Tips for sewing with knits and ribbing

Tips voor het naaien van tricot en boordstof

The first time I blogged about using knit fabrics and ribbing was in June 2011. The post appeared on the original Mamasha blog and was packed with info. Now, 10 years later, it is still one of the most popular posts and it definitely deserved an update *slash* upgrade. Ready to get stretchy?

1. What are knit fabrics?

2. Where do you buy knits?

3. What is elastic binding?

4. What is ribbing?

5. Patterns for knit fabrics

6. Tips and tricks when using knits

7. Tips and tricks when using ribbing

1. What are knit fabrics?

A lot of garments, and especially t-shirts like this Billie are made from knitted fabrics. This stretchy type of fabric is known as knits or jerseys. In Dutch it is commonly known as ‘tricot’, whereas in French speaking countries it is often referred to as ‘jersey’.

The word 'knits' is not used to characterize the stretch of a garment but just like ‘tricot’ it refers to a type of knitting process that creates stretch. Knitted fabrics are made by a continuous thread of yarn, very much like with hand knitting. The knitting process makes sure different levels of stretch can be achieved, whereas woven fabrics are made by a different technique (weaving) which doesn’t promote stretch. If you take a closer look at a knit fabric, you will see these v-shaped stitches, like braids. Fabric that is used for t-shirts will show you small loops, whereas fabric used for sweaters or cardigans will have bigger loops.

'Interlock' is a type of knitted fabric of which both sides are smooth. It is a double knit fabric and has two rows of stitches that become ‘interlocked’ as the fabric is knit, which makes the fabric look exactly the same on both sides, opposed to other types of knits that have a right and a wrong side.

Tips for sewing with knits and ribbing by Zonen 09

2. Where do you buy knits?

When I posted my first post about working with knits, back in 2011, there weren’t too many shops and brands that offered cool knits. A lot of sewists turned to Znok Design, a Scandinavian fabric brand that produced colorful, modern fabrics I often used for t-shirts for my then very small sons. Since then, my taste in fabric has changed quite a bit 😁 and I can no longer complain about knits being hard to find. We’ve been spoiled these past few years and fabric stores like De Stoffenkamer and Madeline De Stoffenmadam now support a large selection of stretch fabrics from labels like See You At Six, Capsule Fabrics, Elvelyckan and Meter Meter. For each of these brands you can rest assured: you’re buying high quality fabrics.

3. What is fold over elastic binding?

Once you decided on the fabric you will need ribbing or fold over elastic binding. The latter type of binding is stretchy, has a plushy, glossy side, finished edges and one clear indentation down the middle. With the plush on the inside, you fold the binding over the unfinished edge of the garment and you simply stitch it in place. You can find fold over elastic binding in most fabric and sewing supply stores, but you don’t often see it being used. If you do spot it, it’s usually used to finish a neckline.

4. What is ribbing?

Rib knit or ribbing on the other hand is more often used to finish a neckline. It is also great for sleeve cuffs or waistbands. To be honest, I prefer ribbing over elastic binding. Ribbing is essentially a double-knit fabric that has – you might have guessed – vertical lines running up and down the fabric, creating the ribs. Rib-knit fabric is often made by a circular knitting machine, which explains why it doesn’t have a selvage. The fabric has alternate wales of knit and purl stitches. It is reversible, as it looks identical on both sides of the fabric. Ribbing comes in different types. Interlock can be used as neckbands for t-shirts whereas ribbing with thick ribs can look really cool on a bomber or sweater.

When buying ribbing, don’t ever let yourself be tempted by the cheapest fabric, unless you can really feel the quality.  Been there, done that. There is nothing more frustrating than making the perfect t-shirt and realizing that you messed it up completely because the ribbing was shit. I bought my first ribbing in a local shop and it soon became clear why it was so cheap. Even when I followed the instructions, I still ended up with a gaping neckband.

Good quality ribbing is defined by stretch and recovery. Feel the fabric. Stretch it. Does it stretch in one direction? How about the recovery? Does it return to its original size even if you stretch it multiple times? This is important as e.g. t-shirts are pulled over the head numerous times and you’d still expect them to look perfect.

Tips for sewing with knits and ribbing by Zonen 09

5. Patterns for knit fabrics

It is very easy to find patterns for garments in stretch fabrics. Zonen 09 offers a number of basic patterns like e.g. Billie which is a t-shirt pattern with a short and a long sleeve version. It is available for kids from one year, teens and men. Both versions come with a round neck, a V-neck and a raglan neck version. Billie for kids even offers yet another option: the envelope neck.

If you are not that experienced and you’re following a sewing class, then you’re probably told that knit fabric can be a scary material to deal with. Some teachers do a really good job in convincing you that knits are too difficult to handle for unexperienced sewists. Know that working with knits is nothing to be afraid of. It’s not that difficult and there are very few sewing projects that give you so much satisfaction as a t-shirt that hardly ever sees the inside of the wardrobe. It would be such a shame not to give it a try if the opportunity arises. The only things you need is some courage, a good pattern - check 😉 – and some tips and tricks. So let's do this!

Billie - the Zonen 09 sewing pattern for a T-shirt for kids and teens

6. Tips and tricks for knits

  • If you don’t have much experience with knits, then don’t buy the lightweight or very thin fabrics. A firm knit is much easier to work with

  • Try to limit the amount of needles you use as the tips might damage the fabric, especially with thin fabrics.

  • Use a serger whenever you can. Sewing knits using a serger is much easier than using a regular sewing machine.

  • Do you have a serger? Then make sure to use it to finish raw edges or even to stitch pieces together. Don’t forget to adjust the position of the differential feed. Its default position is N (neutral) or 1 for woven fabric. When using knits you can put it to 1.5 or even 2. The thinner the fabric, the higher the number. Don’t forget to test the stitching on a fabric scrap. This allows you to check if the fabric edge comes out alright. Maybe you ended up with a wavy or puckered seam which is not the intention. If you’re not satisfied, change the differential feed until the seams are perfectly flat.

  • If you don’t have a serger, but you have a walking foot for your sewing machine, then use it. This foot makes sure that the top layer of fabric moves at the same speed as the bottom layer. It is perfect to help you avoid wavy seams or gaping ribbing.

  • When sewing knits on a sewing machine, make sure to use stretch or ballpoint needles. In contrast to regular needles with their sharp tips, stretch needles have rounded tips that will not ruin your fabric.

  • On a sewing machine, use a stretch stitch. Don’t worry if your machine doesn’t have this type of stitch. You can use a small zigzag stitch instead. Use the standard stitch length combined with a narrow stitch width of 0.5 or 1.

  • When using a ballpoint or stretch twin needle, the top thread produces a long, straight, parallel stitch while the bobbin thread zigzags between them under the fabric, allowing it to stretch. Never use a stretch or a zigzag stitch. Use a straight stitch instead.

  • If you use a twin needle to finish the seam, then don’t backstitch. Twin needles are pretty fragile and tend to break when backstitching. You can overlap your stitches, but it’s even better to secure the stitches as follows: leave long tails before cutting the thread. Pull the threads to the wrong side. Knot all the threads before cutting.

  • Press every seam using a lot of steam. A good steam pressing will make the seams stronger and flatten both seams and fabric.

  • If you don’t use a serger, then use a zigzag stitch to finish the edges after you stitched two pieces together. Knits don’t tend to fray so a wide zigzag stitch will do.

  • If you are sewing for adults (who wear their clothing longer than kids) then apply a piece of stay tape to the shoulder seams. Make sure they cover the stitch lines. Stay tape is also used in V-necks to give them a more professionally looking finish.

7. Tips and tricks when using ribbing

  • There are different ways to finish the edges of a t-shirt. You can either hem the sleeves, neckline and waist or you can choose to use binding. To make these bands, cut rectangles from the chosen fabric based on the following formula:

    • HEIGHT = 2 x the finished height + 2 cm of seam allowance. E.g. if you want to have a cuff with a height of 3 cm, then the height of the rectangle should be 8 cm.

    • LENGTH: 75 to 92% of the circumference + 2 cm seam allowance. E.g. if the neckline measures 40 cm, the length of the rectangle should measure anywhere between 32 and 38,8 cm.

  • Length is determined by the stretch and recovery factors of the selected fabric. For fabrics with a lot of stretch 75% of the circumference of the opening is a good choice. For firmer fabrics with less stretch (like sweater knit fabric or a firm interlock) 92% often seems to be the magic number.

  • The right length results in a perfect fit, not too tight, not too loose. Feel the fabric. Stretch it. Remember that each fabric needs a different band length to account for how much it stays stretched out. This recovery factor varies a lot from fabric to fabric. Always take the following into account:

    • Cut the band long enough (better too long than too short). Stitch it to the opening using stitch length 5. This way you can check its behavior (too loose or too tight) and adjust the length before doing the final stitching.

    • If you have a firmer fabric like sweater knit fabric then cut the binding on the bias (= diagonally). Fabric cut on the bias grain gives more stretch. In the case of neckbands it might be a firm plan ;-)

  • Using binding with the calculations described above is one option to finish the edges. A second option is to use it as bias binding. Take the following into account:

    • When attaching the binding, make sure to evenly distribute the band over the opening. Divide both the opening and the band in 4 equal quarters. Use pins to mark these positions.

    • Align the edges of the garment and the band. Stitch together while softly pully the band so that the pins indicating each quarter line up.

In my next post I’m showing you a couple of ways to attach binding with step by step instructions that teach you how to use ribbing to finish necklines. You also get instructions on how to use binding as bias tape, like I did here in this striped Billie for Nils.

In the picture on the left: my boys in 2021. Nils is wearing a round neck Billie and Thor a raglan one. The picture on the right appeared in my first post about working with knits, over 10 years ago. Oh, how times have changed 🥰 and yes, we had good fun doing the remake! 😅

Tips for sewing with knits and ribbing by Zonen 09


  • Sharon

    Dank je voor je fijne comment Geertje én het opsporen van een gebroken link. Ik zet dat hier even snel recht!

  • Geertje

    Mooi dat je het schrijven van (blog)artikelen weer hebt opgepakt! Ik heb destijds ook jouw tips gebruikt bij het werken met tricot. Mijn allereerste poging lang geleden was waardeloos, maar de Charlie werd dankzij de mamasha tips prachtig.
    Een opmerking: de link naar de gestreepte Billie werkt niet.

  • Sharon

    Hey Annelies, merci voor je reactie! Fijn te weten dat er zo’n trouwe Zonen 09 fans als jij rondlopen!

  • Annelies Vandenberghe

    Mijn eerste tricot stap was met uw Billie patroon. Ik kan me de fierheid nog herinneren toen de kleinste zijn t-shirt droeg. Ik was ook wel bang van het ‘tricotmonster’ maar door de duidelijke uitleg in het Billie patroon ging het heel vlotjes. Neem er deze blogpost bij en mislukken lijkt me bijna onmogelijk!

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