Friday, 11 October 2013

Working With Stretch Fabric - Stabilising Shoulder Seams

When you are working with stretch fabric, there are occasions where you want to limit or control the stretch in a particular area. The most obvious example is the shoulder area. You may also want to control the stretch in necklines, waistlines, and (certainly in my experience) some gathered areas.

On a t-shirt or stretch dress, the shoulder carries heaps of weight. It is also generally cut directly across the stretch of the fabric, which means it is likely to distort.

To overcome this problem, most t-shirts include a stabiliser (stabilizer) in the shoulder seam. If you take a peak inside your t-shirts you will see this. It's a little extra something sewn into the seam at the shoulder.

There are a few different things / approaches to try.

Cotton tape / twill tape.

Making my green t-shirt dress was like sewing with liquid. The fabric was incredibly soft and stretchy! (It is very comfortable to wear.) So I included a cotton twill tape on the shoulder.

You will probably have seen this before in commercial t-shirts, although mine is sewn in with a straight stitch because I don't have access to an overlocker. I have stitched these to the seam allowance with straight stitch, and I have stitched them in with a zig zag, and when I had an overlocker, I have overlocked them in. In any case, they work the same way. This is probably my favourite for loose 2 way stretch fabric. General and appropriate advice is that you should pre-wash anything cotton because it might shrink. I will hand out that advice over and over again. Truthfully, I am a little lazy in this respect in real life, and occasionally have paid the price for that. But its easy enough to chuck your cotton tape in a lingerie bag and throw it in the machine with the rest. Cotton tape is very soft and comfortable to wear.

Clear elastic.
Product Image
You may be interested to know, that Hemline clear elastic has been described on seller websites as being resistant to salt, chlorine AND urine. Let that take a load off your mind.
I quite like using clear elastic, but I will be fairly fussy about which clear elastic. It has to be soft and comfy. Truthfully, this should be the case for any stabiliser, because it can rub, even more if you carry an over the shoulder handbag or backpack. I once used an elastic which was too hard, and the garment wasn't the least bit pleasant to wear as a result. There are plenty of good soft elastics available, since they're the kind used for swimwear and lingerie, and they can't get much closer to your body than that. Clear elastic does allow a little bit of give. Better on 4 way stretch garments I think. I put the elastic on the reverse side of the seam allowance, so that it will tuck into the seam when I press it.

Here's one that's been overlocked in, on a commercial t-shirt. A quick and informal survey of my t-shirts showed this approach most of the time. Without an overlocker, just zigzag stitch the elastic in the seam allowance. Too easy. The elastic is about the same size as the seam length, possibly just a tiny bit tighter to hold but not pull the seam. It be firm but shouldn't gather at all.

Clear elastic can also be used to hold gathers, like on this sleeve.

That's done by applying the elastic with tension, into the seam  - the elastic is considerably shorter than the seam length . In this case, the seam runs from the shoulder and down the length of the sleeve.

I've seen it applied successfully to sleeves without seams by stretching a piece of elastic over the desired area, and zigzagging it on. Likewise, the same approach can be used create the gather over the bust on leotards, and to enhance a sweetheart neckline, on stretch or woven fabric.

I've also used it to support vertical gathering. When I made my stripey dress, I found the weight of the gathering was pulling the dress down. By adding a piece of clear elastic to the seam, I was able to bring it back up again. So that's handy to know.

Self Fabric.

Here, they've used a strip of self fabric, but cut vertically from 2 way stretch. It pretty much disappears into the seam, and given that it can be made off an off cut, would have the added bonus of being free. Can't fault that.

I have heard of people using woven selvedges as stay tape, although I haven't tried it myself. I would definitely want to pre-shrink those though.

Using a similar idea to binding the edges (tutorial here), a shirt may have a strip of stretch fabric folded over and chain stitched from the shoulder and across the back neckline as well. I've found this on quite a lot of shirts and it adds strength and stability to the back neckline as well.
And can be a design feature. 

This is what it looks like from the top.

I'm sorry if the shirts are a bit crinkly in these photos - but if I have to get everything ironed first, I'll never get this post finished!

You could also bind just the shoulder seam allowance.

Other bits I've heard but not tried, include fusible interfacing (I believe stretch interfacing is available on a roll for this purpose) and stay tape. I'd be interested to know what others have found with this. Let me know!


  1. In college we were taught to use clear elastic, no wider than the width of a 5-thread overlocker (8mm?) and to encase it completely in the seam, on the side which would be pressed towards the body of the garment rather than the body of the person. This was to avoid irritation from split elastic- and that clear elastic does like to shred itself to pieces once punctured with a needle!

    Nowadays, I can't be bothered- lol! I'm happy enough using self fabric stays (knits) and selvages (wovens) if I remember to keep them. I do have stretch interfacing in black and white- cut into 1cm wide strips- but unless I need miles of it I forget about it. Too much faff!

    PS- Absolutely love your blog, consider yourself followed. :)

    1. Thanks Miss Thrifty, and right back at you - your dress is super impressive.

      How does the interfacing work out? I would imagine it doesn't really hold up to the kind of strain the shoulder seam is subjected to. I'd probably be happy to use it for facings but not seams. Yet I've seen it recommended on more than one blog. Does it work? Does it last in the wash? I can see I'm going to have to add this to the list of things I need to test.

      Thanks for stopping by!

    2. The knit interfacing I have is similar in weight to tricot so it does have some body to it, enough for poly and cotton knits. I've used it successfully on long stretches (wrap dress neckline) as a stabilizer, but I guess it depends on the garment is as to whether it would work well, it would probably be too light to work on a stable pique knit like you get in menswear.
      I've also used the fusible woven interfacing for shoulder stays (and as a under-stitched armhole binding!) in knits which worked out really well. The shoulders and armholes in that dress don't stretch at all and that's exactly what I needed.
      I think I read about cutting the interfacing into strips on a blog too but I can't remember whose. I kind of figured that if I was hunting for fusible knit interfacing anyway I may as well make use of the scraps. It lasts fine through the wash, it's still stitched through like the rest of them, and it doesn't go pokey like clear elastic sometimes can. :)

    3. Thanks!
      I think I'll have to experiment a bit. In previous experience with non-woven interfacings it seems they can shatter in the wash, so my gut feeling is that it lacks the durability. But that does tend to be on larger areas, and as I said, non-woven rather than the good stuff. And one commercial jersey dress with a facing which annoys me like crazy - I think they just used the wrong stuff really.

      I got an interfacings showbag back at one of the craft fairs in Australia, intending to play with all of these ideas. Now sitting in storage. I wish I had it with me!

  2. Oh the urine bit is probably for the people who make modern cloth nappies. I had some clear elastic for these years ago when I was making them.
    Yes the quality of the clear elastic is amazing. The one my student used was so stiff and thick; it was difficult to sew with.
    Oh and sometimes I have found garments have the clear elastic as the hanger straps (don't know the real name is but the ribbon or tape they sew inside the garment to help keep it on the hanger). I always cut them off and it isn't a bad clear elastic I have used it a little (I use the ribbons too! I hate the straps on the garments as they always poke out so I work out a better way to support and hang my garments than use them.)
    Love the use of the waste fabric. I didn’t think of this, a great idea.
    I’m looking forward to my sewing warehouse being finished so I can sew full garments again. My baby containment lines are getting a bit cramped
    Happy sewing Zoe, hope you are well, I saw Amy Thursday at Spotlight told her about your blog, I go there too much!!

    1. Ahhh that actually makes me feel a bit better about the world. Initially, I thought it might be for swimming!

      I've re-used the ribbons and elastic too - sometimes just for hanging patterns up.

      I miss Spotlight. I even brought some of my stash back with me. I like my local fabric store, but I think I've pretty much exhausted the range of good jersey - down to about my 8th choice for the season I guess. This will be apparent in the colour of the shirt I'm putting up next. :/

      Catch you soon!

    2. Timely post for me. Planning to start a tee with some single jersey and using a simple kimono tee pattern (from maria of Denmark - free download). Haven't got far due to bad cold and feeling rough! I have a 4 thread overlocker but can't get tension right on the 4 thread, 3 thread OK. For the first time used the stretch stitch on my machine and this is great. So planning to stretch stitch and then finish seams with 3 thread over lock. I have bought some hemline clear elastic with plans to use in shoulders. I did some trials and I think I was pulling too much as it puckered. Also I sewed in whilst sewing the main seam and I can see from your post best to sew after in seam allowance. Need to do more trials.... Thanks

    3. Hi Helen,
      I put it in after the main seam because I don't want it to fold and create extra bulk. If you were going with the overlock/serged stitch you'd put it straight in, as mentioned in the first comment on this post! But without letting it fold over the seam, or it will be bulky.
      Hope you feel better soon. :)

  3. Thanks, for the reply. Feeling better today so plan to make some progress this evening.

    1. Eek! - I didn't mean to smile because you were feeling crook - I was smiling in a reassuring way. :/ Emoticons are useless. I hope you put your results on your blog, I look forward to seeing them.