What do I need to know about sewing stretchy fabrics 101
June 18, 2019 5:15 PM   Subscribe

Sewers, (I mean seamstresses, not pootubes), I have lost weight due to thyroid meds and I'm thinking about doing stuff with my many t-shirts that now expose great expanses of my bra. But I have in my mind that one needs an overlocker to sew stretchy fabric, and I don't think I'm ready to buy something that I have to find storage for, that I might use once a year.

I've been looking up stuff on the internet but there's too much info, and I'm not sure what applies. So question is, can I use a regular sewing machine to sew t-shirt material, and do I need to change the foot (I have several) and is there anything else I need to know or find out. Thank you very much in advance.
posted by b33j to Clothing, Beauty, & Fashion (16 answers total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
No serger needed! This article has some great tips.
posted by metasarah at 5:28 PM on June 18, 2019 [3 favorites]

I've used a straight stitch with stretch fabric with some success, but the seams are more likely to pop and need fixing than with non-stretch fabric. T-shirt fabric won't need finishing, it shouldn't fray (what an overlocker does, though you can do it with a sewing machine too). Do you have the manual for your sewing machine? Buried in it, there is probably some guidance about options for sewing stretch with what you already have. Some of the weirdo stitches that you never use are probably designed for stretch fabric, and might last longer that straight stitches, if you're happy to play around a bit (many of them are a bastard to unpick though, so mostly, I don't bother).

Walking feet are quite magic for sewing stretch, but aren't necessary. A twin needle is also useful for doing hems, if shortening is necessary.
posted by kjs4 at 5:30 PM on June 18, 2019

I'm not an expert, and I mostly sew woven fabrics, but to the best of my knowledge you don't need an overlocker. You need, at minimum, the ability to sew a stitch which can stretch (so a normal zigzag stitch works, although I recently learned of the existence of an overlapping flexible straight stitch which I suspect you only get with a more fancy machine), and ballpoint needles if you're sewing knit fabrics, or you'll cut the threads and make the knit unravel.

It helps to have a walking foot, or a knit fabric foot (which is sort of like a semi-walking foot) to prevent the fabric from stretching and getting distorted as you sew, but you may be able to get away without one by turning the foot pressure right down or using some kind of stabiliser (e.g. stick-on interfacing that dissolves, or starch).

You can't reproduce some factory techniques commonly used on t-shirts without an overlocker, but if you don't care about that, you can do without.
posted by confluency at 5:32 PM on June 18, 2019

I've just used zigzag stitch for this sort of thing and pinned a lot. Also, T-shirts are the easiest damn stretchy thing to work with so short of cutting them wrong, you'll probably be fine. I did a lot of T-shirt reconstruction projects for years and it's not super hard. I'm not sure exactly what you want to do with your shirts, but googling for T-shirt reconstruction or T-shirt surgery can find you some fun ideas.
posted by jenfullmoon at 5:33 PM on June 18, 2019 [1 favorite]

Overlocking knit fabric (t-shirt material), is purely aesthetic, that is because knits don't unravel like woven fabrics do. You can just leave the edges raw and then neaten them up by trimming the edges with a scissor once you are done sewing them (or rotary cutter if you want to get fancy).

When sewing, use a straight stitch with a very little bit of a zigzag, that is enough to give the seam some stretch, not enough to make it not look straight. When you sew the seam, don't stretch it, just let it feed normally under the presser foot. You don't need a special foot, just use a straight foot, walking feet are a pain the ass and not worth the trouble. A ballpoint needle is not a bad idea.
posted by nanook at 5:36 PM on June 18, 2019 [1 favorite]

Forgot to add: I resized a bunch of t-shirts using a straight stitch and a sharp needle years ago, when I didn't know any of this. The straight stitch wasn't that much of a problem, since none of the seams were under a lot of tension, but the unravelling was a big problem -- tiny holes along every single seam. Would not recommend. I'm about to venture into the world of stretch fabric sewing again, and will definitely use zigzag + ballpoint.
posted by confluency at 5:36 PM on June 18, 2019 [1 favorite]

This is not a direct answer to your question, but you may want to check out Generation T, which does a ton of t-shirt modifications.
posted by bile and syntax at 6:07 PM on June 18, 2019 [1 favorite]

Fantastic answers. I have a bunch of (stained or holey) t-shirts that should go in the ragbag so plenty to practice on, and I have the machine manual because I only bought it last year. I have also (after binging on project runway and british sewing bee) lusted after a rotary cutter.

More follow-up questions:
How does zigzag give a seam room to stretch?
Do I need a special thread or is the regular cotton thread okay?
What is a ballpoint?
Recommendations for rotary cutter? I'll need some kind of matt for it too? Any other accessories?

Also thanks for the links on creative reconstruction because I don't know if I CAN reshape these shirts to make the armhole gap smaller.

And by the way, since my first sewing question here, I have made 3 cushion covers, a recording station (computer + bits) dust cover, a shirt I wear to work, a self-drafted wrap circle skirt (also good enough for public wear) and a kimono jacket that I need to re-fit or do something to it because it looks beautiful but hangs wrong. So thanks very much, folks.
posted by b33j at 6:29 PM on June 18, 2019 [1 favorite]

Actually started reading links, I know what the ballpoint is.
posted by b33j at 6:39 PM on June 18, 2019

The very slight zig zag stitch adds in some width to the stitch, which gives it the stretch, kind of like an accordion.

No need for special thread. Polyester thread is the standard garment thread these days, and is probably easiest to sew with, but if you already have cotton thread, that is fine to use as well.

Yes, you need a matt for the rotary cutter, and I think Olfa is the brand I have? If you end up using the rotary cutter a lot and going through blades (they wear out quickly), you can pick them up at Harbor Freight Supplies for a fraction of the cost of the ones geared for home sewers.

Twin needles are another big pain in the ass and rarely work that well, especially on knits. If you want to do a double row of stitches, like at the hem, just sew them carefully one seam at a time, spacing them evenly.
posted by nanook at 6:44 PM on June 18, 2019 [2 favorites]

I don't know if I CAN reshape these shirts to make the armhole gap smaller.

If you get stuck and you have a bunch of shirts with the same problem, you could take one over to a good seamstress and see what she does with it. And if you have a friend who can help pin/drape stuff while you're wearing it that can make experimenting much easier!
posted by trig at 3:06 AM on June 19, 2019

All good suggestions on the sewing supplies/stitches above. For fitting, when you are by yourself, I’ve had good luck putting the garment on inside-out, pinning to adjust the fit, then basting (super long stitch, easy to remove if necessary) the proposed seams and then putting on the garment right side- out to see the finished effect. Then I sew my final seam, if the try-on passed muster.
posted by sarajane at 4:47 AM on June 19, 2019 [2 favorites]

I do knits on a regular sewing machine with a zig zag stitch and some tension adjustment. No need to use stretchy thread. As others have said, go with polyester thread and ballpoint needles.

I have tried the twin needles (argh!) but always end up going back to a single ballpoint needle and it works just fine. nanook's advice above is solid. I use Olfa for my rotary cutter (pretty sure my mat is that brand as well). The mats are expensive, but essential. I bought a pretty big one but I still wished I had gone up a size.
posted by futureisunwritten at 9:29 AM on June 19, 2019

When I started sewing with knits, I found this book from Colette to be really useful. I'd guess you could find it in a library or used.

The self-healing mats you can get from an art store tend to be less expensive than the ones you get from sewing supply stores. They don't last forever either way so don't spend more.
posted by vunder at 10:33 AM on June 19, 2019 [1 favorite]

Very narrow zigzag, ball point or 'knit' needle, polyester thread. The zigzag stitch will stretch slightly, and the knit or ball point needle will slip between the knitted fibres; polyester thread has more give.
For patterns, look at Kwik Sew and online at Jalie, or my favourite, Love Notions. The patterns are made for knits, easy to put together, and come in multiple sizes, besides being quite cheap.
posted by Enid Lareg at 2:46 PM on June 19, 2019

I got a cheap mat at home depot -a 2 x 4 ceiling light panel, you just flip it and use the smooth underside. Less than $15 and it works just fine.
posted by lemniskate at 3:13 PM on June 19, 2019 [1 favorite]

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