Attention, MeFi Sewers and Seamstresses!
September 21, 2011 6:21 PM   Subscribe

Attention, MeFi Sewers and Seamstresses! Please help with advice for altering a knitted dress.

I just bought a Neiman Marcus cashmere dress on Ebay for a steal of a price (yay!). It's gorgeously soft, warm enough for my imminent move to cold climes, and - surprisingly - fits my body pretty much perfectly (yay!). Unfortunately, at the moment, the overall effect of the dress is very nun-like, since it's not only a somber charcoal gray, but also has long sleeves and a hem at the ankle (not so yay...).

I'd like to wear the dress, and in order to make the dress appropriate, I've decided to alter the it rather than join a religious order. Basically, I'd like to shorten the sleeves from full length to 3/4 length, and to shorten the hem from ankle-length to somewhere between just below the knee and mid-calf. There are two issues:

1. Issue one is the fact that the dress is knit rather than woven fabric or anything similar. I've actually worked a lot with felted wool and felted cashmere (which seem to me basically to function as woven, for all intents and purposes, since they don't fray or stretch). The knit aspect of this dress, and the potential for unravelling, is freaking me out. Since the dress fits pretty much perfectly right now, I'm loathe to shrink/felt it. Any idea how I can shorten the sleeves and hem of a knit garment without unravelling and ruining the whole thing? Also helpful would be more general tips/tricks for sewing on knits without getting puckering etc; I've read some on Google but would love to hear your personal hacks and tips. I haven't really worked with knits before because they scare me!

2. The second issue is that there's a ribbed trim on the bottom hem and sleeve end that I'd really like to preserve when I shorten things. I'm not sure if this is possible, or if I'm dipping my hand too far into the figurative cookie jar...

I'm a reasonably-competent beginner at basic sewing (I can make Halloween costumes and clothing from patterns), although it's mostly self-taught and I'm very admittedly no whiz kid. I've never used seam tape (I think that's the right item...), but perhaps that might be a way into this problem? For reference, in case it matters: I'm working on a 800-series Bernina from the 1970s, which is awesome and sturdy, but can't do anything fancy or automatic, and has no computerized snazzy features to help me. So low-tech solutions, sewing machine-wise, would be especially welcome. I'm very low on cash, but if you feel this is an obvious take-it-to-the-tailor situation, obviously please be straight up with me. Sewers and Seamstresses on the Green, lend me your opinions, ideas, and expertise!
posted by UniversityNomad to Clothing, Beauty, & Fashion (16 answers total)
How is the dress put together? Is it tiny machine knit stitches that are cut and sewn? Or is it 'full fashioned' -- usually larger stitches, with each piece knit to the appropriate dimensions and then stitched together?
posted by jacquilynne at 6:47 PM on September 21, 2011

I would not use seam tape on a knit. Seam tape doesn't stretch, and it will ruin the line of the piece.

If you want to preserve the ribbing but make it shorter AND don't want to add a seam line in the middle of the piece, you can but it will be a lot of work. The best way to do this would be to unpick a specific row of knitting, remove the hem, unravel however much fabric you want to unravel, mount all the stitches back on knitting needles of the appropriate size, and graft the two halves back together again. This has the advantage of being both free and perfect, and the disadvantage of requiring you to actually hand-loop every stitch. If the gauge is between, say, 10 and 15 stitches per inch, this is nicely possible given that you have good light and some magnification. More than that and it's going to start to get rough.
posted by KathrynT at 6:48 PM on September 21, 2011

I believe I heard somewhere that standard sewing machines and knits don't play nicely and that a serger is required. But I could be wrong!
posted by smirkette at 7:04 PM on September 21, 2011

My first guess is that grafting is likely to be your best bet, but preserving the ribbed hems is going to be interesting if there is any sort of decreasing going on in between the parts you'd hope to graft together.

And with a sleeve and a full length skirt, I'd bet one or the other has at least some shaping. Grafting together 120 stitches to 124 sounds like a trivial difference, and for an experienced knitter it would be. You'd just use some extra yarn to knit a row making the stitches match. Now, if the difference is 400 stitches to 325, that's not trivial to anyone.

Also, please don't try to machine sew this garment. A picture would help with any further advice.
posted by bilabial at 7:08 PM on September 21, 2011

I have worked in theatrical costume shops and have done ribbing-saving alterations similar to this. Basically you make a fold right above the ribbing, stitch it with a narrow zig-zag stitch while stretching out the fabric, and then press it. You do it right sides together so there is a narrow tube on the inside of the garment. That said, that was for theater, and for not so nice garments that didn't have to be seen close up. For Neiman Marcus cashmere? I would take it to a tailor.
posted by apricot at 7:11 PM on September 21, 2011 [2 favorites]

Hi all, thanks so much for your feedback so far! I'm still reading through the replies, but wanted to clarify one thing immediately. Alas I cannot knit at all, so that option is out; sounds like it would have been ideal though. Jacquilynne, any chance you could describe in a bit more detail the difference between the two options you describe? I'll try to figure out what mine is...
posted by UniversityNomad at 7:18 PM on September 21, 2011

KathrynT's solution is definitely the best way to do it right. I have a serger, and depending on the fabric would probably do a rolled hem or maybe a coverstich (unless this is a thicker, chunkier knit. I am imagining something smooth and fairly fine). If you don't knit, and don't have a serger, you could try the following:

[Be warned: This is not optimum technique. Fine knits have their finishes built right in because knits can warp, stretch and twist when not structurally finished. The ribbing allows for a fine finished edge with extra stretch and structure. Changing that can be fine, or it can be weird.]

For hemming: cut off 1.5 inches below where you you would like the dress to end. Fold up underneath a scant .75 inches, then once again. Do all this carefully, with a ruler, &c. Use a blind stitch by hand to hem. Do not do this on your machine- it will definitely show and look funky. Do it in sections, knotting and tying off each one- if one breaks, you'll still have part of a hem.

You could try the same for the sleeves, but you run the risk of having threads break if the sleeves have to stretch to fit you. It might be better to leave the sleeves intact.

On preview: Jacquilynne is asking if each piece of the dress is cut from a piece of knit fabric and stitched together, or if each piece is individually constructed with it's own knit edge/selvage.
posted by oneirodynia at 7:22 PM on September 21, 2011

And yeah, pictures would definitely help.
posted by oneirodynia at 7:23 PM on September 21, 2011

Particularly pictures of the inside seams and hem. But if you've even got a link to the eBay auction, we might be able to get more info from there.
posted by jacquilynne at 7:51 PM on September 21, 2011

Thank you guys! I'll take pictures tomorrow morning when there's enough light. Really appreciate all the help!
posted by UniversityNomad at 10:31 PM on September 21, 2011

If you do end up seaming it with your machine, I recommend using tissue (ideally of the sort commercial patterns are printed on) to stabilize your seams while you sew. As someone mentioned, seam tape is out, but you do need to make sure that your presser foot doesn't stretch your seam as you go. Sandwich your seam line with two narrow strips of tissue. Sew as normal. When you're done you tear away the excess tissue. Marvel at your brilliance.

Having said that, if I were altering this dress and if grafting was off the table, I think I'd try to sew by hand! Tedious, yet less angsty. Also, if you take apricot's suggestion, then you could -- if you have the patience of the nun for whom your dress was designed -- make that seam somewhat invisible. It's possible you could even use a modified form of Kitchener stitch to do that. Of course, you'd still have a tube of fabric to deal with on the underside. No matter how you finish that it will affect how the dress hangs.
posted by Mrs. Rattery at 4:38 AM on September 22, 2011

You don't have to cut it and risk fraying.

Fold up the edge into a cuff with the edge that you want on the outside.

Basically, you would fold it like this:

Like a pleat, but horizontally.

Then stitch in place by hand or machine as appropriate for the type of fabric. If this is a sweater it will require different stitching techniques than an ordinary knit fabric.

(Beware of some of the specific advice on stitching and knitting you've gotten here -- some people are interpreting "the dress is knit rather than woven fabric" to mean that it is knit as a sweater would be, and some that it is a knit fabric rather than a woven fabric. Me, I think it is completely unclear what this thing is without a picture. I don't know anything about Neiman Marcus though, perhaps that makes it clear to others.)

Your 1970 Bernina is capable of handling knit fabrics just fine with a few techniques that will be a bit different than what you are used to. If this is more of a big fluffy sweater, I personally would sew it by hand -- I am not a knitter though, so that's just the technique most accessible to me.
posted by yohko at 9:57 AM on September 22, 2011

Hi all, sorry to chime back in so late (needed to find my camera and create a Flickr account!). Here are pictures: the full length, the sleeve, the inside seam of the sleeve, the bottom hem on the outside of the dress, and bottom hem on the inside the dress, so with the seam showing, both farther away and a close up). Hopefully I've done the linkage properly and you can see the pics!
posted by UniversityNomad at 3:00 PM on September 22, 2011

Flickr: "You must be signed in to see this content"
posted by yohko at 3:34 PM on September 22, 2011

Given those seam pictures, it looks full-fashioned to me. They appear not to be cut edges to me. It's pretty small stitches, though, so it's falling somewhere between the two extremes where I'd be certain I could readily treat it as knit fabric or could readily treat it as a knit garment.

The thing about sewing it is that you're always going to be left with a seam line, with is likely to look pretty strange on a garment that's clearly not meant to have them. Plus, preserving the hemline ribbing might work on the sleeves, which looks to be straight, but would require cutting it off, trimming and stabilizing the sides and sewing it back on for the skirt, because of the shaping. I'd want to use a serger rather than a sewing machine to finish all the cut the edges, though you could possible bind them in seam tape that was, itself, made from a knit.

Keeping in mind that I'm a much better knitter than I am a sewer, so a little biased in that direction, if it looked like the stitches were large enough that I'd be able to unknit the stitches and get them on needles, I think I'd end up wanting to approach that dress as a knitter. I'd take the seams apart up a little ways past where I wanted to hem it to, and then pick out a line of stitches front and back just where I'd want the ribbing to start, and put the live stitches from the dress side on very tiny needles. I'd then either ravel back to just above the ribbing, steek (stabilize and cut from the end) the excess ribbing I didn't need, and graft the two sides back together, or I'd reknit the ribbing myself using the yarn that was raveling off of the bottom I'd just separated from the dress anyway. Reknitting would only really work if the dress was full-fashioned -- otherwise there'd be yarn breaks at the end of every row, rather than one continuous strand of yarn that I could work with. I'd expect this to be absolute hours of work either way.

I have done all of these things to sweaters over the years, so I know I could do them, if the stitches were large enough to actually work with on handknitting needles. If you're not already enough of a knitter to have thought through some of these possibilities yourself, though, I probably wouldn't make this my first attempt at steeking and unknitting the middle of rows and what not.

Sorry, I wish I could be more help on the sewing front, but to be honest, I sew at about the level you describe, and I wouldn't attempt this on sewing -- I think even if I did everything as right as an advanced beginner could do them, the end result would still be iffy because of the seams.
posted by jacquilynne at 6:00 PM on September 22, 2011

From the pictures, you would need super tiny needles to graft the pieces of this back together. Using a sewing machine to re-attach part of the bottom would make the result...lumpy.

I think this is a garment best left to professionals for fixing.

Heavily vetted professionals. Don't take this dress to just any tailor. You want someone in your area who works a lot with knits.
posted by bilabial at 9:11 AM on September 23, 2011

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