An Ultimate Guide to Knit Fabrics

Hey, you!

We wear knits. We love the ease of wearing knits. We love how super easy it is to care for most knits.

By the end of this article, you will understand what a knit is, its main characteristics, and how to identify knits from wovens and each other.

NOTE: If you’re ready to begin this journey and would like to buy my recommended tools and supplies, please click HERE!

First, A True Story

When I was a brand new sewist and totally clueless, I amassed a not too small fabric stash that I bought simply because they were pretty.

I had no pattern and no firm plans for any of them. I was buying fabrics like a drunk sailor on shore leave after a 4-month long voyage at sea with no stopovers!

I hoped that someday I would know the perfect dresses to make with all those lovely lengths of fabric in my stash.

I had silkies and peachskins and quilting cottons and just a few knits.

the wovens: charmeuse and peachskin

Then, one day, I had a revelation:

My fabric stash did not reflect the fabric type that made up 98% of my wardrobe. While my dream wardrobe apparently consists of soft silks and peachskins, that is, wovens, my actual wardrobe was primarily made up of pretty knit dresses.

Definition of a Knit

Fabric comes in three flavors: (1) knits, (2) wovens , and (3) nonwovens.

Unlike wovens, knits do not have grainlines. But they have directions or loops:

  • the lengthwise loop (wales) creates ribs on the right side (RS)
  • the crosswise loop (courses) run horizontally across the fabric on the wrong side (WS)

Generally, knit fabric will have the greatest amount of stretch in the crosswise direction and the least amount in the lengthwise direction.

And do you know what is also very nice about knits?!

They don’t fray or wrinkle easily!

RELATED: Click HERE and scroll down if you would like to see an image of wales and courses!

RELATED: Click HERE to learn more about wovens and nonwovens!

The 2 Main Knit Categories

jersey knit on left and ponte knit on right

There are two broad categories of knits:

  • Single knits; and
  • Double knits

Jerseys

Jerseys are single knits. While they drape beautifully and are deliciously soft to the touch, they can lack recoverability.

One of the distinguishing features of a jersey is that it has a definite right side (RS) and wrong side (WS).

right and wrong sides of rayon jersey

And if the cut edges of knit curls to the RS, then you’re probably dealing with a jersey.

cut end of a jersey knit curling to the right side

Pro tip: Jersey does not refer to a type of knit fabric, but rather to a method of looping yarns in the creation of a knit.

Double knits

Double knits are made with two sets of yarns, which makes them more stable, thicker, and easier to sew. In many ways, they act very much like a woven.

Generally, double knits look exactly the same on both the RS and the WS.

the two sides of a ponte knit

But I’ve read that there are double knits that have different colours or patterns on each. Sounds very interesting!

These are the most common categories of knits you’re likely to sew. But you should know that there are others, such as…

  • Novelty Double Knits
  • Sweater Knits
  • Fleece (yep, this is a knit)
  • French Terry
  • Stretch wovens (This is a woven with a little bit of Lycra thrown in. It is quite a lovely fabric to sew and flaunt!)
  • And more…

Now, let’s talk about what makes a knit, a knit…

The Stretch Factor

As we now know, the prime difference between a woven and a knit is this…

Knits stretch and wovens don’t.

There are two things that control the stretch factor of a knit:

  • Mechanical stretch (built-in); and
  • Added Lycra (also called Spandex or Elastane)

Mechanical stretch results naturally from how yarns are looped in the creation of a knit.

Lycra is a synthetic that is very strong and very elastic. Adding just up to 5% Lycra to any fabric increases its stretch factor.

Plus, Lycra makes knits softer and increases their recoverability too. That is, a knit dress with added Lycra will comfortably stretch around our curves. And then have the good manners to return to its original shape once it is back on the hanger. Sweet!

But there’s more to this story…

Since we are best sewing buddies, I cannot lie to you. This whole stretch factor thing is kind of complicated.

I was planning on sharing the seven freaking levels of the stretch factor and give you percentages.

But my eyes were glazing over and I was boring my own self. And it occurred to me that most of us do not think in terms of percentages in real life, nor do we really need to make this any more challenging than it already is.

So I decided that the following is all we need to wrap our brains around to become the mistresses of knits…

Knits can be all over the place when it comes to how stretchy they are, especially when you throw Lycra into the mix.

So you will have to assess every knit you buy on a case-by-case basis. Sorry.

The Four Main Stretch Categories

Knits can be categorized based on how stretchy they are. To me, the four main stretch categories are:

  • Stable
  • Moderately stretchy
  • Very stretchy
  • Suuuper stretchy

Now, let’s dig just a bit deeper to firm up our understanding of knits…

Stable Knits

ponte and scuba knits

These double knits are firm and thick, which equals stability.

And the very cool thing about a stable knit is this…

Because they are firm and stable, you can sew them like you would a woven and even use a universal sewing needle.

In fact, you can even use a commercial pattern designed for a woven to sew with Ponte, double, and scuba knits without too much fuss!

I love the feel and versatility of a quality, soft Ponte di Roma (Ponte). It is a lovely, mid-weight, stable knit that is so versatile you can make jackets; bodycon and fit-and-flare dresses; skirts; and pants.

Scuba knits are somewhat thick, smooth, and quite lovely to sew.  I really like them. Whereas, I cannot stand their thicker and spongier cousin neoprene knits — too thick and too much body!

As for interlock knits, if you own a t-shirt, then, you’ve probably met an interlock knit. Interlock knits are a two-fer: They are a jersey knit that has double knit construction. Mmm, I guess that makes them a double jersey. Interlock knits look identical and they are very soft and smooth to the touch.

Moderately Stretchy Knits

rayon jersey and polyester ity knits

Jerseys can be made from silk, bamboo, rayon, cotton, hemp, wool, polyester, and polyester blends. Plus, it can vary in weight too. Talk about variety!

And each variation of a jersey is unique in how much it stretches, which means that how we handle each variation has to be done on a case-by-case basis.

Because of jerseys’ flimsy nature and lack of recoverability, they are best suited for tops and flowy dresses.

A quality Interlock Twist Yarn (ITY) is another moderately stretchy knit. It is truly lovely! It breathes (for a polyester). It has a classy matte finish. And it has just the right amount of weight combined with a flowy drape that is simply irresistible. It is the knit version of my beloved charmeuse! Plus, it is rather easy to sew.

So if you love soft, flowy maxi dresses, then you will absolutely adore ITY knits!

Very Stretchy Knits

Think leotards, swimsuits, body shapers, and bodysuits.

Super Stretchy Knits

rib knit

Think rib knits. A rib knit has a 100% stretch ratio, which makes them ideal for waistbands, cuffs, collars and crew necks on sporty clothes.

Whew!

I know this is a lot to take in. But you got it! And there is no need to worry…

Because once you’ve gotten some experience handling and sewing with various knits, this will all make more sense. And eventually, you will come to know your favorites and avoid the rest.

For example…

I don’t do very stretchy knits — too much cling annoys me! And I would NEVER work with a ribbed knit — too sporty!

Knit Attribute

Now that you understand the stretch factor it is time to learn about the attribute of a knit.

When we talk about the attribute of a knit, we are talking about what direction(s) a knit stretches.

A knit can be a one- or two-way stretch…

A one-way stretch knit will only stretch in the crosswise direction or right to left. And just because knits aren’t confusing enough, sometimes, this knit is labeled as a two-way stretch.

Whereas, a two-way stretch knit will stretch from right to left (crosswise) AND up and down (lengthwise) directions.  This two-way stretch is the gift of added Lycra. And because we’re still not confused enough, sometimes, this knit is also labeled as a four-way stretch.

[SIGH] [SIGH]

Bottom line…

It is very important that you be able to determine in which direction(s) a knit has the greatest amount of stretch. Because when you’re sewing knit garments…

you ALWAYS want the direction of the greatest stretch to go around the width of your body, not up and down.

How to Identify Knits Out in the Wild

jersey knit and magnifying glass

If you’re still not sure if the fabric in your hand is a knit or a woven, then you can play knit detective and do this quick ID test:

  1. Get up close and look for loops. Pull out a magnifying glass if necessary.
  2. See if it stretches right to left.
  3. Crush it. Typically, knits will release wrinkles.
  4. Finally, inspect the cut edges. No fraying in combination with all of the above? Probably a knit.

How to Buy Knits

FIRST, always buy the very best quality knit fabric you can!

Single and double knits can come in a variety of fibers, natural and synthetic.

While I’m not overly fond of synthetics, I have to say that when it comes to knits, a high-quality polyester may not be so bad.

I have 100% polyester dresses that I’ve owned and worn for over 20 years that look as new as the day I bought them. And I have polyester dresses that I bought in the last year or two that look disgustingly shabby!

See what I mean…

polyester knit quality comparison

These images are both of the same section of the left breast area of the bodices. The dingy image on the right is just so pitiful!

SECOND, get touchy feely with the knit. Smooth your hand over it. It should feel pleasurable to you. If it doesn’t, put it back.

THIRD, always check the stretch factor against the recommendation on the back of the pattern envelope.

FOURTH, buy knits that when stretched to their max they recover quickly to their original state without any distortion nonsense! Because if you sew with a knit that lacks a healthy recoverability, one day soon you will be flaunting a garment that looks like a droopy, saggy sack.

FIFTH, when buying Ponte, make sure you choose one WITHOUT added Lycra, so you don’t lose stability. And please beware of tacky Pontes if you don’t want to feel like you’re wearing plastic or sweat like a hog on the hottest day in August in the state of Georgia!

Best Knits for Beginners

In the beginning, I urge you to stay away from any knit that too thin, too slippery, too shiny.

I really like these knits for beginners…

  • Ponte; and
  • ITY with no more than 5% Lycra

Whatever you do, avoid flimsy jerseys, rayon, and rayon blends. They will drive you mad!

Maintaining Knit Fabric

Even the best quality knits may pill over time.

I have found that a single-blade disposable razor does a darn good job of removing unsightly pilling! Just be extra careful with lightweight fabrics.

The End

Knits are worthy of our love. Because they are easy to care for, offer a forgiving fit, and are a joy to wear.

In the beginning, choose a Ponte or an ITY knit that speaks to you.

Please for your own sanity, say NO to anything that is too thin, too slippery, too shiny.

And, yes! You can sew knits without a serger.

Now that you are armed with the knowledge in this article, you are ready to show knits who’s the boss.

And remember…

Life is the ultimate red carpet event. Dress for it!

RELATED: Click HERE if you want to know the 411 on woven fabrics!

RELATED: Click HERE if you’re ready to begin this journey and would like to buy my recommended tools and supplies!

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