Tips for Using Commercial Sewing Patterns with Sweater Knits

I love it when someone reaches out to me with a question about sweater knits -- either about making them or sewing them. And if I don't have the answer, there are usually a couple people I can ask, who can provide an answer or at least give a suggestion that will lead the inquirer in a good direction. I feel that I end up learning when someone asks a good question, even if I thought I already knew the answer. The act of composing an answer makes me organize my thoughts. I also think about the process or situation a little more carefully and with a different point of view. I'm inspired to try new things.

The question I get asked most often is, "What's a good sewing pattern to use with sweater knits?" I used to not have an answer, because I didn't use commercial sewing patterns. In the old days, all the sweaters I made were fully fashioned; that is, I used to shape each piece on the knitting machine as I constructed the fabric, analogous to the way a hand knitter makes pieces of a sweater. When I started making sweaters with the cut and sew method, I simply used my own pattern blocks, either freshly drafted or traced from an old sweater or t-shirt. I'd start my answer to the question with another question. "Do you have a t-shirt pattern?" I'd ask. "You can use that," I'd say. And if a t-shirt has a fit you'd like for a sweater with deep enough armholes, it can work.

Back in 2013 I was asked that question so often, I thought I'd better try a sweater knit with a commercial t-shirt pattern and see how I really liked it. In 2013, there were no Toasters or Tabors to recommend. There were no Megans or Blackwoods.  The first commercial pattern I ever used for a sweater was indeed a t-shirt pattern, Sewaholic's Renfrew Top, pictured at the top of this post. Why I chose a pattern company that catered to the "pear-shaped woman", when I'm more of a rectangle, I don't know. But it was the #1 pattern of the year on Pattern Review at the time when I was looking for a pattern. I felt confident that I could easily alter the pattern to fit me, which I did. I also made another change to the pattern. I'll get to that one in a moment. What was important was that when someone asked me for a recommendation, I could recommend from personal experience.

Debbie of Lily Sage & Co sews a Megan Cardigan in O! Jolly fabric, definitely not a t-shirt sewing pattern!

Burda Pullover 11/2012 #128 with hem instead of hem bands

My Pinterest board of commercial sewing patterns suitable for sweater knits now has 81 pins. (No, I haven't tried them all.)

Here's the important part: true sweater knits can vary greatly. One sweater knit is not necessarily just like another. That's why sometimes your neckband can look a little wonky, even though you followed the pattern instructions correctly, and last time (with a different fabric), it was perfect. This variety in fabric behavior is what makes fabrics forever interesting and fun. And challenging. But readily managed. Please keep reading.

Yes, there are many commercial sewing patterns from the majors and independents that are suitable for sweater knits -- t-shirt patterns, sweatshirt patterns, and now more than ever, patterns written specifically for sweater knits, both pullovers and cardigans. Sometimes, depending on your particular fabric, a few good decisions and tiny tweaks can make your sweater, even better. If I had to choose my favorite tweak I make to commercial pullover patterns, it would be the get-your-neckband-to-lie-flat-every-time tweak. It's the same technique I used when making the Renfrew. It's a matter of going "off pattern" just a little to determine a good length and width for the band for the fabric you're using. Then you can go back to the pattern, following the instructions for neckband installation. Easy.

If you're new to this site or missed that post, I hope you'll find Determining the Length and Width of Rib Bands useful. I've also gathered together a list of five more tips specifically for use when commercial sewing pattern and sweater knit fabric meet. These five tips are easy and often not found in the sewing instructions included with your sewing pattern. But they will help you make a better sweater.

Click here to get the download "Five Tips for Using Commercial Sewing Patterns with Sweater Knits".  Current newsletter subscribers receive access to this tip sheet and more with each issue.  I hope you'll find the Five Tips helpful.


This is an updated version of a post first published on this blog in July 2016

The Best Hem

Of course there is no one best hem for all sweater knits. But, for each particular fabric, some hems are better than others depending the fabric’s properties.

I've done hem posts before. You already know that I use hem tape if the sweater knit is particularly bulky. I’ve been known to use a twin needle on lighter weight sweater knits. But I've recently started playing with the catch stitch and the slip stitch using self thread. Well... self yarn, actually. And by self yarn I mean the same yarn that was used to knit the fabric.

You may ask “how would I get that yarn if I didn’t knit my own fabric?” The answer is deknitting your fabric (unknitting or unraveling)! Really!

First, wait until the fabric is prepped. Though it’s easier to unravel the yarn beforehand, I prefer to do it at this point rather than take my chances with the yarn shrinking after I’ve sewn the hem. If there’s going to be any minor shrinking, I want it to happen to the fabric and sewing yarn at the same time, thus in the same amount.

After the yarn is deknitted, I mark the hem and trim the raw edge. I finished my raw edge with the overlocker and turn up the hem. In this case I’m using a catch stitch, which is very good for sweater knit hems. The more circuitous path the yarn (or thread) takes, the stretchier the stitch will be. So the catch stitch, with its back-stitch motion crossing back and forth, is an excellent hem for this fabric and other stretchy sweater knits.

The slip stitch works nicely if the fabric isn’t as stretchy. I like to use it if I’m using the selvage to help finish an edge as in the picture below. In that case, the extra stretch of the catch stitch isn’t needed.

These methods are not used in ready-to-wear cut and sew sweater production. But if you enjoy handwork, they're some of the nice finishing touches you can use on your self sewn sweater. No matter which stitch you use, always finish with a good steaming. Hold the iron above the fabric and allow the steam to penetrate. Let the fabric dry before moving it and you’ve got the best hem.


P.S. My online course How to Cut and Sew a Sweater opens again for registration in late September. Click for further information.

Eye Candy for Sweater Lovers

Last month I attended a yarn industry event called SpinExpo New York. According to their site, it’s “the leading international industry sourcing exhibition dedicated to innovation in yarns, fiber, and knitwear.” 93% of the exhibitors were from Asia, with the remainder divided evenly between Europe and the US.

Even though I use US yarns exclusively and have my fabrics knitted locally (New York City area), I like to attend the expo every now and then. While I like seeing the new yarns, I mostly enjoy the Trends area. It's full of interesting swatches knitted from the yarns on exhibit.

This year was particularly fun because I met up with friend, textile artist, and fiberart fabricator Sahara Briscoe. Her body of work is diverse. You can learn more about Sahara and her work on her website Super String Theory Design and in this essay on the Knitty City blog.

Sahara Briscoe, Toddler Blanket, 47" x 49", wool

We met at the Brooklyn Expo Center in Greenpoint, Brooklyn on the last day of the event. My favorite fibers shone above all others… because they were metallic! These were the copper fibers of Meadowbrook Inventions (US)

and the metallic yarns of Kyototex (Japan).

And now my secret is out... I’ve had a love for metallic yarns ever since I first saw pieces knitted with stainless steel at Structure and Surface: Contemporary Japanese Textiles, way back in 1998 at the Museum of Modern Art!

But, back to SpinExpo. The name “Trends” implies some sort of fashion forecasting but many of the stitch patterns in these swatches will never make it to a garment. They are complex, expensive, and very slow to knit. But they are always pretty to see, touch, and analyze. Some swatches were nostalgic. They seemed to have emerged directly out of a stitch pattern book from the 80’s. A few were so innovative that neither Sahara nor I could confidently determine the knitting sequences or just how the swatches were knitted.

Here’s a taste of some of the swatches from Trends. Laura McPherson, I & S Fashion, CKRC Jinlong are credited as stylists for the featured swatches.

I know the swatches have only increased my sweater making desires. Have they inspired you? Yes? Then take a look at my online course How to Cut and Sew a Sweater. Registration opens again in September, and the online workshop will help you sew your best sweater. Let's sew sweaters together!