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Ruffles and frills basics

Frills, gathers and ruffles can be used as trimmings in the traditional way, or inset into fabrics to create a heavily-textured look. They can be massed to cover fabric completely or applied in swooping curves. Material choice, fabric grain and edge finish will make a huge difference to how a ruffle or frill looks, and whether you use a machine or hand gathering technique will play a part too.

Material and Design Notes

  • Heavy fabrics will only gather a small amount, whereas fine fabrics such as chiffon will gather to almost nothing.
  • A crisper, stiff fabric such as unwashed silk dupion will hold its shape well, whereas soft fabrics can flop.
  • Thick fabrics work best on the bias and gathered with large stitches.

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Raw edge, straight grain: the soft, frayed edge can be very attractive, and a single line of stitching approx 3mm (1⁄₈in) from the edge will limit the fraying.

Exploring options

The following samples, all made with unwashed silk dupion, show how you cut the fabric strip (on the straight grain or on the bias) and how you finish the edges of the fabric strip (or not) will have an effect on the look of the ruffle you make. Using bias-cut fabric eliminates the need for hemming or edge finishes but the ruffle will behave very differently to a straight cut piece of fabric.

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Narrow hem, straight grain: the thickness created by the hem fold adds structure to the edge.

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Zigzagged edge, straight grain: a narrow zigzag wraps and finishes the edge for a softer finish than hemming.

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Bias-cut, unhemmed: a bias ruffle tends to curve and the gathers can have a pronounced diagonal look, but it has a nice soft edge and gathers beautifully.

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Pinked, straight grain: cutting the strip with pinking shears will reduce fraying, yet still leaves a soft, decorative edge.

Machine gathering

Standard machine gathers

Use this technique for longer lengths of gathering with softer, finer fabrics (the machine stitches produce very fine gathers which do not work in very thick fabrics). Always use a strong thread such as good quality polyester.

1). Set the machine to the longest stitch length. Fasten firmly at the start of sewing. Stitch the full length of the ruffle, then remove from the machine without fastening off leaving long tails. Using a pin, loosen the bobbin thread at the end.

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2). Begin to gently pull the bobbin thread, sliding the gathers along the fabric.

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3). Once the ruffle is the desired length, tie the two threads together firmly or sew in the ends.

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Standard machine gathered ruffle.

Using a gathering foot

It is possible to create gathers on the machine by stitching with a long stitch length and high tension (8–9), but there is always a risk that the thread may snap. If you use a gathering foot, however, this risk is limited (see Tool Guide). A gathering foot also allows you to gather the edge of a ruffle and sew it direct to a straight piece of fabric at the same time.

Using a ruffler foot

A ruffler foot attachment can be used to produce tiny pleats that look more like fine gathers. Set the foot so it pleats at every stitch and adjust the pleat length screw to change the depth of the pleat to suit the fabric and the effect you require.

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Ruffler foot gathers: this sample has relatively deep pleats and uses a lot of fabric.

Hand-stitched gathering

Stitching by hand gives you more control and allows you to adjust the size of the gathers by the length of the stitches you use, as illustrated in the samples shown.

1). Knot a strong thread firmly. Sew along the edge or centre of the fabric using running stitch.

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2). Leaving the needle attached, pull up the thread, adjusting the gathers to be tight or loose as required.

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3). Once you are happy with the look of your gathers, sew in the thread to hold them in place.

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Hand-stitched gathers using small stitches approx 2mm (3⁄₃₂in) long.

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Hand-stitched gathers using stitches 3mm (1⁄₈in) long – longer stitches create deeper ruffles.

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Hand-stitched gathers using stitches 8mm (⁵⁄₁₆in) long – very long stitches work well with thicker fabrics or to create fewer, deeper gathers.

Note : When gathering a long piece of fabric, start sewing from the middle outwards, leaving very, very long tails. When you reach the edge, return to the middle and rethread the needle with the long tails to sew the other side. Remember to fasten in one end before you pull the thread up.

Fabric Manipulation
150 CREATIVE Sewing Techniques

Ruth Singer