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Shirring and decorative gathering

The gathering methods described in this section can be used to create larger pieces of fabric covered in gathers and manipulations, or as decorative elements to shape a larger piece of garment fabric, such as shirring on a dress bodice.

Material and Design Notes

  • Wide-sleeved 19th century dresses sometimes use narrow rows of shirring at the top of the sleeve, with the fabric billowing at the elbow as the shirring is released. Random gathers could be used in a similar way to create a more contemporary look.
  • Fine fabrics are ideal for shirring although heavier fabrics can also be shirred, ideally by hand to manage the fabric thickness.
  • Sheer fabrics could be shirred using coloured shirring elastic or contrasting thread to create interesting effects.

Hand-stitched techniques

These techniques use hand stitching which enables you to have lots of control over the shaping and structuring of the gathers. Hand-stitched gathers are ideal for thick or heavy fabrics – use a strong thread, firm knots and large stitches. Different effects can be produced by varying how tight you pull the thread to gather the fabric.

Straight row gathers

This technique is the basis for English Smocking and creates long, narrow folds or tubes. At least two rows of gathering stitches are required for even gathers, and the stitching must be regular to produce evenly spaced tubes of a consistent size. Your stitch length determines how big or deep the gathers are, for example larger stitches spaced widely apart create deep ridge and furrow effects typical of smocking. This technique will only work on straight-grain fabric; bias-cut fabric will not form into tubes in the same way.

1). Mark the fabric with evenly spaced dots using vanishing pen or other marking method. The rows must be aligned correctly with the second  row directly beneath the first row. For the sample shown the dots are placed 1cm (3⁄₈in) apart.

2). Use a strong thread and stitch it in firmly at the start of the first row of dots. Sew running stitches along the row, going in at one dot and out at the next. Complete the row by leaving long thread tails at the end. Sew along the second row of marked dots in the same way, again leaving long thread tails at the end.

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3). Pull both sets of threads up together, spreading out the gathers evenly. Use a pencil to stroke the fabric tubes into place.

4). Reattach the needle and sew in the ends; alternatively, knot the pairs of threads together. Then steam well to help set the gathers.

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Straight row gathers.

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Irregular straight row gathers.

Irregular straight row gathers

This technique creates a highly textured surface. Experiment with different fabrics: thick fabrics, such as the heavy linen used for the sample, won’t pull that tightly, whereas fine silk will shrink to almost nothing. Stitching in the direction of the bias rather than the straight grain will produce different effects again.

1). Use a strong thread and stitch it in firmly at the start of your first line of stitching. Work a straight line of running stitch using randomsized stitches. Work rows 1–3cm (3⁄₈–11⁄₈in) apart depending on the thickness of the fabric and the effect you want to achieve.

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2). Pull up the threads and gently slide the gathers down the fabric, taking care not snap any threads. Adjust the gathers as required, then fasten the threads as described for Straight Row Gathers.

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Random line gathers

Lines of running stitch are made across the fabric at random, then pulled up, some tighter, some looser. The diagram shows possible lines of stitching but this is entirely experimental. Varying the length of the stitches used will also create different effects as the gathers produced will also be varied.

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Random line gathers made in light fabric, then pressed and steamed thoroughly to flatten.

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Random line gathers using shirt-weight cotton (thick fabrics will not gather up so tightly).

Zigzag shirring

This is exactly the same technique as used for the Zigzag-Stitched Ribbon Ruffle, but worked across a large piece of fabric. Thick fabrics that will hold the shapes are most effective for this technique. Finer fabrics may need a double layer, interlining with silk organza or backing with iron-on interfacing. Although the zigzag variation is described, any of the patterns used for the Pattern Stitched Ribbon Ruffles work just as well.

1). Working on the back of the fabric, mark two rows approx 5cm (2in) apart. Draw in the zigzag lines between the rows leaving 5cm (2in) between each point. You can alter these measurements to make your zigzags any size.

2). Stitch the marked zigzag lines with long running stitch about 6–8mm (¼–⁵⁄₁₆in) long. Use strong, doubled thread as this technique creates a lot of tension.

3). Draw up the stitching and distribute the gathers as desired, then sew in the thread firmly.

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Thick cotton velvet creates a dense, luxurious effect when stitched in zigzag shirring.

Machine shirring

Three different machine techniques can be used to create dense gathering or shirring on fabric. For the samples shown, the stitching was worked freehand, although if you prefer you can draw guidelines on the fabric, but be aware that, as you will be working with the right side of the fabric facing up, the lines may show. Alternatively, you could also use a quilting guide – a metal bar that attaches to the side of the sewing machine foot (see Tool Guide). Shirred fabric is inclined to curl, particularly elasticated shirring.

Stitch and pull

This technique is the same as creating a basic ruffle using standard machine gathers. A long stitch length is used, combined with high tension (if this does not snap the thread), and the bobbin thread is pulled up. For the sample shown, a lightweight fabric (vintage rayon) was used and strong thread.

1). Mark the fabric on the right side if desired. Fasten the thread firmly and sew across the fabric using long stitches, leaving long thread tails at the end of sewing.

2). Work the next and subsequent rows following the guidelines, or using the edge of the machine foot as a guide. (For the sample, the rows were stitched 7mm–1cm [approx 3⁄₈in] apart, judged by eye.) Remember to leave long thread tails at the end of each row for sewing in.

3). Pull up the bobbin threads and ease the gathers as much as required. To fasten, use a hand-sewing needle to sew in the thread tails, or knot pairs together if possible.

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Stitch and pull machine shirring.

Gathering foot

Whereas Stitch and Pull gathering can be adjusted to suit after finishing the stitching, shirring made with a gathering foot cannot be adjusted once sewn. This, however, makes it much less vulnerable to coming undone, which is useful in garments. Working with the gathering foot produces a medium density of shirring as shown in the sample. Use guidelines or work freehand when stitching the rows, and reverse at the beginning and end of each row to fasten.

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Machine shirring with gathering foot.

Shirring elastic

The fastest way to make shirred fabric is to use shirring elastic in the sewing machine bobbin. This is the technique used to make shirred or faux-smocked summer dresses. There are endless variations on how you stitch to create a wide range of effects and a selection are explained below and overleaf. This technique works best on fine, floppy fabrics such as silk/viscose velvet, lightweight cotton lawn, fine habotai silk, and chiffon.

1). Wind shirring elastic onto the bobbin by hand using a little tension, but do not pull it tight. For the top thread, use a polyester thread rather than a cotton thread as it is stronger under tension. Choose a colour to match your fabric.

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2). Mark guidelines onto the fabric if required. Place the fabric right side up on the machine. Set a long straight stitch length (experiment to find the best length for each fabric) and fasten the thread by reversing at the start.

3). Sew along the marked lines or work freehand if you prefer. When sewing the second and subsequent rows, you will need to stretch out the fabric as you sew, so you have a smooth flat fabric to stitch.

4). Reverse to fasten at the end of each row. Alternatively, sew in a continuous line, lifting the presser foot to turn the fabric.

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Silk dupion gathered using shirring elastic stitched along the warp threads (vertically to the weave) rather than the weft, as the warp has more flexibility.

Shirring effects

Shirring can be manipulated to create varied effects. Each of these techniques will ook radically different in thicker or softer fabric. Some are made using a gathering foot while others work best with elastic, but experimentation will generate more variations.

Spaced shirring

This sample, worked on shot rayon taffeta, has spaced out rows of gathers made using a gathering foot.

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Spaced shirring.

Puffed shirring

In this sample a widely spaced shirring fabric length is sewn to a base cloth, which allows for further manipulation of the shirred fabric to create a puffed effect. 

1). Sew rows of shirring at about 6cm (23⁄₈in) apart along the fabric length. Flatten out and pin the shirred fabric onto the base fabric.

2). Sew across the first row of shirring using large stitches to anchor the shirred fabric to the base fabric.

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3). Manipulate the shirred fabric so the next row of shirring is close to the first to create a puffed effect. Sew across the shirring as in step 2 to anchor the puffs, and continue making regular or irregular puffs.

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Puffed shirring with irregular puffs. The left-hand section is 3cm (11⁄₈in) – half the distance between the shirring lines; the middle section is spaced at 5cm (2in) and the right-hand side section is 4.5cm (1¾in), for slightly more puffing.

Tucked shirring

Tucks can be combined with shirring to create heavily textured effects. This works best on fine fabrics such as light silk crepe or chiffon. The sample was created using the gathering foot.

1). The tuck and the shirring are created in one step. Each tuck is a total of 2cm (¾in) wide and they can be spaced 1.5cm (⁵⁄₈in) apart or wider as preferred. To prepare the fabric mark from right to left, starting 5cm (2in) in. First mark the 2cm (¾in) tuck lines, then 1.5cm (⁵⁄₈in) gaps, then another set of 2cm (¾in) tuck lines and continue in this way to the end of the fabric.

2). Fold the fabric back on itself, wrong sides together, to create a small fold. With the fold to the right of the sewing machine gathering foot, sew 1cm (3⁄₈in) in from the fold allowing the fabric to gather.

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3). Make the next fold and continue, making sure the previous gathers are not caught up as you sew

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Tucked shirring: in this sample, the right-hand side tucks are 1.5cm (⁵⁄₈in) apart and the left one is 2.5cm (1in).

Close-worked shirring

In this sample fine silk fabric has been shirred in close rows just 8mm (⁵⁄₁₆in) apart. The fabric has shrunk by approx 60 per cent, from 11cm (4¼in) to 4cm (1½in) wide, and the finished fabric has a natural curl.

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Close worked shirring worked with matching thread.

Grid shirring

Rows of shirring elastic are stitched in a grid pattern to create puffed boxes. The stitching lines are worked in a continuous line as shown in the diagram (3cm/11⁄₈in apart in the sample shown). As this technique is worked with the top of the fabric uppermost on the machine, it is best to mark guidelines with a vanishing pen, or to judge the lines by eye. When working the second rows, keep the fabric stretched as you work.

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Grid shirring worked on lightweight silk.

Spiral shirring

The stitching starts in the centre and works outwards in a freehand spiral. The lines of stitching are about 1cm (3⁄₈in) apart.

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Spiral shirring.

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Fabric Manipulation
150 CREATIVE Sewing Techniques

Ruth Singer