The Tiramisu Circus: Guide to Stabilizing Knit Fabrics

Yesterday, I covered a few simple basics for beginners to encourage newbie knits sewists to sit down and play.  I mentioned stabilizing tape for shoulder seams and in this post I’m expanding on that topic to include every type of stabilization for knits I’ve ever tried.

If you use another method not listed, I invite you to link or leave a nice detailed comment.  It’s important to know many ways to do the same thing, because some methods are suitable for some applications and simply don’t work for others.  It’s good to have a nice full “toolbox” of skills as a sewist.

When it applies, I note my preferred method that works for me in my sewing.  I like to try all kinds of ways of doing things, and I tend to settle on the simplest/easiest/lightest/most versatile/easily washable method I find but I’m always delighted to discover a new technique.  I take my blogging pretty seriously, and I don’t post techniques I haven’t tried and tortured myself.   Please try these things yourself, too.  It’s really fun.  Let me know how it goes.

Good.

For knit sewing, you could say there’s three basic types of stabilization: Taping, Handling, and Stitching.

Taping- Fusibles, Elastic and Self-Fabric

The purpose of taping is to stabilize a seam that may be under stress during wear. It prevents the seam stretching out and rippling over time, prolonging the life of your garment.  This includes but isn’t limited to shoulders, some necklines, the area around a zipper, and pockets.  Basically, it’s great anywhere you want the fabric to stay put and not move.

There’s three basic types of “tape” for a knit garment:

This is fusible stay tape.  I use black and white woven, and I also use knit.  It is light, and soft, and the knit version will also go around curves!  I use them interchangeably on knit and woven fabrics, I don’t see much of a difference in practical use.  The knit has more stretch.

For any interfacing, I tend to use one that is slightly lighter weight than my fashion fabric.  It’s so fun and tempting to use the stiff stuff because it changes the nature of the fabric- but that’s just it- it changes the fabric.  A slightly-lighter-than-fashion-fabric interfacing won’t interfere with drape or design, but enhance it.

Sometimes I cut my own strips from scraps of interfacing.  This is perfectly fine, and a great way to use scraps!  I usually fold the interfacing neatly and cut it about 1/2″ (1.2cm) wide.

Using a presscloth and a heat setting suitable for your fabric type, fuse the tape to the wrong side of the fashion fabric, along the seam to be stabilized.  The tape will have two sides- a shiny or slightly rough side and a smooth side.  The rough side goes against the fabric.

This is why I use a presscloth.  Small strips of fusible interfacing will stick to your bare iron very easily.  Not to mention the presscloth protects the fashion fabric from any ickies your iron might have picked up.  (I should wash my iron!)

When stitching and interfaced edge to an un-interfaced edge, to avoid puckers put the interfacing on top.  Where you can see it.  Stitch through the tape.  I bought my tapes online at A Fashionable Stitch, Sunni was so sweet and also threw in a knit fusible tape.  It’s perfect, completely perfect.

Clear elastic and self-fabric are also commonly used to stabilize seams.  Now, my apologies, but I don’t have any clear elastic for my samples.  Terrible.  No where in my sewing room, and today is the Queen’s Birthday so everything is closed.  Instead, I used regular elastic to stitch these samples:

For either elastic or self-fabric stays, you want to stitch through the center of the elastic/self-fabric strip on the seamline.  Don’t stretch it.  Use a lightning bolt stitch.

I stitched four sample seams to see how they stack up against each other:

The top seam has no tape of any kind, just a seam.  The second has a fusible knit stay tape, the third has elastic and the fourth has self-fabric.  Then I stretched each sample and released it 10 times and smoothed it out for the photos.  Have a look, see what you think.  To me, it seems that the seam with the knit fusible tape distorted the least.

I don’t use clear elastic because I can’t find any here that doesn’t split.  It’s common in RTW and many people love that method.

I’m not sure I love the self-fabric tape, it does help prevent stretching but it’s the bulkiest option.

Handling- Tame That Demon Knit!

Some knit fabrics think they’re the king of the world.  They wiggle, they squirm, they roll, they think they have a mind of their own.   But they don’t.  You’re the boss.

When I’m working with an exasperating knit, I drench that sucker with Best Press.  It’s a sizing spray, kind of like starch.  It settles into the fabric and prevents curling, though some fabrics will still curl anyway.  Before you use a product like this, test it to be sure it won’t damage your fabric.  Also- I tend to halve a new bottle of Best Press and top it off with water.  It works fine for me, and I go through it half as quickly.  I’m sure other brands work quite well, this is not a Best Press commercial.  I just happen to know it works.

I also work around this issue by working mostly with well-behaved knits.  I find (in general!) that polyester knits and some organic cottons (?) are prone to curling, as are many lighter weight knits.  You just have to evaluate how much you love the fabric vs. how much you’ll hate sewing it.

Stitching- No more rippling!

Whether or not you care if a seam ripples is entirely up to you.  For most seams, it doesn’t matter much because once you put on the garment, it will settle around you and you probably won’t see the ripple because the seam stretched.

However, sometimes skirt seams or hems or darts will ripple when you’d prefer they not.  The simplest fix is to use some kind of stabilizer underneath the stitching.  I like to use strips of scrap computer paper.

Just slip it under the fabric and stitch through all layers.  This is exceptionally helpful when working with fabrics that want to bunch and stick into the needle plate and other mischief.  The paper helps!

This is important- crease the paper along the seamline and gently tear it, without pulling on the stitches.  Often most of the paper will come out of the stitching.  The rest will wash out.  If you absolutely need to, then by all means pick out the little remnants of paper from between the stitches.

Many other stabilizers exist, washaway and heat-away and tearaway stabilizers.  If you like them, great.  Please feel free to comment and share the brand you use.   I never liked them much, and they’re expensive.  Scrap paper works fine.

Before I close, I want to mention fusible webbing.  It is amazing for taming knit hems.  I’m working on a nice comprehensive post on that topic, but I thought I should also mention fusible webbing here.  You can find it under the names Vliesofix, Wonder Under or Steam a Seam.  Steam a Seam makes both strips and sheets.

I will go into much more detail about the application, but you basically stick it to the wrong side of a hem, turn up the hem, press it and stitch.

Despite my slap-dash sample sewing, I think the fusible webbing makes a massive difference.  I simply turned up the hems, stitched, and took photos.  No other manipulation.

What do you think?  Do you have any details or wisdom to share with up-and-coming knit sewists?  Do you ever sew samples?  I highly recommend it, it’s the best way to build “fingertip knowledge.”

Click to visit the pre-sale! $11 pre-sale, $17 retail. Ends October 5th

The Tiramisu Pre-Sale ends this Friday!  My time, at midnight going into Saturday.  Don’t miss out!  It’s the first of many pattern offerings from Cake Patterns!   You all have been so awesome with your support for Cake Patterns, thank you for 268 pre-sales so far!  I never expected this, and I’m so delighted to think of all the lovely Tiras that will be popping up come November!

Also, if you haven’t yet, please enter the Red Stripe Tiramisu Fabric Giveaway!  I think I’ll add a second prize, a 3m length of red and while polka dot cotton jersey.  Go go go!  I want to send you a present!

Are you missing Conversant In Color?  Go check out Robin’ post about Colors for Sewing.  She’s a great writer and I loved reading her thoughts on color.


52 comments

  1. Thanks so much for this. I had no idea how to begin to tackle hems, but I will experiment with the hem tape. I was sewing some knickers last night and started using tissue paper whilst stitching (leftovers I saved from cutting out tissue patterns). I didn’t believe it would help but it does!

    • The Great Knits Hemming Finale to The Tiramisu Circus is in the works. Just so you know. :)

      It does, it definitely does help! :)

  2. I’m about to embark on my first knit project and extraordinarily happy with the perfect timing of these excellent posts.

  3. I think the easiest way to prevent ripples in hems is to use a walking foot :) Obviously not all machines come equipped with one – and they can be pricey to boot – but if you have one, you should definitely utilize it. Mine is built-in to my Pfaff and it really makes a huge difference in how my knits are sewn up!

  4. There are lots of good blogs out there, a few great ones. This is a great one. All your hard work shows in every post. I love, love, love the iron photo! We have all lived that dream! You are so correct in making samples. I think that it makes the final process so much more enjoyable, eliminating the unknown effect. Thanks for doing this. The fusible knit stay tape will be next on my list. You have proven how great it is.

    • Thank you so much! You’re so kind. :) If I could just conquer my photography demons…

      Yes- making samples more than anything else really really really builds confidence and skills and “fingertip knowledge.” There’s really no substitute, and it absolutely improves the quality of the sewing with fewer wadders.

      • I love that term, “fingertip knowledge” and it is certainly something I work to build. Thanks Steph, for the shout-out. This is a remarkably thorough post. You really know your stuff!!

  5. hehe for some reason I imagined you talking through this very fast, like 6 cups of coffee fast! It’s awesome! Especially as I rather cavalierly suggested to one of my students that we put a zip in the front of her merino dress. Erk. Definitely stabiliser time! We have a lovely soft fusible interfacing that I think will be perfect to stabilise her midriff and zipper seams.
    I would say all this knit info was perfect timing but I suspect it has fuelled my desire to see how merino will go as a dress in the style we are making, I will be blogging! :) And my Tiramisu will be merino… :)

  6. I agree with Corinne–this is a great blog–my favorite sewing blog, really. Thanks for keeping it interesting, fun, and useful, Steph!

    “Discovering” stabilizers was a key step for me when I first started sewing knits (not so long ago). I do like the Vilene bias tape that Burda recommends for stabilizing seams and edges. It is fusible, soft, and flexible, and has a little chain stitch running through it. It’s just another convenient option.

    I have used both tissue paper and water soluable stabilizer (Solvy) for hems. For the Solvy, I cut it into strips, put it under the fabric, and then stitched the hem over it. This helps prevent the tunneling that seems to happen when I use twin needles on some knits. It’s not cheap though. Tissue paper (the gift wrapping kind) was the first method I ever tried for hemming knits. It just goes under the fabric and you stitch through it. It works well and is cost effective, but tends to require picking out the little bits later. I’ll try the fusible webbing method next, I think. I was just wondering if you place the webbing under the hem stitching line or at the hem fold?

    ~Jen

    • Thanks so much, Jen. :) That really means a lot to me, I do try!

      Great tips on brands, good good. Solvy and I hate each other I think. It’s a blood feud at this point. But I know it behaves well for others.

      For the hemming, at the hem fold. I’m doing a big massive mess of a finale to The Circus on hemming, never fear. There’s a bajillion hem finishes out there, I’ll feature half a dozen or so. Options!

  7. I wish I had read a post like this when I first started sewing knits and learnt these things by trial and error – make that trial and terror! Well done.
    Re hemming tape for knits I have even used the terribly cheap stuff that you can find in the discount ($2) shops. It dissolved eventually but you are still left with a pucker free seam…

  8. I personally dislike (aka hate) clear elastic. I find it bulky and the one time I used it on a neckline I ended up cutting up the garment to save the fabric. Fortunately it wasn’t expensive fabric.

    I also use my walking foot all the time when sewing knits. I find the regular foot on the Bernina just doesn’t like them for some reason. The only time I don’t is when I put an open toe appliqué foot on. I’ve been know to appliqué knits onto knits – mad I know but after a few trial and terrors I now have it sorted and little miss has a myriad of appliqués added to her wardrobe. I don’t like wovens applied to knits but that’s another story.

    You don’t mention about top stitching shoulder seams? Or did I miss that bit? I top stitch with a straight stitch.

    I was fortunate to gain a cover stitch machine recently. I’m yet to attempt the beast cause it scares me! Yes I know it an inanimate machine a bit like fabric but it’s still scary!

    • Yes, I rather hate it too. But those who love it really really love it so I figure it must be good for some people.

      Ah ha! :) This is the post about stabilizers, Margo! Feet is tonight. :) And bonus points stitch types, too. There’s only so much that fits into one post.

      I wish I had a spot for a coverhem machine. I’d go into hock for one, but I simply don’t have any space whatsoever. I want a babylock, no futzing around with anything else… You can tame that machine and make it your slave by learning exactly how to thread that beast. Your dealer should offer free threading lessons. Spend an hour or two practicing and then you’ll never have any problems with it. :)

      • I need to make a space for the coverhem – major rearrange needed to make it fit nicely. I got a 2nd hand barely used Brother for just over $250 and while yes Babylock is my dream machine (thats what my o’locker is) this was gentler to the bank account.

        OK so I’ll be patient and wait for feet….

        In the meantime I’ve been thinking about cake & frosting and chatting about it on my blog so thanks for the inspiration on that one.

  9. I make samples pretty well every time I sit down to sew a new garment. I like to make sure the thread sits well, the stitch length is correct and most of all that I understand how the fabric will behave in my machine. I make sample buttonholes when needed and I audition various topstitching methods and threads if needed, too. I hadn’t thought to use my walking foot on knit hems – great tip Lladybird! I use it on slippery fabrics and for matching patterns, so it makes sense to use it on a knit. I stabilise shoulder seams with narrow ribbon or twill tape and I use clear elastic on necklines where the hem is folded over but I don’t bother if I am binding a neckline – perhaps I should. I haven’t tried stabilising the hems, but I think I will give that a go soon. I’m also going to try some of the rolls of stuff everyone seems to use. I think I don’t do it because I’m too lazy to cut strips but if it comes in a roll, I’ll happily use it. I have an American coverstitch that I will get to grips with when my step down power converter arrives. As for overlockers and the like, I did a one day workshop with Alison Wheeler on the southside of Brisbane a couple of years ago. That day I learned things about my machine I never thought possible and it took away all the fear.

    • Yeah! Sample sewing is fantastic. Buttonholes, everything. I hate flying blind. Besides, it’s a great way to figure out what works for your machine and fabric and thread etc… It’s so individual.

      Steam a seam will rock your world. Really. :)

      Alison and I sprang from the same sewing shop, did you know that? :D

  10. Thanks for these posts Steph, they are so enlightening. I am looking at my previous knits attempts and seeing where Ive been going wrong – now I know what I have to do!! Thanks a mill. Keep them coming.
    Maeve

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  13. Such a great post! I’ve never tried to stabilize knits before, and I’ve had some wonkiness with hems and seams. I can’t wait to try out these tips! Thanks, girl!

  14. Such a comprehensive post. You are doing some great work here.
    You asked for tips – I use woven selvage for stabilising knits when I want something firm, it comes in so many more weights than tape (and is free), and I love it when there is a pretty co-ordinating print finishing my t shirt shoulder seams ;). I line the raw edge of the tape with the seam allowance so that it can be finished with the overlocker in addition to the seam down the centre of the selvage.

    I also wrote a bit about using clear elastic a couple of months age – the needle type and age of the elastic seems to make a difference in use to me.

    http://kbenco.blogspot.com.au/2012/06/elastic-in-seams-vogue-8305-top-jalie.html

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  18. Thanks for such a detailed post, love the real samples. I have bookmarked it for reference. By the way, have you tried Vilene’s Iron Cleaner? It’s brilliant stuff, my iron looked like yours as I always seem to get something stuck to it but now it’s always clean and shiny. I get mine from Amazon.

  19. Thank you for this! It was a great help. I get frustated with knits and have ruined one or two (or more!) projects before because of lacking stabilizers for seams. Through trial and error I have been improving (steam a seam has worked really well for me, as did bias strips of woven fabrics in some seams). I will take these tips and improve my knit sewing, hopefully I will stop ruining more projects.

  20. Hiya, was just revisiting some posts on the Tira getting ready to sew myself some breastfeeding dresses and tops. My original Tiramisu is great as a breastfeeding dress, but the neckline could use a little help by the end of the day. I was thinking of adding clear elastic to help support it (I’m open to other ideas?). I can’t figure out when/where I would sew that elastic. Do I just put it under the seam in the same way as for the shoulder (and have the clear elastic sitting against my skin)? Does anyone have any suggestions please? Thanks!!


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