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Sunday, 20 December 2015

Sewing a jersey dress when you are scared of knits

A number of sewers have told me that they love to sew jersey knit fabrics, that they run up garments in no time using their serger.  I haven't got a serger, they seem even more scary to me than sewing jersey on an ordinary machine because they sew, overlock and cut the fabric in one go.  Where is the chance of unpicking if you get it wrong?     I even bought "Sew U Home Stretch, The Built by Wendy Guide to Sewing Knit Fabrics" when I saw it discounted in a book shop but was put off trying the included patterns because therein I read "For the most professional-looking stretch fabric clothing, I recommend using a serger and a cover-stitch machine together" - so that would be two expensive machines just to make a T-shirt.  To be fair, this book did give tips on using a conventional machine and several blogs and magazine articles urge readers that it is perfectly possible get good results with an ordinary machine. I have made shrugs and relax-at-home trousers using more stable jersey fabrics, such as Ponte Roma, but the tendency of finer jerseys to stretch and slide while being sewn still made me fearful of tackling  a dress in this type of knit. 

 However, inspired by Chinelo Bally speaking recently at the launch of her book "Freehand Cutting" and urging sewers to be brave and face up to a challenge because it wasn't the end of the world if your garment didn't turn out perfectly, I decided to dig out one of the pieces of jersey that had been languishing in my stash for a couple of years and make a dress.  This was a purchase from Ditto Fabrics, in Kensington Gardens, Brighton, which always has such desirable materials and this arresting print, with a soft velvety feel to it,  grabbed my attention.

The patterns in the "Sew U Home Stretch" book included a simple dress with only 5 pattern pieces, bodice back and front, skirt back and front and sleeve.  This is the page from the book showing the pieces and the dress.  However, ignore the inclusion of a waistband piece and a waistband insertion on the dress.  Why this is shown I do not know as the waistband is only used when making a separate skirt and the inclusion of it in making up the dress would make the dress skirt sit very low.

What I learnt in the process of making:-

Pattern size.  Many knit patterns have negative ease and it is the stretch that creates the fit to the body.  Consider carefully just how close you want the fit to be.  I checked on the internet to see if anyone had blogged about making this dress.  I found a couple of blogs that mentioned it was a very close fit.  I didn't want a really tight fit so went for the Small size, which is slightly larger than my own measurements.  In doing this I also took into consideration that the seam allowance stated was only a quarter of an inch (OK for a serger but I was not happy with this for a conventional machine) and by using the bigger size I could use a larger seam allowance if a pin-fit of the dress showed this was possible.  I also added extra length to allow for a lower hemline as usually patterns are a bit short on me as I definitely need knee coverage.  Actually it turned out that it was not necessary to add that length.

Laying and cutting out the fabric   I took great care when laying out the fabric ready  to cut that I did not stretch or distort it.  If you have a surface where all the fabric can be laid flat at the same time then you are lucky.  Otherwise you may have to resort to the floor or cut out a section at a time and don't allow any fabric to hang over the edge of your table.  I used ballpoint pins to pin the pattern to the fabric, it is much easier to insert them into jersey fabrics than ordinary pins.  Some dressmakers use weights and a rotary cutter but I haven't mastered this method yet and used sharp dressmaker's scissors.

Sewing machine decisions.  Sewing Machine Needles. I have used both ballpoint and stretch needles on knit fabrics.  I find that with any stretch fabric I have to do a test sewing on scraps to see which type of needle best suits that particular fabric- in this case it was the stretch needle.  Usually it is ballpoint for thicker, less stretchy fabric and stretch for thin jersey and those with more stretch.  For the hems I used a stretch twin needle.

Stitch.  For the seams I used a stitch called stretch stitch on my Janome, also known as lightning stitch due to its appearance.  It sews a stretchable seam that can be pressed open to lie flat.  In the distant past, when using an old mechanical machine I have used a zig-zag stitch set at a very narrow width but it does not press open as well as a stretch stitch.

Presser foot.  I did consider using a walking foot to make sure that the layers of fabric went through the feed dogs at the same rate  but my test sewing on scraps showed this was not necessary if I lowered the thread tension slightly.  Adjusting your thread tension or the pressure of your presser foot can help you achieve a smooth feed when sewing jersey.  Make sure you do not pull or stretch the fabric as your machine sews, just guide the material gently under the presser foot.

Making up.  It went smoothly for the most part.  The dress has no darts or fastenings to deal with and just pulls over the head.  I followed the instructions on making up almost exactly, except for the neckband.  The suggested way of applying the neckband meant that I would have machine stitching showing on the outer side.  I did not want any stitching showing at the neck so, instead of sewing the right shoulder after hemming the neckband, I applied one side of the band, then sewed the right shoulder and then hemmed the neckband by hand, using catch stitch which allows for some stretch to the band.

 After sewing the shoulder seams and insetting the sleeves I thought the shoulder seam might stretch with wash and wear so I tacked in by hand a piece of seam binding along each shoulder seam.  Not beautiful to see but it should do the job.  In future I will sew binding into that seam or put some fusible tape along the sewing line.

The only adjustment I made to the fit was to raise the waist seam very slightly at the front, tapering to nothing at the side seams.  To hem the sleeves and skirt I used a twin needle for the first time with a zig-zag stitch to produce a stretchable hem with two neat lines of topstitching on the right side.  I tried this out on a scrap first luckily as it was a disaster.  Then I realised that I had threaded the machine incorrectly and it was so easy once I put this right.  Wendy Ward has an excellent piece on two methods of hemming knits, including the twin needle method, on a domestic machine here.  The picture below shows my hemming result.

And here is the finished dress.  It actually looks better on me than the Dressform but I had nobody to photograph me.  Would I make it again?  Definitely.  It has gathered sleeve heads and, initially, I thought this might look too fussy but decided to give it a go.  Now I am glad that I did because I like it as a design feature that makes the dress a little bit different.  However, in opting to cut a slightly bigger size I forgot to adjust for my shoulders so I will make this alteration next time.

Do you have any suggestions for sewing with knit or stretch fabrics?  Have you found a pattern that would be good for beginners to tackle?  Let us know about it in the comments section.