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.
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.
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.
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!