So You Think You Can’t Sew Vintage Knitwear….

Well I’m here to tell you you can! To sound a bit cheesy I’ll say “if I can do it, you can too,” but that is absolutely true – I lack patience, tend to jump into things without knowing all the rules, and am often disappointed with my projects. So yes, really and truly, if I can sew this…

…then you can too.

“This” is Hollywood 1895, a perforated pattern from the 1940s. One of the suggested fabrics on the back of the envelope was silk jersey, which piqued my curiosity. With all those gathers and shirring, I imagined the dress would look fantastic in a nice drapey, lightweight jersey knit.

The problem was that I had no idea how to sew with knits.

Knits are SCARY.

Right? Well, knits are certainly *different* but with the right tools, they’re not scary. And the good news is that you don’t really need very much specialist equipment to successfully sew a knit garment.

For instance, you DO NOT need a serger. Let me repeat that – YOU DO NOT NEED A SERGER.

But there are some things you DO need:

  • Wooly Nylon Thread
    – it’s fluffy, comes on cones, stretches with the seams.
  • Cone Thread Holder
    – your regular sewing machine probably won’t accommodate a big cone of thread. You need this thing:
You just set this up next to your machine and the thread feeds from it through your regular thread setup.
  • Knit interfacing (fusible) – this is different than regular woven interfacing. It stretches with the fabric, but also stabilizes it. The midriff section of my Hollywood dress is interfaced with this stuff.
  • Narrow elastic – clear elastic, fold-over elastic, whatever is thin and about 1/4″ – 3/8″ wide. This is used to stabilize shoulder seams and the like.
  • Ballpoint needles – these are designed specifically for knits, and separate the fibres rather than punching through them.

Things you will want:

  • The Colette Guide to Sewing Knits
    – start with this book and reference it henceforth. Get this book before you dive into your knit sewing project. It made all the difference to mine.
  • Double needle – used to finish hems. It’s nice to have for sporty finishes.
  • Ultra Lightweight Stitch Witch tape – the really really light stuff. I used this to turn up all of my hems before stitching. It’s flexibile but also stabilizes the area to create a nice crisp hem. You can also use wash-away tape, or the fusible knit interfacing.
Converting Patterns for Knits
When you’re considering a vintage pattern to make in a knit fabric, chances are the pattern is originally intended for woven fabric. It will most likely have darts – you *can* sew darts in knits, but you can also remove them, converting them to shape the side seam – here’s a thorough tutorial on how to do this.
The reason you convert the darts is because your knit stretches, and you don’t need darts for shaping anymore. There are examples of vintage knits that do use darts, though, so it really is up to you if you want them in there or not.

The finished dress on the form. The entire dress is made from a lightweight t-shirt jersey knit. The hems are turned and stitched with one line of straight stitches in wooly nylon thread. Midriff is interfaced below gathers. Shoulder seams are reinforced with elastic. No closures – goes on over the head.
Considering Ease
You don’t want ease when sewing with a knit fabric. In fact, if you want it to fit tightly, you want negative ease. Most vintage patterns are great about not having much ease added in, but vintage repro patterns, or any modern Big 4 patterns, tend to have HUGE amounts of ease.
If you’re using a modern pattern, be sure to look on the tissue for the Finished Garment Measurements. For a nice close fit with the knit, you want the finished measurements to be exactly your own – you will almost certainly be cutting a size or two smaller than your usual arbitrary number, but you’ll be happy you did when your knit fits like a glove.
A nice close fit through the waist, relaxed everywhere else, but not baggy.
My knit dress was a size 16 – 34″ bust, 28″ waist. My own waist is closer to 29/30″ these days, so while the bust, shoulders, and hip fit in a relaxed way (like they would if the dress were rayon), the waist is nice and form-fitting, with no alterations made to sizing. If I’d wanted a tight-fitting, body-hugging style, I would have gone with one size smaller.
Stitch Mechanics
On the t-shirt you’re wearing, you’ll notice the edges of the seam allowances are all overcast with a serger, and the hems are sewn with two lines of stitching. Professional garment manufacture is different than what you need to be considering for home-sewing, and you don’t need to reproduce it.
Jersey knit (t-shirt fabric) doesn’t ravel on the edges, but it does curl. I turned up my hems with stitch witch and stitches with a long-ish single stitch with the wooly nylon thread. In testing the strength of my stitch, I stretched the fabric out a bit. None of my stitches broke, so I left the hems at that.
The body seams, on the other hand, are sewn with a very narrow zig zag, just barely zigging. The wooly nylon thread in combo with the barely-there zig zag creates and even stretchier stitch, which is good for seams that will be stressed, like side, waist, and shoulder seams. I ran a second line of wider zig zag stitches in the seam allowance next to the seam, then cut off the excess seam allowance. I did not overlock, overcast, or zig zag right on the edge of the fabric – my machine just ate it, stretches it all out, and made a mess. It’s safer to stitch, making sure not to stretch the fabric as it goes through the machine, then trim. With 1/2″ or 5/8″ seam allowances, this is no problem at all.
Soft, thin knits love being gathered, shirred, and ruched.
A few more tips:
  • The stretchiest direction of your fabric should go around the body.
  • No closures! YEEHAW!
  • Don’t pull the fabric through the machine. Just let it be taken by the feed dogs.
  • Sew your sleeves flat – attach the front and back of the bodice at the shoulder seams and lay it out flat. With the sleeve still completely flat, pin it to the bodice, matching shoulder seam, all the marks, and underarm seam on each side. Stitch. Now when you do your last fitting, you can take up the side seams and the underarm sleeve seam as needed, and stitch all together. I’ve used this method on wovens lots of times, and it makes setting the sleeves on knits a gazillion times easier.
Feeling better about sewing with knit yardage now? I hope so! Knits are totally period (even for evening wear!) and so comfortable to wear. We’re a t-shirt society these days, but how awesome would it be to roll out of bed and put on a fabulous 1930s or 1940s dress that’s just as comfy but looks fantastic?
So I encourage you to try it! It takes a little collecting of those proper tools, but once you’re up and running you’ll be genuinely amazed at how easy it is, and then you’ll wonder why you were so afraid.
If you have questions, please leave them in the comments below!


  • Tenshi

    October 28, 2015 at 5:24 PM

    What a gorgeous dress! It really fits you perfectly, and the colour suits you so well.
    I sew with knits a lot, by the way, and never used wooly nylon. Now I'm intrigued… Maybe I'll give it a try when I come across it some time.

    • Lauren Stowell

      October 29, 2015 at 1:14 AM

      Thank you! It's nice to know that wooly nylon thread isn't required for sewing knits. I was just amazed at how flexible and easy it was to use without any breakage. See if you like it 🙂

  • Jacqui

    October 28, 2015 at 7:45 PM

    Off to purchase some woolly nylon thread and give it a whirl. What a fabulous take on vintage, and I've metres and metres of the finest red wool jersey. Congratulations on your beauteous, stunning dress!

  • Unknown

    October 28, 2015 at 8:25 PM

    I've been thinking about trying my hand at this for a while, but haven't done it yet. I'm going to make it a top priority now! Thanks for sharing your tips and experience!

  • MrsC (Maryanne)

    October 28, 2015 at 8:56 PM

    Wow that dress is amazing and it suits you fantastically. I am so in love with bodices with that vertical ruching, it is so luxurious.And I love the shirred panel.

    • Lauren Stowell

      October 29, 2015 at 1:16 AM

      Thank you! In hindsight I think that much shirring, while perfect for controlling a woven, might not have been necessary on this knit. It would have gathered and draped with just a few rows rather than the 10 rows here. Then again, it creates a bit of a "control top" on the dress, too, which is nice for masking the tummy.

  • Vashti

    October 28, 2015 at 10:16 PM

    I can't agree with "you don't want ease when sewing with a knit garment." Garments with zero or negative ease fit very close to the body, and that's not what you want for all styles. If you are converting a pattern from woven to knit, it's usually safe to take out quite a bit of ease, but taking it all out would make a shirt fit like a glove or pants fit like leggings.

    • Lauren Stowell

      October 29, 2015 at 1:13 AM

      It depends on which part of the garment you're working with, and how stretchy your knit is. If you want the waste to be snug, you definitely do want negative ease, because your knit fabric is going to stretch quite a bit, and you want it tight on the waist. Other parts of the garment you may not want to fit tightly, so you wouldn't reduce the ease there.

      I should clarify that there are two types of ease – wearing ease and design ease. It's the wearing ease that is over-done on modern patterns meant for woven fabrics.

  • Rhia

    October 28, 2015 at 10:55 PM

    Thank you for this post, I have been dreaming about jersey dress in vintage style, but haven't really got my head around how to do it. This cleared my thoughts a lot.
    PS. That method for sewing sleeves flat to the shoulder before sideseam, we used to call that "sewing it as a plane" 😀 Modern clothes are usually done that way in the factories, first shoulderseams, then sleeves to the shoulder, then side seam. Sometimes they even finish the neckline, sleeve edges and hem before doing the seams. Faster that way.

    • Lauren Stowell

      October 29, 2015 at 1:17 AM

      Ah, now I know what to call it! I learned it in some vintage pattern a long time ago, and they might've had a name for it, but I don't remember now. SO much easier than setting in sleeves (which I HATE!)

    • Lauren Stowell

      October 29, 2015 at 1:17 AM

      They are! I don't really have good attention to detail, the fabric and was just very forgiving. I did spend a lot of time preparing for this project, though, which saved me in the long run SO much.

  • Emileigh

    October 29, 2015 at 2:08 AM

    I've thought this process through so many times, but I just can't seem to get knits quite right. I think I need that book you're talking about to help me out! This is EXACTLY the kind of dress I've wanted to add to my wardrobe!

  • kashurst

    October 29, 2015 at 5:04 AM

    What a beautiful autumn dress! Especially with the accessories! Did you make a mock-up? I have such odd body measurements that I always make one. Especially if I'm trying something new.

  • kashurst

    October 29, 2015 at 5:04 AM

    What a beautiful autumn dress! Especially with the accessories! Did you make a mock-up? I have such odd body measurements that I always make one. Especially if I'm trying something new.

  • kashurst

    October 29, 2015 at 5:04 AM

    What a beautiful autumn dress! Especially with the accessories! Did you make a mock-up? I have such odd body measurements that I always make one. Especially if I'm trying something new.

    • Lauren Stowell

      October 29, 2015 at 6:58 PM

      I did not make a mockup, but I did do quite a lot of measuring on the flat pattern. I *should* have lengthened the waist (I always need to do this, yet seldom do, because I suck at remembering to, lol). Aside from my ever-expanding waistline, my hip and bust measurements fit the size on the pattern envelope, so I will make an adjustment to waist and belly. With the knit, it wasn't so necessary, though, because of the stretch in the fabric.

  • Lauriana

    October 29, 2015 at 6:42 AM

    What a gorgeous dress! I actually own a serger and I've made lots of things from knit yardage but I'm always intimidated by the idea of using it for vintage designs. In fact, I have a Vintage Vogue repro pattern which calls for crepe or jersey and I was always a bit puzzled by that. In their modern versions, those two types of fabric would behave in very different ways. It always makes me wonder whether vintage jersey fabric was (a lot) less stretchy…
    And for 1930's and 40's designs, I always expect gathers and shirring to become way too bulky in jersey. So, clearly I should reconsider and try again…..

    • Lauren Stowell

      October 29, 2015 at 7:01 PM

      Yes, vintage jersey was different than modern jersey. We have loads of different stretch stuff today – very very spandexy, stretching in multiple directions, knits with lots of poly content, etc. I was worried about this when I chose the jersey for this dress, and while I set out to find something with less stretch, I ended up getting a quite stretchy bamboo knit t-shirt fabric. It worked great, to my surprise.

  • Mrs. Doris Button

    October 29, 2015 at 5:47 PM

    Thank you, thank you! Such an amazing post featuring an extraordinary beautiful dress! I am sewing lots of knits for the kids, and I love of course the "forgiving" kind of these fabrics (especially when your body measurements tend to go up and down a bit all the time…). So I always was wondering if some of those gorgeous patterns would turn out nice if sewn from a knit jersey fabric. I don't have patterns that particularly require knits, but I will certainly try my luck with a "regular" design. Your post is most inspiring!

    • Lauren Stowell

      October 29, 2015 at 7:03 PM

      I'm glad I could help! I hope you do try it! When you look at the pattern illustration, if it doesn't have too many darts, maybe has some gathers here and there, can be something won't require any closures (like doesn't have too tight of a collar), then it may be a good one for trying in a knit.

  • facile et beau - Gusta

    October 30, 2015 at 7:01 AM

    this dress is really adorable. To sew with knits is very scary to me. I never do it perfectly. Hope to make it more unscary with your advice.
    Have a nice day.

  • Lavender and Twill

    November 3, 2015 at 8:39 PM

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for sharing these tips! I have multiple plans for sewing knits with vintage patterns, and attempted my first dress in knit a couple of months ago. Unfortunately I made a few mistakes, and although I *think* I can still put it together, I tucked it away in a UFO bag until I'm ready to tackle it again. I won't be trying another dress out until I've bought that book though, and set up with your tips properly!

    Your dress looks so gorgeous and comfortable, I think that it's great that you could covert your pattern over to knits. You did such a fabulous job with it! 🙂 ❤

    bonita of Lavender & Twill

  • Chelsea

    November 9, 2015 at 1:28 AM

    I have a question about the wooly nylon – do you use it in the bobbin and the top thread? I've never used it but I saw some the other day and I wondered if it would be difficult to thread a needle with.

  • Unknown

    July 1, 2018 at 6:05 PM

    I have a question regarding the grainline … on my original pattern (for woven fabric) the skirt and top pattern pieces have to be cut on the bias … Is that something you would then also do with knitted fabric ? Or just change the direction of the pattern pieces so they are being cut on the grainline ? Thanks !

    • admin

      May 16, 2021 at 5:58 AM

      Thank you! The vintage pattern was given to me by a friend. The best I can recommend is to haunt eBay or Etsy and maybe try to set up alerts for the pattern number on ebay if possible.

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