Gathering fabric is an essential sewing technique commonly used on garments, interior décor, upholstery designs and for that added flounce or frill on any item you want to add a bit of flair or interest to. Knowing the six methods of gathering fabric used most often helps you make the best choice should a gathered finish be required.
Gathering Fabric - 6 Best ways
The six gathering fabric techniques used most often are:
- Hand gathering
- Machine gathering (the most common method)
- Gathering with a serger
- Cord gathering
- Elastic gathering
- Gathering with shirring elastic
Gathering Fabric Methods
1. Gathering Fabric by Hand
Gathering by hand requires a needle and thread and the item to be gathered. Two parallel rows of running stitch create the gathers. The longer the stitch the deeper the gathers. Tiny small stitches should be used for fine fabrics such as silk and chiffon. The advantage of hand gathering is the control the sewer has over the size of the stitching and therefore the gathers. It is commonly used for extremely thick or thin fabrics or fabrics where extreme precision is needed.
2. Gathering Fabric by Machine
Gathering by machine requires an adjustment of the machine stitch length to a longer stitch. This is usually a length of 4.0 or greater. Two or three rows of stitching are required to run parallel to each other. Once completed one end is tied off and the other ends are pulled up to gather the fabric to fit the space requiring a gathered insert. This method works best for fine to medium-weight woven fabrics and is the most common method used in garment construction.
- Sew the first row of straight stitch ⅛ inch (3mm) from the raw edge, using your longest stitch length. Do not backstitch at the ends and leave long enough tails to grab.
- Sew the second row of straight stitches parallel to the first with at least a ¼ inch (6mm) gap between the rows. If you sew both rows inside the seam allowance you won't have to do any unpicking later. For fine gathers sew a third row.
- Pull the bobbin threads to start gathering.
- Once you have gathered to your desired length, tie the threads so the gathering does not come undone. You are now ready to attach your gathered piece.
3. Gathering Fabric with a Serger
Gathering with a serger requires some changes to the tension settings of the needles. Reset the needle tension wheels to a high number and adjust the differential feed to get the best gathers. The serger has a blade to cut the fabric edge so you need to factor in the seam allowance while gathering. The serger gives a very professional and firm gathered effect. Don't forget to change your serger settings back once you have finished.
4. Gathering Fabric with Cord
Gathering using cord is a useful method of gathering for thick fabrics or difficult to sew fabrics such as tulle. The cord is laid along the line needing to be gathered and a zigzag stitch is sewn over the cord. The important thing to remember is not to stitch into the cord. The cord is then secured at one end and pulled through the zig-zag stitches as the fabric gathers along the cord.
5. Gathering Fabric with Clear Elastic
Elastic gathering is commonly used to gather knit fabrics as it gives a stretchy seam that will not break. This method uses clear elastic which is stretched out and then zig-zagged over. It is great for skirt bottoms to prevent stitches from breaking. It is important to section both your fabric and elastic into quarters and match them up. This gives the elastic an even gathering all the way around your item.
6. Gathering Fabric with Shirring Elastic (Elastic Thread)
This lovely technique of sewing shirring gives a smocked effect depending on the number of rows of elastic used. The shirring elastic, which is a thin cord of elastic, is threaded and wound onto the bobbin only. The machine is set on the largest stitch suitable for gathering and as the machine stitches, the shirring elastic gathers the wrong side of the fabric. When a new row is stitched the fabric needs to be pulled straight to prevent puckers and pleats. Shirring elastic takes a bit of practice, but it is worth persevering.
Tools to Make Gathering Fabric Easier and Faster
In sewing circles, gadgets play their part and gathering has its tools too. The gathering foot and the ruffler are two gadgets you may want to try out for better gathers and ruffles.
The Gathering Foot
The gathering foot simply does the job of gathering as you sew. It replaces the regular presser foot and gathers up the fabric in one motion. Set your stitch length on a long setting (4.0) and don’t forget to practice before you leap into sewing with a new gadget. The gathering foot will gather beautifully and do the job with one line of stitching which saves time.
TIP: If you are gathering a ruffle it is a good idea to cut the ruffle longer than required and then just snip off any unwanted gathered ruffle at the end. This saves fiddling with fitting into a set space for the finished ruffle. Just use what you need and dispose of the rest.
This little gadget looks a bit like a mini-monster machine, but if you like gadgets it will be one you want to get to grips with. Take time to examine it carefully and know all the different parts that make up the ruffler.
The ruffler replaces the presser foot and has gauges and settings for the required size and distance between ruffles or pleats. It will take some practice to get used to setting the ruffler in place and choosing the right notches on the settings.
It is also very important to check that the needle of the machine will not clash with the newly installed ruffler. There is a handy screw used to adjust the needle position. Once you are up and running with this foot in place the outcome will be very professional ruffles and gathers. The different settings take you through the different sizes from gathers to small tucks and finally to pleats.
The ruffler is quite an intense-looking addition to your machine gadgetry, but who can resist something so unique in both looks and style – the ruffler is a tempting addition to your sewing toolbox.
Gathering Fabric - In Conclusion
Why not try them all and harvest your gathers into a scrapbook where you can refer to the one that suited your style and the fabric you choose. Keeping notes about the sewing skills you learned makes a useful reference for the future.