Playing with Texture

Detail, Waves and Interference stitch pattern, wool

What happens when you finally decide to clear out the old storage unit? In my case, several cardigans and fabrics created in the '80s slowly get back into circulation.

Beginning in 1984, I machine knitted a series of jackets and fabrics. I used several techniques, but the ones I'm sharing today I learned from Susanna Lewis.

Clockwise from top left Waves and Interference coat, back of Teal Green Ripple Yoke coat, back of  Waves and Interference coat]. Photos circa 1985. Click to enlarge.

Hand knitters may be familiar with Susanna's book Knitting Lace [affiliate link]. Machine knitters know her from her book with Julia Weissman A Machine Knitters' Guide to Creating Fabric [affiliate link], or simply Bible, as machine knitters call it. Lovers of artwear may be familiar with Susanna's fabulous one of a kind machine knitted coats, featured in Julie Schafler Dale's book Art to Wear [affiliate link]. Off the Wall: American Art to Wear, an upcoming exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, will present the work of Susanna Lewis and several others who created art to wear during the 1960s and '70s. The show will run November 10, 2019 through May 17, 2020.

Susanna Lewis taught a class at Parsons School of Design in the 1980s called Machine Knitted Fabrics. It was the best machine knitting training I ever had.

There were 8 students in the Parsons class, none of us taking the course for credit. Each Tuesday morning we sat around a table and Susanna would pass out worksheets. She would then show us swatches based on a technique of machine knitting, discuss the principles and methods to create them, and fill us in on variations. The next week we students would return with our swatches based on the worksheet and discuss what we'd learned.

Southwest Spectra jacket, cotton, back and front
These particular techniques are known as rippled jacquard and embossed rippled jacquard. They are double knit fabrics.  For the machine knitters reading this, texture is built on the technical face of the fabric by knitting extra rows on selected needles. I machine knitted on a bulky Brother 260 with ribber. I've also knitted the fabrics on a standard gauge machine, but they take longer.

All of the cardigans pictured are cotton, though I've used these methods with wool often. They are also fully fashioned; I knit each pattern piece in a simple shape with increases or decreases. They were sewn together by hand.

Daisy, cotton

I'm now quite nostalgic for producing fully fashioned pieces again and will take advantage of an opportunity to produce some soon. Plans are to revisit these knitted fabric techniques in the near future, I'm hoping for early 2020!


P.S. If you've been wanting to add sweaters to your handmade wardrobe, but didn't quite know how to approach them (without learning to knit), I have an answer for you. My How to Cut and Sew a Sweater opens again for registration very soon. Join the list to learn more about it!

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.


Interested in special sales on sweater knits, sweater knit sewing tips, and curated sweater inspiration? Join the list and get started with my free download Five Tips for Using Commercial Patterns with Sweater Knits.