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How To Sew Stretchy Fabric Without Going Mad – A Beginner’s Guide

how to sew stretchy fabric

Whether you are an accomplished sewer or a novice, knowing how to sew stretchy fabric is a key skill that will help you with a wealth of sewing projects and save you a lot of nerves.

It’s no secret that sewing with stretchy fabric can be somewhat of a challenge (some people find it downright scary!) Stretch fabrics tend to make up a huge majority of people’s wardrobes. They are comfortable, easy to wear and require minimal care. Learning how to sew elastic fabric will give you the confidence to push your sewing skills. And trust us: it isn’t as hard as you might think.

Types of Stretch Fabrics

Stretch fabric is a generic term for any textile, knitted or woven, that has a greater amount of recovery and stretch than is normally expected. These textiles can be stretch-woven fabrics, single knits, some double knits, and even bias-cut fabrics.

Most elastic fabrics are knits. Jersey fabrics make up a large percentage of this group. The most prominent feature of these fabrics is their 4-way stretch. This means they extend both crosswise and lengthwise. There are some stretch fabrics – usually heavier ones – that only have a 2-way stretch. Therefore, it is vital to make sure you check you are using the right kind of stretchy fabric for your project.

how to sew elastic fabric

Can I learn how to sew with stretchy fabrics with my home sewing machine?

A common misunderstanding about how to sew with stretchy fabrics is that you need to serger. Overlockers or sergers are wonderful at handling stretch fabrics and creating a polished finish, but are they always necessary? Although a serger can make it quicker to sew with stretchy knits, it is a costly addition to your sewing machine. It is also not imperative for sewing with elastic textiles. A zigzag stitch on a standard sewing machine can be used as an alternative to a serger.

The difficulty some people might find with sewing elastics comes from the amount of stretch that certain fabric might have. It is important to factor in the percentage of stretch in your chosen fabric, and that it matches the pattern you are working with.

sewing machine standards

Hot tips for working with elastic fabric

By following a few simple tricks and tips, your knowledge of how to sew stretchy fabric will sky rocket. Ensuring the finished seams lie neatly and flat and at the same time don’t break when the garment is used is your endgame.

5 main tricks to knowing how to sew elastic fabric

  1. Always pre-wash your stretchy fabric – leave it to dry flat for at least a day so that it keeps its shape
  2. Ensure you have the right fabric for your project or pattern
  3. Choose the right needle – all stretchy knit fabrics should be sewn with a special needle; either a ballpoint or a stretch needle. A ballpoint needle consists of a rounded tip, which pushes the yarns away when sewing. It avoids damaging knit fabric while cutting and sewing. This contrasts with the usual piercing through and ripping them. Ensure you opt for the right size of needle for your fabric.
  4. Select the right thread – special threads are not usually required and a regular polyester thread works well as it has a slight amount of stretch. Stay away from cotton thread as it can break when pulled
  5. Use stitches that will hold the stretch of the fabric – the stitches need to stretch with the fabric, so they don’t pucker and break. If you must sew with a straight stitch, then hold the material taut, but don’t pull it.

TOP TIP: Knowing how to sew stretchy fabric involves knowing how to cut and handle your fabric. The most important thing to remember when cutting your fabric is not to stretch it. We recommend laying it flat on a table or other flat work surface. Don’t let the fabric hang over the edges, as this could stretch it out of place. Some other top tips for knowing how to sew stretchy fabric and how to handle it during the sewing process include:

  • Take your pattern and place it on the fabric – to keep your fabric in place, pin it and cut out the patterns with scissors OR use paper weights and a rotary cutter.
  • Try to keep pins inside the seam allowance – this avoids opening unwanted holes in the garment
  • Take away the curl – some kinds of stretchy fabrics – such as knitted jersey – have edges that tend to curl. This can make it even harder to sew. To reverse the curl, use a starchy spray and press the edges
4 way stretch fabric

TOP TIP: Part of understanding how to sew stretchy fabrics is to have patience. It is super important to take your time when sewing these fabrics. Pause occasionally with the needle down, so you can readjust the alignment of the raw edges of the material. Don’t rush it!

5 best stitches and sewing machine settings for sewing stretch fabric

There is a wide variety of stretch stitches available, depending on your sewing machine model. The best stitches to use for sewing stretch fabrics are:

  • Narrow zigzag: opt for a very narrow setting with the zigzag, with the stitch length equal to the stitch width
  • Overedge stitch: a specialty stitch that locks over the edge of the fabric so it stitches and finishes a seam in one pass
  • Straight stretch stitch: this stitch looks like 3 parallel rows of straight stitches
  • Twin-needle stitch: this stitch requires a twin needle. The right side of the fabric has 2 parallel rows of stitching. On the wrong side of the fabric, the bobbin thread follows a zigzag pattern
  • Try a different presser foot: a dual feed foot or walking foot attachment for your sewing machine are great for helping to stop one layer of material stretching out when sewing. Check the manual of your machine to see which one is compatible

TOP TIP: If you are planning on stitching buttonholes in a stretch fabric, we recommend sewing in the direction of least stretch. This can be difficult with a 4-way stretch fabric, but test all sides to see if one has slightly less give. Stabilize the wrong side of the fabric first with fusible interfacing. This should give you beautiful and stable buttonholes.

We hope these top tips for how to sew stretch fabrics will give you the confidence you need to get stitching with knits! If you’re ready to design the perfect stretchy fabric, you can shave the price down with our 30% Student Fabric Discount. Looking for more? We’ve even got a 20% sitewide Student Discount for everything else! Discover a wide range of stretchy fabrics and feel the difference with your very own fabric swatch pack.

stretch fabric swatch pack

14 comments

  • hi there… Daughter bought a pair of trousers material, polyester, nylon and elastane. After a couple of wears they are to big on the waists and too wide on the legs… Can’t replace them cause they don’t have a size UK lady 4…at the time of buying them we thought she could get away with the 6, but now know there’s no chance.
    So mum here has to alter them, never altered this type of material before, what thread and size needles would you suggest.

    Kind regards

    Vhon
    . x

    • Hi Vhon! Great to hear from you. We wish you luck on altering your daughter’s trousers – sounds like you’ve got your work cut out for you! We would recommend either a cotton-covered polyester thread or nylon thread for this project, as both are suitable for nylons and polyester fabrics. Definitely avoid using cotton thread for stretchy fabrics. Along with this, look for either a ballpoint/jersey or stretch needle, stretch needles are specifically suited to sewing stretchy fabrics and ballpoint needles are great for any poly-based fabric. Any 70-90 (10-14) sized needle should suffice. We hope this helps, and good luck!

  • I need to hem a dress that is a thick stretchy material, since it’s thick and only really has one way stretch, do I still need to use these tips or could I hem it the way I would with any other fabric.

    • Hi Elaine! The new dress hemming project sounds exciting! We’d recommend keeping these tips in mind, but you should be able to hem a thick stretchy fabric quite easily. Let us know how it goes!

  • Is a triple or three step zigzag more durable, stronger in resisting broken threads, than a regular zigzag? I’ve had to repair seams on some of my panties because the “wooly nylon” the seams were originally, isn’t durable at all, and keeps disappearing. I’ve been trying to do the repairs using elastic thread hand-wound onto the bobbin, polyester for the top thread, in a regular zigzag stitch. I’ve tried using the width set to 2.5-3 and length 2, all the way to width at 4.5 and length at 2.5-3… and wind up with broken stitches no matter the stitch width/length settings. My next effort will probably be to try the elastic thread for the top thread too, with the tension set to 0, to try and prevent the broken needle I got when i tried using elastic thread as the top-thread previously. But I’m wondering if the triple or 3-step zigzag would be stronger than the regular zigzag. Really tired of having to RE-repair something I’ve already repaired! The panties are nearly new, fit perfectly, and are the most comfy I’ve ever worn, so repairing them in critical!

    • Hi Andria, that totally makes sense! It must be very frustrating having to re-repair your favorite panties. Definitely go for a triple zigzag stitch – it’s the strongest stitch that also has enough give for the fabric to stretch. Tha, combined with a nylon or polyester thread, should result in a solid stitch that won’t budge or tear. Let us know how the repairing goes, and best of luck to you!

      • Thx for the reply! It didn’t go much better than previous repairs, so I looked up some of that “fuzzy nylon” thread, and found that Walmart carries it, though I’ll have to order it since they don’t have it on the shelves in the store. But I guess it’s the only thing that’s really stretchy enough for something with that much elasticity.

        I discovered that stitch I was thinking of, on my Singer 44S “Classic”, is actually called “multi-stitch zigzag”. I wasn’t sure if that would do me any better than a regular zipzag, so I kept looking online for info about which length/width of zigzag stitches would offer the best stretch, and finally arrived at a medium-length (2) and medium width (3) zigzag. The re-re-repair I did with that type of zigzag seems to be a little better than previous length/width settings, but time will tell — and I’m getting some of that fuzzy nylon so I can have some thread actually suitable for this kind of thing.

        I’m a newbie to sewing, so it’s all a whole new world for me. 🙂 Thx!

        • Andria, glad to hear this repair went ever-so-slightly better! Hopefully the fuzzy nylon thread will be what you’re looking for. Thanks for sharing these tips, this is really helpful! For a newbie, it seems like you’re really learning a lot! Good luck to you! 🙂

  • Trying to take in the waist on a pair of granddaughters leggings. Material is soft and stretchy. Managed to fix one pair but the other pair is giving me fits. The sewing machine just won’t stitch it correctly. Either too loose or too tight. Tried using tissue paper on top and bottom; helped some but couldn’t manage any straight lines! Suggestions?

    • Hi Linda! Sorry to hear that you’re having trouble with your granddaughter’s pair of leggings! Our suggestions depend mainly on the type of fabric you’re sewing, but there are some technique-based suggestions we can give you. One is, you can try replacing the elastic band in the leggings with a fabric band! For this, the fabric must have a minimum 80% crosswise stretch, but 100% is best for a snappy recovery. You could also try to line the inside of the waistband with stretch mesh or power net. This helps the waistband to stay put and hold it’s shape. It won’t help with the tightness issue, but it may make the end result a bit better for your granddaughter. Let us know how you get on! Best of luck Linda! 🙂

  • Tee Shirts, button holes, and zig zag stitch? Can you give any tips for neck and button holes for a button up Baseball long sleeve baseball shirt? Much appreciation.

  • I”d like to whip up a couple of cotton jersey slip-type night dresses now that the weather has gotten very hot. All the patterns I’ve found want a woven cut on the bias. Am I crazy to try cutting the pattern in the jersey on a straight-grain layout, paying attention to how much stretch the suggested bias-cut woven is likely to have vs my jersey?

  • Good tips for a beginner here with stretch material. Making comfortable masks to wear.

    • We love DIY face masks! So glad you were able to learn something – good luck with your masks!

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