I had a friend describe gathering as basically wrinkling up one edge of your fabric and then stitching it to something. Fortunately, this friend doesn't teach sewing, but she did get the basic idea right. When you gather, you are creating a series of decorative wrinkles (their real name is: ruffles) along the edge of your fabric. You can then attach this ruffled fabric like you would a trim. I've used ruffles on the edges of slipcovers, around throw pillows, along window treatments, and on a bed coverlet. Once you discover how easy it is to gather fabric, you'll probably think of half a dozen more ways to use this effect. Short or long, tight or loose, single or layered – ruffles add a wonderful softness to anything. They're also great for potato chips!
How long will it be?
A piece of fabric that's been gathered will be shorter than it was originally. This seems rather obvious. But you need to take this compression into consideration when you're making ruffles. The standard rule is to make your fabric piece to be gathered 2.5 times as long as you want your finished piece. For example, if you want to add a ruffle to the bottom of a curtain panel, and your panel is 18" wide, you'll need to a start with a piece of fabric that is 45". You can vary this depending on how dense you want your ruffles to be. And it's easy to adjust and get the length you want during the gathering process.
Making ruffles is so simple, I'm going to describe two different methods in this tutorial.
Gathering with a Straight Stitch
- Be sure to iron your fabric first. At your sewing machine choose the Straight stitch and set the length to long. On my machine this is anywhere from 6 to 8.
- Stitch along your fabric ½" in from the edge (½" being the standard seam allowance for home dec). Leave at least 4" tails when you snip your top and bobbin thread. Unlike when you make a regular seam, when you make a gathering stitch you DO NOT BACK TACK.
- Now, stitch another row about ¼" in from the fabric edge. Again, leave long tails when you snip your thread. Now you have two parallel rows of a long straight stitch. (I've seen gathering instructions where you sew only one row but I do two so if if my thread breaks, I have a back up thread.) Again, do not back tack.
- At one end of your fabric tie the upper and lower threads together into a knot. This will keep your upper thread (the one that goes through the needle) from pulling through.
- At the other end of your fabric GENTLY tug on the two TOP threads. Your fabric will slide along these threads like a curtain on a curtain rod, forming ruffles. Continue pulling, adjusting and evening the ruffles as you go. When it's gathered evenly along the whole edge and is the finished length you want, tie a knot in your other loose threads.
- You can now attach your ruffle as you would any trim.
Gathering with a Zig Zag Stitch
- Set your sewing machine to a wide Zig Zag stitch.
- Attach a presser foot that accommodates the Zig Zag. On most machines this is the standard foot; just make sure it has a hole in it wide enough to handle the left-to-right swing of the needle.
- With the presser foot in the up position, line up your fabric so both swings of the zig zag stitch will stay completely within the ½" seam allowance.
- Lay down a length of string or heavy thread so it's centered under the zig zag foot (you'll need a piece that is as long as the piece of fabric you're gathering). You want the needle to cross back and forth over this "drawstring" but not catch it in the stitch (or your fabric won't slide on it).
- Zig zag over the centered thread - the "drawstring." Do not back tack at either end. Tie a knot in the threads at one end.
- At the other end, GENTLY tug on the "drawstring" thread to gather your fabric. When done, tie a knot in your threads.
Bonus Method 1: The Gathering Foot
There aren't a lot of machines that come with a Gathering foot as a standard part, but you can purchase the foot separately from your sewing machine dealer.
Janome offers an optional Gathering foot for both front loading and top loading machines that works great with lightweight fabrics. It will make gathers and attach the ruffle to your base fabric in one step. The size of your gather is a pre-set standard with this foot. For more flexibility, see Bonus Method 2.
Bonus Method 2: The Ruffler Foot
As your reward for scrolling all the way down, you're going to learn about a very special sewing machine foot that makes perfect ruffles in a single step. It's called a Ruffler foot. It is more sophisticated than the standard Gathering foot and works well on a variety of fabric types and weights.
It's pretty fun the watch. The Ruffler foot will gather your fabric into perfectly even ruffles and stitch them down all in one pass. And you can set it for how dense/deep you want your ruffles to be.
Your sewing dealer can help you find the ruffler foot designed for your machine. Also, ask your sewing dealer to show you how to set it up on your machine. The foot looks complicated, but once you've seen someone use it, you'll have no problem setting it up and using it at home.