Placing (and Cutting) the First Pattern Piece on Sweater Knit Fabric

If you have never cut and sewn sweater knits before, you may have a few questions. This one was emailed to me about placing a sewing pattern on sweater knit fabric as the sewist pondered the task:
[...] I guess what I am getting at with [sweater knit] fabric is it isn't something you can lay out and put the pattern pieces on and cut away. You have to really think about your fabric in regards to whether it is a panel fabric or has regular type fabric widths, how they are going to work with the pattern you want to use or maybe won't work.
That's a very good way to put it. Placing a sewing pattern on a sweater knit isn't too different from laying out a sewing pattern on a woven fabric with a one-way design or on a fabric with a nap. And just as with any surface design, or a design woven into the textile, it's always necessary to consider the whole project before any cutting takes place.

For my this sweater I used cotton fisherman knit fabric in four panels. (Panels, also known as sweater blocks, are fabric pieces of a fixed length and width, as opposed to fabric that's been cut off a roll or bolt to a requested length and a fixed width.) Even when I work with a length of fabric with a standard width, I still only work with one section of fabric at a time, enough for one pattern piece. I'm very careful to keep the rest of the fabric length (that's still attached) rolled up, never allowing any of the fabric to hang off the table.

Whether the fabric is striped, an unbalanced plaid, a high contrast jacquard, or a textured Aran, there are various approaches to getting patterns to match on the sweater. It all starts with the cutting. I've modified the way I do this over the years. One thing that hasn't changed is that I always cut through a single thickness of fabric. Once I've determined how I'd like the design to sit on the garment, the following is how I lay out the first pattern piece of the sweater. In this case, it's the front.

Step 1. With a pencil and a marking ruler with guide lines, draw lines on the pattern piece parallel and perpendicular to the marked grainline.

Step 2. Choose the "top" of your fabric (the part where the shoulders are) and how you'd like your design to lay on the sweater. A top must be designated with many knit fabrics. Plain jerseys and simple rib fabrics can usually be used in either direction. Be sure to stick with your designated top of the fabric throughout the project, unless you're making a particular design choice.

I prefer to work with the wrong side of the fabric up if the design is prominent enough on the wrong side for me to see what I'm doing. This way I feel freer to make marks on the fabric.

Step 3. Mark what will be the center line on the fabric and mark a line perpendicular to the center line near the top or at another important area of the design. Use pins like in the pic at the very top of this page or (if working with the wrong side) your favorite tailor's chalk or erasable marking pen to mark the lines on the fabric.

Step 4. Place the first piece back on the fabric. Pin the paper pattern in place or use good weights.

Step 5. Extend your drawn in pattern lines onto the fabric with pins (or with disappearing marker). Adjust the fabric as needed so that the paper pattern and design are square. The fabric design in this example has a built-in vertical element so no more vertical lines had to be drawn. Depending on the fabric design, it may be necessary to follow a rib or wale in the fabric and mark more vertical lines than just the center line.

Step 6. With chalk or marker, trace the outline of the paper pattern onto the fabric. If working without seam allowances on the paper pattern, you'll be marking the sewing line. Be sure to mark notches to the outside of the sewing line.

If working with a seam allowance on the paper pattern, you'll be marking the cutting line. Mark notches as you prefer, but never clip your notches to the inside with sweater knits!

Step 7. Remove the pins or weights from the paper pattern and flip the pattern to the opposite side of the center line, adjusting fabric so that both sides match. Pin or weight the paper pattern in place.

Step 8. Trace the 2nd side as in Step 6.

Step 9. Cut the pattern piece out of the fabric.

I like to thread trace by sewing machine, so my piece will look something like the diagram above. (Thread tracing isn't used in the cut and sew sweater industry, but I like it for my personal projects.) Your front may have neater seam allowances if you cut the actual cutting line provided by the sewing pattern. To thread trace, I do a quick, sloppy cut that I’ll trim later. After I cut, I immediately bring the piece to the sewing machine and sew a long basting stitch on the outer edge of the sewing lines that I've marked. The presser foot is set to light pressure. This basting stitch will help keep the fabric from stretching or running. Plus, knowing where the sewing line is will help immensely in the next step. I use this first piece as a guide to match the fabric pattern when I lay out the pieces for the back and the sleeves. Learn how I do that in my Matching the Texture or Color Patterns in a Cut and Sew Sweater blog post.

I hope this doesn't sound too tedious. I actually enjoy the process and love trying to get things lined up just right. If you have any tips or variations that you use, please share them in the comments. We all want to know! 

And if you're interested in my step-by-step instructions for cutting and sewing a sweater that fits you perfectly, please sign up for info on my online video course How to Cut and Sew a Sweater.


This post was originally published June 2015 and has been updated for clarity.

Mitered Corners for Sweater Knits

Mitered corners are not just for table napkins and quilts. They're also an excellent finish for side seam slits on cut and sew sweaters. If your sewing pattern has them built in, cool. If not, this is how you make them on mid- to bulky weight sweater knits.

How to Sew Mitered Corners for Sweater Knits

It’s important to start with finished edges when making mitered corners on a sweater knit. Here I used an overlocked edge but a stretchy Hong Kong finish could also be used.

Step 1. Make marks on the fabric.

Because I’m making a 1.5 inch hem on each side, I’m measuring twice that amount, or 3 inches, away from the corner. I mark a small dot on the finished edge.

Step 2. Draw a line between the marks.

Step 3. (Optional) Mark the fold line. The fold line is perpendicular to the first line and extends to the corner.

Step 4. Fold (on fold line, if you drew one) so that the marks from Step 1 meet. Place a pin to hold edges together. You’ll be sewing on the line you drew in Step 2.

Step 5. Sew from the outside edge to the fold. Use my technique in the video for keeping the fabric in place without using more pins.

Step 6. Serge along the sewing line or sew again with a wider zigzag and trim close to the stitches.

Step 7. Turn to the right side, while gently pushing at the corner with a finger

Now you have a mitered corner! Steam the hems. You should allow steam to penetrate the fabric, but remember not to press the iron to a sweater knit. Allow it to dry, then sew the hem by hand with a catch stitch or slip stitch. Or sew by machine if you prefer.

Side seam slits are stylish and make a sweater comfortable to wear. Mitered corners are the perfect finish for them when your sweater is of the cut-and-sew variety. Consider mitered corners for a split neckline, too.


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A Patchwork Sweater

It's a simple story to tell. Inspired by numerous patchwork sweaters (See Pinterest board below.) and many sweater knit scraps, I've wanted to create my own patchwork sweater for a very long time. If you participated or followed along with my Sweater Block Challenge, you know how it got started! Here's the whole story with pictures.

Some of the sweaters on my Pinterest board are merely inspired by patchwork. Others really are examples of sweater knit patchwork glory!

My sweater began with my piles collection of sweater knit scraps: leftovers from sweaters and fabrics past, end of bolt gems, and a gorgeous cable harvested from a thrift store sweater. I'd purchased the cable sweater specifically for the Intro to Knitwear Design class I teach at the Fashion Institute of Technology, (You can't use muslin fabric in a knitwear class!), but the cable was just too nice. I had to use some of it myself, rather than just for demonstration purposes!

For the neckline and yoke fabric I reused a part of a sweater I'd made decades earlier, a sweater that needed some serious refreshing.

Cutting and sewing the pieces of the sweater was an interesting creative endeavor -- part puzzle solving, part meditative. Incorporated into what eventually became the sweater back are Moonstone fabric bottom left, natural jersey to its right and Hudson directly above.

The added bonus, of course, is that I was able to use small quantities of materials that would ordinarily have been thrown away. Leftover garter stitch bands from an early project, were used for the bottom of the sleeves and at bottom of the high-low hem.

Strange that a purveyor of sweater knits would be discouraging you from buying fabric! (I'll encourage you to do that later.) Piecing together bits of sweater cutaways is an excellent way to practice your sweater sewing skills or work out ideas for a new design. What future sweaters do you have hidden away in your sweater scrap collection?


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