Is there an easy way to unpick knit fabrics?

Arghhh.  I'm not the biggest fan of seam ripping anyway, but knit fabrics drive me crazy sometimes. Because of the way I sew, with designing my own patterns and projects, I usually end up with “un-sewing” a lot of my seams as I make changes to designs as I work.  That's all well and good in cottons and other woven fabrics, but when it comes to knits I find that unpicking them is a whole new adventure.

If you recall, for cottons and other wovens, we recently published an article about using an electric seam ripper.  If you missed it, you can read all about it in our post entitled:  Have you tried an electric seam ripper?  More on that later though.

Now back to knits.  For a start, we might use different stitches in knits. Not always of course, but perhaps we are using a zig-zag stitch, a special ‘stretch' stitch that looks like a lightening bolt, a triple stretch stitch or a triple zig-zag. For a start that can mean more stitches per inch than we might use with a woven fabric.  The triple zig-zag and the triple stretch stitch are especially difficult to unpick.

unpicking knits 1

Maybe we are using a serger.  If that's the case then the un-sewing isn't necessarily the problem – but if seams have been serged then part of the seam allowance might already have been cut off.  Not good when you want to alter that seam.  (If you do want to unpick a serged seam, check out the bonus video at the bottom of this article on how to do that easily.)

Whatever stitch you are using, somehow I find that it seems to sink into the knit fabric more, seems more deeply knitted into the fabric.  I suppose a knit or stretch fabric might have more loft to it than a quilting cotton for a start so the stitches don't sit on top of the fabric in the same way.  For me, it always seems if I make a slip with my seam ripper in a woven, I might poke a hole that I can simply scratch away with my fingernail and move the fibers back into position and you don't even notice it.  Poke a knit fabric with the seam ripper and then I make a hole that won't go away, the fibers are damaged or cut and can even ladder.  Disaster.

Try to unpick black thread from a black knit fabric – I just can't.  Even with my new specs I can't tell the thread from the fabric and end up with holes.

Worst of all, it just takes so darned long.  I've tried to speed it along but that just ends up ruining it.

unpicking knits - my seam ripper options

I made up a sample in this pink knit with a regular straight stitch, a lightening bolt stretch stitch and a triple stretch stitch, just to get some unpicking practice.  Arggh, same result pretty much whatever I tried.  I even used a white thread to make it easier but I just don't think there is a quick and easy way to unpick knit fabrics.

I tried with my regular brass seam ripper, which is very sharp and works wonders for me on everything else – I love it so much.  I lay it flat along the seam and tried to cut through the threads as I usually do in one quick and easy glide.  Not this time – not on knits. It cut through easily and sharply enough, but it ended up ripping holes in the fabric too.

unpicking knit fabrics - brass seam ripper

I tried my trusty Quick Ripper electric seam ripper and that was the same.  Usually it can whip through seam ripping in super-quick time and never ever damages the fabric, but try to use it to remove a triple stretch stitch in a knit fabric and it catches the fabric as much as it catches the thread and ends up making holes – big ones!  Basically I ended up cutting the fabric and leaving the stitches where they were.  Hopeless.  To be fair, that was a pretty tough challenge for it.

unpicking knit fabrics - electric seam ripper

So in the end I had to resort to the slow but sure, tried and tested method of unpicking knit fabrics.  That means using my brass seam ripper to slide in under individual stitches and cutting the threads every few stitches.  That way I can be sure that I'm only catching the thread, not making holes or cutting the fabric.  Unless of course I'm unpicking black from black and then I'm doomed again!
unpicing knit fabrics - the slow wayIt works, but it takes a long time if I have a long length to unpick.  No damage to the fabric this way, and of course there are little bits of thread to pull out, and it can be sometimes difficult when the thread is a good match to the fabric because it can be hard to see the thread embedded down into that loftier knit fabric.  But if gets the job done eventually and teaches me a lesson to try not to make so many sewing mistakes going forward.

unpicking knit fabrics - no damage with this method

So now I'm looking for your sewing advice.  Why is it that unpicking stitches from stretch and knit fabrics is so difficult and do you have any tips for making this quicker while still not damaging the fabric?  I'd love to know how you tackle this problem.  Please let us know your thoughts in the comments below.


Bonus – how to unpick a serged seam – video

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11 Responses to Is there an easy way to unpick knit fabrics?

  1. Dawn Stansfield says:

    Just today I discovered that it is easier to unpick the stretch stitch on the back rather than the front. Not sure how easy it is on knits, but on stretch cotton it works a treat. Must be the way the stitch is formed.

  2. You know what I do? I toss it! Hah! I gave it my best….once…..and said, “FOOOR-GET This!” Now I just buy extra material. Hahahahaaaaaaaaa
    I know, I’m not very helpful, now am I???

  3. lizelaine says:

    Thank you so much for teaching me how to rip serger stitches. I knew there how to be a way.

  4. Peter says:

    I usually have a lighted desk magnify lamp that I use when picking. It doesn’t make it any quicker but you can pick the threads easier. Once I finish picking I clean up all the loose threads by dabbing the fabric with duck tape. It makes the clean up fast and simple to discard the thread scraps.

  5. Lisa G says:

    Thanks to the previous responders for the great ideas! 🙂

  6. Anna-Jo says:

    I think slow and steady is the only way to go. I always baste my main knit seams now so I can try it on before committing myself with the serger.

  7. Kathleen says:

    I’ve been basting my knits recently using a standard straight stitch, unless it is an area that needs to stretch, then I’ll use a standard zig zag. Once I’m satisfied with the fit, I go back and “permanently” sew the seams. On black, I use a navy thread inside. Just different enough to see to pick it out (LED lights help), but close enough that no one else will ever notice. Also, when I’m picking stitches, I always go for the bobbin side. Sometimes, I’m lucky enough to get the whole thing to pull out at once!

  8. Ann Wright says:

    Two things that might help. When fitting, I use a 5.0 straight stitch. When sewing using my regular machine, I increase the stitch length to 3.5. Having longer stitches seems to help.

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