Friday, September 10, 2010

How to sew jersey on a sewing machine

I have a very old sewing machine. I bought it from an elderly woman for $20 at her garage sale three years ago in Claremont. It’s a New Home 671 (purchased new in 1967, according to the lift-time guarantee certificate taped to the inside of the owner’s manual) and really works like a dream. A somewhat retro-‘60s dream, but still. A little over a year ago I found the cutest jersey dress on clearance at Target (75% off!). Upon examining it, I found that it has a very simple pattern and that it would be relatively easy to create a paper pattern from the dress (without even having to take it apart) and then, in theory, I’d be able to replicate it an infinite number of times, using any combination of colors and tweaking the details to suit my every whim. I made the pattern, bought a number of nice t-shirts from a thrift store, and set to work. I sewed about fifteen stitches…And was immediately thwarted.

Jersey and other stretchy fabrics are, well, stretchy and different from anything I’ve ever sewn before. When I tried to sew a seam, the needle seemed to “bounce” off the fabric every so often, so that I’d be left with seams like below (marked by angry red arrows):

Yuck. I was pretty sure that wasn’t supposed to happen. I searched the owner’s manual for guidance. Surely they had stretchy fabrics in the 60s, so there must be instructions on how to sew them. But the owner’s manual assumes that you can read its mind and a lot of details are missing. At a loss, I then bought proper jersey sewing needles, with no change in the resulting sewing. The lady at the fabric store mentioned something about a special paper material I could buy to make it easier to sew the fabric, but I was not about to do that. I abandoned the project.

Fast forward to last weekend. It suddenly dawned on me to look online for answers. SUCCESS! Here are the most helpful tidbits I found (cobbled together from various sources):
-Use a needle labeled "Stretch" (not just "Knits"). You could use a ballpoint style or a semi-ballpoint universal needle. For the delicate knits use needle size 70 (10). For medium thickness use 80 (12). Size 90 (14) needles are good fabric like polar fleece. I bought a pack of five needles that had 2 70s, 2 80s and a 90 for less than $4.
*  Use a narrow zigzag stitch rather than a straight stitch. A zig-zag stitch is perfect for knit fabric, because it stretches with the fabric, and thus is less likely to pucker or cause thread breakage. Choose the narrowest zig-zag stitch that will not pucker or stretch your fabric, since the wider/longer your stitch is, the weaker it will be. Remember that a zig-zag stitch is wider than a straight stitch, and adjust your seam allowance accordingly.
-Use greater pressure (not tension) from the presser foot.
-Don't let pins get under the presser foot at all, and certainly don't assume you can stitch over a pin.
-Stretch the fabric slightly as you stitch.
-Stitch continuously rather than stopping and starting.
** Sew through something that tears away--tissue paper, toilet paper, old newspaper, etc. (watch for ink smears)

* This advice helped a lot, but the thread was still oddly loose in several places (red arrow: bad; orange arrow: making progress???; yellow arrow: hey, i think these tips are starting to work!):

** This little factoid made the sewing perfect (light green arrow: almost there!; happy dark green arrow: success!). I used strips of catalog paper, since it’s nice and thin. I know you probably can't even see it- that's how perfect and tight and tiny it is.

I believe the stage is now set for me to begin successfully sewing my Target-rip-off dress. Yay!


Anonymous said...

Do I hear "determination"! Way to stick with it. I hope you will post a picture of the finished product - on a model (you) of course:-)
Mom O.

kristin said...

haha- we'll see about that. i tried working on it at the end of last week and *sigh* ran into MORE problems... ;)