The Best Stretch Stitches On Your Sewing Machine

Welcome to the third lesson in the Beginner’s Guide to Sewing Knit Apparel! Download the ebook for free!

Woman wearing a striped knit maxi dress in a green field with the words Free ebook The Beginner's Guide to Sewing Knit Apparel

This lesson is a quick one but an important one. Many sewers shy away from knits because there is a common misconception that knits can only be sewn with a serger. And while I’m a big fan of getting a serger if you’re serious about sewing apparel with knits, nothing could be further from the truth! In fact, my first year of sewing knit apparel was all done on my sewing machine. And I can think of at least two articles of clothing that I made in that year that are still in my top five pieces in my wardrobe.

There are a few things that you’ll need to do to make sewing knits on your sewing machine more enjoyable. All of which will be covered throughout this series. The first thing you’ll want to do is get the right kind of needles. The two types of needles you’ll be needing are a stretch needle and a ballpoint needle.

Stretch Needle: A stretch needle has a smaller rounded tip and should be used for highly elastic fabrics such as spandex or scuba.

Ballpoint Needle: A ballpoint needle should be your go-to for all other knit fabrics.

Image of the tips of three needles

Next, you’ll need to become familiar with is the kinds of stitches you can use.

Picture of Tami Meyer on a fall day wearing a blue jean jacket over a blue shirt

TIPS FROM THE PROS:

Lengthen your stitches! When I turn my machine on it defaults to a 2 stitch length. That is way too short when working with knit fabrics. I increase mine to at least 3.5. If I’m working with a knit that is loosely woven, such as a sweater knit, I bump it up to a 4. Get to know your machine’s stitch lengths on a scrap to find that sweet spot.

Also reduce your presser foot pressure. On my machine there is a wheel that I can use to adjust this. Check your manual to see how to adjust yours.

– Tami Meyer, Love Notions Patterns

Straight Stitches

The generic single straight stitch is not one to use for sewing knits (unless you are using a twin needle or stretch thread – more on that in following lessons).

Chart of Straight Stretch Stitches

A straight stitch doesn’t have enough stretch to withstand the pull on knit fabrics. Sewing with a straight stitch will more often than not result in a bunch of popped seams and sad faces. The only time I would say you could get away with a straight stitch would be topstitching something with very little pull on it such as a neckline. In this case, you’ll still want to make sure your stitch is nice and long.


Editor’s Note: Enjoying this lesson about stretch stitches? Put it to use on our Anything But Basic Womens Tee!


Triple Straight Stitch

There are, however, a straight stitch that is made to stretch. This being the triple straight stitch.

Triple Straight Stitch Chart

The triple straight stretch stitch is my primary choice for hemming if you’ve got it on your machine. It is a very strong stitch because it locks three times – forward, backward and forward again. Because it is so strong, it is a great option to use for seams on tighter garments such as athletic wear, leggings or other apparel with a lot of negative ease. It is also a nice finish stitch to use on cuffs, necklines and hems.

Zigzag Stitches

The zigzag stitch is the most popular stretch stitch recommendation for beginner sewers simply because it is offered on virtually every modern sewing machine.

Zigzag Stitch Chart

If you don’t have a serger it is a great stitch to use for finishing your raw edges on hems in particular. If you don’t have a triple straight stretch stitch, the zigzag would be my second recommendation. It won’t provide the strength of the triple straight stretch stitch, but it will certainly provide the stretch you need to avoid popped seams.

Three-Step Zigzag

In addition to a regular zigzag stitch, your machine may have what’s called a three step zigzag.

Stitch Chart Highlighting Triple Step Zigzag

Since a regular zigzag moves completely in a zigzag pattern, it can oftentimes produce a tunneling effect on lighter weight knit fabrics. Which can be extremely annoying when you are trying to create professional looking finishes on your garments. A three step zigzag stitch works more in a series of tiny straight stitches that run diagonally to one another. This prevents the side-to-side pulling that generates the tunneling effect and creates a flatter stitch.

Lightning Bolt Stitch

The lightning bolt stitch is often the recommended stitch for sewing knits according to many sewing machine manuals.

Stitch Chart Highlighting Lightning Bolt Stitch

Having the upward and downward motion for the zigzag, rather than directly side to side, helps reduce puckering or tunneling.

DECORATIVE AND OTHER STRETCH STITCHES

Depending on your sewing machine, you may have a plethora of other decorative stretch stitches. The best way to figure out which ones are best to use for your project is to consult your manual. Even if you threw out the manual or bought your machine used without a manual, you should be able to locate it with a simple Google search in most cases. Here are a couple examples of some fun and popular decorative stretch stitches you may come across:

Honeycomb Stitch

The honeycomb stitch is a wonderful option for attaching elastic or stretch lace.

Stitch Chart Highlighting Honeycomb Stitch

Overlock / Overedge Stitch

This particular stitch is handy because it gives you a similar effect as a serger because it forms and finishes the seam all at once, but without the trimming. This gives you a similar strength of the triple stretch straight with the finishing quality of a zigzag.

Stitch Chart Highlighting Overlock/Overcast Stitch

Feather Stitch

The feather stitch is a beautiful top-stitching stretch stitch that is great for joining the edges of two fabrics. It is a pleasant decorative touch without being too ornate.

Stitch chart highlighting feather stitch

MY FAVORITE STRETCH STITCHES AT A GLANCE

Stitch Favorite Place to Use It
Straight Stitch Never unless paired with stretch thread
Triple Straight Stitch Construction seams on really tight garments and hemming
Zigzag Stitch Finishing raw edges
Three Step Zigzag All main construction seams if others aren't available
Lightning Bolt Stitch All main construction seams
Honeycomb Stitch Attaching elastic or stretch lace
Overlock/Overedge Stitch All main construction seams
Feather Stitch Topstitching

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Your assignment for this lesson is simple: check out your sewing machine and see what stretch stitches you have to work with. If you are working on a machine with several stitch options, pull out that manual and see which ones are available for you to use with your knits.

Next up in our Beginner’s Guide to Sewing Knit Apparel is my ode to sergers. 

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