Marianne Dress Sew-Along: Tips & Tricks for Sewing with Knits

Sewing with knit fabrics can be scary if you've never done it before, but that's exactly why the Marianne Dress is an ideal first project–there are only a few seams to work with and there is a lot of room for error.

Knowing that not everyone that bought the Marianne Dress pattern would own a serger (or overlock machine), I wrote the instructions for both a conventional machine as well as a serger. That way, no matter how you choose to sew it up, you can read along and feel confident that you are doing the right thing.

I've been sewing with knits for decades and have many pointers to share. Below are some tips and tricks to working with knits that will help you move onto your project with confidence! And, of course, in addition to these general tips below, I will be walking you through each step of the dress making process with loads of advice for each step!

Knits shrink a lot more than wovens, so it's hugely important to pre-shrink your fabric before cutting it out. Sometimes you can skip this with quilt weight cottons, but trust me, knits are not a fabric you want to cut into without having washed first. As I wrote on the back of the Marianne Dress pattern, I suggest purchasing at least a 1/4 yard additional fabric for shrinkage, as it will likely shrink about 25%.

Pattern and Stripes
In addition to the shrinkage that will occur with pre-washing, if you have a print or stripes that you want to line up at the side seams, be sure to purchase a bit of extra yardage so you can shift the pattern pieces to hit right at the right spot for the stripes or motif to line up. Remember, the bigger the repeat, the more extra you will need!

Printed vs Woven Stripes
Also a huge thing to check when buying knits, is if the stripes are woven with different colored threads, or if the stripes are printed onto the face of the fabric with ink. This is really important with knits, as they can get off grain quickly, especially when pre-washing. If the stripes are printed onto the face of the fabric and the fabric gets off grain, the stripes will never be lined up on the sides, nor parallel across the body. Honestly, I never buy printed stripes, because I have never found them to be on grain. So if you have your heart set on stripes, be sure to check that they are woven and not printed.

The reason knits are scary to work with is because they stretch. When I have new sewers in class ask me if sewing with knits is difficult, I always say to them, "imagine if the fabric you were just working with stretched in all directions, and yet, you weren't allowed to let it stretch as you were sewing it." That usually puts it into perspective for them really quick.

The key is working with the stretch and not against it. Don't fight it, don't stretch it, just let it go through the machine like any other fabric. I know this is easier said than done, but with some practice you will learn to love knits, I promise! Also, while knits sound scary, I find them to be incredibly forgiving. So hang in there and if everything isn't perfect, it will likely work out better than when things don't line up just right on a woven garment.

Start Slow
Yesterday I mentioned all kinds of knits that you can use to sew up your Marianne Dress, and some will prove to be more difficult than others. Therefore, I suggest starting with something more stable when you're new to sewing with knits. I find the most forgiving choices to be cotton and spandex blends, and ponte knits. Both of these have a bit more weight to them and have just enough synthetics in them to bounce back nicely.

Knits with a lot more drape, like rayon, bamboo, and modal will be much harder as they are a lot more slinky and will be very challenging to cut. Sweater knits are challenging for even the most experienced seamstress, so that is to be avoided unless you are quite experienced. And while 100% cotton can be easy, I find that because it all cotton, sometimes it can be a little stiff and the lack of return on the stretch can look bad if not done right. So if you're brand new, search out some ponte or cotton and spandex blends to try first!

When you're buying fabric, it's a great idea to get a bit extra to do some practicing on. Likely there will be scraps around the cut pieces, so there's no need to buy a lot extra, but just be sure to save some along the way somewhere to run through the machines you're using to test the stitches. I always run my fabric (in the amount of layers to be sewn) through the serger going with the crossgrain, with the length of grain, and then in a curve. That way I can see how it's going to stitch and stretch as I work it through the machine. I also test any hemming on my regular machine (zigzag stitch, straight stretch stitch, dual needle, etc) so there are no surprises at the end.

Want even more help? If you're really serious about learning to sew with knits, I highly recommend the book, The Colette Guide to Sewing Knits. I own it, and though I've sewn with knits for a long long time, I still found it informative and helpful. And if you don't want to wait to get it in printed form, Sarai sells it as a digital book too, so you can have it on your tablet or laptop for quick reference and instant download! Do it, you won't be sorry!