All you need to know about stretch in knits

Knits are one of the most avoided fabrics in the sewing community, but sewing with knits is actually very easy and very rewarding. Fabrics are a basic in every woman’s wardrobe. Because they are so easy to use and maintain, it is available in a variety of patterns, styles, and weights. Take a look in any wardrobe and you will surely find at least one garment made with a knit fabric.

Sewing with knit fabrics is considered by many to be a terrifying process. Fabrics are sometimes unpredictable. If the wrong thread tension is used, the fabric will wrinkle. If the wrong needle is used, tears in the fibers occur.

While these problems are common when working with knits, there are many ways to avoid them and sew a beautiful garment. Most of these problems occur because not much is known about the stretch in fabrics, how fibers intertwine, and what type of thread, needle, or tension level to use. To avoid some of the common pitfalls of working with knit fabrics, you must first learn about fabric stretch. Before beginning a project, first take a sample of the fabric and try out different stitches, thread tension levels, and sewing rhythms and see how the fabric reacts. Here are some important things to remember about certain stretch fabrics and how to work with them.


Basically, there are four different types of stretch in tissues: firm, moderate, bidirectional, and super.

firm stretch

Firm stretch knits, the least stretchy of all fabrics, have up to 20% stretch across the grain. As a general rule, they are the easiest to work with because they stretch very little. Most fabrics are medium to heavy weight and include double knit, sweatshirt knit, and boiled wool.

double point: Double weaves are made of tiny ribbed woven fibers that look the same on both sides of the fabric. The rib knit and heavy quality make it a bit thicker, so rib knits are perfect for skirts, dresses, jackets and coats.

Knitted Sweatshirt: Also called sweatshirt fleece, sweatshirt fabrics should not be confused with cotton fleece, which is more stretchy. The sweatshirt fabric is made of soft vertical ribs on the right side and a fluffy surface on the wrong side. It is extremely easy to work with and perfect for sportswear, jackets and of course cool weather hoodies.

boiled wool: Mechanically knitted and washed so as not to shrink, boiled wool is very soft and is often used for scarves, hats, jackets, and other cold-weather garments. Boiled wool is also more commonly seen in clothing fabrics.

moderate stretch

Moderate stretch knits are the most common knits and are probably what you picture when you think of knits. An example of moderate stretch is the fabric used to make T-shirts. Moderate stretch fabrics are knitted in a single knit, resulting in a comfortable, light to medium weight fabric that stretches 25% to 50% along the grain. Moderate stretch includes cotton knit, tricot, double nap cotton fleece, interlock knits, velor, and stretch velvet.

Single knit or cotton jersey: Lightweight cotton knits are most commonly seen in t-shirts and tops. Ribbed knits appear vertical on the front and horizontal on the reverse. These fabrics are easy to work with and are commonly used for casual wear such as blouses, dresses, skirts, elastic waist pants, shorts, and pajamas. Some fabrics are so soft that they are used in baby clothes.

Knitting: These extremely fine fabrics do not shed, making them ideal for underwear and lingerie. Unlike plain weaves, knit fabric is a warp weave, which means that the ribs on the front and back are parallel rather than perpendicular.

Double nap cotton fleece: The double nap of this versatile fabric makes it smooth on both sides and thick enough for winter. The fabric is used to make warm pajamas, sportswear, blankets, scarves, hats, gloves, sweatshirts, dresses, jackets and vests.

interlocking fabrics: These lightweight knits have a beautiful drape and can be sewn into dresses, blouses, pants, shorts, skirts, socks, hats, gloves, and pajamas, as well as baby clothes and diapers. While it doesn’t curl along the edges, the finely woven ribs on both sides can fray and require extra attention at the cross lines.

Velvet and Elastic Velvet: Both fabrics come in a variety of weights and have a soft brushed nap on the right side. With moderate stretch, they can be sewn into dressier garments, skirts, and dresses.

bidirectional stretch

These stretchy fabrics are best used when you plan to make a swimsuit, leotard, or form-fitting garment. In general, the percentage of stretch ranges from 50 to 75% in a two-way stretch fabric, both in the longitudinal and transverse directions.

knitted sweater: Knit sweaters are available in a variety of weights, textures, fibers, and stretch percentage. Knitted sweaters are great for making winter clothing such as sweaters, cardigans, vests, dresses, ponchos, tunics, underwear, and even accessories.

Lycra Cotton: One of the most popular types of two-way stretch fabric is lycra. Lycra is the trade name for the synthetic spandex fiber invented by DuPont in 1958 and refers to fabrics that have synthetic fibers woven into the fabrics to provide added stretch and flexibility. The higher the percentage of Lycra in a fabric content, the more elastic the fabric will be. This synthetic material revolutionized the sewing and fashion industry because, while it is stretchier than most fabrics, it is also highly resilient, allowing clothes to retain their shape.

Four-way super stretch

Four-way stretch fabrics are one of the most difficult fabrics to sew because they can stretch 100% in any direction. Swimsuits and sportswear are some of the most common examples of four-way stretch fabrics. Other types included rib knit, swimsuit knit, and action knit.

ribbed knit: Made from any fiber type, ribbed knits do not always incorporate or rely on synthetic materials for stretch. The stretch is created by the way the fibers are woven. The stretch is 100% across the grain, creating a versatile finishing fabric for necklines, waistbands, cuffs, keyholes and hems. The edges of ribbed knits do not curl, so these fabrics are highly preferred for use on garment edges.

Swimwear: Swimwear fabrics are often made from a blend of nylon and elastane, but the stretch will vary depending on the percentage of elastane integrated with the nylon. This fabric has more elasticity in the longitudinal fiber.

action point: These fabrics are somewhat similar to cotton lycra, providing more flexibility and stretch. They are typically used to make sports apparel such as cycling shorts, running pants, sports bras, and training shirts. Action fabrics are a blend of nylon, cotton and polyester with added spandex or latex for flexibility. Most of the sports brands like Nike, Adidas and Reebok have developed their own versions of action point to use in their clothing.

Practice sewing with fabrics

There are many sites available online where you can read product descriptions and research the content before making purchases. When working on a sewing project, it is extremely important that you choose the perfect type of fabric for your project. The best way to approach sewing with fabrics is to just start. Practice sewing with knits and try fabrics until you find what works for you. You will be surprised to discover how rewarding sewing with knitwear can be.

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