Gathering fabric is an essential sewing technique commonly used on garments, home décor, and upholstery designs. Gathering stitch can be used to give shape to a garment or for adding ruffles and decorative finishes to all kinds of sewing projects. Machine gathering is one of the fastest and most widely used methods, and here I will show you 6 different methods of how to gather fabric.
Gathering Fabric - How to Gather Tutorial
There are numerous ways to gather fabric, including using your machine, hand sewing, or even a serger. The easiest method for you will depend on the machine you have and what kind of fabric you are planning to gather.
Which Method to Use? Some examples of the best gathering stitch include:
- Lightweight fabrics can be gathered with a sewing machine using a regular or gathering foot as well as a serger.
- Light to medium-weight cotton fabric is best gathered with a sewing machine using parallel rows of straight stitches.
- Medium-weight fabrics can be gathered with a ruffler or straight-stitch sewing machine.
- Heavier fabrics such as canvas and denim are best gathered by hand or using a cord that has been zig-zagged over.
- Tulle and other fine or slippery fabrics can be gathered with a cord.
- Stretch fabric is best gathered using elastic since the finished gathered piece will need to stretch with the rest of the garment. This is particularly important when you need to gather at the waist.
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
6 Gathering Fabric Methods
1. How to Gather 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.
Step 1 - Sew Gathering Stitches
Sew the first row of straight gathering 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. (These are called rows of basting stitches.)
Step 2 - Pull the Bobbin Thread
On the wrong side of the fabric, grab the bobbin thread tail and pull gently to start gathering towards the center from either end. It is important that you grab the bobbin threads and not the top ones for the easiest gathering.
Step 3 - Adjust the Gathers
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.
Step 4 - Join the Gathered Fabric to the Item
To stitch your gathered fabric to a flat piece of fabric, place it wrong side up and pin it to the edge.
Backstitch at both ends and straight stitch with your normal seam allowance on the seam line. As you have done the gathers inside the seam allowance, it will be just outside the gathering stitch.
Make sure the gathers don’t get caught in the presser foot. If any of the gathering stitches show once you have pressed open the seam, you can remove them with your seam ripper.
2. How to Gather Fabric with 3 Rows
For extra control and finer gathers, 3 rows of gathers are often used.
- The first row of stitching should be inside the seam allowance.
- The second row is on the seam allowance.
- And the third row of stitching will be outside the seam allowance and is removed later.
When joining your ruffle to your straight piece of fabric, stitch just outside the center gathering row.
When you open up the ruffle, you will see the third row of the gathering must be removed. As you have used such a long stitch, this is usually quite easy. If you can grab an end, you can just pull the stitches out in one piece most of the time.
How to Gather Fabric Method Comparison
See the slight difference between 2 and 3 rows of stitching. You can see that the gathers for the 3 rows of stitching on the bottom are slightly finer.
3. Gathering Stitch 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. It is commonly used for extremely thick or thin fabrics or fabrics where extreme precision is needed.
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.
4. 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.
5. Gathering Fabric with Cord
Gathering using cord is a useful gathering method for thick fabrics or difficult-to-sew fabrics such as tulle. The cord or dental floss 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 do the gathering 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.
6. 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 matches them up. This gives the elastic an even gathering all the way around your item.
7. 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 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.
How to Gather Fabric with a 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.
How to Gather Fabric with a 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.
Tips for Getting the Best Gathering Stitch
Here are some handy hints to apply to different gathering stitch methods.
- LONG RUFFLES - Consider gathering a long piece of fabric starting from the center outwards and starting the gathers twice from the middle to the left side and the middle to the right side. This puts less strain on the threads over a long space. Gathering a long piece requires some pushing and pulling to get the fabric to gather evenly. If you find you are bunching up the fabric pull gently to loosen the gathers and spread them more evenly.
- MARKING - Mark all the points before the gathering begins. In this way, the gathers can be evenly spread over the space they are being set into.
- BOBBINS - Check your bobbin thread before starting to ensure there is enough to finish the row. Running out of bobbin thread halfway can be very annoying. Consider using a different color for the bobbin thread. This will ensure you have the right thread to pull up for the gathers. You will be removing the thread at the end, so it won’t matter.
- NUMBER OF ROWS - A third row of gathering stitch helps to secure the gathers when the threads are finally pulled up.
- FEET - Check your machine accessories for a variety of attachments to see if you have a gathering foot.
- PRESSING - Press gathers on the wrong side of the fabric. Use the point of the iron to push open the gathers and make them full.
Gathering Fabric - In Conclusion
Why not try all the gathering fabric methods and put the swatches into a scrapbook where you can refer to the one that suits the fabric you choose. Keeping notes about the gathering stitch you learned and how to gather fabric makes a useful reference for the future.
- Sewing machine
- Sewing tools - thread, pins, scissors
- All-purpose sewing presser foot
- Main Fabric
- Ruffle Fabric to Gather
- On the right side, stitch 2 or 3 parallel rows of straight stitches just inside the seam allowance. Do not backstitch the ends. Use the longest stitch length on your machine - this is usually 4.0.
- Grab the bobbin tails and pull gently to gather the fabric. For longer ruffles, pull from both ends and start gathering from the center. The gathers should be evenly spaced.
- Check the gathered length matches the item you will sew it to. Place the gathered ruffle right side together with the edge of the garment. Stitch along the seam allowance.
- Press open the seam and remove any gathering stithces that show beneath the seam using a seam ripper.