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How To Sew Stretch Fabrics

Stretch fabrics can really take your garment sewing to the next level—but they can also be tricky to work with when you're just starting out. But don't fear! With the right tools, techniques, and a bit of practice, you'll be stitching spandex like a pro in no time. Read on for our comprehensive guide to sewing stretch fabrics, including tips, techniques, and everything you should know before starting your first stretch project.

Woman sewing stretch fabric on a sewing machine.
Learn the tools, tips, and techniques you need to sew stretch fabric in this comprehensive guide.


Why Sew With Stretch Fabric?

So, why sew with stretch fabrics in the first place? While there's a lot you can do with non-stretch woven fabrics, using materials with some elasticity can elevate the way a garment looks, fits, and feels. Think about some of your favorite items of clothing. Chances are, they probably fit well, are comfortable to wear—and probably have a bit of stretch. In case you're not convinced, let's look at a few key advantages of using stretch fabric:

1. Stretch Fabric Provides Comfort in Garments

Whether you're using a super-stretchy Lycra or a soft jersey material, fabric elasticity makes garments more comfortable. The ability to stretch allows the fabric to move with the wearer and fit more comfortably for added freedom of movement—a must-have for activewear, leisure wear, and many casual garments where comfort is key.

2. Stretch Fabric Can Make Fitting Easier

Stretch fabrics conform with the body, helping you achieve a more personalized fit. Plus, they tend to be more forgiving, making it easier to achieve the perfect fit you're after.

3. Stretch Fabric Looks Professional

If your garments aren't coming out quite as you imagined, your fabric choice might be playing a part. Of course, this point depends a lot on your project and design, but generally, garments made with non-woven fabrics tend to have a stiffer, more structured look. If your garments aren't as "flowy" or form-fitting as you pictured, a fabric with even a little stretch might help you achieve a more professional-looking drape.

3. Learn To Sew A Wider Array of Garments

Learning to sew with stretch fabric opens you up to a whole new world of garments you can sew! T-shirts, form-fitting dresses and tops, yoga pants, athletic tops, undergarments, and swimwear are just a few garment styles you can learn to create using stretch fabrics.

Sewing machine with walking foot attachment
Using a walking foot can help feed stretchy fabrics through the machine more evenly.

Before You Sew: Tools And Preparation

Before you cut or sew your fabric, you can set yourself up for success by ensuring you have the right tools and materials on hand. Here's what you should have in your stretch sewing arsenal:

Use A Ball Point Needle For Stretch Fabric 

Our first item on the list is the most essential: a needle specially designed for stretch fabric. Stretch fabrics like jerseys and knits require a needle that won't pierce or damage the fabric's fibers. A ball point needle, also known as a jersey needle, features a rounded tip designed to push the threads aside instead of piercing them, helping to prevent skipped stitches, fabric snags, runs, and visible holes in the fabric. Stretch needles also feature a rounded tip slightly sharper than the ball point needle. Typically, ball point needles are used for knits, jerseys, and stretch fabrics with a more open weave, whereas stretch needles are for highly elasticized fabrics like Lycra and Spandex. However, it's always a good idea to test your needle on scrap fabric before sewing to see what works best for your material.

Choose The Right Thread For Sewing Stretch Fabric

Along with choosing the correct needle, you'll also need a thread that can handle some stretch. Polyester thread is a popular pick for sewing stretch fabrics due to its flexibility, durability, and "give," which allow it to withstand the stress and movement of stretchy materials. An all-purpose polyester thread like Gutermann Mara or WAWAK Perform-X Poly-Wrapped Poly Core Thread is an excellent option for stretch sewing. Avoid using cotton thread for stretch sewing, as its lack of stretch can lead to thread breakage, fabric bunching, and general difficulty. 

Optional: Use A Specialized Presser Foot

Stretch fabrics can often be sewn using a standard sewing machine foot. But if you're finding the fabric difficult to work with or using very "slippery" or highly elastic fabrics, you may find replacing your sewing machine foot with a walking foot helpful. This style of presser foot helps feed the fabric through the machine more evenly by providing a second set of feed dogs (the "teeth" under the machine's throat plate that grip the fabric and pull it through the machine) on top of the fabric. Be sure that the presser foot you choose is compatible with your sewing machine by consulting the owner's manual.

Stretch Fabric Sewing Techniques

Now that we've got our tools, let's get started! The most important thing to remember about sewing with stretch fabrics is you don't want the fabric to stretch while you work with it. Whether you're sewing or cutting, here are a few practical techniques to keep in mind to help you ace sewing with stretch fabrics:

How To Cut Stretch Fabrics

When cutting stretch fabric, it's best to lie the material flat on an even surface. If the fabric is long, make sure it doesn't hang off your table or work surface, as the weight can pull and distort the fabric. Some sewers find it easier to keep the fabric flat by using a rotary cutter to cut the fabric, but a sharp pair of sewing scissors will also do the trick if you don't have one. Unlike woven fabrics, knit fabrics usually don't need to be finished when cut, but the raw edges often tend to curl. If desired, finish cut ends with a hem, binding, or your preferred finishing method. It's also good to keep in mind that, much like needles, standard pins can leave behind holes in stretch fabrics, so take care to place pins only inside the seam allowance or use knit-safe ball point pins to prevent this. 

Stitching Techniques For Stretch Fabrics

To sew stretch seams, you'll need to use a stitch that can stretch alongside the material. On a home sewing machine, the best stitches for sewing stretch fabric are the zigzag stitch and stretch stitch (sometimes called a lightning stitch). Unlike a standard straight stitch, which would snap instead of stretch, these flexible stitches can accommodate a garment expanding and contracting. Almost any home sewing machine will have a zigzag stitch, but check your machine's manual to see what other stretch stitches are available for you to use. One popular example of another stretch stitch that some machines may offer is the twin needle stitch; it requires a special twin needle that creates two rows of straight stitches connected by a zigzag stitch in the back for neat topstitching. 

Like cutting the fabric, the key to sewing stretch fabric is to prevent it from stretching as you work. Don't pull or push the fabric through the machine as you sew; allow the machine to feed it through without any additional force. Make sure the full weight of the project is supported and not draping over the edge of your work surface or weighing down the part of the fabric you're sewing. Most of all, remember that practice makes perfect! Sewing with stretch fabric is a skill that takes time to develop. Practice on scraps of fabric until you get a feel for it, and don't forget to enjoy the process of learning this new skill!

Tips For Sewing Stretch Fabric

At this point, you have a pretty good idea of what you're getting into when it comes to sewing stretch fabric, but we have a few more tips that might help make your life easier:

1. Pre-Wash Your Fabric

Eliminate any future shrinkage by washing and drying your fabric as you would with the finished garment. This is good practice for any sewing project, but especially important with knits, which can shrink a lot upon first wash. You don't want to end up with a shrunken garment after all that work!

2. Adjust Your Sewing Machine Settings for Stretch Fabric

Adjusting just a few sewing machine settings can do wonders for your stretch fabric projects. If your machine allows you to adjust the pressure of your presser foot, you may want to try lowering it to prevent the foot from pressing too hard into the fabric and potentially distorting it. When choosing a stitch length, a slightly longer setting can often help prevent fabric stretching or puckering. You probably won't find the perfect settings right away, so always test your stitches on scrap fabric first (spoiler for the next tip!).

3. Test Your Stitches

Unfortunately, there's no one-size-fits-all list of sewing machine settings for stretch fabrics. Every material is different, so it might require some experimentation before you find the perfect combination of adjustments and tools to get your machine running just right. Save a few scraps of your fabric just for testing out stitches so you can be sure you've got everything in order before diving into your project.

4. Consider Using A Serger

You don't need a serging machine to sew knit fabrics. But if you get a few stretch projects under your belt and find that you really enjoy working with stretch fabrics, a serger might be a worthy investment. Sergers are designed to finish knit seams and edges with a very flexible, professional-looking seam and evenly feed the fabric through the machine with a feature known as differential feed.

Sewing machine sewing a zigzag stitch on blue and white checkered fabric

Troubleshooting Common Stretch Fabric Sewing Challenges

Sewing stretch fabrics may present a few challenges, but we've got you covered! In this section, we'll address some common issues and provide troubleshooting tips and suggestions to make your sewing journey smoother.

"Wavy" Or Stretched Out Edges:

It's common for edges on stretch fabric projects to have a curly or wavy look. This can be the result of several issues, including too much pressure from the presser foot, stretching the fabric during sewing or cutting, or the fabric feeding unevenly through the machine. To solve this, you can try using a longer stitch length, lowering the pressure of your presser foot, using a walking foot, and following our other tips and techniques above to improve your stretch sewing technique. You can also often fix wavy edges by pressing them with an iron using steam—just be sure to check the appropriate temperature settings for your fabric and use a pressing cloth to avoid scorching the material.

Skipped Stitches:

Skipped stitches are often due to a problem with the needle. It could be due to a mismatch between the fabric and the type of needle (don't forget to use a ball point or stretch needle with stretch fabric!) or an incorrect needle size. The needle could also be damaged, dull, or not set in the machine correctly; try switching out your existing needle for a new one, even of the same size or type, and try trading a ball point needle for a stretch needle or vice versa if the problem persists.

Seams Puckering:

If you're noticing puckering or bunching in your seams, there are a couple of tests you can do to find the problem. Cut all of the top and bottom stitches in a small area without removing them; if the seam lies flat in that area, your thread tension is most likely too high. If the seam doesn't lie flat, then remove the stitches. If this solves the problem, you may need a longer stitch length or thinner needle. The last test you can do is make two cuts across the seam and remove the threads between the two cuts. If one thread is longer than the other, your fabric was likely not fed through the machine evenly, which could be caused by too much presser foot pressure or the fabric being stretched or pulled during sewing.

That's enough reading, let's get sewing! With the right tools and these tips and techniques, you're all set to tackle your first stretch fabric sewing project. Find the materials you need to get started at WAWAK Sewing Supplies; we offer super-fast shipping so you can get started as soon as inspiration strikes.

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