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
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.
Set your machine to its longest 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.
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. (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.
- Method 1: The fast and easiest way
- Method 2: The professional way - which of course takes a little longer.
How To Gather Fabric - Fastest Method
On the right side of the fabric, stitch 2 rows just inside the seam allowance leaving a long tail (4 inches -10cm) at either end. Make sure you don’t backstitch at either end.
On the wrong side of the fabric, grab the bobbin threads and pull gently to start gathering towards the center from either end.
Once your fabric has gathered to the correct length, tie off each end and cut the threads.
Readjust 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.
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.
EXTRA TIPS – Experienced sewers or those in a hurry may want to use just one row.
How To Gather Fabric - The Professional Way
For extra control and finer gathers, 3 rows of gathering 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 - Comparison of Methods
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.
How to Gather Fabric - Extra Tools
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.
The Gathering Foot
This specialty foot will fit on to 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
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 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.
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. Read my article on gathering tulle for more tips.
Knit fabric gathering often requires elastic to be added so that any gathered skirt can still get on over your head. Read my article on gathering with elastic.
Do you have any extra how to gather fabric tips or shortcuts? Please share as we’d love to learn from you.
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.