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.
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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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Interested in an online workshop devoted strictly to sewing sweater knits? Learn more about my online course How to Cut and Sew a Sweater.


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