Working with Fabric : SPANDEX

So much spandex in one photo.

As it is now June that means it’s time to kick DragonCon costume construction into high gear! This year I have several costumes that I have to construct out of spandex or another stretchy knit fabric. Let’s get to it.

Spandex can be both a wonderful fabric to work with and also a straight up nightmare, but with a little information – maybe I can help this be less painful for you.

Spandex, Lycra or elastane is a synthetic fiber known for its exceptional elasticity. It is stronger and more durable than natural rubber. It is a polyester-polyurethanecopolymer that was invented in 1958 by chemist Joseph Shivers at DuPont’s Benger Laboratory in Waynesboro, Virginia. When introduced in 1962, it revolutionized many areas of the clothing industry.

The name “spandex” is an anagram of the word “expands”. It is the preferred name in North America; in continental Europe it is referred to by variants of “elastane”, i.e. élasthanne (France), Elastan (Germany), elastano (Spain), elastam (Italy) and elastaan (Netherlands), and is known in the UK, Ireland, Portugal, Brazil, Argentina, Australia, New Zealand and Israel primarily as Lycra.

Brand names for spandex include Lycra, Elaspan, Acepora , Creora, INVIYA, ROICA, Dorlastan, Linel, and ESPA.

Types of Spandex

There are different types of spandex, based on stretch, thickness, etc. The most commonly used spandex are defined as:

  1. Two-way Spandex that can be stretched one way. (Length or Width wise)
  2. Four-way Spandex that can be stretched both ways. (Length and Width wise)
  • My Rogue suit was made from milliskin. I wore a nude full body leotard underneath because it was so thin.

    Nylon spandex fabric like Milliskin (shiny/matte) and printed spandex can be used for swimwear, dancewear, costumes, leotards, active wear, bicycle pants, etc.

    • Note: Milliskin is pretty thin compared to Moleskin and sometimes will require a lining – especially for swimwear.
  • Heavy weight nylon spandex like Moleskin (matte/shiny/rough) and Jumbo Spandex can be used for cosplay, wrestling, circus, sportswear, skating, and more.
  • Cotton and rayon Lycra are basically used for t-shirts, tank tops, leggings, yoga wear, and active wear.
  • High performance and rayon Coolmax Lycra are basically used for active wear, sportswear, athletic wear, etc. The fabric has a moisture wicking weave to help keep the wearer dry and prevent overheating.
  • Hologram spandex fabrics can be used for costumes, dress, special occasions, etc.

Tools

  • Pinning: Use Ball-Point pins to piece knit fabrics together. The slightly rounded point of the pin will glide through the knitted layers of the fabric and not break any of the threads. If you MUST use a different pin, use a silk pin and be sure to keep them inside the seam allowance. Alternatively, you can use Wonder Clips (or similar) and avoid pinning all together. I don’t recommend using pattern weights when cutting out pieces because they move far too easily and can result in cutting pieces wrong.
  • Cutting: A rotary tool and self-healing mat are your best friend here. You can use scissors, but I find that it leaves jagged edges, which is less than desireable when sewing your pieces together. I use a Gingher rotary cutting tool, but there are many brands that are very good (Fiskers makes a great rotary tool!)
  • Needles: Use a ball-point or a stretch needle.
  • Serger: If you have one, definitely use it. I normally just serge my spandex pieces together without cutting anything off for seam allowance. So far it’s worked and you reduce some of the strain on those seams.

For Star Trek TOS uniforms, I use a double knit. This is the same type of fabric used in the show.

Helpful Tips for Sewing with Spandex

  • You’ll want to cut the pattern so that the greatest amount of stretch is going around your body, no matter where the grainline is. That just makes good sense. This can result in needing more fabric if you’re using a 2-way stretch as opposed to a 4-way stretch.
  • When pinning, keep all pins inside the seam allowance to avoid creating holes in the fabric. Spandex is a knit material, and if you’ve ever cut a thread on a sweater you’ll see how the whole thing will unravel from that point. The same applies here.
  • Use a new ball-point needle, as they work a lot better for sewing knits. If it’s an option for your machine, consider using a stretch needle, which will help prevent skipped stitches while you are working with the spandex.
  • As check your stitch length and tension on a fabric scrap first. You may need to make adjustments to keep the stitches from becoming puckered. Also experiment with a narrow zig-zag stitch. Stretch your test scrap to see if the stitches break. If they do, you’ll want to play around with your tension and stitch length to get the right amount of stretchiness in your seams.
  • Use paper as a stabilizer. Tissue paper (save your scraps when you cut out the pattern!) or even wax paper from the kitchen will help. Sandwich the fabric between the paper. This will keep the presser foot and feed dogs from stretching the fabric too much.
  • Use a twin needle (two needles side by side; check your sewing machine manual for threading instructions), on hems for a professional-looking finish.
    • If you have a serger, this is another great option for sewing pieces together and reinforcing them. You need to use the full four threads. I usually serge spandex pieces together (verticle seams only) and then reinforce with another stitch.
  • Keep the fabric slightly stretched as you sew it, holding it behind and in front of the needle, but be careful not to pull the fabric.
  • If you can, use a straight stitch needle plate. This will prevent your fabric from getting sucked down into the feed dogs and creating a mess.
  • Avoid using any thread that’s all cotton; it won’t stretch enough with the fabric) on top.
  • Depending on the garment you are making, you may need to stabilize some of the seams (particularly shoulder seams) so they don’t get stretched out when worn.

This is just for the basics, nothing fancy like adding appliques (like on my Rogue suit) or making boot covers. I have used these wonderful tutorials that address just that!

Now I’m off to start working on one of the THREE costumes I have this year that require some kind of spandex. 😀

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