A PRIMER FOR KNITS – SEWING WITH UNSTABLE AND STRETCHY FABRICS

1.  Pins and Cutting

a. Your scissors need to be very sharp, and to cut right to the points.  It helps if they’re small, and the curved end scissors (made for machine embroidery) are sometimes helpful.  If you use a rotary cutter, make sure the blade is sharp, and use one of the smaller sizes for better control.

b. Pinking shears and/or a rotary cutter blade with the pinking edge are useful; the curved edges will turn to form hems more easily (sort of automatic clipping). 

c. Silk pins are finer, longer, and sharper than ordinary pins.

d. Precision is very important; with the small scale of doll clothes, even 1/16” on a cut edge will make an obvious difference – in one seam, that’s 1/8”, and on both side seams that’s 1/4" difference!  If you pin the pattern to the fabric and cut around it with scissors, check after to be sure the garment piece is not larger than the pattern.

An option is to use the pattern like a template:  place it on the fabric (preferably wrong side), trace carefully around the pattern with a very fine (.07) tip pen, remove the pattern, pin the fabric layers together if there are 2, and cut just barely inside the line.

e. The maximum stretch of the fabric should go around the body.  These fabrics will roll to one side on the cut edge; if possible, use this side as the "wrong" side, so the fabric works with you when you turn the hems.

 

2.  Needles, Thread and Stitches

a. Use an appropriate needle: try a universal and a stretch, in sizes 70 and 80, to determine which works best with your fabric, and change the needle frequently to prevent damage to the fabric and ensure good stitches. (After 10 hours of sewing, the needle is already worn from the thread, even if it isn’t nicked!)

b. Use polyester thread, which is stronger and has some stretch.

c. A narrow, short zigzag stitch is most suitable for these fabrics; the stretch stitches may make the seamline too heavy.  Testing is the only way to determine appropriate needle, thread, stitch width and length; for hems and elastic application, the stitch will be wider and longer than for seams.  A narrow short zigzag will have little stretch, and may, if it is too short, create an uneven seamline.  Too long, and it won’t be a secure seam!  TEST!

d. A multiple stitch zigzag (which zigs 2 or 3 stitches one way, then zags back 2 or 3 stitches) will allow additional stretch in hems, casings, and elastic application.

e. Secure the stitching at beginning and end of seams, inside any cross trimming line.  To prevent thread ends from showing at finished edges, start stitching inside the finished edge, backstitch to the edge, then stitch forward.  The thread ends will then not be right at the edge.

f. The seam allowances can be trimmed quite closely, since these fabrics do not fray. 

g. If you need to stop stitching midway in a seam, stop with the needle down.

h. A stiletto (or bamboo skewer, or – my favorite – a dental pick with the point smoothed off with sandpaper) will help to control the fabric as it moves under the presser foot.

i.  Use an appropriate presser foot.  You need to maintain as much control and support for the fabric as possible.

j.  Make sure your machine tension is properly adjusted; an improper tension can result in puckered seams or loose stitches.  Sewing machines need an annual maintenance, just like cars!

 

3.  Glue Basting

a. The use of basting (wash-out) fabric glue sticks is recommended, since small pieces of unstable fabric (especially those that roll at cut edges) can be difficult to control. Work over an empty plastic bottle or a tightly rolled towel; apply the glue to the edge of the fabric; position the hem in place (use a pin or a stiletto to assist), and pin straight through the hem into the bottle or towel. Let the glue dry, and your tiny hem will be securely ‘basted’ in place, with the additional bonus of the stabilizing effect of the glue.

Use the basting glue whenever you need to secure slippery fabrics or tiny edges together, to keep edges matching and corners neat.

The glue washes out easily when construction is completed.

The glue sticks can be messy to use; try working over a hot-glue mat, which can be cleaned easily. 

b. The double-faced wash-away basting tape, available in 1/8” or 1/4" widths, will also work, but may be difficult to handle around some curved edges.

c. Wash-out basting glue also comes as a liquid, in a bottle with a lovely thin nozzle.  This often doesn’t work as well on synthetics or knits as it does on woven cotton.

Use the glue to baste seams together, too, where you need to!

 

4. Stabilizing

a. Stabilizers are a second necessity for sewing these fabrics by machine.  There are many kinds available; test with a scrap of your fabric and the stitches you plan to use to see which are most appropriate.  The Perestroika studio standbys are onionskin paper as a tear-away, and a clear water-soluble stabilizer. 

b. ALWAYS use a stabilizer under the fabric, to prevent distortion from the feed dogs and to prevent the fabric from disappearing down the needle-hole. If one layer of stabilizer does not adequately support the fabric, use 2 layers.  Just place the garment piece on a larger piece of the stabilizer, and stitch through both. Gently remove the stitched line from the stabilizer.  If small bits of the stabilizer remain in the stitching, use pointed tweezers or a fabric eraser to remove them, being careful not to snag the fabric or pull the stitches.  Sometimes moistening the bits will help to remove them.

c. Use the clear stabilizer on top of the fabric if needed to prevent stretching, slipping or puckering from the presser of the presser foot. (Of course, you can use the clear under fabric as well, I just find the onionskin does the job and is cheaper.)

Save the bits of the clear that you tear away!  Sometimes you only need a small or narrow piece. 

d.  Dissolve the really tiny bits of the clear stabilizer in a little water, soak fabric in it (or spray it on fabric), let it dry, and you’re stabilized until you wash it out!  Or use spray starch or fabric finish to stabilize whole pieces of fabric. You can also buy a spray-on stabilizer.

e. Paper piecing is another transferable technique useful for these projects.  The pattern is printed, copied or traced to paper or stabilizer, and cut out at least 1/2" from the cutting lines.  Place it on the top of 2 layers of fabric (right sides together) and sew through pattern and fabric.  Cut out the pattern and fabric, and remove the paper.  This is very precise sewing!  And no, the pattern cannot be reused! Print or copy a whole page of them!  (We use this technique for collars in Real Clothes Volume Two, and it is similar to the Lining a Bodice tip from Virginia.)   

Cheap copy paper works if you haven’t got anything else available!

 

4.  Elastic and Ribbing

a. The elastic length will depend on the doll (waist measurements on Barbies can vary by 1/4"), and the stretch and recovery of the elastic.  Try the elastic around the doll, where you want the waist of the panties to be; pin the ends, make sure the elastic will stretch over the doll's hips, add seam allowances, and measure or mark.

b.  Test the elastics first!  Found a pretty black lingerie elastic – but the colour ran when it was wet, and even if not wet, I’d be concerned about it staining a vinyl doll.

Many elastics cannot be sewn through; some will “run” if a thread is cut by the needle, and some simply lose their stretch or their stretch recovery.

c. Elastic application methods:

      i) Topstitch in place

Lingerie elastic can be applied by lapping the elastic over the right side of the raw waist edge, and stitching over the lower edge of the elastic at the stitching line.  Trim the elastic to length, and trim the excess hem allowance.  Tip: sew first, and then cut the elastic – more to hold on to!

      ii) Couching

Very narrow (1/8") elastic, or elastic thread or cord, can be applied by zigzag stitching over the elastic to form a thread casing.  Secure the first end of the elastic in place by sewing through it with short stitches. Then set the zigzag stitch wide enough to clear the elastic, and long enough to allow for stretch and recovery; stitch carefully – hold the elastic taut but not stretched - so you don’t stitch through the elastic, and lock the stitches at the other end – still not catching the elastic!  Leave at least 1” of the elastic free end.  Pull it to length, and then secure the free end and trim. You can usually secure the second end of the elastic when you sew the second side seam or the back seam.

If this application is used on a finished edge (like a panty waist), first fold the top edge to form a hem, glue baste if necessary, and then couch the elastic to the inside of the garment just below the folded top edge. 

If the elastic pulls out, thread another piece through the stitching with a tapestry needle.

For a classy wider waist, couch 2 or 3 rows of elastic, each just under the previous, and pull all to length at the same time.

     iii)  Casing

Fold the hem in place, stitch the hem far enough from the folded edge to create a casing just wider than your elastic, insert the elastic into the casing, secure the first end, gather to length, secure the second end, THEN cut the elastic.

d.  Ribbing, or a cross-grain strip of knit fabric or Lycra, can often be used to gather an edge instead of elastic.  Use the stretch ‘n sew technique; measure ribbing (as with the elastic, in 4b, pin to each end of the garment edge, pin in the middle of each, stretch the ribbing to fit, and sew with an appropriately stretch zigzag stitch. You’ll probably need only a 1/8” seam allowance for both garment & ribbing.

Be careful when choosing a ribbing; those with Lycra in them have much better stretch recovery.  Some just stretch out and stay there!  Socks can be a good source of ribbing. . .

To use the cross-grain knit strip or the Lycra strip, apply like ribbing or as a binding – try it out first, see what you like the look of and how it works. 

With doll clothes, if at all possible, apply elastic or ribbing while the garment is still flat – before you sew the second side seam (or whatever). 

 

Use a stabilizer under the fabric even when applying the elastic.  You may very well need 2 layers for this.

5.  Sources

Some fabric stores may carry the wash-out fabric basting glues, the wash-out basting tape, the clear water-soluble stabilizer, any of a variety of tear-away stabilizers, silk pins, and stilettos, but if your stores don’t, check out quilting stores, the sewing machine dealers who sell embroidery machines (most do now), or Nancy’s Notions online.  Be careful with tear-away stabilizers; some are much heavier than you need, and some don’t tear away easily.  For onionskin paper, try paper wholesalers; a ream will last a long time, but not forever! You can use it for the paper piecing trick, too.  And it makes good tracing paper. 

At some point, you will probably prick your finger and get a spot of blood on your work.  Not to panic; your own saliva will instantly remove the spot!

 

And did I mention TEST? (and practice! )  Good Sewing!