A Beginner’s Guide to Different Types of Knits

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How do you feel when you think about sewing with knits?

Are you overwhelmed and maybe a little intimidated with all of the different types of knits and related vocabulary?

Does any of this look familiar and make your head spin?

  • 2-way and 4-way stretch
  • Double knits and single knits
  • Specific knit fabrics like jersey, terry, and fleece (just to name a few)
  • Stretch percentage
  • Recovery
  • What about grainline? Do knits even have one?

All of these knit variables plus a few more popped on my radar when I sewed my first pair of stretch pants with the Pippa Pants pattern by Rebecca Page.

A Knit Pant Pattern for Beginners

Whether you’re new to sewing your own clothes or new to sewing with knits, you need to take a look at the Pippa Pants pattern.

You can make this comfortable pair of stretch pants with only 2 pattern pieces (3 if you sew the option with the ruched waistband).

Construction is straight forward so your attention can be focused on learning and working with knits.

This pattern was my first experience working with knits and I learned a lot.

If you need more information on whether or not this comfy stretch pant pattern is for you, check out Should You Sew the Pippa Pants?

Now that you know of a great pattern to dip your toes into the wonderful world of knit fabric, let’s start learning some of the details to distinguish one type of knit from another and build a foundation for working with knits.

Knit Fabric – Basics

In general, fabric can be grouped in three categories: unwoven, woven, and knits.

Unwoven fabrics are made when fibers are intertwined, matted, pressed, and/or agitated together like felt or other modern unwoven fabrics.

Woven fabrics are created when fibers spun in a yarn or thread are weaved together.

red corduroy
Corduroy is a woven fabric.

Knit fabrics are created when a continuous length of fiber (yarn/thread) or sets of fiber(s) are worked together to form a series of interlocked loops.

The process of making knit fabric can be compared to knitting by hand if you’re familiar with that. Basic stitches used in knitting, whether hand or machine-made, are the knit and purl.

Different combinations of the knit and purl stitches produce different types of designs and patterns in knitted fabric just like when knitting by hand.

a stack of knit fabric
Several of these knits have designs and patterns printed on them.

Fiber

Knit fabric can be made from a variety of different fibers just like woven fabric.

Fiber content is a major contributor to the appearance, comfort, durability, costs, and care characteristics of fabrics.

https://courses.cit.cornell.edu/cuttingedge/sourcing_matl/10sourcing.html

In researching knit fabrics, I’ve seen the following fibers mentioned either on their own or in combination with each other as the fabric content:

  • Polyester
  • Spandex/Lycra
  • Cotton
  • Rayon
  • Nylon
  • Silk
  • Wool
  • Bamboo

This is not an exhaustive list and other fibers are used to make knits, too.

Weight

Like woven fabric, knits come in light, medium, and heavy weight.

There is quite a bit of math that goes into determining and understanding a fabric’s weight.

Fabric weight is largely dependent on the fibers it’s made from, the thickness of those fibers, and how dense the knit or weave is.

Make sure to use the pattern’s recommendations for fabric weight. This will help you achieve the look the pattern maker intended for the garment.

2-Way and 4-Way Stretch

Knits technically don’t have a grainline like woven fabric because the fibers are looped together.

When machines make knit fabric, some work back and forth creating a flat piece of fabric with selvages.

Other machines knit in the round making a tube of fabric (like for socks or seamless t-shirts).

Both the flat and round knitting is similar to the results hand knitters get by either working with straight knitting needles or circular ones.

While knits don’t have a technical grainline, there is a directionality to the interlocking fibers which causes horizontal and vertical stretching.

Knits can stretch both horizontally and vertically.

Okay, let me stop explaining 2-way and 4-way stretch for a second and say this: I was able to verify everything I’ve written so far about 2 and 4-way stretch through multiple sources.

However, when I tried to nail down the actual difference between them, there was a lot of conflicting information. Here is some of what I found:

  • Usually, a fabric that stretches just horizontally is considered to have a 2-way stretch and tends to be more stable.
  • When a fabric stretches both horizontally and vertically it is said to have a 4-way stretch.
  • 2-way and 4-way stretch are the same things. Different pattern companies will use these terms interchangeably.
  • 2-way stretch is a label usually used by pattern companies but online fabric stores will say 4-way stretch.
  • There is no such thing as a 4-way stretch. Only 1 way and 2 way.

See what I mean. Conflicting (and confusing) information!

So, let’s acknowledge that knits can stretch. 😊

Now, on to the next topic!

Horizontal and Vertical Stretch

Horizontal stretch goes from one selvage to the other.

  • It is perpendicular to the selvages.
  • Usually has more stretch than vertical.
  • Can be compared to the crosswise grain on woven fabric.

Vertical stretch runs along the selvage.

  • It is parallel to the selvages.
  • Usually has less stretch than the horizontal.
  • Can be compared to the lengthwise grain on woven fabric.
Diagram of horizontal and vertical stretch.

Stretch Percentage

Whether a knit is labeled as a 2-way or a 4-way stretch, you need to know how much it can stretch. This is the stretch percentage.

Knit fabrics may be able to stretch both horizontally (selvage to selvage) and vertically.

When you’re purchasing knit fabric, look for the stretch percentage with the fabric information.

If the stretch percentage isn’t given, it is easy to figure out.

Patterns that use knit fabric will tell you what the stretch percentage needs to be.

It’s important to pay attention to the stretch percentage or the garment will not fit correctly.

Check the stretch for both the width and length of a knit you’re going to use with a specific pattern to make sure it fits with the pattern requirements.

Generally speaking, you want the direction with the greatest stretch to go around your body.

Recovery

Recovery is the ability of the knit fabric to bounce back after it is stretched. This is important especially when you are making a garment that is fitted like a pair of leggings or a bodysuit.

Fabrics with spandex (also called elastane and Lycra) in them will have a good recovery.

You can test the recovery when you’re verifying the stretch percentage. After stretching the fabric see if it returns back to its original size.

Single Knits and Double Knits

Single Knit Fabric

A single knit fabric looks different on the front and back. It will have knit stitches on one side and purl stitches on the other.

For those of you who knit with yarn and knitting needles, this is the stockinette stitch.

Jersey knit is a common type of single knit fabric. The cut edges will tend to curl toward the right side while the selvage edges curl toward the wrong side.

jersey knit with right and wrong sides visible

Double Knit Fabric

Two layers of knit are up against each other and bonded when they are being made.

So, many double knit fabrics look the same on both sides.

Some fancy double knit fabrics may have a novelty stitch on one side so it will look different on the reverse.

Double knits tend not to stretch as much as single knits but usually have good recovery.

Ponte is a common type of double knit fabric. The cut edges don’t curl and the fabric lays flat.

Ponte knit fabric both sides are identical

Specific Knit Fabrics

It’s easy to get overwhelmed by all the different knit fabrics that are suitable for garment sewing.

Mentioned above were jersey and ponte knits but there many, many more.

When trying to wrap my head around all of the different knits, I came across a quick reference chart on Knitfabric.com.

This was a great find but what’s even better is what is below the chart…descriptions, specific details, and suggested uses of each type of knit fabric that’s listed!

I suggest printing off the chart and bookmarking the link for easy access to the details about specific types of knits.

Tips for Sewing with Knits

Selecting a Knit Fabric for a Pattern

Tip 1: Read and use a pattern’s suggestions for the knit fabrics that are recommended for the garment until you’ve worked with several types of knits and have an understanding of how to work and sew with them.

Tip 2: Pay attention to the suggested stretch percentage and recovery and stay within those recommendations.

Tip 3: Like woven fabrics, knits have a right and wrong side to them. You’ll want to pay attention to this when laying out pattern pieces.

Pattern Pieces and Knits

Not all patterns provide diagrams for how the pieces need to be laid out.

Tip 1: When laying out pattern pieces, you need to keep in mind how the knit fabric will be worn on your body. Think about the direction the most stretch needs to go.

Usually, the direction of the greatest stretch will go around the circumference of your body.

Some pattern pieces will have a 2-way arrow labeled stretch or grainline. Because knits are knitted and not woven, it can be argued they don’t have a grainline. So, I’m not sure why a pattern piece made for knit fabric would say ‘grainline’, but I’ve seen it.

Based on my research, the horizontal stretch (selvage to selvage) is usually the mechanical, or natural, stretch based on the way knits are made and considered the grain. This knowledge can be used to help you determine the best way to layout pattern pieces when a diagram is not provided.

When in doubt, though, I would reach out to the pattern maker for clarification.

Tip 2: Ball point pins are recommended to hold pattern pieces in place on knit fabric. These pins have a rounded point to keep them from snagging the threads of the knit fabric.

Tip 3: Pattern weights are another option for holding pattern pieces on knit fabric.

Sewing tools for knits - pins, needles, and pattern weights

Sewing Knits

Tip 1: Knit fabric can be sewn on a regular sewing machine. You don’t need a serger or overlock machine to do it.

The directions for The Pippa Pants provided the information I needed to sew knit fabric on my regular sewing machine.

I also found a helpful article on sewing with knits that includes much of what I learned through making The Pippa Pants as well as some other tips you may find beneficial.

Tip 2: Look at your sewing machine manual to find out what stretch stitches your machine can do.

Tip 3: Use a needle on your sewing machine that is made for knit fabric. These needles could be labeled ‘ball point’.

Universal needles can also be used to sew both knit and woven fabric.

Regardless of which needle you use for your knit fabric, make sure the size of it is appropriate for the weight of your fabric.

Additional Resources for Learning about Knit Fabric

My goal by creating this post was to help you build a foundation for understanding and working with knit fabrics.

When learning something new it’s beneficial to absorb the content in different ways multiple times.

The more you’re exposed to related information the better you understand it. So, here are a couple of additional resources for you to use.

To hear comprehensive information about knit fabric, listen to Episode 62 of the Love to Sew Podcast: Sewing with Knits.

If you are a knitter, you may find the following video by Melissa from Melly Sews helpful. She uses swatches made from yarn and connects them to how different types of knit fabrics are made.

Let’s Connect

My main goals are to support, empower, and inspire you to discover the joy of sewing.

Need help or have questions on this project, pattern, or tutorial? Send me an email at nicki@theruffledpurse.com and we can work together to get it figured out!

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2 Comments

  1. Love this newsletter, lots of information just in time as I embark on a stretch fabric for the kids tee shirts for the first time .

    1. Thanks, Suzanna. It makes me happy 😊 to know the information will help you with your new sewing adventure!

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