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4 Ways to Evenly Gather Fabric

Gathering fabric creates fullness in garments (like at the waist of a skirt) and home decor (like ruffled pillow shams) by scrunching one piece of fabric to fit a smaller piece of fabric. It’s a simple technique, but can be easy to mess up if you don’t know all the steps along the way.

gather fabric

4 methods for gathering fabric

1. Gathering with basting stitches

This is one of the most common ways to gather fabric. Follow this tutorial to learn how.

Step 1:

gather

On the larger piece of fabric, the one that will be gathered, sew a line basting stitches on either side of the stitching line.

A basting stitch is at least 4.0 in length and is not backstitched on either side. If your stitching line is 5/8″ then your basting stitches should be at 1/2″ and 3/4″. Leave long thread tails at the start and end of each baste stitch.

Step 2:

step 2

With right sides together, pin the larger piece to the smaller piece, lining up the sides and the centers so that the gathers will be evenly distributed. Pin with the larger piece on top.

Step 3:

step 3

Separate the basting stitches on the top layer and hold onto them with one hand. With the other hand, scoot the fabric along the threads, reducing the fabric to fit the space between the pins. Once the two distances are the same, secure the threads on the end by wrapping them around the pin with a figure eight.

Step 4:

step 4

Once the fabric widths match, distribute the gathers to be evenly distributed from pin to pin. When there are nice even gathers, pin them in place.

Step 5:

step 5

Start sewing between the two lines of basting stitches. Once you’ve started the stitch, remove the pin on the edge of the fabric and separate the baste stitches to be out of the way of the needle.

step 6

Sew along the stitch line, keeping your needle in the middle of the basting stitches. Gently sew over each and every small bump, forming gathers on the right side.

step 7

At the end of the gathering, do as was done at the beginning and separate the baste stitches as to not sew over them.

Step 6:

step 8

Remove the basting stitches by gently pulling out one thread, then the opposite side’s thread. Repeat with the other set of basting stitches.

Step 7:

step 9

Turn the garment right side out and press, being careful not to flatten any of the folds in the fabric created by the gathering.

sewing gathering

2. Gathering with zig-zag stitches

When you need to gather fabric over a very long distance, this method can be more reliable and faster. All you need is a long piece of regular old household string.

Gathered Seam on a Skirt

Step 1:

Zigzag Sewing Over the Yarn

Sew two rows of gathering stitches, one on either side of the stitching line. Instead of long basting stitches, sew zig-zag stitches that straddle a length of the string. Set the stitch length and width to the longest your machine will go.

Keep the string centered within the presser foot and make sure the needle does not penetrate the string as you sew.

Step 2:

Gathering the Fabric with the Yarn

When both rows are sewn in place, loosely tie the two string tails at one end to anchor the gathering. Then, at the opposite end, pull the tails simultaneously and gather to the desired fullness. If you’ve stitched the string correctly, you won’t believe how fast and easy this step is.

Finesse the gathering to ensure it’s evenly distributed throughout.

Step 3:

Gathered Fabric for Skirt

Reset the machine to a straight stitch and stitch between the two gathering rows to seal them in.

Untie the strings and simply pull them out from both rows. Remove the bottom row of zigzag stitches with a seam ripper. If you pull the bobbin threads, they should pull out relatively easily.

3. Gathering with a gathering foot

By using a gathering foot, you can cut down all the preparation and get on with the construction.

gathering presser foot

How it works

Some gathering feet gather a single layer of fabric as you stitch along, which you then sew onto some other fabric. Other versions can both gather your bottom layer of fabric while stitching it to a flat fabric layered above. The shape of the presser foot acting together with the feed dogs underneath the fabric creates the small gathers in each stitch.

sewing gathers

Choosing fabric

The gathering foot works best with lightweight to medium weight fabrics. For heavy fabrics, you’ll need to use a different attachment called a ruffler or pleater.

short and long stitches

Stitch length

The stitch length determines the size of the gathers. The longer the stitch length, the more fullness in your ruffle, as more fabric is drawn up in each stitch with longer stitches.

Testing

It’s a good idea to test your fabric with your gathering presser foot and various stitch lengths. This way you can determine what length of flat fabric will stitch into what length of gathered fabric.

measure gather length

The piece of fabric shown above measured 16″ long before gathering, so became about half as long when using the longest stitch on the machine.

4. Sewing gathers in heavy-duty fabrics

Unfortunately, vinyl, leather and other heavy-duty fabrics show every needle mark, making the standard methods of gather impossible. This easy alternative uses tape to achieve even gathers.

Step 1:

Stitch Gathering Stitches

Stitch two gathering seams as directed by your pattern. Make sure they are inside the seam allowance area, about 1/8″ apart. For example, if your seam allowance is ½”, the gathering lines should be sewn at ¼” and 3/8″.

Step 2:

Clip Leather to Prepare for Gathering

Place your fabrics right sides together, matching the notches and marks. Place a clip at each notch. The leather to be gathered will be longer than the un-gathered portion.

Step 3:

Gather Leather

Gather the leather by pulling the threads until the area needing gathering is the same length as the un-gathered section. Make sure the gathers are distributed along the entire gathering area, but do not try to make the gathers even at this point — you only need to make sure the fabrics are the same length.

Step 4:

Tape Leather to prepare for gathering

Place a piece of clear tape over the gathers on the wrong side of your fabric. Make sure the center of the tape lines up with where the final seam will be. This will hold the gathers in place.

Step 5:

Taped Leather Ready for Gathering

Open the fabrics and fold back the un-gathered edge.

Creating Even Gathers in Leather

Push the gathers around as needed to make them lay evenly over the clear tape. I found that the end of a seam ripper was helpful to push them side to side. As you work, un-stick and re-stick small portions of the clear tape. This will hold finished portions in place. (A second line of tape underneath the first can help hold the gathers in place even more securely.)

Step 6:

7 Seam in Gathered Leather

When you’re satisfied with the gathering, stitch the seam as indicated in your pattern, leaving the clear tape in place as you sew.

Leather Gathers Ready for Stitching

Remove the tape once you’ve secured your seam. Check your work, re-tape and re-sew portions if needed. Once the gathers are perfect, remove the tape and continue sewing the rest of your project.

How to estimate gathering fullness

How do you know how much gathering is needed for your specific project? Determining the amount of fullness is a necessary first step to determine the final yardage requirements. We’ll guide you through this fabric gathering technique so you know exactly how to estimate gathering fullness!

How to Estimate Fabric Gathering on Craftsy.com

Fullness is typically written as a multiple to a fixed measurement. For example, If a finished width is to be 36″ and you want a fullness 2 times that, the fabric width before hem allowances is 72″.

The type and weight of the fabric plays a huge role in influencing how much fullness will look best in a project. For items using lightweight fabrics, gathering looks best with a greater multiple of fullness. In contrast, a lesser multiple of fullness is sufficient for heavier weight fabrics.

A yardstick and some fabric is all you need to determine the appropriate fullness for your project. Here is the technique:

Step 1:

Step 2: Measuring Fabric for Gathering

Cut a piece of fabric (either a sample of the material you plan to use or something of similar weight and drape) at least 36″ long.

Place a yardstick on top of the fabric, about 4″ from the top edge, with the 1″ mark to your left.

Step 2:

Step 3: Fold and Pin Fabric for Gathering

Fold about 4″ of the fabric over the yardstick, so it covers the full length of the stick. Secure it in place with pins.

Step 3:

Carefully hand-gather the fabric by sliding it over the yardstick. Slide the fabric over the stick in the following increments to see which look you like best:

  • For 3 times the fullness, slide to the 12″ mark
  • For 2 times the fullness, slide to the 18″ mark
  • For 1½ times the fullness, slide the fabric to the 24″ mark

Examine how the fabric gathers at each increment to determine which fullness multiple looks best. That becomes the multiple you apply to determine the length of fabric to be gathered.

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9 Comments

Sam

I’ve looked all over the web at every curtain making webpage and yours is by far the most informative about gathering. THANK YOU Linda!

Reply
Kay Chambers

Wow, what a fantastic article. I wish I could have found your information years ago. Seems so simple now after reading the how to, just don’t know why it’s not published in more places. Thanks so much Linda Reynolds, you’re a very clever lady. 🙂

Reply
Pauline Bell

Thanks for your fantastic and easy to sew gathers idea. So simple and yet I thank you for sharing this article

Reply
Tolu

Hey, Thanks Linda for this step step techniques on gathering. It’s definitely going to be useful to me.

Reply
Sarah

I’ve been looking for this answer for a while now. I am new to seeing and plan on adding a gather to an apron I’m making. This was by far the simplest explanation I’ve found and makes total sense. Thank you!!

Reply
Linda G

An easy way to gather knits, especially those easily damaged when trying to remove stitching, is to use a length of clear elastic to create the gathers. This has the added benefit of retaining the stretch along the finished seam and can easily be adapted for long lengths of fabric. It is important to use clear elastic, as this elastic is designed to be sewn through without losing its elasticity or changing in length.

Cut a piece of clear elastic the desired finished length, usually the length of the adjoining flat, ungathered side including seam allowances. Pin the ends of the elastic to each end of the gathering seam and, if desired, at the center or other important positions to help you evenly spread the gathers. Place the outside, long edge of the elastic on the seam line with the elastic width falling in the seam allowance, aligning the short end of the elastic with the end of the fabric to be gathered. Take several zig-zag stitches to anchor the elastic and advance the fabric and elastic through the presser foot.

Gently stretch the elastic by holding the fabric and elastic both in front of and behind the presser foot until the fabric and elastic match in length. Be careful not to stretch knit or bias fabric, as you want it to remain its original length compared to the pattern. This is when it helps to have divided the distance, so you may stretch the elastic in smaller intervals. Carefully and slowly zig-zag down the seam edge or center of the clear elastic, using a wide and long stitch, while maintaining tension in front and back of the presser foot. Continue in this way to the end of the seam. Anchor the elastic in the end seam allowance in the same way as you began.

The elastic will automatically gather the fabric when the tension is released and it returns to its original length. The gathered seam will have give when attaching it to the adjoining piece and continue to have give in the finished garment or crafted item.

If you make a mistake and need to remove or release some of the gathering stitching, you can use the seam ripper on the stitches along the elastic side, instead of on the more fragile knit.

Reply
Burt Silver

It’s interesting what you said about using lightweight to medium weight fabrics for this kind of full look and design. My wife is making a dress and is looking at this kind of stuff. Hopefully, she can find the lightweight kind of materials you are talking about for her sewing projects and needs.

Reply
Nancy Ojeda

Love this!! I’m pretty much the same way…. I’m always buying fabric, not knowing exactly what I want to do with it… usually something for my girls, so I’ll buy 2 yds (1 yd for each girl)…or sometimes just 1/2 yd if I absolutely love it but have no idea what I’ll make. I make a lot of appliqués, so 1/4 yds are perfect for that!

Reply
Susan

This was really helpful. I had 2″ wide ungathered eyelet lace that I was using for edging on a baby blanket. Since it wasn’t wide enough for a yardstick, I used a piece of string that I cut to 36″. I pinned the lace over the string which I knotted at one end and pinned the knot to the folded over lace. I then followed the instructions to determine the amount of gathering.
I found it a little confusing that the instructions didn’t say which end of the yardstick to gather from (the 36″ end or the 1″ end). I finally realized that the author must mean to start gathering from the 36″ end in order to get “3 times the fullness, slide to the 12″ mark”. Some of us are very concrete!

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