Friday, April 29, 2011

Working With Knits in Practice I: Tiered skirt

Hello all! Everyone (still) sick at home this past week, so we've just sat and read. No, I'm not sick. I'm the only one that got spared this time. I get to play nurse instead. All the sewing and making got put aside for (gasp) cooking and baking. There's a part of me that likes to make from-scratch meals when everyone is sick. It makes me feel very Little-House-On-The-Prairie-ish. And I mean that in the best way. Of course, with all the extra cooking and baking, there's extra cleanup to do that one usually escapes with, say, pizza takeout. And all my cunning autoposts have run out, so here in I am, once more "live". 

After writing that post on working with knits, I thought it might be useful (and fun) to make a couple of actual projects to illustrate some of those ideas. One of the liberating ways that knits simplify the construction process of a garment is removing the need for bound or zippered openings. Knit garments stretch and recover as they slip over wide parts of the body. Children love this because it makes clothes easy to put on and take off. And we love making these garments because we don't have to deal with buttonholes and zipper feet!

Now, some of you are probably saying, "But hey, I make zipperless gathered skirts out of wovens (e.g. cotton) and they slip over my hips, too!" Yes, they do, but that's why you need gathers. Woven fabrics themselves don't stretch or recover, so we have to make large openings and gather them with elastic, to achieve the same effect. The gathers, encasing the elastic, allow the otherwise unstretchy opening to expand to accommodate the wearer's body. 

So what am I trying to say? 
With knits, you can have a stretchy opening without gathers, and without it being huge

Let's define the purpose of "an opening" before we go any further.

Any opening in a garment is based on this principle: it must be large enough to accommodate the biggest part of the body over which that garment must fit. With buttons and zippers, a garment needs less ease i.e. it can afford to be quite fitting - the unfastened opening will allow it to slip over wider parts of the body and still fit snugly over the narrower parts of the body when fastened. When an opening is elasticized, it is never really fully open or closed - and so ease must be incorporated into it. This is why gathered or elasticized waistbands and shirred necklines, for instance, are made much larger than actual, and then gathered to a snugger fit. All this preamble leads us to two guidelines when working with elasticized openings:

Any opening need only be as large as the biggest part of the body that the garment needs to slip over. So an opening in a skirt, for instance, needs only be big enough for the skirt to fit over the hips (or waist, in, say, a pregnant woman). This holds true for all openings - zippered openings, button flys and elasticized waistbands. Often this opening is made a little bigger than needed just to "be safe", particularly in store-bought clothes made to fit arbitrary wearers, but this actually isn't really necessary.

2 The less 'give' a fabric has, the bigger this opening needs to be, all other factors remaining constant. Another way of saying this: suppose you have 40" hips and you are making fitted trousers. If you were working with a woven fabric like cotton, the waistband/fly region of the pants, when the fly is unzipped, would need to be at least 40" around because the fabric itself won't stretch to help you out. But if you were working with a stretchy knit, with a elasticized waistband (like yoga pants), you might cut it less than 40" wide (i.e. closer to your waist measurement), then sew on the elastic, and the fabric itself would stretch to accommodate your hips.

This illustrates one of the ways in which patterns for knits differ from patterns for wovens. But it is still all very theoretical, so I thought we'd actually make two garments to show you how you can use this to your advantage.

The first garment is a typical tiered gathered skirt. This is a very popular skirt with children and adults alike, and simple enough for beginners to make. Here  and here are two tutorials I wrote ages ago on this skirt; in both cases, they were made from woven fabric like quilting cotton (i.e. not stretchy at all) and had elastic casings for waistbands.

Today we will make this same skirt entirely out of knit fabrics, including the waistband. I used jersey and interlock. While we are making it, I will annoyingly butt in and comment on what we're doing differently from the woven version.

In a typical tiered gathered skirt, there is a roughly consistent ratio of widths between the tiers. Many people use a 1: 1.5 to 1:2 ratio. Usually, the waistband of the skirt is a gathered elastic casing. The waistband of the skirt is also usually of a larger circumference than the wearer's waist, and gathered to size by the elastic. Like this:

The picture below shows an example of the ratio of widths in the tiers of a skirt.
Everyone knows how to make an elastic-casing waisted skirt, so I thought today we'd do one of those smooth knit-wrapped waistbands instead. 

Right at the top is the elastic, and immediately below it is the ivory-colored knit waistband that will encase the elastic. Below that are the three tiers of the skirt. All five components are already sewn into their respective loops, ready for connecting to each other. Try to remember the width of the first tier (the white rectangle) - we'll make some references to that later.

Let's start sewing! I'm going to be indulgent and show a lot of photos and steps even though I've done tiered skirts to death in previous tutorials. This is to hopefully reassure you that making tiered skirts in knit fabrics is not that different from making them in wovens the way you are used to. Sound good?

First, let's prepare the waistband:
Fold the waistband lengthwise in half and slip the loop of elastic into it. Pin all around and set this aside. For a more detailed treatment, see the old waistband tutorial here.

Next, we'll gather the bottommost tier. This is done exactly the same way as with wovens:

I like to sew two rows of long stitches all around the circumference, and then pull the pairs of threads to gather the fabric. Two rows of stitches make very even, parallel gathers between them - I find this better than just doing one row.

Make quarter-marks on both the bottommost tier (dark pink) and the middle tier (light pink) , and pin the corresponding quarter points together.

The gathers are adjusted so that the circumference of the bottommost tier matches that of the middle tier and the tiers are attached by sewing between the gathering rows.
Note: once you've sewn these tiers together like this, this seam ceases to be stretchy. If you try to stretch it, the stitches will snap. If you ever want a gathered seam to be stretchy (like if it's below a chest yoke), then sew down clear narrow elastic in this seam as you stretch it. 

Now, if we were working with woven fabrics, we would repeat this process to join the pink tier to the white tier, and then fold over the top of the white tier to make an elastic casing and gather the whole thing into a waistband. 

However, we are working with knits, so we don't need a gathered waistband. 

Let's reduce the width of the topmost (white) tier from this:

to this:
See? Much smaller.

How small? Only as wide as the wearer's hips, because that's what it needs to slip over.

Now this is what we have:

We repeat the gathering process for the middle tier,

match the circumference to the topmost (white) tier

 and sew between the rows to attach.

Don't top-stitch. You can top-stitch with wovens, to flatten the gathers, but not with knits. You can, however, do a cover-stitch here, if you want. But why complicate things? It looks gorgeous as is. Moving on!

Now pin the waistband upside down, to the top edge of the topmost tier. Use the same system of quarter marks to help you get it balanced all around.

Pull (both behind and in front of the presser foot) the waistband to match the circumference of the white tier as you sew. 

The completed waistband, with very minimal gathers where it joins the top tier.

Because the waistband was stretched to match the circumference of the white tier, you will be able to stretch it over the wearer's hips without breaking the stitches. The white tier is like a yoke, with most of the gathers beginning only in the second tier. This is a much smoother waistband than a gathered elastic-casing one. It's sleek and good for reducing bulk in the hip area for those of us for whom this is flattering.

So here is your twirly, drapey, nightgown-soft tiered skirt! The bottom hem was finished with a rolled hem, but you can also just fold it up and narrow-hem it the usual way. Apart from the waistband, the techniques are the same as for wovens, but with a much more comfortable outcome. 

You might have noticed that I left out monotonous instructions like "and now, serge the seam allowances", because I imagine you'd know that. And anyway, with knits, if you forgot to serge anything, it's not the end of the world - nothing frays. 

Next up is a fitted french terry A-Line skirt.


  1. Narrow clear elastic! ***slapping forehead!*** Thanks so much!

  2. Love it! I've never attempted tiered skirts anyway, but seems like even *I* would be able to give it a go :) Thanks!

  3. Nice! I've made one knit, tiered skirt but there's a couple techniques here I want to try on the next. The one I did had a shirred waist - very comfortable!

  4. Awesome tutorial!! I linked to it on Craft Gossip Sewing:


  5. Good tutorial thanks, I want to make an A line skirt in non stretch cotton with a stretch waistband like this - I like the clear elastic idea in the seam, why didn't I think of that! - will have to try it.

  6. Thanks ! CAn you use regular knit and not ribbing for the waistband ? Would it stretch enough ? I have to try.

  7. So pretty!! Thanks for sharing!

  8. @cecileYes, Cecile, you can use other knits for the waistband - I've used jersey, interlock and even french terry - they're all stretchy to different degrees.

  9. lovely! and easy tutorial. now I think I can sew with knits. I think I could use an old white tee to make a little beach cover up tank dress for my girl. wouldn't that be cute?!

    and I'm excited for the french terry A line skirt - everything about it pleases me.

  10. Love the adjustment to the top tier. Thanks for another clear and helpful tutorial.

  11. Brilliant! I needed this. My adult daughter loves these kind of skirts and they can't be bought in I can (try) and make one for her. I will try adding a draw string...because she loves drawstrings too :) (not sure how but I'll figure it out...wanna do a tutorial?? ;) ). Thanks for this!


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