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Creative Cutwork for Knits

Why limit traditional cutwork to fussy fabrics? Try it on casual knits!
Threads # 72, Aug/Sept 1997

I’m not the delicate-heirloom type. What’s more, my work and lifestyle call for more practical, knock-around fabrics than the handkerchief linen and fine batiste ordinarily used with heirloom-sewing techniques. But since I love the look of traditional cutwork, I’ve found a way to enjoy its beauty and jazz up my wardrobe basics by using contemporary designs on everyday knit fabrics. My method yields undistorted fabric and ripple-free cut edges without “pokies” ( those little threads from the fashion fabric that often stick out between cutwork’s satin stitches). The method works on any washable knit (or on any tightly woven, washable fabric). I used a rayon/Lycra knit for the shirt above but have also applied cutwork to the jersey, fleece, and tricot, and made everything from casual wear to exquisite lingerie.

Behind the scenes

The secret to cutwork on knits is using two different temporary stabilizers: The first stabilizer applied is an iron-on tear-away that con­trols the knit’s elasticity and elim­inates the need for holding the fabric in a hoop, which can distort a knit and it’s cut edges. The second stabilizer is a wash-away gel sheet applied to support the edges of the design itself and to create a base for the buttonhole bars that crisscross and reinforce the cut­ away areas.

You’ll also need two different threads: polyester in a color that closely matches the fashion fabric to create a foundation for the cut­ work design, and a fine machine­ embroidery cotton or decorative thread for the satin stitching. Con­sider 40-weight rayon thread, which has a lovely sheen and cov­ers well, or a size-100 silk thread, which has an incomparably beau­tiful luster. You can use a matching 60-weight cotton thread in the bob­ bin (especially if the wrong side of the cutwork may show when the garment is worn), or special nylon lingerie bobbin thread, which pulls the needle thread through to the wrong side more efficiently than cotton or polyester thread does, helping to form an even satin stitch.

An iron-on tear-away stabilizer temporarily fused to the knit’s wrong side prevents it from stretching or distorting when the cutwork design is applied. The design is staystitched and cutaway, then a narrow zigzag stitch is added around the cut edges to create a foundation for the satin stitching.
Hold the corner down with one finger when the needle tries to pull the corner up with it after pivoting.
Hold the corner down with one finger when the needle tries to pull the corner up with it after pivoting.
Draw the buttonhole bars directly on gel sheets, which are pinned in place under the cut-out area, then staystich a foundation with two rows of straight stitching on top of each other on the wash-away gel. Use two fingers on either side of the work to further stabilize the fabric while pivoting it with your other hand.

Designs: copied or created

Sometimes the most challenging part of doing cutwork is deciding on a design. If you prefer to start with one specifically intended for cutwork, you can select from a number of commercial patterns available in both traditional and contemporary designs. If you prefer to create your own design, almost anyone can be adapted to cutwork, as shown on the facing page.

Button up the holes with bars.­ Limit the cut-away areas in your design to no larger than 1 in. across (using larger cut areas is too un­ stable). To support the cut edges and prevent the fabric from stretching, you’ll need to add buttonhole bars (so-called because the bars in hand-sewn heirloom cutwork are made with a buttonhole stitch) to any cut-away area in. or wider. There are lots of possibilities for incorporating the buttonhole bars into the cutwork’s design.

Cutwork works best on a single thickness

Collars, lapels, cuffs, and hemlines are perfect locations for cutwork accents. As a rule, it’s preferable to place the cutwork on a single thick­ ness of fabric, and it’s usually eas­ier to apply the cutwork to the gar­ment’s pieces before assembling it. On areas of the garment that have a double layer of fabric, such as faced collars, cuffs, or hems, try, when possible, to eliminate the sec­ond layer, finishing edges with self­ bindings instead. Otherwise, con­ struct the garment with its facings as you normally would, then create the cutwork through all layers, pin­ning them together and applying the stabilizers to the bottom layer.

On your marks! To transfer your design to the fabric, use a marking tool appropriate to the fabric. You can use a heat-transfer pencil, which works well but may show through on the com­pleted cutwork if the lines aren’t completely covered by a thread. If the design is complicated and covers a large area, consider marking the areas to be cut out with an “x” to simplify matters as you transfer the design to the fashion fabric.

Get set! Since every thread and fabric combination is unique,  test your satin stitch on scraps of the fashion fabric so that you can ad­ just the machine settings for the best satin stitch for your project. Select the zigzag stitch and exper­iment with lengths from 1 to 1.5 mm, and widths from 2 to 2.5 mm a stitch narrower than 2 mm may not hold onto the edge of the fabric, and one wider than 2.5 mm is difficult to control through curves. As well, keep the stitch width in proportion with the gar­ment and cutwork design (delicate lingerie cutwork, for example, needs a narrower width than does cutwork on a double-knit jacket lapel). Loosen the needle tension in one or two settings to allow the bobbin thread to pull the top thread to the wrong side. Pick a machine needle with an eye large enough to accommodate the thread (I use a Schmetz embroidery needle with rayon thread), and use your machine’s applique or open-toe em­broidery foot, which has a wide channel underneath to allow the thickness of satin-stitched thread to pass smoothly beneath it. Fiddle with the adjustments on your machine until you get smooth, even stitches. You want the needle thread visible on the wrong side, and no tunneling, or bunching of the fabric’s edge, under the thread (loosen your needle tension to elim­inate tunneling).

Adapt any design to cutwork

Curves, Points and Corners

Practice! When satisfied with the stitch settings, prepare a sample of your design as described below, and practice satin-stitching, as shown in the drawing above, to get smooth, straight lines; curves without gaps or thread pileups; and crisp sharp corners.

Transfer a portion of your design to a swatch of fashion fabric, and cut a piece of stabilizer large enough to cover the entire cutwork area with an excess of at least 1 in. around its outer edge (on garment pieces, you can overlap multiple pieces of the stabilizer if needed cov­er the entire area to be worked). Then fuse the stabilizer to the fab­ric’s wrong side. If you’re working with a difficult, stretchy fabric, try two layers of iron-on stabilizer.

To further stabilize the fabric and establish a foundation for the cut­ work design, use a short straight stitch (1.5 mm) and polyester thread that matches the fabric to staystitch the whole design, as shown in the photo on p. 58. Stitch slowly and smoothly around the curves to prevent the fabric from cupping (if you’re sewing smooth­ly and the fabric still cups at the curves, it needs additional layers of iron-on stabilizer).

Cut the fabric away in each area to be eliminated in the openwork, cutting through both the fabric and the stabili­zer as close the lines of straight stitching as pos­sible without cut­ting the stitches. Next, strengthen the foundation around the edges by reinforcing them with a short, narrow zigzag stitch ( 1 mm long and 1.5 mm wide). Then trim away any pokies the reinforced edges (it’s amazing how many will appear after you’ve zigzagged the edges).

Beauty secrets

The next step in your practice sample is to add a wash-away gel stabilizer, in order to stabilize the cut edges for satin stitching. Securely pin one or more gel sheets large enough to extend to 1 to 2 in. beyond the open areas. A firm double knit may require only one sheet of stabilizer, but thin or stretchy knits may need two or more sheets.

Draw the buttonhole bars onto the sheets with either a permanent ink pen on the gel or a water-soluble ink that’s not so wet that it dissolves the gel, As shown in the photo at right on p.59, staystitch the bars directly onto the stabilizer with a straight stitch at least 1.5 mm long ( a shorter stitch perforates and tears the gel), making sure your stitches catch the staystitched foundation you applied to the cut edges. Stitch a second time over the marked buttonhole bars, again catching the staystiches. if your design has large open areas, or if the cutwork is going to take abuse when worn, you can add strength to the bars on the garment by cording them with pearl cotton. To do so, lay the cord over the staystitching and secure it with a zigzag stitch, anchoring the cord’s ends at the edges of the cutwork.

Instead of cutting short pieces of cording, which would be difficult to handle, use one continuous piece and trim it at the end of each bar.


Needle position is the key. It’s time to begin satin-stitching. On the solid areas of fabric, center the zigzag over the staystitching. On the cut-away edges, the stitch should just fall off the fabric with the swing of the needle, which al­ lows the thread to wrap around the cut edge supported by the wash-away stabilizer. The stitches tend to pile up where lines intersect in the design, but you can avoid this if you anticipate the traffic jam, slow down a bit, and help the fab­ric under the needle.

Now for the real thing

When you’re confident that you can execute the cutwork design to your satisfaction, transfer it to the garment’s right side, and apply an iron-on stabilizer to the wrong side. Study the overall design to deter­ mine the areas where lines over­ lap, and plan to stitch the lines in order from the background to the foreground, beginning with the buttonhole bars. To anchor the bars firmly in the design, be sure to be­ gin and end just over the founda­tion stitching along the cut edges. Proceed, satin-stitching the entire design, then trim any loose thread tails, remove any iron-on tear-away stabilizer that’s not caught under the satin stitching, and wash the work to dissolve and remove the gel sheets.

Once you’ve seen how easy it is to apply cutwork to knits, you’ll start looking at your everyday wardrobe with cutwork in mind. And I bet that you won’t run out of inspira­tion for new projects.

Previous: Sewing Jackets from Knit Fabrics Next: Create a Carefree Summer Wardrobe


  1. user-7387390 | | #1

    Love this top! Does anyone know what pattern it is?

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