The Details: How I sew elastic waistbands

The Details: How to sew an elastic waistband

Elastic waistbands are tricky, let’s face it: They can look great or utterly disastrous depending on the type of fabric, the amount of fabric piled up on the elastic, and most of all in my view, the width. To me, a wider band will always look better, and it definitely lays flatter. If you get the variables right, an elastic waist can be perfectly flattering and even chic. As noted yesterday, I’ve gotten a lot of questions about how I do the waistbands on my modified Robbie pants, so here’s a rough how-to for you. I’m using photos I snapped while sewing the denim pair last year, and apologize for the photo quality and not reshooting them when doing the latest pair, but I think it’s easier to see what’s going on (even though the photos are so messy!) since the denim has a visible right and wrong side.

This is a method I learned sometime in my youth and have always preferred and used when making the assorted elastic-waist skirt or whatever. This is a totally different width and attachment approach than what you’ll find in the Robbie Pant pattern, and you can use this method with basically any waistband that is just a rectangle formed into a loop.

STEP 1: Cut a wide waistband
I like 2″ elastic. For that, your waistband piece needs to be 4″ tall, plus seam allowance on top and bottom, plus a smidge for wiggle room. And the width of your piece (the circumference) should be as it is in the original pattern, to match the pieces it attaches to. With the Robbie pants, I’m pretty sure I simply doubled the height of the waistband pattern piece to get the piece I’ve been using. Robbie is 1/2″ seam allowance, so that’s 5″ plus a smidge.

How to sew an elastic waistbands

STEP 2: Sew the ends to form a ring
Line up the two short ends, right sides together, and mark the center point. Using 1/2″ SA — or whatever your pattern calls for — stitch from one edge to the center point or just a hair beyond, and backtack firmly. (This point will undergo some stress.) Press the seam allowance open. Note that only half of it is actually stitched together, so fold and press the rest of open at the exact same width as if it were sewn all the way.

How to sew an elastic waistbands

STEP 3: Edge-stitch the seam allowance
I don’t like for there to be any flap of fabric inside the casing for my elastic to get stuck under when I’m inserting it, so I like to stitch down the seam allowance, as close as possible to the edges.

How to sew an elastic waistbands

STEP 4: Press the waistband in half
Now fold the waistband in half with wrong sides together and press along the fold. At this point, you have a prepared waistband ready to attach. On the outside (the right side, or public facing side) it’s a continuous ring, seamed at the join (aka the center back). On the inside (which is now officially the wrong side), there’s a gap at the seam, which is where you’re going to feed the elastic when the time comes. Lay the band on your ironing board with the seam at one side and press or mark the opposite side — that’s your center front. Now bring the seam (center back) and center front together, lay it flat again, and mark the fold at each side for aligning with the side seams.

How to sew an elastic waistbands

STEP 5: Attach the waistband
With your pants right side out, pin the waistband all the way around the outside, right sides together, lining up the opening in the waistband with the center back, and matching up the center front and side seams as noted. Seam the band onto the pants using the specified SA (which for Robbie, again, is 1/2″). I like to then serge the seam allowance, but you can zigzag, pink, or finish as you like. Press the seam allowance toward the pants and top-stitch in place. Again, this way there is no loose seam allowance inside the waistband to fight with your elastic.

How to sew an elastic waistbands

STEP 6: Insert the elastic
You can now feed the elastic through the opening in the inside of the waistband. It’s a torturous process, but I do it the old-fashioned way: with a large safety pin threaded into the leading end of the elastic. I also like to pin the loose end to the pants just inside the opening, so there’s no chance of it accidentally disappearing into the casing while I work.

When you’ve got it all the way through, overlap the two ends of your elastic and pin them firmly. Pull them out as far as possible so you can get them under the foot of your machine, and zigzag across them to secure. You can now put on your pants (or skirt) and see how you did!

I like this method, among other reasons, because I still have access to the elastic and can adjust the overlap however many times I might need to get the snugness exactly right. Once you’re sure you have it how you want it, you can either hand-stitch the opening closed (in case you ever want to get back in there) or pin the layers in place and top-stitch along both sides of the opening, which will permanently secure it and keep the elastic from trying to fold or twist. If you like, you can also anchor it at the front and/or sides.

And that’s it! I also prefer to work with stiffer elastic, which I find easier to insert and less likely to misbehave once it’s in there. It lays nice and flat, and that’s my whole objective!

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PREVIOUSLY: Hipster painter pants

45 thoughts on “The Details: How I sew elastic waistbands

  1. Great tutorial! But have you ever tried ‘non-roll’ elastic? It has perpendicular ridges and works very well.

    • I like the Dritz on that is just marked “knit elastic” but it’s firm and sort of ridged. It’s stiff enough to be more cooperative in the insertion process — less likely to try to roll or fold midway — and stays put once it’s in place.

  2. Thank you for taking the time to lay it out so clearly, looking forward to trying your method. What denim did you use for the pants in the tutorial?

    • I don’t know any details on it — I just pulled it off the shelf at Fancy Tiger last summer and realized when I got home that it was stretch denim, which wasn’t what I’d meant to grab. But it’s worked out ok!

    • That’s just the standard foot. I bought a fancy foot one time but have never taken it out of the package. I just pick a spot to line things up with and … steady as she goes.

  3. I mentioned in an earlier comment that I triple wash my fabric. I also triple wash my elastic at the same time. No surprises!

  4. This is great. I’ve decided to make a pair of Pants No. 1 for one of my Summer of Basics, and this will definitely come in handy. I also love the idea of a “public side” of a garment.

  5. Oh my gosh, GREAT tutorial! I’m gonna have to try this. Thanks so much for such a clear step-by-step.

  6. Karen, Did you have to adjust the length of crotch/pant at waist to accommodate the wider waistband than the Robbie pant calls for?

    I am returning to sewing but my body has changed and I now am learning how to alter my pant patterns for a nice fit. Any suggestions/recommendations on books, blogs or you tube videos on the subject?

    Thanking you greatly in advance!!!

    • I have tweaked the pattern so the center back is not quite so high, but just because it’s too high on me, and not so much because of the waistband width. No changes to the front/rise, that I recall. But you should of course see how it fits you and adjust as needed!

      I did buy a book a few years ago that Liesl Gibson recommends but can’t think at the moment what it’s called. She might have it in her webshop on her Oliver and S site.

  7. The Pants #1 pattern is designed differently – no separate waistband casing. You simply fold the top portion of the pants down to form its own attached casing. (this has been accounted for in the height of the pant leg pieces.). You can still serge the raw edge, or fold under 1/4″ to make a clean edge that then gets sewn in place. Tessuti’s pattern instructions tell you to lay the elastic inside the unfinished casing and sew it in place while stretching the elastic – I don’t have much luck with that method. I thread it through as you’ve described, but I like your hints for providing a finished edge inside the waistband – I will give that try on my next pair!

  8. Thank you for sharing these tips. I like how you leave open the gap on one half of the waistband and secure the bottom in the seam allowance, it is much better than trying to sew both ends of the piece and leave a gap in the centre

  9. Great tutorial!
    I have a thing with elastic getting stretched out after a few years, when the pants are often still wearable. I don’t like to unpick several rows of stitching – so this method works great for that. I often don’t even sew up the vertical hole as it doesn’t interfere with wearing.

      • There’s probably a rule of thumb but I don’t have any real guidance other than trial and error and seeing what works for you, based on how you like things to fit! I always feel like mine could probably be a little tighter …

  10. Threading the stiff 2in elastic WAS torturous 😖. That being said, thank you so much for the tutorial. After so many pants with thinner elastic that just didn’t feel right, I am now a 2in convert. May I suggest adding a bit more than a smidgen to the waistband width to make the threading of the elastic a bit easier. I used Dritz ribbed non-roll elastic (woven).

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  13. Wow, what a great tutorial! Blindingly simple…once you see it done and such a nice finish. Wish I had done it on 2 of my skirts which are WAY too big but tightly tucked into their waist band hell.

  14. This is so great. Thank you so much for taking the time to share. This waistband method is now my favorite way to attach waistbands. It’s so clean and simple. I really love it.

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