Wednesday, 16 March 2016

What is clear elastic and how to use it?

Despite being more than often used in ready to wear, clear elastics are yet to be established in home sewing. Along an open back dress, encased in the shoulder, in the legs of a bodysuit or gathered in the middle of a top... these are only a few cases where this elastic can be used. Let's see how we can make good use of this discreet and colourless elastic!

Purposes of clear elastic
To understand them better, let's start with the fundamentals of clear elastic:
  • Many seams can benefit from the steadiness of a clear elastic, shoulder seams in particular. Most knit tops in the high street enclose a clear elastic in its shoulder seams, to help them keep its shape. To stabilize, the elastic must be the same length as the seam - not more, not less.
  • Of course, an elastic is an elastic and it can also be stretched. Mildly stretched, the elastic will not produce gathers on fabric. On the other hand, it will help the garment edges to grip on the body. The legs in a swimsuit are a good example of grip, where the crotch area must grip to the body. The rest of the leg is generally stabilized, to avoid the forming of a bulge in the buttock or hips area and merely avoid discomfort. To add a grip, the elastic will be slightly shorter than the seam, something like 5-15% shorter.
  • Gathering with elastics is also very common, as it is a relatively quick way to do so. One of the most common part gathered with an elastic I can think of, is on a cami top with some small gathers near the neckline, along the centre. Some interesting designs also feature gathers created by applying an elastic along the middle of a sleeve. To gather, the elastic will be much shorter than the seam, at least 40 to 50%, it will depend on the amount of gathers wished. Naturally, the tension in the elastic will also be very high.

Tips to sew with clear elastics
A few things need to be remembered before doing anything with these elastics:
  • Stretch the elastic a few times to prep it, then cut into lengths.
  • Use a pen to mark the elastic.
  • Clear elastics aren't knitted nor woven, thus they don't fray and can be trimmed in the width, as desired.
  • Clear elastics are made of plastic, so might feel like it's sticking to the presser foot. Teflon and walking foots are very handy when sewing over clear elastics.
  • Oddly, hair clips are a lifesaver when sewing with plastic trims like clear elastics. Since they can't be pierce with regular needles, hair clips will do the job to fix the elastic on the fabric.
  • To avoid any problem at the beginning of a stitch, cut the elastic lengths slightly longer and leave this extra length exceeding off the fabric edge. 

Type of stitches to use
There are 2 types of stitches suitable to apply the elastic: zig zag (top) and triple stitch zig zag (below). It is called this way because each zig zag sections contain 3 stitches. I find that the triple zig zag stitch is the best to avoid "tunnel effect". Nevertheless, there are some ways to avoid this problem with a regular zig zag, which I will explain below.

Tension and stitch test
Before sewing the elastic, make a tension and stitch length test before, on a scrap of fabric and a small length of elastic (without stretching it). The elastic must not produce any gathers or waves. If gathers are produced, make the zig zag stitch shorter (not narrower). Readjust until you get a flat elastic without gathers. In contrast, if the elastic is waving, make the zig zag stitch longer.

  • Skipped stitches: The problem resides in the needle, which should be a ball point or stretch needle (needles adapted for knits, more info about needles here). These types of needle are perfect for knits but their rounded tip that might have problems getting through the elastic. If skipped stitches occur, switch for a regular or even a microtex needle, which are sharper and will pierce the elastic easily. Once the elastic is stitched down, switch the needles again to resume sewing.
  • Tunnel effect: A bulge is created in the stitch because the zig zag stitch is too wide. Readjust the width by narrowing it slightly. Some might be tempted to play around with the tension wheel, but from what I experienced, it is pointless. Adjusting the tension should be a last resort only.
  • Sticky effect: The presser foot will not slip well over the elastic because of its sticky plastic surface. As mentioned earlier, switch for a teflon or walking foot to help get rid of this sticky effect and to help you sew smoothly over the elastic.

How to apply clear elastic in a hem (necklines or legs)
In this technique, the elastic is applied along the fabric edge, in a seam allowance, then turned in and stitched down, like a hem. It can be done with both triple zig zag and regular zig zag stitches.

(Scroll down for the technique with a zig zag stitch)

1- Apply the elastic along the wrong side of fabric edge. Use the triple zig zag stitch and leave some extra elastic at the beginning of the seam. Stretch the elastic if needed, depending on what is mentioned in the instructions. The stitch is centred on the elastic.

2- Then fold in the elastic and press.

3- Stitch down, wrong side of garment against the machine, using a zig zag, triple zig zag or a double needle. Ensure to align the stitch centred with the edge folded inside. Press the edges.


1- Same principle as previously shown, but this time, the elastic is stitched right along the inner edge, as shown on the picture. The outer side will be stabilized when turned in and stitched down. As the zig zag is narrower than the triple one (to avoid any tunnel effect) it will most likely not cover a great part of the elastic width. Therefore, stitching right in the middle of the elastic, will make the edges curl and the process of folding in will be more tricky.

2- Fold in the elastic and press.

3-Stitch down, wrong side of garment against the machine, using a zig zag, triple zig zag or a double needle. Ensure to align the stitch centred with the edge folded inside. Press the edges.

See below the final result, from the outside and the inside. Inside there is 2 clear rows of zig zag stitches. The elastic is stabilized on each sides. I personally prefer this method because of the neat finish on the inside.

How to apply clear elastic in shoulder seams (or facings)
In this technique, the elastic is enclosed in a seam allowance when sewing 2 pieces together. It won't be stitched down. The elastic must not be stretched and must not produce gathers or waves (see tension and stitch length test).

1- Place both panels right sides facing, pin and stitch the shoulder seams together, with a straight stretch stitch (or a very narrow and show zig zag). Shoulder seams are often pressed toward back, therefore ensure to apply the elastic on back panel to conceal them once the seam press backward.

2- Stitch the elastic along a seam allowance, inner side aligned on the seam line. Use a zig zag or triple zig zag stitch and stitch along the inner side of the elastic.

3- Trim the seam allowance and the elastic at the same time, closely along the zig zag stitches.

How to gather with a clear elastic
In this technique, the elastic is stretched to produce gathers. It can be applied in a seam or going across a panel (Eg. along centre front).

1- Along the gathered area, make evenly spaced crosses on the elastic and the wrong side of fabric, to control the tension of the elastic. This will produce beautiful and uniform gathers. See below, I divided both length into 4 even sections. I also marked the beginning and end of the gathers.

2- Before sewing, ensure to leave some extra elastic at the beginning. This will create a "handle" to pull back the elastic.

3- Align the elastic on top of the wrong side of fabric and match the very first markings together, indicating the beginning of gathers. Align the needle so it is centred with elastic width and drop it in the fabric.

4- Pull gently the elastic backward (using the "handle") and forward, in order to match the following marking with the one on the fabric. Start sewing until you reach the following marking. When done, stop, needle down.

5- Repeat this step until you reach the end of gathers. Ensure to always start sewing needle down.

Here I used a 10mm (3/8") wide elastic, which is a tad too wide for gathering. Ideally, narrow down the elastic to 6mm (1/4").

All of these mentioned techniques might require a bit of practice before mastering them, but when done right, they clearly improve the appearance of a garment. Nevertheless, with the right tools and techniques, a little goes along the way!

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