As beautiful as hand knit sweaters are, there's no doubt that only the most dedicated and productive knitters can make enough to stay warm all winter. Knitters and non-knitters alike can create their own sweaters in just a couple hours when sewing with sweater knit fabrics.
The Oslo cardigan can be constructed in just a few hours and can be made in bulky wool knits, merino jersey, cotton jersey, or just about any other knit fabric you can think of; but sewing with sweater knits gives it that truly handmade look. Not only that, but sweater knits offer tremendous variety. Read on to learn how to construct a huge variety of looks from one pattern.
The Oslo cardigan in Italian wool sweater knit
The Oslo cardigan in eyelet lace sweater knit
The Oslo cardigan in a textured sweater knit
Sweater knits demystifyed
What exactly is a sweater knit, and what makes them different from any other knit?
The term "sweater knit" can be used to describe a number of fabrics used to sew sweaters. Generally, they tend to resemble fabrics that are knit by hand, with a great deal of texture or fuzziness. The knit patterns also tend to be open, with thicker individual yarns than what you might see in other knits, such as jersey.
(l to r): Dense wool sweater knit, cotton sweater knit, textured
sweater knit, cabled sweater knit, lacy sweater knit
Sweater knits are by no means the only type of knits that can be used to sew a sweater. Depending on the final look you want, wool or cotton jersey, rib knits, novelty knits, and even lingerie fabrics can be used to construct sweater-like projects. But sweater knits will get you closest to the look you might imagine when you picture a cozy sweater.
Sweater knits come in a range of styles and patterns. Some are quite loose, made with fine gauge yarns in lacy eyelet patterns. Sometimes these types of knits are also referred to as "crochet knits" in stores because of their lacy look, though they are usually not crocheted. Other sweater knits have the loose look, but without lacy patterns. Still others are more densely knit, but made with fuzzy or textured yarns. Depending on which you use, you may want to vary your sewing techniques.
Six helpfulsweater knit tips
- Cut extra seam allowance for open or lacy knits that are prone to fraying or unraveling.
- Use a stretch needle to prevent puncturing the fabric.
- Minimize pressing, so you don't flatten the texture with heat and steam.
- When pressing is needed, apply just the tip of the iron to the seam.
- Stabilize areas that are prone to stretching, such as shoulders, by sewing in clear elastic.
- Wash finished garments carefully by hand, avoiding heat or agitation.
The magic of mesh
Stretch mesh is an all-purpose helper when it comes to sewing with sweater knits. You can use it to add structure, keep seams from fraying, and add stability to seams.
If you've sewn with woven fabrics in the past, you're likely most familiar with fusible interfacings. Interfacing adds additional stability, crispness, and weight to an area of your garment. When it comes to sewing soft sweaters, these qualities aren't always what you're going for.
Still, there are times when a little extra stability can come in handy with these loose fabrics. For those situations, try using a stretch mesh fabric as interfacing. These fabrics are most often found in the lingerie section of the fabric store. They work well because they stretch along with your knit fabric, are light enough to prevent added bulk, and are nearly invisible.
Look for a mesh that closely matches your main fabric, or choose one that comes close to your skin tone. Here are a few ways you can use mesh along with your sweater knit to make sewing easier:
- Use it as a sew-in interfacing for any area that needs a little more structure.
- Sew strips of mesh into seams to stabilize them and keep them from stretching out over time.
- Use strips of mesh to bind the raw edges of your seam allowance and prevent fraying.
- Cut squares of mesh and baste them behind buttonholes for added stability.
- Use mesh to bind the raw edge of a hem before turning and stitching it.
Sewing with lacy or open sweater knits
If the sweater knit you've chosen for your project is an open knit or lacy, follow a few extra guidelines to prevent excessive fraying.
The Oslo cardigan in a lacy angora blend.
Begin by cutting extra seam allowance with your pattern. Most patterns designed for knits have seam allowances of only 3/8 inch. This may be too narrow for lacy knits, because the holes created by the lace can easily go beyond the seam allowance and cause fraying. Depending on the looseness of the knit, use a seam allowance of 1/2 inch to 3/4 inch.
Stitch the seams of the sweater with the zigzag stitch of your sewing machine, setting the length to 2.00mm and the width to 1.5mm. This narrow zigzag will allow your seams to stretch, preventing them from popping when the sweater is worn. Because the stitches of a serger are narrow, the zigzag stitch is better suited for these types of sweater knits.
Once your seam is sewn, finish the raw edges. You can either use a serger at this point, or sew another row of zigzag stitches along the raw edge to secure all the threads and prevent further fraying.
To hem an open lacy knit, first finish the raw edge. You can do this by binding it with a strip of stretch mesh, or try sewing a band of stretch lace around the edge. Stretch lace can often be found among the lingerie fabrics at your local sewing store, and will stretch along with the garment while remaining inconspicuous.
Once the edge is finished, turn the hem up and sew invisibly by hand using a catchstitch.
Sewing with dense sweater knits
Some sweater knits are quite dense and require different handling than open knits.
The Oslo cardigan in a dense Italian wool knit
To sew seams, you may use a serger if you choose. Be sure to test sew a scrap of fabric before constructing your entire garment to make sure your fabric will hold up. Alternately, zigzag stitch seams on your sewing machine, as instructed for the open knits. If you sew with a zigzag, be sure to finish the raw edges afterward, just as you would with an open knit, by zigzagging or serging the raw edges to prevent fraying.
To hem a dense knit like this, you may use the same hand sewing techniques as you would for an open knit, or you can turn the hem and use a twin needle to stitch. A twin needle creates two parallel rows of stitching and allows the hem to stretch when worn.
Caring for sweater knits
Once you've finished your cardigan, take care of it so it lasts. The rules for caring for a hand sewn sweater are similar to a hand knit.
The Oslo cardigan in a fine gauge knit
Sweater knits should be pre-washed by hand before cutting or sewing, and finished sweaters should be cleaned in the same way. To hand wash, gently squeeze soapy water through the fabric until it's saturated. Do not agitate, scrub, or squeeze vigorously, especially if your knit is made of natural fibers such as wool. Allow the knit to soak. To remove soapy water, fill the sink with fresh water and gently squeeze out suds. Drain the water and repeat until the water is clear and soap free. Lay the fabric or sweater flat to dry.