Find, select, sew, and care for spandex, lycra or elastane
Hey y’all, today we’re going to talk about sewing spandex, also know as Lycra (brand name) or elastane. I’ll be using the 3 terms (spandex, Lycra, elastane) interchangeably in this article as they all refer to the same type of synthetic fiber. Elastane can be a good fabric for swimwear, leggings, yoga pants and other athletic apparel.
What is the the difference between spandex, elastane and Lycra? There really isn’t a difference; they’re all the same fiber. While there are many manufacturers of spandex, DuPont owns the name Lycra and is the only one that markets that brand, so that is the only difference.
What Is Spandex Fabric?
Spandex is a synthetically derived fiber made from polyurethane with incredible stretch (pure spandex can stretch 5 to 7 times its length!) and recovery. Remember that recovery is the ability for a stretch fabric to snap back to its original length after stretching. Elastane fiber was originally developed as an alternative to rubber. Manufacturers blend spandex with other materials and then either weave or knit those fibers to form fabric. The higher the spandex or Lycra content of a fabric, the more stretch and recovery you can expect it to have.
Remember our discussion of fabrics vs fibers? See here if you don’t. Even though spandex fiber makes an appearance in many fabrics, when people refer generically to spandex, they’re generally talking about nylon/spandex or polyester/spandex blends knitted with 4 way stretch. Think about the type of fabric that makes up swimsuits, dance costumes and other form-fitting stretch garments, and that’s the type of fabric we’re talking about sewing today. Other woven fabrics that contain elastane are usually referred to as stretch versions of the normal fabric name. For example cotton and Lycra blended into a denim weave would be called stretch denim.
Spandex is used often in athletic wear because of the stretch and recovery properties it has, so the month of athleisure would not be complete without talking about it. In this post about knits I address general tips for sewing stretch fabrics, and those do apply to spandex, but today I’m going to share some additional tips because sometimes it seems like spandex has a mind of its own!
Where to Buy/What to Buy
First, check your pattern – there are probably specific suggestions for fabric type and weight. When looking for elastane fabric for activewear, you’ll likely encounter nylon/spandex blends in lighter and heavier weights, performance Lycra (aka, Coolmax, etc) that may have wicking properties (to pull moisture/sweat away from your body) and polyester/spandex. Cotton or rayon spandex blends are generally lightweight, thinner and not suitable for athletic performance wear, but may be good for t-shirts and tanks. If you’re sewing bike shorts, leggings, yoga pants, etc, I suggest ordering samples to check how densely woven they are. If you can easily see light through the fabric, it’s not going to be squat proof.
Keep in mind that elastane isn’t necessarily the most breathable fabric. The fibers blended with it and the construction both affect breathabilty. That means high spandex content fabrics don’t usually work well for underwear or socks or other times when you want a breathable layer. Keep in mind that unless the fabric description specifically mentions being breathable, wicking, or cool in hot weather, it’s probably not. Yet another reason ordering samples is a good idea.
As for where to buy, I like to get mine in person when I shop in Dallas’s warehouse district. I’ve also found lovely spandex at my local Joann (that’s where I got the fabric in the leggings I’m wearing), but that can vary widely and I wouldn’t order it online from them. From Fabric.com I’ve been very pleased with the Pine Crest blends. I also frequently order from Seattle Fabrics, but it’s worth ordering samples first so that you know exactly what you’re getting. And finally, I hear good things about Spandex World, but I haven’t personally ordered from them. They do have more selection of spandex than the other sites I mentioned.
I will also caution, that in all my decades of sewing, nothing has made my want to pull my hair out as badly as metallic spandex fabric. So if you’re new to spandex, approach shiny stretch metallics with extreme caution as many, many machines hate them. My best tip if the shiny sucked you in is to stabilize the seams with tissue paper under the fabric and go very slowly. Even then you may have issues. One time I had to throw out all the conventional wisdom and use a microtex sharp needle to sew it. If nothing else is working that might be worth a try.
You can try a universal needle, but in general you’re going to need a ball point needle, and things can get confusing here because you may see needles labeled ball point, stretch, and jersey. So which one do you get?
Both the stretch and jersey needles are ball point. If you’re dealing with the Schmetz brand the package will probably say Jersey and Ball Point somewhere. These Jersey/Ballpoint needles may work with your machine and spandex, but Schmetz recommends the Stretch needle for this application, which has a deeper scarf (the indentation above the needle eye where the bobbin thread is grabbed) and shorter eye. The shorter eye can be problematic with thicker threads, so if you’re experiencing skipped stitches with a stretch needle, try a thinner polyester thread or a larger needle.
Needle sizes are by number and a larger number = a larger needle. Thread weights are by number, and bigger numbers = thinner thread. As an example, Coats and Clark Dual XP All Purpose thread is 35 weight, so if that is a problem in your machine you might try a 60 weight thread.
Further reading on threads and needles:
As mentioned above, polyester thread is a good general pick for sewing spandex. If using a serger or cover stitch machine, you may also want to consider wooly nylon thread, especially for the loopers.
This post on stretch stitches covers several different types of stitches. Because the fabric/machine/needle/thread combination can be tricky to get right with spandex, it’s important to sew several sample stitches first to see how they’ll perform. Try different stitches as well as adjusting the stitch width and length to find one you like. Once you think you have the right stitch on your fabric, also make sure to double your fabric and sew again (as you will be on seams) because sometimes that double layer of spandex can make your machine behave differently.
Below you can see some samples sewn on two layers of nylon spandex with my modern Baby Lock Elizabeth machine and using Coats and Clark Dual XP General Purpose thread. The jersey needle worked fine for everything except the zig zag stitch, where you can see skipped stitches. That didn’t happen with the stretch needle.
I’ve also heard that vintage machines can’t use stretch needles/won’t sew spandex. So I did a few tests for myself. I have a Singer 503 that is pushing 60 years old that I used for this test. The reason I did not use my even older machine is because it only does a straight stitch and I don’t know why you’d want to sew a straight stitch on such stretchy fabric – it’s a recipe for popped stitches. I did sew a straight stitch for my sample just for purposes of comparison, but I would not use it in an actual garment.
Just like my modern machine, both needles worked, but the jersey needle caused skipped stitches with the zig zag stitch.
Spandex is a generally durable fabric and hard to stain, but it loses its elasticity and recovery with heat. So to maintain the stretchiness of your fabric, don’t wash in hot water, dry on hot temperatures, or press with a very hot iron. If you do need to press, using a pressing cloth and a low temperature setting is best. Luckily, spandex is hard to wrinkle. If you’ve used your elastane to make sportswear that gets a lot of perspiration while you wear it, odors can be an issue. In those cases, rinsing your clothing right after taking it off if you can’t wash immediately can help. Detergents formulated specifically to remove sweat, lotions and body oils from active wear can also be helpful, as can a vinegar rinse.
I sometimes get questions about whether spandex fabrics can be dyed. Obviously there is dyeing of the yarns in the fabric construction process, but home dyeing polyester spandex can have unpredictable results. For that reason, if at all possible, I recommend finding fabric the color you want to begin with.