Taming the Bulk When Sewing Bulky Knits

Any fabric proprietor will tell you, we love seeing what sewists make with the fabrics* we sell. As a designer/developer of the fabrics, seeing these creations is an extra treat. A couple of weeks ago a sewist emailed to tell me of a technique she was using with my sweater knits to keep seam allowances flat and comfortable. Learning how happy she was with the sweater she sewed and seeing pictures of her beautiful result was so very extra special!

The fabric Shirley Livingston worked with (top, O! Jolly! Hudson sweater knit in persimmon, which Shirley purchased from Emma One Sock) was, what I consider, a lightweight sweater knit. Still, at about 10 stitches per inch, it's considerably heavier than most standard dress knits. Shirley carefully planned her sweater. Of course she carefully planned her seam allowances, too. Here's what she did:
  • Sew the seam with the sewing machine.
  • Overlock each seam allowance separately.
  • Steam the seam open.
  • Tack the seam allowances down with a catch stitch.

Yes, just that easy and straightforward! As with so many useful techniques, after you learn it, you often say, “Hey, why didn’t I think of that!”

In the video below, I show this and a couple more seam allowance treatments. Feel free to ask questions in the comments. If you need a more detailed explanation, I’ll head you in right direction.

I really love the look and feel of the bulky sweater knits. If you do too, use these methods to keep those seam allowances under control. Need the notes on these techniques? Get your free download here!

*The cotton sweater knits pictured at the top of this post are unavailable this fall/winter, while we do some much needed reorganizing at O! Jolly! Look for these cotton sweater knits again, along with some brand new cotton offerings (yay!) in Spring 2019. Looking for wool? Or natural, no elastic, cotton sweater knit ribbing? No worries. We got that! :)


Three Practices Used in Ready-to-Wear You Might Not Want to Use at Home

Except for the rich greens of the heathered yarn, the wool jersey above is very close to what William Lee might have knitted on his invention, the knitting frame.

Knitting frame, exhibited at the Framework Knitters' Museum in Ruddington, England. Photo credit: John Beniston at en.wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

Soon after the invention of this precursor to the knitting machine, cut and sew knitwear (made from yardage produced on a knitting frame) gained a reputation for being poorly made and not as desirable as fully fashioned sweaters. In those early years full fashioning (shaping the garment with a series of knitted increases and decreases) could only be accomplished with hand knitting.

Though most ready-to-wear (RTW) full fashioned sweaters are now knitted in factories on industrial machines, factory-made cut and sew sweaters still have the reputation of being cheaply made. Some of the time the reputation is deserved, but quality sweater making, where the cutting and sewing is used strategically, does exist. Handmade sweaters, of course, are still highly valued today.

(There’s also another industrial knitting technique currently used to produce sweaters. Special advanced machines can produce knitwear in one piece with few or no seams. Sometimes referred to as 3D knitting, this category of knitting was first introduced by the Japanese company Shima Seiki under the trademarked name of wholegarment knitting.)

Making a cut and sew sweater at home is another story. It’s not really the same as factory produced cut and sew. You do it your way! Make it quickly and easily on the overlocker, or sew with great attention to detail and clean finishes. The latter is especially good when using a luxurious fabric or if fit is crucial. You can also use any combination of these methods in the same garment.

While many industrial cut and sew techniques easily transfer to home sewing, here are three practices used in RTW production that I don’t usually use on my own sweaters.

The Neckband Seam on the Side

Ever notice how there’s almost always a seam on the left side of the neckband on a cut and sew sweater? It’s because of the way they're constructed at the factory. The neckband is attached after the right shoulder is sewn but before the left shoulder is sewn. A neckband can be quickly attached this way, because the sewing is practically in a straight run. It’s very efficient and that seam on the left side becomes a continuation of the shoulder seam. Nice.

Nice, except that I rarely make my sweaters this way. I find that since I’m usually stretching the neckband to fit the neckline, I get a more evenly distributed band by dividing my band and neckline in fourths and placing the neckband seam in the back. (See video at end of that post.) If I’m doing a v-neck, I place the seam at the front v. Also, I love the look of bulky knits and I’ve learned to love working with them. Avoiding a major intersection of bulk in such a visible place is always my goal.

Neckband seams on sweaters

Sewing Sleeves in Flat

I love sewing sleeves in flat as is done in production sewing of sweaters. With this method, after the second shoulder is sewn and before the side seams are sewn, each sleeve is attached to the garment at the top. The underarm seam and side seams are then sewn in one run from cuff to hem.

However, if I’m unsure of fit when working with an unfamiliar fabric or a totally new pattern I’ll sew up the side seams with a basting stitch first and check the fit before the sleeves are attached. I always baste with garment colored thread so I don’t need to remove stitches if the sweater fits. Then, with side seams sewn, once I'm happy with the fit, I set in my sleeves.

<rant> Are any flat pattern makers who make commercial sweater patterns specifically for home sewists reading this? Some of you put far too much ease in the sleeve cap. It’s truly not needed for a sweater knit. Really! Unless it’s a design for puffy sleeves, sweaters don’t require ease in the sleeve cap. There. I said it. Thank you for listening. Feel free to email me to discuss further. </rant>

The Three-Eighths Inch Seam Allowance

I’m willing to use the three-eighths inch seam allowance only on certain types of sweater knits: anything that doesn’t fray too much like a relatively stable double knit jacquard (perhaps in wool). Some people do just fine with ⅜ inch seam allowances, I know, and it’s used successfully in industry. But my advice for anyone new to cutting and sewing sweater knits is to increase the seam allowance to one-half inch or more. For one thing, sewing close to the edge can result in rippling seams when using particular fabrics and sewing machines. If your fabric tends to fray and you need to make adjustments that involve unpicking a seam more than once, your entire seam allowance can become a bunch of scraggly, unknitted threads. Honestly, this has never happened to me because... I take precautions. But it can happen! Be kind to yourself. Increase a ⅜ inch seam allowance before you cut.

I know that making a garment look like ready-to-wear is the goal for some sewists. I say learn from professionally made garments but, when you can, take time for fitting and careful construction. You may just find your sweater looking better than ready-to-wear.

Further Reading

Learning the Skills

My online workshop How to Cut and Sew a Sweater will be open for registration again soon. It's the only online course of its kind. I teach students to evaluate the properties of the sweater knit fabric, choose the sewing pattern, then cut and sew, fitting the sweater along the way.  Click for further information.


Time Sensitive - You Could Win This Fabric and Free Enrollment!

Thanks for your participation! The giveaway is now closed. No more entries, please. @purpleyarn is the winner of the giveaway! Congratulations!

I’m happy to announce that my How to Cut and Sew a Sweater online workshop will open again for enrollment in just a few days. (Registration is closed for now. Please join the list for info!) To celebrate (and spread the word) I’m doing an #OJollySewASweater giveaway on Instagram! Are you on IG? Here’s what you could win:
  • The sweater kit pictured above. It’s 100% color-grown (not dyed) cotton sweater weight jersey, matching rib fabric, and a couple of additional notions you’ll need to sew a sweater. The fiber was grown, ginned, spun and knitted in the US. The O! Jolly! sweater kit will be shipped to you, free of charge, anywhere in the world.
  • Free enrollment in the How to Cut and Sew a Sweater online workshop. 
Here’s how to enter:
  1. Follow @ojolly on Instagram
  2. Either repost the Instagram announcement of the giveaway using #OJollySewASweater, OR leave a comment below the Instagram post tagging 2 friends who’d be interested.
  3. Sign up on the #OJollySewASweater entry form 
Please follow all 3 steps in order to qualify. Read the complete rules on the entry form.

You must complete all steps of your entry by Wednesday, Sept. 26, 2018 8PM ET (US Eastern Time). Winner will be selected using random.org and contacted on Thursday evening Sept. 27, 2018 by email. Important: Winner must respond to my email within 48 hours to claim gifts or another winner will be chosen. Winner’s Instagram handle will be posted on IG and in one promotional email as the winner.

Current enrollees are welcome to enter with the understanding that they’ll transfer the coupon code to a friend, (no retroactive coupons!) and the sweater kit is yours to keep, of course, if you win. 

This promotional giveaway is in no way sponsored, endorsed or administered by, or associated with Instagram.

Good luck!