Tension: of the bobbin, and of myself…

Susie's dress

This is the dress a friend asked me to alter for her – nothing difficult, just raising the hem a little to stop it dragging on the floor. Not a problem… So long as you know how to sew with knits.

I do not.

Sewing with knit (or jersey) fabric has struck fear into the heart of far braver and more accomplished sewers than me. It is notoriously mobile, and so easily stretched out of shape while sewing. I tried to make a pyjama top for my daughter out of the stuff last year, and let’s just say neither I nor the top looked very pretty at the end of it. So the very sensible voice in my head said “Run for the hills!”

But I also felt a sense of shame in admitting defeat over something as simple as a hem. I mean, it’s just a straight line, right? How can you explain the fear of knits to a non-sewer in a way that does not make you look like a total wuss?

The other problem was my machine: ever since I bought it several years ago, I’ve had trouble with the zigzag stitch. Even on stable cottons, the fabric bunches up into long, lumpy lines – a problem apparently known as ‘tunnelling’ – here’s what it looks like with a twin needle (which is a zigzag underneath):

Tunnelling collage 2

(Pictures taken halfway through fixing the problem. Before this, it was worse!)

It’s usually a tension problem but even whacking my needle tension up to the highest slot didn’t help. So I bought time, told my friend “I’ll see what I can do” – and set out to read the internet.

There are plenty of tips on sewing knit fabric with a standard sewing machine, and two of the most successful seem to be to use a zigzag stitch (or a twin needle, which zigzags on the reverse), and to use a walking foot. Fortunately I was check-check on the foot and needle. But the zigzag was a deal-breaker. And so in desperation, I did what we are told never to do: I altered the bobbin tension (gasp of mock horror)…

It worked! This YouTube video was seriously helpful in showing that my bobbin was sprung waaaay too tightly – the thread would barely come out, a far cry from the “spider dropping down on a thread” it was supposed to be. No wonder I kept breaking my threads! No wonder I’d always had to have the needle tension set much higher than average! It all made sense!

And here is the result: not perfect, but a pretty good double topstitched hem, with no stretching and very little tunnelling.

Twin needle hem 3And the reverse side: a decent zigzag, just trimmed to finish as I am told that knits do not fray. Why do I never take my photos *after* ironing?!

Twin needle hem 6

This project, although small, took me right out of my comfort zone. But what a result! It went a long way towards banishing my fear of knits, forced me to fix a long-term sewing machine problem, and – most importantly – helped a friend. Totally worth all that tension!


2 thoughts on “Tension: of the bobbin, and of myself…

  1. Well done! I bought myself a second bobbin casing so that I have one for normal sewing and one crazy loose for double needle hems. Now that you’ve conquered the hemming the world of knit sewing is your oyster. Bet you could make a dress just like the one here! 🙂

  2. Now that is a good idea! I’ll add it to my (very lengthy!) list of sewing-things-to-buy… And thanks for the encouragement too 🙂 I’ve just seen your stunning metro tee and am totally inspired – I bought the family pattern pack last week thinking it’d be a good way to get into knit sewing, and now I’ve seen yours, I’m definitely going to try it!

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