For many sewists, working with stretchy knit fabric for the first time can be daunting, but moving forward, many soon learn to love knits because of their elasticity and texture. Knits are also wrinkle-resistant and comfortable to wear.
The word knit is derived from “knot” and it originates from the Dutch word “knutten”. While knitting is the method that uses two or more needles to loop wool or yarn into a series of interconnected loops to produce knit fabrics or garments. It became popular in 1916 when Coco Chanel used knit fabric in her famous suits. Soon thereafter, knits became the fabric of choice for sportswear. Today, knit fabric is popularly used for sweaters, clingy dresses, cashmere turtlenecks, coats, and various other knitwear.
So what should we keep in mind when we sew using knit fabric? It is important to know that there are many kinds of knits as they come in different stretch, weight, and direction of stretch. All these attributes affect how to sew knits and should be used to determine what kind of project to stitch when using knit fabrics.
Woven fabric versus knit fabrics
Woven fabric is made up of at least two separate groups of yarns, called warp and weft while knitted fabric can be made from one yarn only. Weaving is interfacing two or more sets of yarns together to form a fabric. Knitting is the process of forming a series of interlinking loops in the yarn to form the fabric.
Warp knits and weft knits
There are two main types of knit fabrics namely warp and weft knits and the latter is the one commonly used by home sewers. Weft knits are produced by using basic knitting stitches such as knit, purl, tuck or miss. Combining these stitches also results in various knit textures and types. Furthermore, using different yarns, fibers and colors gives us various kinds of knit fabrics. The looseness and tightness of the tension of these stitches also determine the characteristics of the knit fabric.
Single knit fabric (often called single jersey) is a more general term to describe knitted fabrics that are produced by knitting machines with only one set of knitting needles.
One of the most common knit fabrics used by home sewists is the jersey. It is usually composed of cotton, wool, or synthetic blends and has moderate elasticity. Jerseys are commonly used when stitching pajamas, t-shirts, and hosiery. Wool jersey knits are often found in skirts and dresses. And since jerseys are produced by using only the knit stitch, it has a smooth front making them ideal for prints and a textured back with distinct right and wrong sides. Jersey stretches up, down, and across and tends to curl, so managing it can be a bit difficult.
Rib-knit, on the other hand, is a knit fabric that is ribbed throughout. It can be light to heavyweight and is highly elastic. Great for sweaters, tops, cuffs, and neck bands for jersey t-shirts, it is produced by combining purl and knit stitches. The result is a double-knit fabric with vertical rows of stitches that are joined alternately in the front and back. Rib knit fabrics have excellent shape retention.
Interlock or double knits
Interlock or double knit is usually composed of two layers, combined to produce one fabric since it is composed of two rows of stitches placed directly behind each other. It has more limited elasticity or stretch, is moderate to heavyweight, and is ideal for suits, pants, blouses, and tops. Both sides of the interlock knit are smooth, making it more stable than jersey knits so there's often no way to differentiate a right and wrong side. It is also thicker than jersey and is easier to manage to make it quite popular among home sewists.
Knowing the unique properties of jersey, rib, and interlock knit fabrics should make sewing with knit fabrics more enjoyable and satisfying. And there are still other types of knit fabrics out there with their own distinct attributes. So prepare your double-needle sewing machines, master a variety of zigzag stitches and you are ready to sew your stretchy knit fabric. Sew on!
As a refresher, we have done a number of popular articles about sewing with knits ourselves. Including a comprehensive Pinterest feature that you can check out below:
A very popular article of ours has been about how and where to use Knit Stay Tape
And last, but certainly not least, we did a post on the dramas involved in unpicking sewing in knit fabrics. We didn't have the ultimate answer on how to do this efficiently so you may want to review the reader comments as they share some useful tips and techniques.