This post is lesson two in our class: Sewing Doll Clothes with Knits. Link to previous lessons: [One]
Lesson Two – The Right Tools for the Job
A key to success in any endeavor is having the right tools for the job. In this lesson on sewing doll clothes with knit fabrics, we’ll cover the necessary and nice-to-have tools that will make your project a breeze.
Choose your Needle Wisely
Knit fabric is manufactured a little differently then woven fabric. The individual fibers that make up fabric are called yarn. Knit fabric consists of continuous loops of interconnected yarn while woven fabric has yarn threads woven vertically and horizontally into a basket weave pattern. The difference in the weave of the yarn is what creates the unique properties of knits and wovens. If you’d like to learn more, check out Threads Magazine’s explanation.
When you sew, the way in which the needle pierces the fabric is important. If you use a universal all-purpose needle to sew on knit fabrics, you may snag or break the loops of yarn. The wrong needle can also result in skipped stitches (needle moves through the fabric, but no stitches form or stitches appear large and irregular), bunching of the fabric, or knots of thread on the underside of your project.
There are two types of needles specially designed for sewing with knits. A stretch needle is ideal for sewing light weight, tightly looped, and very stretchy knits like Lycra or jersey. A ballpoint needle works best for medium or heavy weight, more loosely looped interlocks and sweater knits.
I usually start with a ballpoint needle and if I notice skipped stitches or bunching, I will switch to a stretch needle. It is also important to change your needles as they become worn. Tiny (impossible to see) burrs on your needle or a bent tip will ruin your stitching. A good rule of thumb is to switch to a new needle every 4 to 8 hours of sewing.
The size of the needle is also relevant. The most commonly used size is 80/12, which is a good size for medium weight cotton, rayon, and cotton/poly blends. If you are using a very light weight jersey or thin Lycra, you may find the smaller 70/10 size more suitable. If you are sewing a heavier weight stretch corduroy or denim, the larger 90/14 needle may be in order.
Another fantastic needle for sewing knits is a double needle. I will tell you more about the double needle in an upcoming lesson.
Fancy Foot Work
One of the most frustrating problems when sewing two pieces of knit fabric together is coming to the end of a seam and finding that the top piece of fabric that you carefully matched and pinned to the bottom piece of fabric is now magically longer then the bottom piece. GRR!
There are a variety of fabrics including knits that sometimes misbehave as the feed dogs (the jagged “teeth” that emerge from beneath your stitch plate) move your project along as you sew. Some machines allow you to adjust your feed dog settings for a more even feed, but my favorite “no futz” instant fix for this problem is to sew with my walking foot. A walking foot is a special presser foot that feeds the top layer of fabric through your machine at the same rate as the bottom layer. It is not only useful for sewing knits, but also on multilayer projects like quilts and heavy fabrics.
I love my walking foot so much that I rarely use any other presser foot! I know this thing looks like a rover out of a Star Wars movie, but don’t be intimidated. You just hook it to your machine in place of your general purpose presser foot (it’s not tricky, but read the instructions) and then sew as usual.
Many sewing machines come with a walking foot included, but if yours did not, I highly recommend the investment! You can buy a branded walking foot from your local dealer or you can check Amazon to see if a comparable less expensive generic walking foot is available for your machine. Be sure to check that the walking foot is compatible with the specific model of sewing machine you have.
Step up to the Plate
Have you ever attempted to sew a hem or seam and had the needle push the fabric down through the needle plate causing a hopelessly stuck, knotted mess? This seems to be a particular problem when sewing doll clothes because of the tricky combination of narrow seam allowances, tiny pieces, and delicate, stretchy, or light weight fabrics.
A nifty trick to combat this problem is to sew on a straight stitch plate (also called a throat plate). A very important (if obvious) note up front: As the name suggests, you can only use the straight stitch plate with a straight stitch. If you attach a straight stitch plate to your machine, forget that you have done so, and then switch to a zig zag stitch, or move your needle position to the left or right of center, disaster will ensue. Okay, maybe not disaster, but you’ll almost certainly break your needle and you could damage your machine.
As you can see from the pictures above, the standard stitch plate on the left has a wide opening for the needle to move through. In contrast, the straight stitch plate on the right has just a single, centered, small pin-hole opening. It is much less likely that your fabric will be pushed down through this tiny hole as you begin to sew.
In an upcoming lesson, I will tell you that there are times when using a zig zag stitch is a better choice then a straight stitch, but for now, keep in mind the straight stitch plate, particularly for small, narrow hems. There is also a straight stitch presser foot which you can use in conjunction with the the straight stitch plate, but I have found my general purpose foot (or better yet, my walking foot) works well enough.
A Cut Above
Another tool I could not live without is my rotary cutter and mat, especially when I’m working with knit fabric! Because of knit’s predilection for stretching, accurately cutting out small doll-sized pattern pieces with scissors can be a bit of a nightmare.
Doll clothes pattern pieces are usually small enough that I don’t even bother pinning the pattern to the fabric, I just hold the pattern still with one hand (or anchor it with pattern weights) and cut with the other. This makes cutting patterns not only more accurate, but faster too!
My favorite rotary cutter is made by Olfa, and I primarily use the 28mm size for doll sewing. The small blade easily maneuvers around tight curves common on dolly patterns. For general purpose sewing or for cutting larger pieces, I use the Olfa 45mm. You’ll also need a cutting mat to use underneath the rotary cutter. I have a huge one that covers my sewing table since I enjoy sewing human sized patterns in addition to doll clothes. If you’re only cutting very small projects, you can get away with a small mat. I would recommend buying as large a mat as you feel you can afford because it’s frustrating to move the project around as you cut to fit the mat!
Be sure to keep a supply of fresh, sharp blades on hand. Once the blades become dull, they no longer make smooth cuts and you are risking injury to your fingers as you struggle to press harder to cut the fabric. Speaking of injury, I would not recommend rotary cutters for children under 12, and kids over 12 should be taught proper, safe use and be closely supervised when cutting. The blades are very sharp! If you are sewing with a child, the smaller 28mm cutter is less likely to cause accidents.
Homework: Did your machine come with a walking foot or straight stitch plate? If so, dig them out, blow off the dust, and give them a whirl with practice fabric. If not, never fear. In our next lesson, we’ll cover sewing techniques that make sewing knits easier, regardless of what type of equipment you have available.
Be sure to purchase a package of ball point needles if you don’t have them on hand, as they are necessities for sewing with knits! If you don’t have a rotary cutter, consider purchasing a 28mm size cutter and mat.
Last but not least, gather various knit fabrics for our next lesson. You can buy knits from a fabric store, raid the give-away pile of old clothing to cut up, or visit a thrift shop and purchase someone else’s old clothing to cut up. Try to find a variety of weights and textures, even if you are afraid the fabric will be too difficult to work with. Remember that these fabrics are for practice only, and no need to be perfect or worry about a finished product just yet!