Sewing A Jersey Breton Stripe Top

Tilly Buttons Agnes Top Red Stripe

I can’t claim that this Tilly and the Buttons Agnes top was the easiest make but I can claim to love it!

Why so tricky, Karen?

Well first, there were the one million pins needed for stripe matching.

pins in red stripes

Then there was the tiny matter of the fact that this fabric hated my needles. Stitches skipped and jumped terribly and in the end I abandoned top stitching the neckline.

agnes top red stripe neckline

I asked for advice on Twitter, though you’ll see my sleeve hems still have wonky stitching. I’d had a belly full of unpicking by this stage.

wonky stitching

The Twitter advice that came back was:

  • Use good quality thread.
  • Use a jersey needle (rounded tip) for cotton jerseys and a stretch needle (pointed tip) for stretch fabrics that contain lycra, spandex or elastic.
  • Indulge in a spot of trial and error to find the right needle/fabric combo.

Of course, it would help if I’d had any recollection what the content of my fabric was. I guess I needed a stretch needle. Which I didn’t have. I guess I’ll order some.

ballpoint sewing needles

The good news is that my new top goes ridiculously well with my desert boots.

desert boots

I have one more Agnes top cut out and then I think that’s more than enough to see me through this winter. Have you had similair experiences with skipping and wonky stitches? And without references to hand, how do you tell if a stretch fabric contains spandex or lycra?

agnes top side on

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44 Responses to Sewing A Jersey Breton Stripe Top

  1. C A Oakley says:

    Is it very soft and loose? I had similar problems with a Mandy Boat Tee made of identical looking stretch cotton knit from Maud’s Fabric Finds. Feels lovely on the skin but isn’t pretty when looked at closely, and walking foot seemed to make it worse!

  2. Emma says:

    I just made an Astoria top out of Ponte Roma and tried using a ball point needle….. not good! I thought it was me because it’s only the second item I’ve ever made. I had skipped stitches all over on my test fabric. I changed the needle back to the universal one my machine came with and the stitches were suddenly fine. I will try the stretch needles instead next time – thanks for the tip.

  3. strange yarn says:

    Sometimes ballpoint needles actually make skipped stitches worse in stretch fabrics because they push the fabric aside while stitching and stretch fabric pushes back mid-stitch, causing a fight (and no one wins that one).

    Stretch needles do help significantly, as do specialty stitches and/or tightened tension. One ITY I used recently was only tamed by a variation of 3-stitch zigzag and nothing else worked. (I’ve learned to to sample hems on scraps of fabric for every project where scraps are available. It helps to keep the grainline the same on the samples as for the project itself, too.)

    And sometimes, nothing works at all and I just leave the damn thing unfinished. If it looks better that way, so be it.

  4. Heidi says:

    I’ve been wondering what the difference is between jersey and stretch needles. Now I know, but now I also have to remember when the time comes!

  5. jocolumbine says:

    Had a similar problem with a similar Breton top! My over locker was ….ok, …ish with the fabric (which is some sort of ponte probably cotton/poly?) but it DID NOT LIKE TWIN NEEDLES OF ANY STRIPE! There was swearing and throwing of tantrums. In the end I reverted to my standard needle, took it slowly and hand sewed some of it. I used a facing on the neck and top stitched it by hand with a contrasting thread to make a virtue of the necessity. I have been very wary of ponte since and especially if it’s a heavier weight.

    • didyoumakethat says:

      I’ve often found ponte a relatively stable and easy knit fabric to work with. Don’t know what was going on with this stuff, but I relate to the swearing and tantrums!

  6. Yes I just finished a flamingo Agnes top and the stitching changed half way through. I tried different needles, thread, stitches and finally sewed it in a stretch stitch. Plus it came up a bit snug. I thought the jersey I used would be so easy!

  7. Jean says:

    From Google: This note is to verify that LYCRA® elastane fiber manufactured by DuPont does not contain any natural latex or rubber. … LYCRA® is DuPont’s brand of elastane, or spandex. The word “spandex” is used only in the United States while “elastane” is recognized worldwide, so we tend to use the more widely known term.

  8. I thought that if the fabric had 4 way stretch it contained elastane or Lycra….. my favourite way to hem sleeves on dodgy knit fabric is either little cuffs or doing a sort of blind stitch with a zigzag – fold the hem up and use a shallow zig zag from the wrong side which just catches the edges – stretchy and basically invisible. Hope that makes sense.

  9. JenL says:

    It isn’t the needle (either ballpoint, jersey, or stretch should be fine), but the lack of stabilizer in the hem that is the problem. Consider that when you hem a knit sleeve you are often stitching in the stretchiest direction of the fabric, pulling it out of shape as it runs over the feed dogs. You don’t want it to do that.

    I typically use a fusible hem tape like steam-a-seam “lite” and a twin needle. It looks a lot more neater and once you done one like that, it will seem quite easy. BUT, it should be a twin needle for knits specifically (Schmetz makes one) and tension may need to be loosened. Do a test on a scrap every time. Use longer stitches, like you would for top stitching. If you like, you can use wooly nylon thread in the bobbin, which will make your hem a little stretchier and durable. In a pinch, instead of a stabilizer or hemming tape, just place a strip of gift wrapping tissue under the fabric and sew over that. You have to pick out the tissue bits, but it makes a world of difference in the quality of the hem. I also gave up pinning for matching stripes and now I just hand baste them. It’s a lot less headache. However, I have to admit that I recently bought a new, but low-priced Brother serger. I sewed knits on my Bernina for years, but really, there’s no going back now. I regret that I took so long to take that step. (Though I still love my workhorse Bernina for everything else!)

    • Katie M says:

      I second using steam-a-seam lite. It stabilises the fabric and makes it easier to sew. I also experiment on scraps of fabric before going at the real thing. Sometimes my twin needle works a treat, other times it’s dreadful. Another helpful tool is my walking foot. Makes a world of difference with knit fabrics.

    • didyoumakethat says:

      Ah yes – steam a seam. Why did I forget that? Thank you. But I don’t understand why I had this issue on the sleeve hem and not the main body hem – they’re both stitching along the stretch. Anyway, guess some fabrics just want to be awkward!

  10. Beth Duffus says:

    After much trial and error, I found that the triple-lock straight stitch on my old Frister-Rossmann with a ballpoint needle was the best option for knit ‘t-shirt’ fabric with the foot pressure reduced a little. Like JenL, I also love my Bernina but it’s a bit pants with knits, especially as I can’t reduce the foot pressure on my model so the fabric puckers.

    I am also a big fan of using a twin ballpoint needle, which gives a stable zigzag on the underside. I use this when topstitching my hems and necklines with one row of stitches ‘in the ditch’. If your brave enough to trip your neckband close to its seam, the underside zigzag will cover the raw edge to give an overlock effect but you need a needle width no less than 3mm.

    Also like JenL, the tissue-paper trick is great for stabilizing stretch fabrics as they go under the foot and it’s very easy to tear off afterwards as it’s been perforated by the stitches.

    In spite of the tribulations, your top looks great. Love the red stripes.

  11. Jo says:

    I love your dog!!
    I had a white Schnauzer and we recently loss him.
    There is something special about a Schnauzer.

  12. Deborah says:

    Sometimes the cure for skipped stitches is just changing the needle. I admire your nerves for working with stripes. I avoid them. I think your top is beautiful.

  13. Patricia M Ferrito says:

    How to tell if there is Lycra in the fabric? If it snaps back into shape after you stretch it, that usually means it has Lycra. In a cotton knit blend, when you stretch and look at the fibers up close, you can see some threads that look clear or shiny. That usually also means Lycra.
    I have had terrible trouble with some knits, both with and without Lycra. I have a huge stash of machine needles of all types- used to have an alterations business- and nothing worked! For 1 top, I had to cut tissue paper strips and sew thru them to avoid skipped stitches. Another, I just gave up and threw it in the trash. I don’t have time to fiddle with fabric that misbehaves.

  14. Elle says:

    Barbara at Sewing on the Edge blog is doing a great series on her experiments with knits. Funny and useful.

  15. Sheree says:

    Just to add to the remarks about using tissue paper. Once when I needed this and had none available I used a till roll receipt (all homes would, I guess, have these). Worked out perfectly.

  16. All of this. On some awkward knits, I just overlock the hem edges [usually before sewing the seam] turn up and herringbone/catchstitch by hand. It takes less time than arguing with all the ruddy needle samples etc. Plus, hand finishing is so couture dahlink!

  17. Amy says:

    Very cute top! Have you tried a triple stitch for top stitching? I use this if my twin needle skips stitches & has to be abandoned.

  18. Eirian says:

    I had this recently, to the point where I was eyeing up coverstitch machines on eBay! Since it was the hem I was struggling with (on a Bettine) I ended up using a hem band to finish the bottom. Not ideal, but every single stitch I tried skipped and stretched and broke. And it was 11.30pm. And I wanted to wear the dress the next day…

  19. What a cute top in spite of all the bother! 🙂

    I bookmarked this post so I can refer back to the information in it and in the comments on sewing stretch fabrics – I’ve been so nervous to try sewing with it on my machine, but I’ve made a couple of tops using stretchy fabrics by hand, after reading all of this maybe I won’t be so nervous to put my machine to the test!

  20. Anna says:

    Another thing that may help is using a smaller size need in whatever variety you select. Also, you might want to hunt out some water soluble stabilizer (usually available with other interfacings/stabilizers or online, of course). It usually feels a bit like a sew in interfacing and prevents the fabric from stretching down into the sole plate opening as the needle passes through or stretching up as the needle rises. You may need to experiment to determine if stabilizer as the top most layer, bottom most layer or both works best on a specific project. When you are done, wash the garment and all of the stabilizer disappears without a trace of papery bits.

  21. Chris T says:

    I follow Peggy Sagers (Silhouette Patterns, great YouTube webcasts too) advice, which is to use a stretch needle, size 8 or 10, and a Teflon foot. This has worked wonderfully so far, but now I am trying to hem a ribbed knit and it is playing up big time and stretching further than I think possible. I think I need to dust off my walking foot again.

  22. Beth (SunnyGal Studio) says:

    cute top and you look ready for the holidays! I tend to use the most basic unless absolutely necessary, so far I rarely found the other needles necessary. so I use a Schmetz 80 universal needle and straight stitches. Pull the fabric taught ever so slightly as I so to put some stretch into the seams. For the hem I use a long but narrow zigzag. I think the triple stitch is the worst! it puts too much thread into the garment. Also I put knit interfacing on the bottom and sleeve hems so the fabric is thicker there and the hem looks nicer.

  23. Robin says:

    I use all of the methods already mentioned, and still have a few persistent problems, mostly skipped stitches and fabric stretched out of shape. It does seem to help to know the exact content, and apply all methods on scraps before committing to the solution. And still, as another commented, things may go swimmingly halfway around the hem, until all goes cattywampus for no apparent reason. Ponte, doubleknit and rayon jersey seem to work best for me (because the results are predictable given the methods applied) while dark colors and novelty knits can also hide a multitude of sins. It’s super helpful to pick the best pattern for your knit, or vice versa. I’ll be honest, on a tight budget my preferred solutions do not include any “consumables,” such as a stabilizer. I guess my bottom line is, I don’t expect too much or get overly worked up about the results IF I have tried my best. To me, your final result is beautiful, and those stripes just make you smile, don’t they?

    • didyoumakethat says:

      You know what, I really love your pragmatic approach. The honest answer is, we can have all the answers and then stuff still doesn’t work.

  24. PsychicSewerKathleen says:

    I use SewKeys double sides tape on all my hems and it works like a dream. It stabilizes but it’s super light. If I don’t have any of that then I use Seam-A-Steam as well. I agree with the double needle too! You can buy them in stretch and go even further with the new Coats stretch thread. All these things make a world of difference to getting the hem you like 🙂 I have a Coverstitch machine however which is the very best but that’s a considerable investment. If you’re going to sew a lot of knits however I couldn’t recommend a serger and coverstitch more highly.

  25. I can’t add anything to the discussion above. I don’t sew knits that often but have had very good results using a twin needle for finishing the hems. It does look really nice too. I love your top. All those stripes are so perfectly matched. I don’t know if I would have had the patience. Xx

  26. LinB says:

    I have resorted to doing a hand hem on knits before, when they just wouldn’t play nicely.

  27. Can I come play in your closet?

    Seriously…your Cleo pinafore, stripey top, polka-dot scarf and booties are so ME!

    Sorry you struggled with the stitching. You’ve got some great tips and me thinks I should be on the lookout for steam a seam. Had not heard of it before. I cut strips of fusible knit interfacing and apply them to my hems before turning and stitching with a stretch or ball point twin needle.

    • I just read that your skipped stitches issue may be machine related, but I feel it would be remiss if I didn’t add the following…

      I was just sewing some stretch velvet and followed my usual routine when sewing the sleeve hems. It was then I realized that I forgot to share with you that I use woolly nylon in my bobbin.

  28. Robin says:

    Karen thanks for hosting this discussion. The entries at Sewing on the Edge blog as well as all of the comments here have been super helpful technically, but I think there is also a psychological/ emotional aspect too… warning – insight coming up!

    I get really excited when I find a fun (i.e., patterned, print, etc.) knit, especially if it’s a bargain. And for some reason, fun knits are more often to be found in the bargain bin (not sure how true that is) where I spend most of my time, due to a really tight budget. (Maybe better quality manufacturers are less willing to take risks with colors, patterns and so on? Perfectly understandable. Or maybe off-the-wall ends up in the bargain bin because it just didn’t appeal to enough sewists…) But now I realize I have to calm down, check my excitement, and spend more time prepping and testing these great finds using all of the knowledge I have acquired here, to maximize my chances for success. And then I will know I have done all I can. So while there are technical fixes that are important to know about and apply, their application at the right time (managing emotions in the creative process) is equally important.

  29. I had similar problems with my Coco top – and of course I was using a contrasting coloured thread. I think I got away with it though. Your post has been really useful so hopefully next time I’ll get it right. Your top looks great by the way! Love how it matches your boots.

  30. Emily says:

    Yes to good quality POLYESTER thread, not cotton. I was having trouble with skipped stitches on stretch fabric and an acquaintance passed on this tip. Such a big difference

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