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How to Make Gathers by Machine

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We love to gather with friends and family to share good food and conversation. We enjoy gathering with like-minded folks to attend concerts and other events. In these contexts, gathering is fun and easy. By comparison, in sewing... gathering is often known as daunting or simply too time-consuming! We believe all gathering should be fun and easy and aim to change the perception of gathering with a sewing machine. After reading this tutorial, we bet you’ll be inviting your sewing friends over to convince them just how easy it is to gather fabric. If you do this, we think you should call it "gatherers gathering on gathers!"

Gathers can add to the finish of a project or be a focal point. They can be tight and frilly or loose and billowy. No matter how you use them, they're a great embellishment that has been a favorite for centuries.

The primary reason to gather the raw edge of fabric is to create a ruffle that will eventually be inserted into or attached onto a project.

Not to be confused with shirring or pleating (box or knife) or tucks, gathering creates fullness and shape in fabric that is otherwise flat. You'll find gathering in every area of sewing; home décor, garments, accessories, heirloom, even quilting. Gathered fabric is always sewn to a flat section of a project (usually but not always along an outside edge), such as the bottom of a skirt; or is inserted between a seam, such as around a throw pillow or blanket.

Like gatherings of people, gatherings of fabric can have very different looks. Think about the gathers around a ballerina’s tutu versus the gathers around a bed skirt. The tulle used in the tutu is sheer and lightweight. The bed skirt is most likely made of a medium to heavy weight home decorating fabric. The fabric types are obviously poles apart, but what else causes these two projects to look so different?

The appearance of a gathered (or ruffled) strip of fabric depends on three aspects. One is the type of fabric selected for the gather. Some fabrics simply gather better than others. Second is the technique you use to actually gather the fabric (we show you several options below). Third is how the original length of the fabric you’re planning to gather compares to the length of the fabric you'll be sewing the gathers to. If you’re following a pattern, you'll be provided with this third piece of information, otherwise, you have to figure it out on your own. 

There is a general rule of thumb regarding the cut length of the piece to be gathered. For medium weight fabrics (cottons and knits), the length should be 2½ times the length of the edge you will be sewing it to. For lightweight fabrics (voile or that tutu tulle above), the cut length should 3 times as long. Remember: the longer the piece, in comparison to what it is being sewn to, the tighter the gathers. 

Tools you’ll need

  • Sewing machine
  • Standard presser foot (unless you’re using Option #3 below)
  • Appropriate needle and thread for your selected fabric
  • Seam ripper: not to take out stitches but to help untangle the thread tail at the beginning and end of the stitching (especially for Option #1)
  • Straight pins
  • Yarn, embroidery floss, or string (for Option #2 only)

How to make gathers

Before we get started, there is one detail you have to pay attention to regardless of the method you use to gather fabric. The gathering stitch should always be sewn within the seam allowance. To quickly review, home décor sewing traditionally uses a ½" seam allowance, most garment construction uses a ⅝" seam allowance, and in quilting, you normally use a ¼" seam allowance. Keep these measurements in mind as you incorporate gathers into your sewing projects. 

In many of our tutorials, we like to present you with a number of alternatives so you can try several to find what works best for you. Gathering fabric is no exception. Let’s look at the options.

Option #1

The traditional method of gathering uses a double row of long basting stitches sewn ⅛” apart within the seam allowance. 

NOTE: In our example below, we’re using a plain fabric with brightly colored thread so you can see the technique. In addition, we’ve placed a different color thread in the bobbin, which you will understand as you continue to read. These stark contrasts are for sample purposes only. We made our straight piece just 9" long, therefore our strip to be gathered is 22½" long (2½ times our straight piece). Finally, we are assuming a ½" seam allowance.

Before starting, decide how you want to finish the opposite raw edge from where you’ll be gathering. You can create a double hem, rolled hem, serged hem, etc. It’s simply much easier to do this before the fabric is gathered.

NOTE: You can also cut your strip to be gathered at double the width and fold it in half, creating a folded finished edge. In this case you would then be gathering two layers rather than one. This is often used for the ruffled edge of a blanket.

  1. Set up your machine for a straight stitch.
  2. Adjust the stitch length to the maximum. The maximum on the studio machine we used was 5.0 mm.
    NOTE: Depending on the type of sewing machine you have, you may find it necessary to loosen the thread tension for gathering.
  3. Leaving 4" to 6" thread tails at the beginning and end, sew a basting stitch ¼" from the raw edge. Do NOT lock your stitch at either end!
  4. Sew a second row of basting stitches ⅜” from the raw edge (or in other words, ⅛” from the previous row of stitching). Remember to leave thread tails at the beginning and end, and do NOT backstitch or lock your stitch.
  5. With these seams sewn, it’s time to actually gather the fabric. Remember, your goal is to gather the fabric to the length you need in order to sew it to your project. 
  6. Use a seam ripper to gently untangle the thread tails at either end. This also allows you to identify the bottom (or bobbin) thread. 
  7. Some sewing experts will tell you it doesn’t matter which thread you pull to gather the fabric: needle or bobbin. However, our experience tells us differently. Because of the way a straight stitch is formed, the top (needle) thread is held down by the bottom (bobbin) thread. The bobbin thread is always the one that removes more easily and is less likely to break!
  8. Holding the (bobbin) thread tails firmly, begin to gather the fabric from one side toward the center of the fabric. Your fabric will slide along these threads like a curtain on a curtain rod, forming gathers/ruffles. 
  9. Continue pulling, adjusting and evening-out the ruffles as you go. Hold firmly but don' yank. If you pull too hard, you could pull the stitches out completely or break the thread.
    NOTE: Be sure to review our helpful hints below about marking center points and side seams on the gathered strip as well as the edge you will be sewing the ruffle to. These markings help you maintain an even gather. 
  10. Repeat the gathering, working from the other side into the center.
  11. When you’ve achieved the finished length needed, knot the thread tails at the ends to hold the gathers in place. Otherwise, your gathers have the potential to simply stretch back out again!
  12. Adjust the gathers one final time, evenly spacing them to your liking.
  13. Adjust the settings on your sewing machine back to regular sewing. Depending on the type of fabric and the amount (or thickness) of gathers, you may have to set your stitch length slightly longer than you would if the fabric was not gathered. 
  14. Pin the gathered fabric to your sewing project, right sides together. 

    NOTE: Our trick is to find the center of both pieces (the gathered piece and the non-gathered piece) by simply folding each in half and marking the center points with pins. Then, line up these center points and pin outwards. This insures your gathered fabric is even along the straight piece. 
  15. Place the pinned pieces under the machine's presser foot with the gathered piece on top. 
  16. Sew slowly and stop periodically to check the positioning. The gathered edge creates an uneven surface that can become bunched up or slip out from under the foot. You can use a pin or stiletto as you sew to keep gathers from becoming unruly.

    NOTE: Pins can easily get lost in between the gathers; make sure you’re removing them as you sew. The best practice is to never sew over pins.
  17. Trim the thread tails, and admire your ruffle. See, that wasn’t so hard!

Option #2

Also known as the "cheating" method or corded zig zag method, this option uses a long zig zag stitch to couch over heavy thread, yarn or string to gather fabric. For some, this technique is easier to do. Proponents also claim it's easier to remove when completed. 

  1. Set up your sewing machine for a zig zag stitch.
  2. Adjust the length and width to the maximum. On our machine, the maximum length was 5.0 mm and the maximum width was 7.0 mm.
  3. Place a heavy thread, yarn or string approximately ⅜" from the raw edge. You don't pin it in place; you simply hold it in place.
  4. Begin to sew approximately ⅜" in from the raw edge. Your stitch is zig zagging (also called couching) over your yarn of choice. Do not catch the yarn in the stitch, otherwise you'll have to start over. You're making a narrow tunnel with your zig zag stitch.
  5. Also remember to leave long thread tails for knotting at the beginning and end, as well as a tail of yarn for gathering at the beginning and end. 
  6. When you’ve reached the end, simply remove from the machine. 
  7. Gently pull the yarn you sewed over to gather fabric.
    NOTE: A word of caution; the yarn can pull out very easily from the large zig zag. To be safe, knot one end of the yarn before you start to pull.
  8. Knot the thread ends to secure in place.
  9. Reset your sewing machine for a straight stitch.
  10. Sew the gathers to your project as describe above, sewing just to the left of (just below) the zig zag.
  11. Remove the yarn. Your final stitching now holds the gathers in place.
  12. Simple, right? Now, you know why some people prefer this method.

Option #3

You can also use specialty sewing machine feet and attachments (most are optional, meaning they do not come standard with the machine) to automatically gather fabric as you sew. Since Janome is the exclusive sewing machine sponsor here at Sew4Home, we’re featuring their specific feet and attachments. Check with your local sewing machine retailer for comparable feet for your make and model.

The Ruffler is a very serious looking attachment, but it’s a blast to watch in action. The Janome version is compatible with most sewing machines regardless of brand. You can create different types of ruffles and pleats quickly and easily based on how you set the foot. Be sure to read our product review for a more thorough look at this foot.

Janome has a snap-on foot designed for working with lightweight fabrics. It’s called the Gathering foot. It gently gathers the fabric for you as you sew. 

Specific instructions come with this foot. In order to sew successfully, you have to lengthen the stitch to 3.0 mm or longer, and tighten the tension slightly. In combination with these stitch adjustments, what really makes this foot work so well is how it’s designed underneath. A "bump" on the bottom of the foot causes the fabric to feed slowly against the feed dogs of the machine.

Helpful Hints

It’s a good idea to place markings on your fabric for any center or side points prior to the actual gathering. This way, you can match the points between the straight and gathered fabrics and insure the gathering is evenly spaced between the points. Otherwise, you could end up with too much fabric gathered to one side or the other, giving your project a lopsided look. 

Sometimes, if you’re gathering a very long piece, it can be helpful to work from the center out instead of from edge to edge. You start the gathering stitches in the center, leaving thread tails in the middle, then work out to the edges, first to one side, then to the other side, allowing you to gather two smaller sections instead of one super long strip. This method also makes it easier to match up center points.

Make sure you have enough bobbin thread for the distance you need to sew. If you run out midstream, you'll have to start all over again. You need a continuous length of thread.

Keeping track of all the threads can get confusing. If you use a different color thread in the bobbin, you can clearly see which threads you need to hold. Plus, this is a great use for those left over bobbins you have from other projects! We did this in our example above.

If you hold your finger behind the foot as you do your machine basting, the fabric will start to pucker and gather as you stitch. 

This gives you a head start on the gathering process.

If you forgot to mark your center and side points before you started, pin the basted strip to the straight edge at the center and/or the side edges (just these points - don't fill in with pins). Then, gather between the pin points to the finished size.

Experts sometimes sew a third row of basting for more precise gathers. However, this is recommended for medium weight fabrics only.

For the zig zag method, you can also use a foot that is compatible with a zig zag stitch and has some sort of hole or holder on the foot. Janome has a Cording foot that would be acceptable. We used this foot in our example above.

Adjusting tension may be necessary, depending on the make or model sewing machine. When using a basting stitch, you tighten the needle tension so the thread will pull and begin to gather the fabric. When using the zig zag method, lower the needle tension so the fabric stays flat, otherwise the zig zag stitch will pull too tight around the yarn (or string), which can effect the overall gathering later. 

NOTE: On the Janome machines we use in our S4H studios, we did not have to adjust the tension settings for the basting or zig zag method, but this might not be the case with your machine make and model, so we felt it was important to mention.

It’s not necessary to start with a flat, straight strip of fabric. You can use a folded strip (as we mentioned above in Option #1), a hemmed strip (which we recommended above), a tube, or a bias cut strip. 

If the gathering process starts to jam up and the fabric won’t move, you’ve pushed too much into the same spot too soon. Back out the gathers a bit and work in smaller increments; you’ll find the fabric starts sliding easily on the thread again.

If you backstitch at the beginning of the basting stitch, it will hold the threads in place as you gather from the other end, eliminating the need to knot them. However, we do not recommend this for most situations and especially not for long pieces; it's usually better to work from two directions.

Sometimes the basting or zig zag stitches peek out from the seam after you’ve sewn the gathered strip to your final project. Simply remove the stitches with a seam ripper. It will not affect the finished seam.

If you’re sewing gathers on loosely woven or jersey knit fabrics, you may find you have to sew seam binding, twill tape, or ribbon just above the original line of sewing to strengthen the gathers.

If you need to press gathers, use the point of the iron on the wrong side to go in and out of the gathers as you press.

If you own or are interested in owning a serger, you can also create gathers by adjusting the serger's differential feed. In addition, you can do something called elastic gathering on a serger. Ask your local sewing machine retailer for a demonstration or visit Janome’s Dealer Locator to find a Janome dealer in your area. 

Contributors

Sample Creation and Instructional Outline: Jodi Kelly

Section: 

Comments (1)

Sunnie Mitchell said:
Sunnie Mitchell's picture

Of the three options presented here, No2 is the TnT for me. I've been sewing for 55 years, was taught to z-z over a cord by my gran. I've used the old 'long basting stitch then pulling the thread(s) to create the gathers' and it's doable but frustrating. I own not one but two gathering foot attachments (one is called a ruffling foot, but heigh ho, it does the same thing as the one called a gathering foot...) and while I do find either foot 'does what it says on the tin', it actually takes me too long in the end to fish out the foot and get on with the sewing. I've taught several people to sew and while I avoid biasing them towards any one method they invariably end up choosing the cord method as fastest and most satisfactory.

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