’s folded to the wrong side, this is an exercise in sewing by feel and having faith you measured properly. I know I rarely measure properly, so I had to focus hard on feeling for the hem edge. I bought both a 2mm and 4mm twin needle when I was preparing to sew with knits, not having any idea what the measurement was of. Turns out, that’s the measurement of the distance between the needles – so go for the biggest number you can find! I found 4mm a challenge, for sure, but I managed it. I sewed slowly and used my index fingers to keep track of the edge of the hem by feel. I was about 95% accurate, and I fudged the 5% where I missed the edge.
- To use awesome fabric. This is a lesson I’ve learned over time with yarn – I used to be tempted to save my most gorgeous yarn for something special, and what ended up happening was that I’d never use it. How dumb! I always encourage beginner crocheters to choose yarn they love, even though what they’ll make with it will probably be a total disaster. Making total disasters is what beginners are supposed to do! Which makes those disasters absolutely perfect. And we should make them with materials we enjoy using. So for my shirts, I used fabric I’ve been hoarding for a while because I bought it on sale for someday-maybe. The first shirt I made this weekend (shown in the photo above) is far more cropped than anything I’d normally wear. But I only had one yard of that fabric, and I love that fabric, and it was exactly the right amount to make a cropped shirt. So I went for it. I knew I might mess it up and ruin the fabric I love so much, but I decided I would rather mess up with fabric I was excited about than end up with a perfect shirt I wouldn’t actually want to wear. So a cropped shirt I made. And I love it. My hems aren’t sewn straight (I never sew straight, so whatever), and the bottom is a little too wide, but I just love it. I wore it immediately, layered over a long tank top. Which is how I’ve become someone who wears a cropped shirt.
- I made one Wanderlust Tee and almost three One Hour Tops. Had I realized how much simpler the One Hour Top is than the Tee, I would have started with it! But I’m glad I had the experience of sewing set-in sleeves. I wasn’t sure I was doing it right, but I did do it right! Still, the One Hour Tee is more my style, and I’m determined to make enough of them that I become able to actually make one in only an hour.
- The neck band on the Wanderlust Tee utterly defeated me. I was completely unable to make it work. So I ditched it and just folded the neckline 1/2″ to the wrong side and finished it that way (same as the cuffs and hemline).
- Always use a zig-zag stitch for sewing knit fabrics – it’ll allow the seams to stretch along with the fabric (and a straight stitch won’t).
- Finishing the edges (sleeve cuffs, hemline, neckline) was the part I enjoyed least. Not because of the twin needle (which produces a stretchy stitch – don’t sew a zig-zag with a twin needle!). It was that pressing knits is a pain, especially with lighter-weight fabric. The crease you make isn’t nearly as distinct or persistent as it is when you use woven fabrics, and I found myself winging it more than I would have liked.
- But who cares. Wing it!
When I posted a photo of my first tee over on Instagram, I asked which t-shirt patterns people love. Here are the recommendations commenters made:
- Anything by Patterns for Pirates
- Any knits by Grainline Studio (and specifically the Linden Sweatshirt)
- The Union St. Tee
- The Coco Top/Dress
- The Marianne Dress
- The basic t-shirt pattern in the Beginner Guide to Dressmaking book.
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