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I am new-ish to sewing and do so purely on a practical/utilitarian basis (e.g. patching an old pair of jeans so I don't have to buy a new pair).

I have a lot of old cotton t-shirts I'd like to repurpose, including using pieces to patch over holes of current use t-shirts as well as cutting the old one into 6" x 6" (or so) squares and sewing them together for some handy double-layered cleaning, wiping, polishing, and/or (wood) staining pads.

But the sewing machine I use -- Babylock Zest -- seems to not want to perform this (what I would have thought was a) pretty basic sewing task...the thread keeps getting all bound up, generally below deck in and around the bobbin area. I have asked a few people and gotten comments like "your bobbin's messed up" (it's not...it works just fine on pretty much any other fabric) or "you're using the wrong thread" (it's just basic, standard cotton thread, so...?) or other comments that just don't track with my experience with sewing and this particular machine.

I've read that it may be the material itself, although it is just standard cotton t-shirt fabric, but apparently it is (might be) a "knit". So my question is does this explanation make sense? i.e. Can a fabric so basic and ubiquitous as a t-shirt create issues when trying to sew it together to another one?

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To answer your question, yes, t-shirts utilize different techniques to sew up well on a machine than woven fabrics.

T-shirts are made of knit fabrics - cotton and/or polyester. sometimes there will be more stretch on one knit versus another knit. When using a machine to sew knits, be sure to use the correct needle and if possible a walking foot.

Your needle needs to be for knit fabric. The difference between knit needles and woven needles is the tip. Knit needles are rounded whereas woven needles are sharp.

The easiest fix is to use a walking foot. Along with the bottom feet the walking foot moves the fabric uniformly and prevents the thread from bunching up on the underside. {side note - My walking foot set me free to sew knits and make lots of t-shirt quilts and garments without interfacing.}

Workarounds:

Without a walking foot, a trick with knits is to sew using a zigzag stitch, this helps the machine feed the stretch. You need to work with the presser foot to move the fabric past the needle. If your machine allows, you may be able to loosen the tension of the presser foot. Or a “teflon” (plastic) foot allows fabrics and synthetics (like vinyl) to feed smoothly.

Another option is to use interfacing to provide structure to the knit. This works especially well when patch-working for quilts. It also helps to stitch wovens and knits together.

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    Overall, what I am getting from your answer is that if I adjust a few settings (stitch), maybe, and use right./better techniques and equipment (foot, needled, interfacing), there is no reason I shouldn't be able to get results I indicated I am looking for...correct? i.e. I don't need to use a different or better machine, I hope?
    – AA040371
    Oct 15, 2023 at 19:12
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    Thanks. To address a few points made: 1) Not sure what needle I used...whatever I've always used is the actual answer...lol. Will check to use a "bull nose" style. 2) Not sure what a walking foot is, exactly, but I'll look into it. 3) I'd never heard of interface(ing) before...thanks. 4) Yes, was already using a zig-zag stitch, but more because I assumed it was "stronger" or better suited for heavy-duty usage. I might/could vary the "pitch" and widen the "V" in the stitch, I guess?
    – AA040371
    Oct 15, 2023 at 19:23
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    correct, you should not have to buy a new machine. The manual for your machine should give you some help with how to adjust the tension. If you don’t have the manual, you should be able to download it from the internet. Oct 15, 2023 at 23:10
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    @AA040371 If threads bunch up beneath the fabric, the bobbin compartment is the first thing you should check. Is there dust collected that could interfere with the thread? Is the bobbin inserted correctly? (I have one machine where the bobbin looks inserted correctly but you need to push it all the way in.) Is the bobbin almost empty? For some reason my machine tends to pull threads when the bobbin runs out. These problems might be mitigated by the relative stiffness of woven fabrics but become more visible due to the flexibility of knit fabrics.
    – Elmy
    Oct 16, 2023 at 8:10
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    @AA040371 I mostly sew woven fabrics, but the few times I sewed knits where more difficult. I used a regular sewing needle and didn't have any obvious problems. I only have a very cheap walking foot that doesn't work well, so the fabric stretched unevenly. If there's any tension problem, the fabric gets pulled into the bobbin compartment. NotTheFace is spot-on with their answer.
    – Elmy
    Oct 18, 2023 at 4:55

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