Beth Byrge is the author of 110 Creations: A Sewist’s Notebook and 110 Creations for Kids, a handy guide for all garment sewists to help plan and track their beautiful creations. Beth loves to sew with knits so we asked for her 10 Tips to Build a Better T-Shirt. Add your tips in the comments, and visit Beth at 110 Creations for lots of sewing projects, tutorials and book reviews. You can also learn more about Beth in her introduction.
Hello t-shirt lovers! My name is Beth and I blog over at 110 Creations. I’m a self-taught sewist and when I first began learning and sewing I read a lot of negativity about everyone’s favorite t-shirt fabric: knits. In spite of that, I was determined to sew with them because if you can’t sew a t-shirt, what’s the point? Since then I’ve sewn a LOT of knits, and I’m here today to share my favorite tips for sewing t-shirts.
1. Find the Right Pattern
Not all t-shirt patterns are created equal! I’ve sewn my fair share of knit tops/blouses, and there are definitely some duds out there. Since the design is basically the same across the board, you may need to try a few patterns before you come across one that works for you. Drafting is important: a t-shirt sleeve cap with a lot of ease will require careful gathering and set-in construction. Sewing t-shirts should be fun and simple, not time-intensive like set-in sleeves! Personally, I’m a big fan of the Sewaholic Renfrew. It’s a great beginner pattern and is very well drafted. There’s a reason it’s so popular! Not ready to splurge on a pattern? There are many free options, including the SBCC Tonic Tee and the Deer & Doe Plantain.
2. Fit the Shoulders
Fitting instructors will tell you to start with the top and work your way down. On a t-shirt pattern, make sure the shoulders fit before doing any tweaking with the torso or length. Try using your high bust measurement (the length around your torso just above the bust) when selecting your pattern size. You can also measure an existing t-shirt that fits through the shoulders and compare that to the final garment size, which should be noted on your pattern. If it’s not noted on the pattern, measure your pattern piece (just remember to subtract seam allowances!).
3. Don’t Force the Fabric
Not all knit fabrics are created equal, either! For example, sweatshirt fleece is a knit, but that doesn’t mean you can use it in all knit patterns. Ideally, you would follow the stretch guide on your pattern to know if your fabric will work. Confession: I never look at stretch guides! I’m not particularly math-oriented, and I work better simply feeling the fabric and thinking about how it will work with the pattern. If the pattern is loose or oversized, you can use a fabric with less stretch. If the shirt is meant to be tight, you’ll likely need fabric with spandex so it will stretch and recover better. For a quick rundown of the different kinds of knits, I recommend this post from Melly Sews.
4. Understand Ease
As mentioned above, some t-shirt styles are loose (positive ease), and some are form-fitting (negative ease). There is no right or wrong here, sometimes you might want a tight style and other times you won’t. Be conscious of your end goal when selecting a pattern and fabric and be honest about what makes you comfortable. In the above photos, all four t-shirts I’m wearing are different patterns, starting with a negative ease design (in other words, the t-shirt is smaller than my body) and working up to positive ease (the shirt is bigger than my body). Once again, consult your envelope measurements to figure out the ease of the pattern.
5. Use a Rotary Cutter
You’ll see this tip all the time, and if you’re like me you might skim over it. The truth is, my whole sewing world changed when I got my large cutting mat and rotary cutter. Don’t be discouraged if you’re not “good” at cutting with it at first, you will get better with practice! And you can always keep scissors handy to grab those little threads your cutter might have missed.
Rotary cutters are far more accurate with shifting, stretchy knits. I saw a noticeable improvement in my sewing when I switched to a rotary cutter, and you will too!
6. Use a Ballpoint Needle
A universal needle will do in a pinch, but whenever possible you should use a ballpoint needle when sewing knits. That includes your serger! I use Schmetz needles and the ballpoint ones are simply called “jersey” needles. If you use a twin needle to hem, you should use a ballpoint twin needle. Though rare and hard to find they DO exist! (You can get them online via Wawak.) If you don’t use a ballpoint needle, you’re likely to get snags in your fabric. I’ve even seen ballpoint needles for sale at big box stores, so no excuses!
7. Test Different Stitches
I’m going to go out on a limb here and say something controversial: you don’t HAVE to use a stretchy stitch on knits. (I’ll hide while everyone collects stones!) When it’s time to sew, I treat each seam differently. Depending on the design and fit of your t-shirt, certain seams may not need a lot of built-in stretch. I have been known to use a slightly longer straight stitch on a t-shirt, and guess what? The world did not end.
It’s always a good idea to test different stitches on a scrap piece of fabric. Test both with the grain and perpendicular to it. A narrow zig-zag might cause tunneling; try widening it. You might have a stretch stitch that you’ve never used, so give it a go. Ever used the three-step zig-zag? It works particularly well in areas needing lots of stretch, like a hem on leggings.
Even with a serger, you should experiment to see if you need to adjust your differential feed. As a rule of thumb, if your fabric comes out of the serger wavy, then turn up your differential feed.
8. Use a Stabilizer
Sometimes you can do all the right things, but you’re still having trouble with a slippery, slinky knit. Your seams are wavy, your fabric is being sucked into your throat plate, or it won’t move under the presser foot at all. Time to break out the big guns and use a stabilizer.
Commercial stabilizers are available at most fabric stores (you can read more about all the different types in this Threads article). A stabilizer will prevent the pulling and twisting that can happen with knits. Personally, I’m a big fan of the tissue paper trick. I place tissue paper between the feed dogs and the fabric and it moves along much more smoothly. After sewing the seam, simply rip the paper away.
9. Memorize the Order of Construction
After sewing a few different patterns, you may notice that almost all t-shirts are constructed the same way. When I try a new t-shirt pattern, I generally skim the directions and then proceed “my way.” Memorizing your preferred order of construction saves time and prevents errors. If you’re not consulting directions every step of the way, you can practically double your efficiency! If you have a serger, I highly recommend the book Sewing with Sergers by Gail Brown and Pati Palmer. It doesn’t look like much, but it contains excellent information on the most efficient construction orders.
10. Use Steam
If you try only one of these tips on your next project, make it this one! For some reason I had (have!) this fear of putting water in my iron. The thought of leaks and hot water at the push of a button scares me, especially with an inquisitive 2 ½ year old. Instead I use a water bottle and spray my press cloth, then press with a dry iron to create steam.
Once I started pressing with steam, the appearance of my t-shirts changed immensely. Wavy seams that I thought were junk magically behaved. Steam may not save you on those unresponsive polyester knits, but on natural fibers it is a MUST DO! Promise yourself you’ll try it, you won’t regret it!
Bonus Tip: It’s not popular to say, but a regular sewing machine is not the best tool for knits. Would you build a house with only a hammer? I encourage anyone who is even semi-serious about sewing t-shirts and knits to buy a serger. I understand the limitations we sewists face with space, time and resources, but once you sew knits on a serger, you will wonder how you ever did without!
I hope you’ve found these 10 tips to build a better t-shirt to be helpful! If you can’t get enough knit tips, head over to my blog where I’m just wrapping up a series on knit finishes. I bet you didn’t know there were so many different ways to finish necklines and armholes!