Learning how to gather fabric and how to make a ruffle is an essential skill for any beginning sewer. Gathering can be used to give shape to a garment or for adding ruffles and decorative finishes to all kinds of sewing projects. Machine gathering and is one of the fastest and most widely used methods and here I will show you 2 different methods of how to gather fabric. Method 1 is the fastest method but method 2 will give you fine gathering for professional results.
How to Gather Fabric 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 method for gathering include:
- Light weight 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 stitch.
- 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 cord that has been zig-zaged over.
- Tulle and other fine or slippery fabrics can be gathered with 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.
How to Gather Fabric with a Sewing Machine
Before you start learning how to gather fabric, you need to take a look at the supplies and machine settings that will make your job a little easier.
- Best Foot for Gathering - For most fabrics, you will use your standard all-purpose foot for gathering. The exception is if you are using the specialty gathering foot or ruffled. See further down the article for information on these.
- Best Machine Settings for Gathering - Set your machine to its longest straight stitch On most machines, this will be 3.0 - 4.0. Some machines will go up to 5.0 or 6.0. A 3.0 stitch length will give finer gathers than a 4.0, so decide what kind of look you would like in your finished product. I generally set my machine to 4.0 for most fabrics.
- Best Thread for Gathering - Use a strong bobbin thread. You will need to pull the bobbin threads to gather the fabric so it is important you use a thread that won't snap. It can also be handy to use a differnt colored thread for the bobbin so you can easily identify which threads to pull later. (Read types of thread, how to wind a bobbin)
2 main ways to gather fabric
Both these methods are best for woven fabrics that are light to medium weight. See further down this article for some extra suggestions for how to gather difficult fabrics such as tulle.
- # 1: The fast and easiest way
- # 2: The professional way - which of course takes a little longer.
Method #1 - Basting Stitches Fastest Method (2 Rows)
Step 1 - Sew Gathering Stitches
On the right side of the fabric, stitch 2 parallel rows of straight stitch just inside the seam allowance leaving a long tail (4 inches -10cm) at either end. Make sure you don’t backstitch at either end. Generally, the rows of stitching should start ⅛ inch (3 mm) from the raw edge. It is important that both the rows are inside the seam allowance.
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 your fabric has gathered to the correct length, tie off each end and cut the threads. Readadjust the gathers to make them evenly spaced. Press your gathers with your iron on a steam setting. You will find they will sit much flatter and look finer.
Step 4 - Join 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 stitch with your normal seam allowance. 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.
EXTRA TIPS – Experienced sewers or those in a hurry may want to use just one row.
Method #2 - The Professional Way (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 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.
More Gathering Articles
How to Gather Fabric Faster
If all this stitching and pulling threads seem like too much work then you might be wondering if there are some sewing machine feet or special gadgets to do all this for you. Well yes, there are!
The biggest reason you would want to do the gathering manually like I have outlined on this page is that you have more control over the amount of gathering and it is much easier when you have to fit it to a predetermined length, for example, on the bottom of a skirt.
How to Gather Fabric with a Gathering Foot
This specialty foot will fit on your regular sewing machine shank and will give you gentle gathers on lightweight fabric only. It doesn't work very well on thick fabric or if you need deeper gathers.
Further Reading: Gathering Foot
How to Gather Fabric with a Ruffler
Like the gathering foot, the ruffler gathers automatically but it can be used on a wider range of fabrics and can be cranked up to produce deep pleats. As you can see in the photo below, it is quite a big attachment and does take a little more practice to get right than the simpler gathering foot. This was just a generic ruffler I got on eBay but you can also get branded ones to match your machine.
Further Reading: How to Use a Ruffler
How to Gather with a Serger
Did you know that you can gather with a serger? This amazing machine not only finishes raw edges beautifully but can gather too. It works best for finer fabrics where you need gentle gathers on the edge and where a precise length of gathering is not necessary. If you haven't come across the serger machine, read my article on what is a serving and how to use a serger to learn all about this wonderful invention.
- You need 4 cones of thread to gather.
- Tighten the tension in the needles. (This means turning them to higher numbers.) You may need to refer to your manual to see which dials affect needle tension.
- Tighten the differential feel to its highest number. My machine goes up to 2.5
- Serge as you normally would and you will see that the fabric gathers as you sew.
- Learn more about gathering with a serger.
How to Gather Fabric that is Difficult
Sometimes you may have a difficult fabric that is really thick or slippery and the above methods may not give the best results.
How to Gather Fabric with Cord
Tulle, in particular, is notoriously difficult to gather and is better suited to the cord method. This is where you zig-zag over a slippery cord and then gently pull to produce gathers. You can use any type of thin cord. Crochet cotton and even dental floss work well as they pull through the channel easily.
- Cut the cord 4 inches (10cm) longer than the edge of the fabric you are going to gather.
- Your sewing machine should be set to a wide zig-zag. The wider the better. Mine goes up to a width of 6.0. The length should be medium. Try a scrap of fabric with a length of 3.0 and see how it look. The zig-zag needs to be wider than the cord so you can sew over it.
- Put the end 2 inches (5cm) of cord over the end of the fabric. You can hold on to this tail as you start to sew.
- Slowly zig zag over the cord. You need to be careful that you don't catch in the cord anywhere.
- Once you have finished sewing, gengly pull the cord and your fabric will gather.
- Secure the ends of the cord with pins. Once the gathering is the desired length, you can zig-zag over it again to hold the gathers in place.
- Read my article on gathering tulle for more tips.
How to Gather Fabric with Elastic (Knit Fabrics)
Knit fabric gathering often requires elastic to be added so that any gathered skirt can still get on over your head.
The best elastic to gather with is the thin clear type. This thin and extremely stretchy elastic is designed for gathering.
- Cut the elastic to the finished length of the gathered item. This typically might be the circumference of your waist.
- Divide the fabric to be gathered in quarters. Divide the elastic the same way.
- Match the marks.
- Zig-zag over the elastic with a wide stitch. The best results are usually had using a stretch needle. This will prevent any skipped stitches. You will need to stretch out the elastic as you sew.
- Read my article on gathering with elastic.
How to Gather Fabric by Hand
If you don't have a sewing machine or have difficult fabric that your machine doesn't like, you can gather by hand instead.
- Use a strong thread and double it over with a knot at the end.
- A simple up and down running stitch is easy and fast to do. Keep in mind that the smaller the running stitches, the finer the gathers will be. You can see a comparison in the photo below.
- For the ultimate control, sew 2 rows of hand gathering stitches.
- Read the full article on gathering by hand.
How to Gather a Skirt
Now you know how to gather, what about making a gathered skirt? All you need is a couple of rectangles cut to your measurements and you can twist and twirl in a new skirt within a couple of hours. Get the free gathered skirt tutorial.
- Sewing machine
- Sewing tools - thread, pins, scissors
- All-purpose sewing presser foot
- Main Fabric
- Ruffle Fabric to Gather
- Stitch the side seams and hem of your ruffle before gathering.
- 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 sides 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.
What a brilliantly written article! Thank you so much for lifting the magic and mystery away from the monster of gathering.
Thank you for this article. I love the look of ruffles and gathered edges, but get bored with doing them at times. With all these options, I may find one I like better!