Recently updated on April 5th, 2023
The first time you sew, you might wonder whether you can use a sewing machine to stitch stretchy fabrics, and if so, what settings you should use.
With a basic home sewing machine, you can definitely sew stretchy fabrics. Below is a table that summarizes the settings recommended for the Janome 5124. You should always experiment with your sewing machine settings on scrap fabric before starting your project, as different sewing machine models use different numbering systems.
|Light-weight (e.g. tissue knits with sheer layers)||Medium-weight (for example jerseys)||Heavy-weight (Whether it’s a sweater knit, double knit, or neoprene)|
|Presser foot pressure|
Consider using a walking foot if possible. If not, reduce the pressure to 1 when using a standard foot.
It is best to use a walking foot if possible. If not possible, turn the pressure down to one or two if you must use a standard foot.
The pressure should be reduced to 3 if using a standard foot. If using a walking foot, use a standard foot.
|Stitch – sewing seams|
Triple zigzag stitchWidth: 6
Zigzag stitchWidth: 6
Lightning stitchWidth: 0.5
|Stitch – hemming, and topstitching|
Lightning stitchWidth: 0.5
Triple stretch stitchWidth: 0
Triple stretch stitchWidth: 0
What are the reasons that you can’t use regular sewing machine settings when sewing stretchy fabrics?
The settings on your sewing machine need to be changed when stitching stretchy fabric. We typically use a straight stitch when sewing woven fabrics, and straight stitches cannot stretch, so when the fabric is stretched, they will ‘pop’ and break. A stitch like a zig-zag stitch can stretch with the fabric. Therefore, we need to use one that can stretch with it.
Furthermore, the presser foot needs to be lowered to ensure that the fabric passes through the machine without stretching. The feed dogs on the bottom will be unable to pull the fabric away from the needle area smoothly if the presser foot is pressed down too hard. This is less of an issue with woven fabrics because they are usually stable and cannot be dragged along by the presser foot.
Stretchy fabric settings on sewing machines
Presser foot pressure
When sewing knit fabrics, I highly recommend using a walking foot. This is the foot that I use most often (at this point, it pretty much acts as the default foot on my sewing machine, if you don’t already have one). It’s a little pricey, but it’s one that I recommend investing in if you don’t already have one. With the walking foot, the top layer of fabric isn’t dragged while the fabric layers are fed into the machine evenly. With a walking foot, you can avoid the ripples that often occur when sewing knit fabrics.
Stitching with a regular foot is shown on the left. It is important to note the waviness of the seam. The walking foot is used for stitching on the right. A regular foot is used to stitch the fabric flat. On the left: the fabric lays perfectly flat. The seam has a wavy appearance. A walking foot is used for stitching on the right. There is no wrinkle in the fabric.
I find that my walking foot takes care of ensuring that the fabric feeds evenly into the machine when I use my walking foot instead of the presser foot. For knit fabrics, you may need to reduce the presser foot pressure a few levels if you do not have a walking foot. I cannot say what number to set the presser foot pressure on every sewing machine since they use different numbering systems.
When I work with stretchy knit fabrics, I set my Janome 5124’s presser foot to 1 when I am working with woven fabrics. I set the presser foot pressure to 2 if the fabric is only slightly stretchy, and to 3 if the fabric is stable, such as a double knit. On scrap pieces of fabric, experiment with different pressure settings until you find what works best for your machine.
Be sure not to adjust your thread tension dial, but your presser foot pressure! This is usually located somewhere on the top of the machine – check your manual. (I’ve made this mistake before.)
Settings for stitches
It is not possible for me to cover all of the stretch stitches available on sewing machines today. On most home sewing machines, I will only cover the most common stitch types.
Basic zigzag stitches are great for sewing seams since they approximate the look of serged or overcast edges. By setting my zigzag to 6 and 1.5, I get fairly dense stitching that is similar in width to that of a serger stitch. After sewing the seam, I trim the fabric close to the stitching and sew it along as if it were a straight stitch.
The seam guide should be adjusted when sewing zigzag stitches (or any stitch with some width). On your metal throat plate, seam guidelines indicate how far you are from the center needle position. You must, however, make new guidelines that are the correct distance from your left side when sewing zigzag stitches, since your needle is not in the center needle position.
There are two main problems with the zigzag stitch when it comes to sewing knit fabrics. Firstly, this method won’t work on lightweight fabrics because zigzagging will create ridges and tunnels (see below).
When sewing lightweight knit fabrics, I use the triple zigzag stitch to avoid this ridge or tunnel.
Also, the zigzag stitch creates a double seam allowance, so you will not be able to press your seam allowances open. Sewing with a bulkier, heavy-weight fabric may present a problem, since the double thickness seam allowance may cause ridges under your garment. In order to sew thick knit fabrics like bulky sweater knits, I use the lightning stitch (described below).
Tricot stitch or three-step zigzag stitch
When sewing lightweight fabrics, the three-step or tricot stitch is an excellent choice since it does not create a ‘ridge’ or ‘tunnel’.
My preferred width and length for this stitch are 6 and 1. Whenever I sew shorter than one stitch length, the fabric bunches up. I simply sew along the seam line and trim close to the stitching, just like if I stitched with a zigzag stitch.
Your seam guide will need to be adjusted so that you get the right distance from the left side of your zigzag, as described above.
The lightning stitch
There are two long sides and one short side to the lightning stitch. As a result, the stitch looks almost straight, but the fabric is still able to stretch.
Seams can be sewn using this stitch the same way straight stitches are. If you want to press open the seam allowance on bulky fabrics, the lightning stitch is an excellent choice. In the threading description above, I explained that the classic zigzag stitch isn’t suitable for bulky fabrics because it creates a double seam allowance with a single layer of fabric, which can be bulky and result in ridges underneath your garments.
Since lightning stitch looks very much like a straight stitch, it can also be used for hemming and topstitching. Whenever I hem a garment, I always use a lightning stitch or a triple straight stitch (discussed below) rather than using a zigzag stitch because it looks homemade.
The triple straight stitch
Stitching forward, backward, then forward again creates the triple straight stitch (also known as the triple strength stitch or triple stretch stitch). Although slightly thicker and more pronounced, it looks very similar to a straight line.
If I want a pronounced stitching line on stable medium-weight knit fabrics, I use it when hemming or topstitching them. You may only be able to get a visible stitching line using the triple straight stitch when working with textured sweater knits (the lightning stitch disappears into the texture of the fabric).
Light-weight and stretchy knit fabrics cannot be stitched with the triple straight stitch, as they will pucker or bunch. I often have to stitch knotted lumps of thread into the fabric because the fabric won’t advance through the feed dogs.
Tips for sewing stretchy fabrics
Almost ready to sew your stretchy fabric now that your sewing machine is set to the right settings! Here are four additional tips to keep in mind:
- Depending on how stretchy your fabric is, use ballpoint needles or stretch needles. The round tip of these needles prevents fabric damage. It is often helpful to switch to a ballpoint or stretch needle if you are experiencing skipped stitches.
- Ensure that the fabric is fed smoothly into the machine. Keep large pieces of fabric from hanging off the edge of your machine or pulling or pushing the fabric as it passes through the machine, as this will cause it to stretch. Lay the fabric flat on the table around your sewing machine if there is enough room.
- Try pinning your fabric to tissue paper and then sewing through the fabric and tissue paper together if you are having trouble feeding the fabric through the sewing machine without stretching it out. The tissue paper should be carefully peeled away once you have finished sewing. Stabilizing the fabric with tissue paper prevents it from stretching as it goes through the sewing machine.
- You can iron the seam with a lot of steam if you accidentally stretch your fabric when sewing. The seam will lay flat and lose the waviness in many cases. When it comes to wavy seams, it really works like a charm.
In conclusion, sewing with stretchy fabrics can be a challenge, but with the right sewing machine settings and techniques, it can be done with ease. Remember to adjust your stitch settings, use the right needle, and select the appropriate thread to ensure a professional-looking finish. With these tips and a little bit of practice, you’ll be able to sew stretchy fabrics like a pro in no time!
You may be interested in our Beginner’s Guide to Embroidery Machines, too, so don’t miss it!