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Knit Basics: Know Before You Sew - Selecting the Right Fabric

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Knit Basics:  Know Before You Sew - Selecting the Right Fabric

Face it, we all want to jump right to the fun part and start sewing, right?  Well, just hang on as some additional work prior to sewing will help improve the overall outcome.   What should you know about before you sew? How about selecting the right fabric, fitting considerations, layout, cutting and marking techniques?

For this first blog post, let’s start at the beginning by selecting the right fabric.

There is a ton of information on the pattern envelope.  Let’s take a look. 

Butterick B6847  Line Art Butterick B6847

First, look at the models and the garments on the front cover.   How is the garment draping on the model?  Interesting details?  In this case notice the cowl neckline and how it drapes. 

Look at the line art on the back of the pattern.   Some details are not easily seen in the photograph.   For example, for this top there are no darts.  This may or may not be an issue, however, if you need a full bust adjustment (FBA), you will end up creating a dart which could be sewn or relocated into the cowl neckline.

Back of Pattern Envelope Butterick B6847

On the back of the envelope there will be suggested fabrics.   This will give you indications on the type of fabrics that the design is suited for.   This pattern was designed for medium-weight moderate stretch knits such as jersey knits, cotton knits, interlock, novelty knits.   You might wonder what is medium weight?   Fabric weight can be indicated in either GSM (grams per square metre) or OZ (oz per square yard).   This relates to the fabric weight for the specific measurement.   This information isn’t typically available at your local fabric stores since you can touch and feel the fabric, however, when shopping online, a vendor will usually provide it as part of the description.  Here are some guidelines for knits:

  • Tissue (light) weight                130-180 GSM / 3.8-5.3oz
  • Medium (mid) weight               200-250 GSM / 5.9-7.4oz
  • Bottom (mid) weight                300-320 GSM / 8.8-9.4oz              
  • Bottom (heavy) weight            350+ GSM / 10.3+oz                       

The next question you might have is what is a moderate stretch knit?  Stretch in a knit results from the weave, a series of loops creating interconnecting stitches.   Additional stretch can also be added by the inclusion of elastane (commonly known as Lycra or Spandex).

Knit Stitches

Graphic from Knits for Real People

Knits can have both crosswise stretch and lengthwise stretch.  Typically, crosswise stretch is greater and is meant to go around the body for comfort and ease of wearing.  Here is an example of what happens when you get it mixed up!   If you look closely the empire waist seam of the top is closer to her natural waist dropping over 2 inches.  Marilyn unintentionally cut her top on the crosswise stretch; we all got a great laugh over this one at a workshop in Portland.

Mistakenly cut on crosswise grain

I find it hard to give stretch guidelines for fabrics as the amount of stretch really depends upon how the knit is constructed and it depends on the fibre content.   If the knit includes elastane, the amount of stretch is greatly enhanced.  What really matters is to determine if there is enough stretch for the design.   The fabrics listed will give you a clue but another way is to utilize the stretch chart on the back of the envelope.   

 Stretch Chart

If you can stretch a 4" piece of fabric on the crosswise fold for the amount indicated, then there should be ample stretch in the fabric for the intended design.  It’s important to create enough wearing ease to comfortably wear and get the garment on and off.   

Since one of the main features of this T is the cowl neckline, you would want to ensure that the fabric has the drape necessary to give you the soft look of the drapey neckline.   The examples below will give you an appreciation of how the drape impacts the overall look of the garment.

Crossover T stiff       Cross over T drapy

Notice the drape in the second photo and how stiff the top in the first photo looks.   See the impact on necklines in the next photos.  The neckline on the left is very stiff while the neckline on the right is very soft.

Dress very stiff necklineTop very drapy neckline

There is actually an easy way to determine the amount of drape in your fabric.   Hold the fabric on the crosswise fold and bring your hands closer together.   How does it drape?  Do you get the desired results?   

Look at the pattern and ask yourself what fabric is suitable for the design?  If the design is more structured or tailored, then a firmer double knit would be most suitable.   If the design is fluid or full then a lighter weight jersey would probably provide the drape you are looking for.   In the garment below (Butterick 6854), the pattern is loose fitting and unstructured.  Notice how the fabric drapes on the hips of the model.  If you made this in a firmer fabric, it would stand away from the body, and not be what the designer had intended. 

   Model in Butterick B6854      Model in Butterick B6254

                                B6854                                                          B6254

This garment is nice in a jersey (as pictured) or even in a lightweight sweater knit.    Look at the second garment, a coat from Katherine Tilton (Butterick B6254).  This coat looks fabulous in a Ponte double knit.   This allows the flare of the coat to stand away from the body.   You could make this into a sweater knit but depending upon the body of the knit it will probably hang closer to the body.  It’s a look you may or may not desire, it’s really up to you!

Another factor to consider is how well the fabric recovers.   If you are making a garment that has stress points (knees, elbows, derriere) this is particularly important as you don’t want the garment to stretch out of shape.  The amount of recovery can be determined in various ways.   When you stretch and release the fabric, does the fabric return to the original shape or is it distorted?   Use the thumb test. 

Thumb test on knits

Results of recovery test

To do the thumb test, simply push your thumb in the fabric thru your fingers.  Release, does it return to original shape?  If it does then the fabric will resist bagging out in the knees, elbows and derriere.  Most knits will start to lose some shape but you should get multiple wears before this happens.   The percentage of elastane will impact the recovery.   Typically, activewear has higher levels of elastane which increases comfort and overall recovery.  

Knits overtime can start to pill with those nasty little balls on the surface of the fabric which distracts from the overall look of the garment.   Pilling is a result of abrasion causing fibres to break off and form little balls.  Abrasion can come from unexpected places like your seat belt, strap from your handbag, or worse yet, the dryer.   I love that Katrina Walker calls the dryer the “Tumbler of Doom”.

 Tumbler of Doom

She says that most people don’t wear out their clothes but rather wash out their clothes.   Do you have clothes that have pilled over time?   It could be a result of the fibre content, the fact that polyester tends to pill more easily, or it could be attributed to how we care for our garments.   Knits tend to pill more than wovens due to the distance between the yarns.   Manufacturers are producing fabrics with higher twist yarns designed to reduce pilling and wrinkling, however, this does increase the cost.     

 Pilled T-shirt

You can reduce pilling by how you care for your knit garment.  I you are not willing to handwash your garments (most don’t) then consider turning your knits inside out and washing on gentle in cold water.    Then lay the garment flat to dry.  Hanging a garment to dry can stretch especially the shoulders. For example, rayon when wet is very delicate.   I do machine dry my yardage before I cut it out to ensure that I won’t have any shrinkage after the garment is constructed.   After that my knit garments never see the Tumbler of Doom!

As you sew more knits you will start to appreciate fabric choices so just go for it and you might be pleasantly surprised.   I would love to hear about things you consider when selecting fabric.

If you are looking for a great reference to add to your sewing library, I would highly recommend Knits for Real People.   This is a fabulous book from Palmer/Pletsch which includes not only fitting but sewing techniques specific to knits.

Knits for Real People Book

Part 2 - Fitting Knit Tops

Watch for Part 3 - Fitting Knit Pants and Part 4 - Layout, Cutting and Marking techniques coming out soon.  


1 Response

Cheryl Sutherland
Cheryl Sutherland

February 13, 2022

Thank you Janice. You give very valuable information to consider when getting fabric for garments. I am looking forward to your next blog on Fitting Fundamentals.

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