Gathering fabric is just as it sounds: gathering, or bringing fabric together so it creates a slight ruffle or bunch of fabric. It’s a simple technique used in many sewing projects, such as:
If you’ve never gathered fabric….have no fear! It’s nothing to be afraid of.
And, I have a simple “cheating” method that I use quite often to save time (and patience).
The Proper Method of Gathering Fabric:
When a pattern calls for a small area of fabric to be gathered (especially a garment or purse–a project where I want the gathering to be precise), I use the proper method. It gives you more control over the gathered area.
First, change the stitch length on your machine from a standard stitch length (such as 2.5) to the longest possible (such as a 5). This will help the fabric gather more quickly.
And you’re ready to sew.
Place the presser foot about 1/8 or 1/4 inch in from the edge of the fabric. You don’t want to forward or back stitch at the beginning of the stitch (as you normally would). Make sure you have a long tail of thread.
Sew a straight line all the way down, parallel to the edge of your fabric.
Don’t forward and back stitch at the end of your line as well. It’s important to leave both ends of your stitching “open” so you can adjust the gathering as needed. Leave a long tail of thread this end too.
Now, you could stop by simply sewing one line for gathering but I find that sewing multiple lines makes the process more precise. So…sew a 2nd line about 1/8 or 1/4 inch over from the first line. And then for even more precision, sew a 3rd line as well. Make sure you don’t cross the streams! (don’t cross the sewing paths of your lines)
And we’re ready to gather.
Grab either all three top threads OR all three bottom threads. It doesn’t matter which ones you choose as long as you stick to one or the other the whole time. In this tutorial I’ve used two different thread colors, just so you can see which threads are which. However, when you’re sewing with the same thread color, it may be hard to decipher which are the top and which are the bottom threads. I find that a seam ripper or something thin is an easy way to separate the threads (make sure you don’t cut any threads however).
Hold all the top (or bottom) threads with one hand and push the fabric over with the other hand. You’ll see the fabric easily gather up!
Continue gathering, pushing, and shifting the fabric till you have evenly spaced gathers–and the fabric is the length needed for your pattern.
Don’t cut the long thread tails till your gathered piece is sewn in place–otherwise all the gathers will fall out.
When sewing the gathered area into a garment, typically the garment seam is wide enough that it will cover and hide the gathered lines. If it’s not, however, and some of the lines are exposed on the outside of your garment, no problem. Once the piece is securely sewn in, use a seam ripper to remove the old gathered lines–since they’re no longer holding the gathers in place.
The Cheating Method of Gathering Fabric:
When it comes to gathering long pieces of fabric in areas that don’t require precise measurements (such as ruffled streamers and the Can-Can skirt), I like to cheat. The thought of pushing and shifting thread through yards of fabric is exhausting. Let’s have our machine do the work for us.
NOTE: You can purchase a Ruffler and Gathering Foot for your sewing machine, which help to sew precise gathers and ruffles. I don’t have either. So I keep plugging away at my simple/cheap method below and find that it works great. Do what works best for you!
Just as we did above, make sure your machine is on the longest stitch length possible.
Then adjust the tension as well. My Bernina machine typically stays on the red line for normal tension. So I’m changing it to a ten, which will make the tension as strong as possible–meaning, the thread is pulling through the machine rather tight, rather than smooth and loose.
Now, start sewing just as you did above (do not forward and backstitch at the beginning of your stitch). And you’ll see that the fabric will start gathering up all on its own:
With this method, various fabrics will gather (or not gather) depending on the weight and type of fabric. Lightweight fabrics gather best; heavy ones not as well. So let’s throw one more trick in there to help the fabric gather even more.
Use your right hand to hold the spool of thread on top of your machine just slightly as you sew. Don’t hold it completely still or your thread will snap. But hold it just enough that you create even more tension on the thread and thus….create more gather on your fabric.
And just like that you have a very easy gather. You can still shift and adjust the gathers as needed. But overall the gathers come out fairly even, making it my favorite lifesaver method.
And there you go.
Gathering 101, the proper and improper way.
Now pick a project and start sewing!
UPDATE! I also now have a video tutorial for gathering fabric. Check it out!