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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
At the end of the gathering, do as was done at the beginning and separate the baste stitches as to not sew over them.
Remove the basting stitches by gently pulling out one thread, then the opposite side’s thread. Repeat with the other set of basting stitches.
Turn the garment right side out and press, being careful not to flatten any of the folds in the fabric created by the 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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″.
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.
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.
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.
Open the fabrics and fold back the un-gathered edge.
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.)
When you’re satisfied with the gathering, stitch the seam as indicated in your pattern, leaving the clear tape in place as you sew.
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!
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:
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.
Fold about 4″ of the fabric over the yardstick, so it covers the full length of the stick. Secure it in place with pins.
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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