Best Sewing Machine Settings for Stretchy Fabrics

Navigating stretchy fabrics in sewing may initially appear challenging. Nonetheless, with proper knowledge and tools, turning these elastic materials into beautiful garments becomes very achievable. This guide delves into the ideal sewing machine settings, techniques, and advice for working with stretchy fabrics, guaranteeing flawless results for your projects every time.

Key Takeaways

  • Right Needle and Thread: Use a ballpoint needle and polyester thread for their flexibility and compatibility with stretchy fabrics.
  • Stitch Selection: Opt for a zigzag or stretch stitch to maintain the fabric’s elasticity while ensuring seam durability.
  • Tension and Pressure Adjustments: Slightly reduce the tension settings and adjust the presser foot pressure to avoid puckering and ensure smooth fabric feed.
  • Techniques Matter: Employ a walking foot or Teflon foot for even fabric feed, and refrain from stretching the fabric while sewing.
  • Practice Makes Perfect: Always test your settings on a scrap piece of your project fabric to fine-tune adjustments before starting the project.
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 pressureStitch-hemming and topstitchingStitch-hemming and topstitchingIf possible, consider using a walking foot. If not, reduce the pressure to 1 when using a standard foot.
Stitch – sewing seamsStitch – hemming and topstitchingZigzag stitch
Width: 6
Length: 1.5
Lightning stitch
Width: 0.5
Length: 4
Stitch – hemming, and topstitchingLightning stitch
Width: 0.5
Length: 4
Triple stretch stitch
Width: 0
Length: 4
Triple stretch stitch
Width: 0
Length: 4

What are the reasons that you can’t use regular sewing machine settings when sewing stretchy fabrics?

When stitching stretchy fabric, the settings on your sewing machine need to be changed. We typically use a straight stitch when sewing woven fabrics, but straight stitches cannot stretch, so they will ‘pop’ and break when the fabric is stretched. A stitch like a zig-zag stitch can stretch with the fabric, so we need to use one that can stretch with it.

Furthermore, the presser foot must be lowered to ensure the fabric passes through the machine without stretching. If the presser foot is too hard, the feed dogs on the bottom cannot smoothly pull the fabric away from the needle area. This is less of an issue with woven fabrics because they are usually stable and cannot be dragged along by the presser foot.

knitting items

Stretchy fabric settings on sewing machines

Presser foot pressure

When sewing knit fabrics, I highly recommend using a walking foot. This is the foot 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 layers are fed into the machine evenly. With a walking foot, you can avoid the ripples that often occur when sewing knit fabrics.

The left shows stitching with a regular foot. It is important to note the waviness of the seam. The right shows stitching with a walking foot. 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.

My walking foot ensures 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 pressure on the presser foot a few levels if you do not have a walking foot. Since they use different numbering systems, I cannot say what number to set the presser foot pressure on every sewing machine.

When working with stretchy knit fabrics, I set my Janome 5124’s presser foot to 1. When 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. Experiment with different pressure settings on scrap pieces of fabric 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

seam from sewing machine on gray fabric

I can’t cover all of the stretch stitches available on sewing machines today. I will only cover the most common stitch types on most home sewing machines.

Zigzag stitch

close up seam on leather and fur clothing

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 similar in width to that of a serger stitch. After sewing the seam, I trim the fabric close to the stitching and sew it like a straight stitch.

The seam guide should be adjusted when sewing zigzag stitches (or any stitch with some width). Seem guidelines indicate how far you are from the center needle position on your metal throat plate. However, since your needle is not in the center needle position, you must make new guidelines that are the correct distance from your left side when sewing zigzag stitches.

There are two main problems with the zigzag stitch when sewing knit fabrics. Firstly, this method won’t work on lightweight fabrics because zigzagging will create ridges and tunnels (see below).

I use the triple zigzag stitch when sewing lightweight knit fabrics to avoid this ridge or tunnel.

Also, the zigzag stitch creates a double seam allowance, so you cannot 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. To sew thick knit fabrics like bulky sweater knits, I use the lightning stitch (described below).

Tricot stitch or three-step zigzag stitch

leather with stitches

The three-step or tricot stitch is an excellent choice when sewing lightweight fabrics 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 sew along the seam line and trim close to the stitching, just like I did with a zigzag stitch.

Your seam guide must be adjusted to get the right distance from the left side of your zigzag, as described above.

The lightning stitch

jeans with seam

The lightning stitch has two long sides and one short side. As a result, the stitch looks almost straight, but the fabric can still stretch.

Seams can be sewn using this stitch the same way straight stitches are. The lightning stitch is an excellent choice if you want to press open the seam allowance on bulky fabrics. 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 a lightning stitch looks like a straight stitch, it can also be used for hemming and topstitching. Whenever I hem a garment, I use a lightning stitch or a triple straight stitch (discussed below) rather than a zigzag stitch because it looks homemade.

The triple straight stitch

Stitching forward, backward, and 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 resembles a straight line.

If I want a pronounced stitching line on stable medium-weight knit fabrics, I use the triple straight stitch when hemming or topstitching them. However, 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 fabric’s texture).

Lightweight 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 it won’t advance through the feed dogs.

Understanding Stretchy Fabrics

Before diving into the settings, it’s essential to understand the nature of stretchy fabrics. These materials, including jersey, spandex, and elastane, are prized for their flexibility and comfort. The key to successfully sewing these fabrics is preserving their stretchiness while avoiding puckering or distortion.

Sewing Machine Settings for Stretchy Fabrics

Stitch Type

  • Zigzag Stitch: Ideal for seams, as it allows the fabric to stretch without breaking the thread. Set your machine to a narrow zigzag for seams (width: 1-1.5mm, length: 2.5-3mm) and a wider zigzag for finishing edges (width: 3-4mm, length: 2-2.5mm).
  • Stretch Stitch: Many modern machines feature a stretch stitch designed specifically for elastic fabrics. This stitch further enhances durability and stretch.

Needle Type

  • Ball Point Needle: A must-have for sewing stretchy fabrics. Its rounded tip allows the needle to pass between the fabric threads rather than piercing them, reducing the risk of snagging and runs.

Thread Type

  • Polyester Thread: Strong and flexible, polyester thread is ideal for stretchy materials. It offers the necessary give while maintaining the seam’s integrity.

Tension Settings

  • Slight Reduction: Stretchy fabrics typically require a slight reduction in tension. Start with a lower tension setting and adjust based on a test seam to ensure the fabric doesn’t pucker.

Presser Foot Pressure

  • Adjustable Pressure: If your machine allows, reduce the presser foot pressure to prevent stretching the fabric as you sew. This helps in feeding the fabric evenly.

Techniques for Sewing Stretchy Fabrics

  • Use a Walking Foot or a Teflon Foot: These accessories help feed stretchy fabrics evenly, reducing the chances of puckering or misalignment.
  • Do Not Stretch the Fabric: Let the machine feed the fabric naturally while sewing. Stretching can distort the final garment.
  • Practice on Scraps: Before starting your project, test your settings on a scrap piece of the same fabric to ensure the stitch quality and tension are correct.

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:

  • Use ballpoint needles or stretch needles, depending on how stretchy your fabric is. The round tip of these needles prevents fabric damage. Switching to a ballpoint or stretch needle is often helpful if you are experiencing skipped stitches.
  • Ensure that the fabric is fed smoothly into the machine. Do not hang large pieces of fabric off the edge of your machine or pull or push 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.
  • If you have trouble feeding your fabric through the sewing machine without stretching it out, try pinning it to tissue paper and then sewing the fabric and tissue paper together. Once you have finished sewing, the tissue paper should be carefully peeled away. 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 works like a charm.

How to sew stretch fabrics FAQs

Can I use a regular straight stitch on stretchy fabrics?

A regular straight stitch is not recommended for seams on stretchy fabrics. It lacks flexibility, leading to broken stitches when the fabric stretches. A narrow zigzag stitch or a specific stretch stitch is more suitable.

Why do I need a special needle for stretchy fabrics?

A ballpoint needle is designed to move between the fabric fibers rather than piercing through them, reducing the risk of damaging the fabric and ensuring smoother stitches.

How do I prevent my fabric from puckering while sewing?

Puckering can be avoided by slightly reducing the tension settings, adjusting the presser foot pressure, and ensuring the fabric is not stretched while being sewn.

What should I do if my seams keep breaking when the fabric stretches?

Ensure you’re using a zigzag or stretch stitch with polyester thread. Also, check if your stitch length and tension settings are correctly adjusted for stretchy fabrics.

Can all sewing machines handle stretchy fabrics?

Most modern sewing machines have settings and stitches for stretchy fabrics. However, older models might require more manual adjustments and careful handling. Always refer to your machine’s manual for specific capabilities and recommendations.

Conclusion

Mastering the art of sewing stretchy fabrics opens up a world of possibilities for garment creation. By adjusting your sewing machine settings to accommodate the unique needs of these materials, you can achieve professional-quality results that stand the test of time. Remember, the key to success lies in patience, practice, and the willingness to experiment with different settings until you find the perfect match for your fabric. With this guide, we hope to empower you with the knowledge and confidence to tackle any project involving stretchy fabrics.

You may be interested in our Beginner’s Guide to Embroidery Machines, too, so don’t miss it!

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