Frocktails and Foldover Elastic

Recently, when doing a Facebook Live in the Sweater Knit Sewing group, I discussed the Stretchy Hong Kong finish. (A Hong Kong binding is a very neat and professional finish for seam allowances. My Stretchy Hong Kong finish is a variation of this binding that keeps the seam allowances nice and stretchy on sweater knits.) Someone asked me if it were possible to use foldover elastic (FOE) to finish the seam allowances when doing this stretchy version of a Hong Kong finish. I replied that I didn't really know since I’d never tried!

Well... weeks later I tried it and I didn’t like it. I don’t have the sample to show, because I never quite completed the trial. It turns out that FOE is too heavy for that application!

I like the look of this elastic, however. It's shiny on one side and matte on the other. There's a line along the length where you fold it. The elastic happens to be in my collection of elastics, because I like to have FOE on hand just in case I have the urge to make some underwear. Tip -- It's excellent for finishing the edges of panties!

And the shiny side happened to go perfectly with the fabric I used for my official NYC Frocktails sweater! (Frocktails is the name for a party where local people who sew come together for drinks and tasty snacks in order to discuss sewing and anything else. I think the first one I ever saw mentioned on Instagram was held in Melbourne, but the good idea spread and Frocktail parties are now held all over the globe.) I machine knitted my very silvery, metallic-looking fabric with rayon yarn that I've had for over a dozen years.

Though too heavy for seam allowances, I realized the FOE is actually great for the bottoms of sweaters. The weight, which was bad for seams, helps keep the sweater down. You may know that Chanel jackets have chains at the bottom to weigh down the garment so it hangs properly. That’s kind of what the FOE does in its own way. I considered it for a neckline as well but I have yet to try it.

The sweater knit fabric is two shades of shiny gray, a simple 1x1 rib, so the fabric is the same on each side. The width I knitted is the width of the sweater. I used the neat selvages without any added finishing for the armholes and side edges. The loosely knitted rayon is relatively lightweight, even though technically it's not a fine gauge sweater. 

You can see the fancy hem and side seams in the gif below, as I try too hard to recreate the festive atmosphere of Frocktails at home with only watered down ginger tea and a wine glass.

The sleeveless sweater has side slits that reveal a two-tone underlining, added for stability and coverage, from waist to armhole. I attached the front and back hems with a button. It's essentially a "low waste" design in that the sweater is two folded rectangles attached at the shoulders and at the underlining side seams. The foldover elastic made an excellent finish for the bottom edges. I had no idea the elastic would work so well! FOE is a good alternative to bindings and bands made from self fabric. (Self fabric = trim cut from the same fabric as the main garment) and works with heavier weight fabrics than I imagined.

Some people apply FOE to garments by just folding the elastic over the edge and sewing, but I use a two-pass method.

Step 1. I trimmed the bottom edges to the curved shape I wanted.

Step 2. I measured the elastic along the front bottom edge (in this case front and bottom edges were of equal length) and then cut two of these.

The FOE I used is three quarters of an inch unfolded. Here it is pictured above an elastic that’s an inch wide unfolded, which might work for a bulkier sweater knit.

Step 3. I then folded and glue basted the ends of the elastic under about 1/2 inch, as you can see in the picture, top right edge. The elastic pieces were now shorter in length than the bottom edges of the sweater.

Step 4. Working with the public side of the sweater facing up, I placed the edge of the fabric right up to the fold line that runs down the length of the elastic. I attached the elastic to the fabric using a 3 mm wide by 3 mm long zigzag, stretching the elastic slightly to the length of each bottom sweater edge.

Step 5. Next I folded the elastic around the fabric and did a second pass close to the edge of the elastic with a “wobbly straight stitch” (a.k.a. a very narrow 0.5 mm wide zigzag, 3 mm long). At least that’s what I did with my test sample! On closer look at the final garment, I seem to have sewn this second pass with a straight stitch. Unfortunately many days passed between my sample and binding the actual sweater, and I must have forgotten what I'd done. Since I stretched the FOE slightly as I sewed, however, the bottom edge remains stretchy.

Below you can see the inside and outside of the bottom edge. Another day I'll experiment with an even thicker fabric and the wider FOE.

Special thanks to @sewmsboncha, @sophomorestudio@disewbedient, and @cmykat for organizing such a fun #nycfrocktails2019 and for giving me motivation and a deadline to complete my sweater.


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Luscious Sweater Knits Extra - Part 2

Last fall I shared a behind the seams look at my Washington Square x Toaster 2 sweater that appeared in an article I wrote for Threads Magazine (#200, January 2019). The article is also available online now. Please click through also to see the very lovely model wearing the cardigan pictured above.

As I’ve mentioned before, some of the techniques in my article are not ones traditionally used in the garment industry for ready-to-wear clothing. I’ve specifically adapted many of these methods for home sewing. Here’s a closeup look at the featured sweater in the article.

Named after the stitch pattern I developed a few years ago, the Providence jacket was my first time sewing this particular fabric, and I was delighted to have an excuse to work with my favorite kind of knit! Back when I was doing custom knitting, I produced this fabric in a lighter weight yarn. This more substantial version of the Providence sweater knit, however, was developed for sweater coats and jackets. As my knitting contractor says, Providence is “slow knitting and full of body”.

If it’s my favorite kind of knit fabric then that means it’s wool, bulky, and has a prominent stitch pattern. A bonus feature is that this fabric has very regular, finished selvages which can sometimes be used as a finished edge.

I designed the sweater jacket based on my own sweater pattern block. Providence is relatively stable for a sweater knit. No special fit adjustments were needed to my basic pattern to make it work for this fabric. The stitch pattern has a strong vertical element in the design. I redrafted the front right piece so that the cardigan would have a diagonal, asymmetric front opening. I then cut out the pieces to take advantage of those clean selvages.

When constructing the cardigan I folded the selvages back on themselves and stitched them in place to produce sturdy edge finishes for the front opening. In the picture below you can see the folded over selvage at the left edge. The hem is bound with self fabric, rotated so the vertical element is running crosswise.

For the tie at the neck, I used a wider strip of Providence rotated as with the hem binding. I folded the selvage over to cover the unfinished seam allowance at the neck and hand stitched the selvage down with slip stitches. Using the selvage allowed me to produce a less bulky seam since there are fewer seam allowances.

The rouleau “eye” is supported on the inside with a small patch of interfacing.

For the article I shipped the sweater (along with my raspberry pullover and numerous small technique samples) to Threads Magazine for a photo session. After the package was returned to me, I tried on the jacket again and have now decided to add a second closure just under the bust. The additional closure will keep the front opening better secured to properly show off the sweater's asymmetric features.


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Recommended Sewing Machine Features for Sewing Sweater Knits

Imagine the scene: After hours of laying out fabric and pattern pieces, and after carefully cutting, you at last begin sewing your first seam... And the machine “eats” your fabric! Oh, it’s happened to you, too? Many years ago I was sewing a lacy sweater knit. It was the first time in a while I had sewn this tricky fabric and I was working on an unfamiliar machine (an inexpensive Brother I purchased to use for simple mending only while mine was 2000 miles away in storage. Long story). I never even got to the point of fretting about rippled seams. I couldn’t even get the seam started!

I solved the problem by purchasing a walking foot before trying again. The gripping, serrated, bottom edges of the walking foot helped feed the fabric past the needle and got me going. It was that simple.

The white serrated parts in the center of the pic move up and down, as the needle moves up and down.

There are other ways I might have handled the situation, but I learned that when working with a very stretchy, openwork fabric with slow recovery, the more help one has to move the fabric along, the better. This is why, when I eventually went shopping for a new sewing machine, I chose one with a better feed system. The more contact the feed dogs have with the sweater knit, the more readily the fabric will move beyond the needle at the start.

I’m sometimes asked what kind of sewing machine is best for working with sweater knits and does one need a serger? I’ll answer the second part first. No, you don’t need a serger or overlocker. In fact one of my favorite finishes for seam allowances doesn’t use a serger at all.

The stretchy Hong Kong binding finishes the seam allowances neatly without a serger.

Then what’s the best sewing machine for sweater knits? Most machines, as evidenced by my experience with a bottom of the line Brother, can be outfitted or adjusted to sew a sweater knit. (See A Roadmap for Improved Sweater Knit Seams.) However, if you’re in the market for a new machine and you want to be sure it can handle sweater knits, or if you’re trying to decide which machine from your collection might be best to use, I have some guidelines.

Here are four sewing machine features I recommend for ease of sewing sweater knits:

1. A Substantial Feed Dog System

My old Brother machine had a feed dog with 3 moving pieces (the grooved moving bars that emerge through the throat plate). Adding the walking foot with 2 grooved sections (above the fabric) was all I needed in that particular situation. With my current machine, the Janome HD-3000 pictured at the beginning of this post, I’m able to sew about 90% of the time without a walking foot.

With the presser foot removed, you can see the seven pieces of this feed dog.

A walking foot, a.k.a an “even feed foot”, is a nice addition to any machine (I’ve written about them before). The Accufeed system on a Janome, the Dual Feed system on a Bernina, and the IDT system on a Pfaff (the original integrated upper/lower feed system) will perform a similar function with even better results, their admirers say.

2. Presser Foot with Adjustable Pressure

More important than the feed dogs, I think, is the ability to adjust the pressure of the presser foot. This can be useful for a variety of fabrics. Most of the sweater knits I sew require the lightest pressure.

Some machines claim to automatically adjust the pressure but I’ve heard complaints. Don’t buy one of these unless you can override and adjust it manually.

3. Height of the Presser Foot

This only comes into play for the bulkier sweater knits. As a rule of thumb, you want to be able to lift the foot high enough to easily slide 4 layers of fabric beneath, even if 3 is the most you’ll probably sew through.

From left, presser foot in lower position, upper position, and manually lifted above the normal upper position.

4. Zigzag Stitches

Fancy stitches aren’t necessary for sweater knits. You really only need zigzag and straight stitches. You could probably even get by without the straight stitch!

It's helpful if the width of the zigzag can be adjusted down to 0.5mm or 0.75mm (my default for sewing sweater knits). However, I once taught with electronic machines that wouldn’t allow a width adjustment below 2.5 mm. It still worked for the seam and was acceptable from the public side.

As most experienced sewists will tell you, the best way to choose a machine is by testing it at the dealer’s showroom. Bring samples of true sweater knit fabrics to try out: thick sweater fabric and a thin lacy sweater knit. Your sewing machine doesn’t need to be the most expensive and it doesn’t need a variety of stitches. The first machine I ever sewed a sweater knit with was a low-end Singer (manufactured in the '80s). I never needed a walking foot, but the range of sweater knits I sewed back then was small. By testing the machine out ahead of time you can make sure you get one that will work with you for years no matter how your style and sewing evolves. 


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