Shirring fabric and sewing with elastic thread are great as you don't need to worry about any fiddly zippers, buttons, or dreaded buttonholes. Look in any kid's boutique and you will see all sorts of clothing with elastic thread or shirring elastic. Shirring is used around the bodice, waist, or at the back of many women's sewing patterns to give shape and comfort. This tutorial will teach you how to do shirring with elastic thread.
What is Shirring with Elastic Thread?
Shirring is a form of gathering and is the name commonly used for sewing with elastic thread. Shirring fabric is done by putting an elastic thread in your bobbin case to create an elasticated row of stitching. When stitched in several rows, it creates a band of elastic around a bodice or the top of a skirt. Shirring is far more comfortable than regular elastic as it is soft and flexible.
Sounds easy right? With a little practice, you will be making perfectly shirred tops, dresses, and skirts too!
Shirring vs Smocking
Smocking is a very traditional art similar to shirring that uses lines of gathering. It is not stretchy like shirring although the look can be quite similar. Fabric is gathered into small pleats using parallel rows of running stitches. Once gathered it is hand-stitched with various embroidery patterns. Below you can see a chevron pattern.
Supplies for Sewing with Elastic Thread
The first thing we need for shirring is an elastic thread. It generally just comes in black or white colors so choose whichever is the best match. Elastic thread comes on a roll and while it is thicker than sewing thread, it is the thinnest elastic you can get.
The elastic will be on the underside of the garment so unless your fabric is really sheer you won't see it when worn. If it really needs to match you could try dying a white elastic thread.
For the best results purchase a good quality elastic thread like Gutermann or Dritz. Some of the cheaper elastics are overly stretchy and you may not be happy with the results.
Shirring is best done on fine fabrics such as cotton voile, rayon, silk, and polyester. Thicker fabrics will not gather to the same extent and may be harder to control. Even quilting cotton will only give slight gathers so stay with the thinnest fabric you can manage and do a test first.
The top of the sewing machine needs to be threaded with a strong all-purpose thread. Generally, you would use a similar color to the top of your fabric so that it blends in.
How to Wind a Bobbin with Elastic Thread
Start shirring fabric by winding the bobbin with an elastic thread.
Step 1 - Insert through Hole
Thread the elastic through one of the holes in your bobbin to stop the end from pulling out. Hold on to this as you wind.
Step 2 - Hand Wind
Then start hand winding the elastic thread. You can't wind elastic thread on the machine I'm afraid.
Don't worry, it doesn't take long to wind a bobbin as the elastic is much thicker than regular thread. You will want the bobbin to be not wound too tight. I don't stretch as I wind but you will need to experiment to see what works best for your machine. Once you are finished winding, cut off the excess from the hole at the top of the bobbin.
Sewing with Elastic Thread - Machine Settings
- LENGTH - Set your machine to a longer stitch length. I set mine to a 4.0 which is what I would usually use to gather. Some machines will go up to a 6.0 length.
- WIDTH - We will be straight stitching so the width will be 0. While it is possible to use a zig-zag or decorative stitch, the results are a little less predictable.
The longer the stitch length, the more the elastic thread will gather. For machines with preset lengths, choose a gathering or basting stitch.
Test a scrap of fabric and see if you like the look and if the stitches look even without any unnecessary looping. If the top or bottom is forming in loops adjust the sewing machine tension. Here is a chart that will help you get the correct tension.
Sewing with Elastic Thread Tutorial
Step 1 - Thread the Machine
Start by threading your machine. You will have a regular thread at the top of the machine and an elastic thread in the bobbin.
Put the elastic bobbin in your machine as you normally would. Make sure it is threaded correctly through any tension grooves in the bobbin casing. Shirring is a fairly simple technique and most people that have trouble discover that the elastic is not in the bobbin groove properly. So check carefully now.
Step 2 - Mark the Rows
For small amounts of shirring I use the edge of my foot as a guide but wider bands will need the rows marked. Even if you think you can sew straight it can get out of hand with repeated rows. Use tailor's chalk or a removable pen that won't permanently mark the fabric.
I mark rows ½ inch (12mm) apart. If you will be sewing narrower rows then just sew in between every second one. You don't want to go cross-eyed looking at lots of marked rows. Striped fabric makes your job even easier.
Step 3 - Stitching
Backstitch the end and then start stitching your first row.
It may seem a little strange at first as it often sounds different from normal sewing due to the increased tension in the bobbin. The first row won't gather up much but you will notice the elastic gets progressively tighter as you add more rows.
At the end of each row, you can either backstitch and cut off the threads or just move to the next row forming a loop at the end. I prefer back stitching even though it does use a little more elastic due to the long tails.
Step 4 - More Rows
Once you have sewn your first row, start sewing the second row at about ¼ - ½ inches (6-12mm) apart. I like to use the edge of my presser foot as a guide.
It is very important that you stretch out the elastic in front of the foot. You need to be sewing over FLAT fabric.
If you run out of shirring thread before you have finished, leave a long tail and then start when you finished. Tie the ends of the tails together on the inside. If possible keep an eye on the amount of elastic thread in your bobbin and try and end at one of the sides. You would be surprised how much elastic thread you will go through for sewing shirring.
Step 5 - Press
Once you have finished, gently press the fabric with a hot steam iron. Don't pull the iron along the gathers but simply press on top and then move to the next section. This will give your shirring finer gathers.
Shirring Fabric - Troubleshooting
- If you find that your elastic is becoming uneven and loopy at the back, just check that the bobbin elastic thread has not come out of the tension groove.
- Stop immediately if your sewing machine sounds really straining. Check the bobbin is not wound too tight and is pulling through the bobbin groove.
- If in doubt, rethread both the top and elastic bobbin threads.
- You may have to rewind the bobbin if it is not pulling through smoothly.
- Always check the sewing machine tension if you get loopy stitching.
How to Make Shirring Clothing
Because it is often hard to predict how much the shirring will gather up, it is easier to sew the item flat and then sew the seam last.
For example, when sewing a shirred bodice with seams on either side, sew one seam and leave the other one open. That way you will be sewing it all flat. When you have finished, check the fit and then sew the remaining seam making it tighter if necessary.
Washing Shirring Items
Elastic thread can perish over time or with harsh washing chemicals and particularly with clothes dryers. Avoid tumble drying at all costs! Make your hard work last by hand washing items with shirring in cold water with a mild detergent.
Alternatives to Sewing with Elastic Thread
The only real alternative to shirring is to gather using a casing or sewn-on elastic. This will use thicker elastic to control the gathers in the bodice, waist, or skirt top.
Further Reading: Gathering with Elastic